Exposing students to various career options early in graduate training
When should Ph.D. students begin to think about what they want to do when they graduate? What is the best mechanism for exposing them to diverse career paths? How can faculty members at research institutions advise their students on careers they know little about? And how do we prevent students from prolonging their training because they are not sure what they want to do next? These are questions graduate program faculty members and administrators across the country are trying to answer. Here, I describe a recent experiment at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine that we conducted to address these issues.
Only a fraction of biomedical Ph.D. trainees eventually obtain academic faculty positions, and the National Institutes of Health now recognizes that society can benefit from well-trained scientists working in different careers (1, 2). The Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology Graduate Program at Hopkins, of which I am director, has a long history of training successful biomedical researchers. But we never have offered opportunities to our students to explore careers outside of academia. Our institution has an excellent professional development office that sponsors workshops on preparing curricula vitae and résumés and interviewing for jobs and occasional career seminars. However, our students are not taking full advantage of these opportunities.
We instituted what we’re calling career-exploration workshops. We tapped into our extensive program alumni network to find participants who could hold informal discussions with current students. The goal was to get students to start thinking about the variety of career paths early in their training, to help them become competitive in a career that interested them the most and to foster networking with professionals outside of academia.
Third-year students were required to attend at least one of four workshops held in May. The topics were chosen based on student interests: undergraduate teaching, science writing and editing, the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries, science policy, government and technology transfer. Each workshop included a recent graduate as well as one or two more seasoned graduates to offer different perspectives. The workshops were not career fairs but rather informal discussions with lots of time for questions.
Many third-year students attended at least two of the workshops, and some attended all four. Because this was the first time we held the workshops, students beyond their third year also were invited; they made up half of the audience at each session. The discussions were lively and included a broad set of questions for discussion leaders. Several common themes emerged, including the importance of networking, developing good communication skills and obtaining relevant experience in the career of interest.
Students reported that they found the workshops helpful, and some already have contacted one or more discussion leaders. Most third-year students said they felt it was not too early to begin thinking about how they want to use their degrees. Many said it was useful to meet alumni at both early and later career stages. An advanced student who attended all the workshops said her desire to strive for an academic position at a research-intensive institution was solidified after hearing about other careers. Another excellent outcome was that a student interested in science writing later initiated a student-produced newsletter, which will be distributed electronically to current and former students as well as faculty members.
From my perspective, putting together these workshops was gratifying. The response from our students was positive. I was concerned that it would be difficult to recruit discussion leaders, but, amazingly, all 11 alumni whom I invited agreed enthusiastically. Clearly, this experiment was successful and will become a regular feature of our program. The next step will be to determine the best mechanism for instituting optional internships that will futher promote career exploration.