The PhD is not only a measure of technical skills you’ve acquired during your time at the bench, but hopefully, also an indicator of your tenacity, resilience, social intelligence, and communication proficiency—in other words, the coveted transferable skillset. STEMPhDs often do not get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to transferable skills. We’re usually pigeonholed into stereotypes: think dorky, socially awkward, whitecoat-clad lab geek channeling the Big Bang Theory. But if the BEST program has shown us anything, it’s this: To succeed in ever-evolving and increasingly demanding careers across all sectors, we need more than technical savvy, we need the ability to demonstrate our utility in a plethora of other domains.
Beyond academia collectively acknowledging the importance of transferable skills and implementing ways to cultivate these proficiencies (such as the NIH BEST program), many institutions now offer microcredentials. A microcredential is a digital representation, or badge, awarded for “bite-sized” learning or mastery of a very specific skill that is relevant to career success.
Microcredentialing is taking off across all industries. In 2017 at Wayne State, Dean Ambika Mathur tasked Dr. Annmarie Cano, professor of psychology and, at the time, associate dean of student services in the Graduate School, with creating a competency-based professional development program that included microcredentialing. Together with Graduate School staffers Cindy Sokol, manager of the Graduate Council and academic affairs, and Sarah Sheesley, the web editor, a set of competencies and skillsets were identified and distilled into short courses.
“The Graduate School had been offering some professional development programming already as part of the NIH BEST program; however, we had not yet arranged the professional development seminars into a coherent competency-based framework,” Cano says.
By researching organizations such as the Council of Graduate Schools and the National Postdoctoral Association, Cano learned more about the competencies that graduate students and postdocs are expected to master during their training. These are divided into five groups: communication, leadership and professionalism, teamwork and collaboration, career development, and ethics.
“Seminars were then created, some existing and many new, to deliver skillsets within each competency,” Cano says. “The really innovative piece was to attach microcredentials to the seminars, allowing participants who showed mastery of the skills to claim a digital badge that could be showcased on their LinkedIn pages.
“‘Stacking’ a set of microcredentials can position learners for job opportunities by showing they have gone above and beyond in their training or are truly invested in developing particular competencies. For instance, a trainee who has voluntarily achieved a set of teamwork and collaboration microcredentials is signaling to future employers that they value working in a team and are doing all they can to prepare for that next step.”
The microcredential courses are open to all members of the WSU community. Obtaining a microcredential begins with attending one seminar. Most of the Graduate and Postdoctoral Professional Development (GPPD) seminars have an associated microcredential.
“Attendance at an interactive seminar is the first step but after each seminar, attendees are asked through additional assignments, including quizzes, essays, or examples of work, to demonstrate their learning. Only after the presenters judge the mastery of the work is the microcredential issued,” Cano says.
All of the available badges can be found on the Wayne State University Graduate School site on Credly.
According to Cano, the most popular seminar during 2017-18 was Landing a Career with LinkedIn, followed by seminars on the Academic Job Talk; Leadership Styles; Poster Design and Presentation; Microaggressions; and Empathy and Perspective-Taking.
“Graduate trainees are interested in a variety of careers. We believed it was essential for trainees to be able to show they are learning essential transferable skills that can position them for success in any field they choose. It has been gratifying to watch how the interest in our professional development seminar series has skyrocketed.”
The Graduate and Postdoctoral Professional Development seminars have kicked off for the 2018-19 year. All doctoral and master’s students and postdoctoral scholars may check the Graduate School website to see the developing schedule.
Note: WSU’s BEST program officially ended August 31, 2018. However, the Graduate School will continue to offer a full slate of career and professional development activities.
A report published in PLoS ONE last May provides evidence that the academic community should embrace all careers, including nontenure track ones, for its doctoral trainees. Co-authored by Dr. Ambika Mathur, Dean of the Graduate School, and a team of researchers affiliated with the Graduate School and the BEST Program, this report analyzed 15 years’ worth of data regarding career trajectories of WSU biomedical doctoral alumni. The authors note that while academic institutions have long held the belief that most biomedical doctorates go on to find positions as tenure-track/tenured faculty, in fact almost 75 percent are working in a variety of other sectors, including for-profit and nonprofit business, industry, and government.
Mathur et al. (2018) calls for the importance of transparency in accurately monitoring and understanding the full range of careers in which PhDs are engaged so that policy makers, taxpayers and congress, students, and faculty can truly “appreciate the impact of our biomedical graduates on biomedical science nationally and globally.” And yet most doctoral programs fail to collect career data on alumni.
In an effort to rectify and encourage other institutions to follow suit, WSU tracked and classified the outcomes of 91 percent of the biomedical doctoral alumni who graduated between 1999 and 2014. Of note, 92 percent of alumni are employed in careers related to research and science. The researchers also found that certain demographics gravitated toward particular fields. For example, Black alumni pursued government careers at higher rates whereas Whites pursued for-profit careers. Asian alumni and non-US citizens spend more time in training positions than others. Women were more likely to be employed in teaching and healthcare sectors, while men are more likely to pursue faculty and research. Across the board, however, the majority of alumni reported high satisfaction with their eventual careers.
The authors state, “We must embrace these careers as successful outcomes of doctoral training and make it acceptable for students to explore and identify their career interests in programs developed by the graduate training community.”
That’s encouraging to read, because in 2016 when I attended the NIH-Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) conference, frustration with academia among young scientists was palpable; so was confusion. How could institutions founded on the pursuit of knowledge ignore such a fissure in the rigorous curriculum of doctoral students? I’m speaking, of course, about career guidance, and more specifically about exposure to careers outside of the so-called “traditional” faculty route.
I wrote about this conference for the blog back then, but it is worth reiterating some of the more poignant thoughts of the attendees. Natalie Cain, then a postdoc at UC Davis, spoke of how she waited and waited (and waited) for the desire for an academic career to blossom inside of her. It never did. “The people above you are telling you that this is what you’re supposed to do and you’re just hoping that at some point the switch will flip and you’ll say, ‘Yes, I do want to work in a university.’ You might wait a long time for that switch to go and then when it doesn’t, you’re playing catch-up.”
Heather Clancy, a graduate student from the University of Colorado, said exasperatedly, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” And Ada Weinstock, a postdoc from NYU, made a universal appeal to academic institutions: “Give people tools to help them make a decision [about their careers].” She believed that too many scholars were putting off making life decisions for fear that it would be the wrong one: “We are so afraid of failing that we don’t want to make a decision.”
It’s no wonder so many graduate students go on to do postdocs (sometimes multiple postdocs) despite being unsure of wanting to continue along the academic arc. When positions beyond academia aren’t just considered different, but rather, lesser, it is hard for innate overachievers to let go.
Baby steps, big aspirations
In 2012, the NIH took steps to not only try to offer doctoral and postdoctoral trainees career guidance, but also to lessen the taboo associated with choices beyond academia. At the time, not only was so-called “alternative” career guidance sparse (in most cases, virtually non-existent), but even if an opportunity could be found, it came with a heavy price tag. Openly admitting that you were searching beyond the hallowed academic halls invited ostracism, being branded a “not-so-serious scientist,” or even worse, being labeled an outsider.
As a postdoc on the brink of leaving academia at the time, what I found most upsetting was hearing from students that even though their mentors appeared outwardly committed to the tenets of the BEST program, they did not, in fact, make these opportunities available to their own mentees —an important reminder that even if opportunity is available, it requires a turning of the cultural tide to have significant impact. It is not so easy to amend pervasive, stale mindsets, even when the beliefs on which they hinge are inherently flawed. Here I am referring to the misconception that serious graduate students are destined to become serious faculty, and any deviation from that path is indicative of a lack of fortitude, intelligence, or creativity.
WSU was one of 17 US institutions to be awarded the $1.8 million, 5-year, non-renewable BEST grant, in 2013. Designed to help faculty find time to build a sustainable program that educated students about employment sectors beyond academia, at WSU, this led to the development of a three-phase program that culminated in a career exploration experience or internship in one of five sectors: business/industry, communication, government, law/regulatory affairs, and undergraduate teaching. Program activities were open not only to doctoral students, but also master’s students, postdoctoral trainees, faculty, and students from other area institutions.
In the early days of the BEST program at WSU, Dean Mathur said in a 2014 press release that “The long-range goal is to institutionalize these practices so that our students become the next generation of innovators and leaders in science. The extended outcome of our program is to place students in diverse careers in addition to academia, and to educate the biomedical community that such diverse careers are viewed as desirable and successful outcomes of doctoral research training.”
Five years later, the BEST program is, by most accounts, a success that adhered closely to the original vision voiced by Mathur. Stories from graduate students and postdocs who excelled and found internships, jobs, and new experiences (including myself) can be found through this blog site. Now the results go beyond the anecdotal: in another PLOS One report published this past June, lead authors Ambika Mathur and Christine Chow report on data analyzed from BEST participant surveys distributed at events held at Wayne from 2014 through 2017. They found robust participation in the program, including by women and underrepresented students, with no adverse effect on GPA or time-to-degree.
And it’s not just that the BEST program didn’t negatively impact students’ performance. The authors argue that professional development activities are associated with faster degree completion times, suggesting “that focused career planning by students may be more efficient in securing a job than individual haphazard job searches.”
This is not surprising. It is widely accepted that until very recently graduate students received little to no career guidance regarding alternatives to the traditional academic path. And this may, in part, relate to the so-called overabundance of postdocs. The postdoc position may require grueling hours and little pay, but it is extraordinarily enticing in that it allows for the impending decision regarding careers to be delayed by a few more years. Therefore, many postdocs remain in an ostensible holding pattern until pushed out because grants run dry.
Disassembling the myth of the “alternative” career
In reality, data presented at the 2016 NIH-BEST meeting showed that despite the disdainful colloquialism “alternative path,” careers outside of academia are increasingly becoming the path more traveled. Melanie Sinche, director of education at The Jackson Laboratory surveyed over 8000 PhDs and found that 65 percent were in “alt-careers.” Only 28% of those employed outside of the tenure-track felt the postdoc was critical for employment in their current position. The postdoc is absolutely an important part of training—except when it becomes the default, a crutch, enabling unsure young scientists the opportunity to put off starting their careers (especially when it’s unnecessary).
Not only did the authors find that the BEST program satiated the long-awaited desire for more career guidance (the surveys revealed that participants are eager to learn about careers in a variety of sectors), but the authors report that BEST seems to have jump-started overall interest in career exploration across campus. The data reveal that nearly half of WSU biomedical students participated in career development since the establishment of the program, a nearly three-fold increase when compared to just before it began. It also “led to self-perceived gains in knowledge…, skills required for jobs in these sectors, and the ability to find resources to assist them in obtaining further information about careers.” But the real proof is in the numbers—although the authors acknowledge that it was a small sample size, 72 percent of students who completed Phase III Experiential Learning (internships) ended up finding a career in the sector they explored.
An often overlooked benefit of the BEST program was also reported: by participating, students were able to rule out careers they were not interested in pursuing. And while it may be a concern that exposure to other careers could siphon talented young minds away from the academic pool, in actuality, it helps to ensure that those who are a good match for academia remain there. At the 2016 NIH-BEST meeting, a UCSF postdoc related how being a part of BEST reinforced her desire to pursue a tenure-track faculty position.
Cross-pollinating disciplines and relationships
A pleasant side effect of the program seems to be that meaningful relationships were formed during the process. It’s reported that the alumni and faculty who helped to develop and present course material often act as career coaches beyond the duration of the event, remaining in long-term contact with students and advising them on job-related concerns.
Relationships seem to be key to the BEST experience. Not only does it foster mentor-mentee relationships, but Mathur and Chow describe how it cultivates a “halo effect.” From their article: “Doctoral students from a wide variety of departments participate in BEST events, demonstrating the wide impact of our program beyond biomedical sciences. This inclusivity enhances cross-disciplinary interactions between students who otherwise may not have an opportunity to collaborate within the contexts of their doctoral research projects but who might work together in future career environments.” Just such a collaboration can be read about on the blog, here.
Not lesser, just different
All of this is surely enough to make you wonder why it took so long for the powers that acknowledge and (perhaps begrudgingly) embrace the innumerable benefits that come from offering students more information, more opportunities, and more relationships came to light. Something delightfully symbiotic emerges as students find their true calling and can do their best work. In this vein, perhaps the most significant finding of the May 2018 report was that there was hardly any difference in performance (GRE scores, GPA, time-to-degree) between those who stayed in academia and those who went on to do for-profit work, debunking the myth that those who leave simply “can’t cut it” or are just “settling.” The article ends with the following: “These data should empower students entering doctoral programs to have honest careers discussions about their career aspirations with their research advisors and to explore careers outside the professoriate, if they so choose.”
The academic system is still far from perfect; change takes time. But it’s clear that the revamping of the graduate school training paradigm has begun. So student and postdoc readers, wear your career aspirations clearly on your sleeves, faculty-bound or not. If anything, you’ve been trained to rely on the data, and the data say this: There is no one career that’s better or worse; your fulfillment is what determines its value.
Note: The BEST Program officially ends on August 31, and it is a nonrenewable NIH grant. However, the Graduate School will continue to offer a full slate of career and professional development activities, including three LinkedIn workshops in 2018-19, and much more!
This past June, the Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program provided the funding for fellow doctoral trainee Matt Fountain (immunology) and me (cancer biology) to travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to attend a drug development conference for early-career scientists and clinicians sponsored by Biogen, a biotech company that specializes in developing drugs for neurological applications. The three-day conference centered on such topics as the approval process for new drugs, how to generate a strong package of research data for presentation, how to interact with policy makers, and how to differentiate between corporate development and corporate strategy. In attendance were about 40 senior Ph.D. students, postdocs, and M.D. students, all from BEST institutions around the country and all with varying knowledge of the drug development process.
When Matt and I first arrived in Cambridge, we received a folder. Inside was our itinerary, an article about working as a team, and a mysterious envelope with a number on the front, sealed by a sticker with the word “Mission” on it. All of the workshop attendees convened in the hotel ballroom for a welcome dinner. Here we introduced ourselves to our team members. My team was composed of early-career scientists from UC Irvine, Georgia Tech, UMass, and Vanderbilt. We were each handed a large piece of paper and a permanent marker and asked to write our answers to questions such as “What strengths do you bring to a team?” and “What has your journey into science been like thus far?” Next, we all opened our sealed envelopes. My team learned we were responsible for a research-to-development transition of a new drug for neuroblastoma. At the end of the conference, we would present a proposal on this mission using knowledge gained during the conference.
After our formal dinner, a large group of attendees from all teams congregated at a local restaurant to discuss our current positions, how we found ourselves at this particular conference, and our hopes for the future. I learned that, although we’re all from different universities all over the country, we all shared the desire to advance healthcare, and that’s what we sought to do.
The next two days would be spent in a boardroom at Biogen headquarters learning the ins and outs of what makes the company tick. We heard talks from staff scientists, policy advocates, regulatory affairs personnel, business development leaders, and everyone in between. The conference developers did a fantastic job of selecting presenters who would fit in with our team objectives. We heard from researchers to development transition personnel, clinical trial experts, and preclinical scientists. On our tour of a Biogen lab space, we learned about the core facilities on which they depend. Dr. Michael Gilman, a serial entrepreneur and biotech guru extraordinaire, even stopped by for a fireside chat. He imparted his wisdom about how to have a successful career in biotech (spoiler: stay hungry), how to learn from your failures—or in his case, how being fired can actually be beneficial—and how to be a member of a high-performing team. His talk was the least structured, but also the most enlightening. During dinner that night, I learned all of the attendees felt the same way.
From these presentations and the talk with Dr. Gilman, we had all of the tools necessary to develop our proposals. The night before our final day, presentation day, was crunch time. We split into our teams, which scattered throughout the hotel lobby to busily develop proposals on laptops. After hours of PubMed and Google searches, our presentations were complete and then sent to the organizers.
On the final morning, we convened in the same ballroom where we’d all met the first day. But this time it felt different. Instead of everyone sitting at a separate table as we did upon arrival, we all bunched together, no space left between us; the room loud with chatter, despite the early hour. After breakfast, we moved into a room resembling the set of American Idol. There were round tables with water, microphones, pens and paper, facing a stage with five microphones, a podium, and a projector screen. All teams took turns introducing their product proposal, strategy, and appropriate background information. The audience members all asked thoughtful questions, utilizing the skills cultivated in the days before. At the end of the presentations, we were all awarded our completion certificates, the cheering deafening as each attendee was called up.
We all left as abruptly as we arrived, but this time—after a flurry of photos, exchanges of contact information, and shared Lyft rides back to the airport—we had all gone from an anxious group of strangers to a solid alliance of friends.
During the conference we had many opportunities for team-building. Whether in the form of sit-down lunches and dinners, or organized worksheet-based activities, I learned a lot about myself, about the importance of self-examination, and how to effectively communicate and interact with a diverse team. I learned how to develop clear goals, and how to position each member to use their strengths for the benefit of the group. This experience broadened my knowledge of the drug development process, but more importantly, it taught me how to collaborate skills that would translate well to any career.
It also built up my confidence tremendously.
Now that I am finishing up my Ph.D., I am applying for positions that I would not have felt prepared for prior to the BEST-Biogen Drug Discovery Workshop. I am excited to use the skills I cultivated for my next mission.
Brooke McKnight is a 4th year Ph.D. candidate in the cancer biology program at the Karmanos Cancer Institute. She received a B.S. in cell and molecular biology from the University of Michigan in 2014. She has research interests in immunotherapy, medical genomics, and companion diagnostics.
In May 2017, BEST hosted a careers bootcamp conducted by the nationally recognized career and professional development organization SciPhD to assist Wayne State doctoral trainees and postdoctoral scientists learn about negotiating their own career paths to industry. This year, during an equally intensive two-day bootcamp, attendees learned the importance of teamwork in industry and how to excel in such settings. Students and postdocs from area institutions, including the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, the University of Toledo, and Oakland University, participated as well.
Now, we had all worked in teams before, but none of us knew exactly what we might learn from this workshop. You have to be collaborative? Communicative? Cooperative? Sure. We knew how to do that. But as attendees found out over the two days of training, it goes far beyond these “three Cs.” The SciPhD bootcamp facilitators (and co-founders) Randall Ribaudo and Larry Petcovic opened our eyes to what it really means to thrive in an industry work environment. In order to understand how to successfully transition from an academic to a nonacademic career at a pharmaceutical or biotech company, Ribaudo and Petcovic led attendees through a series of exercises and informational sessions. They offered a lot information, but in this blog entry, I will briefly describe three major takeaways:
Ways to enhance team performance that are essential for a company to survive and thrive.
Companies will always focus on continuous improvement for a variety of reasons: They need to understand what the competition is doing and how they can compete; they need to maintain their brand by continuously updating their own portfolio to stand out from the competition; and they need to ensure that their own drug discovery process is a smooth one rather than a fragmented mess.
To accomplish this, they need teams. And teamwork needs to be evaluated in an open and honest manner. By using strategies found in the foundations of Six Sigma, a commonly used managerial toolkit, projects can be examined using “process mapping” with “value added analysis,” which provides concrete data to inform a company about what is happening on a large scale. This will enable the company to understand where things can be consolidated or expanded.
In order to consolidate or expand, brainstorming can be used to bring all potential solutions to the table. As Ph.D. students, we know exactly what it means to be creative. But do we know how to do it in an organized fashion? In one exercise, attendees learned what it means to create a priority matrix by following a SWOT [Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats] analysis. All ideas were entertained and then narrowed down to address the problem. The group then collectively decided the best way to move the project forward. This inclusive strategy was efficient and enabled our team of diverse people with different backgrounds and roles to have equal input regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the current project and how it could evolve.
Take-home message: I can make contributions to big decisions within a company based on my own experiences that will influence the outcome of the decision in an efficient manner. This will require adaptability and creativity, and is for the betterment of my team, my unit, and the company as a whole.
Team-based organizations use strategic project management on steroids.
As Ph.D. students, we all do this to some degree. You have a project that starts with questions, with anticipated results coupled to assumptions and known risks that will lead us to the next step. However, who is managing each stage of that process? In graduate school, it is us! We wear many hats to facilitate the movement of that project from start to finish. But what about a pharmaceutical company? Are we alone at every single stage, managing the progress, ensuring that milestones are being met, without many other people giving their input? Probably not.
We learned that at a company, project roles are designed to bring together individuals with specific skills and experiences that they can bring to each step of a project. In other words, each one of us is a slice of the pie rather than our own small pies. Thus, there are other individuals relying on you to fulfill your objectives (by a specific deadline and within cost confines) so that they can properly execute their roles. All of this is overseen by a project manager who reports to company stakeholders.
Take-home message: Own your role. Know what it will take based on time, money, and possible obstacles, to deliver your efforts–others are counting on you to do so.
Financial literacy cannot be avoided in any job role.
From undergrad through graduate school, we eat and breathe the scientific process. But do we actually know what it costs to do science on a large scale, from research and development to drug approval? Not really. We’ve all heard the terms revenue, cost-of-goods, gross income, profitability, and so on that ultimately turn into just yada yada yada because we don’t truly comprehend them. But we should! The pharmaceutical industryspeaks in these terms to move projects forward within a company. At the SciPhD bootcamp, Ribaudo and Petcovic referred to financial literacy repeatedly to underscore the magnitude of its importance in drug discovery industry.
Using mock companies and values, bootcamp attendees participated in a role- playing exercise that assigned us to different groups involved in financial decision making in the pharmaceutical industry. Our group was assigned to a lending bank, whereby members had to assess risk and negotiate terms of loan lending to companies with various reputations and financial histories. At the start, we had absolutely no understanding of the terms of a financial report. By the end, we understood their meaning and interplay, using them in conversational dialogue with companies seeking investments.
Take-home message: As a Ph.D. student in the sciences, any experience by which you might be able to acquire understanding of finance vocabulary and application is a win before you enter a job role in the pharmaceutical industry, because any part of the drug discovery process can be much influenced by finance-related decision making.
Note: The next SciPhD two-day careers bootcamp will be held at the University of Michigan, probably in May 2019. Doctoral students and postdocs at area institutions, including Wayne State, will be welcome to attend.
Matt Fountain is a 4th year PhD candidate in the Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Immunology in the School of Medicine. He holds a BS in Nutritional Science from Michigan State and an MS in Immunology/Microbiology from Wayne State. Matt has been a frequent participant in BEST career and professional development activities and in 2017-18 was selected as a BEST Phase III awardee.
*all other photos courtesy of the author
Every year the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) holds a workshop in Washington, D.C., for young scientists. They travel from all across the country to learn about the inner workings of Congress and how to communicate the importance of their research to politicians. This year, Wayne State’s Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program sponsored four students for the March 18-21, 2018, workshop: undergraduate ReBUILDetroit scholars Leena Abbas (nutrition and food science) and Rachel Bruinsma (psychology), and doctoral candidates Heather Mooney (sociology) and yours truly, Niko Moses (cancer biology). The workshop, “Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE),” featured two days of lectures by AAAS staff members who have been working on Capitol Hill anywhere from a year to decades. Topics included an introduction to the federal budget process and the Office of Science, Technology, and Policy; a rundown of the structure and function of Congress; and an in-depth description of how a bill gets passed, which the presenter, AAAS legend Judy Schneider, called “Schoolhouse Rock cranked up to 12.”
After this initial overview of when budget appropriations should be completed versus when they actually reach the floor, the roles of subcommittees and the current heads of each in the House and Senate, and the hierarchy of the Office of Science, Technology, and Policy, we were revisited by Tobin (Toby) Smith, the vice president of AAAS. I first met Toby at BEST’s Careers in Government half-day workshop at Wayne State, where he shared his experience as a businessman transitioning to a career as a liaison between scientists and politicians. Toby emphasized the importance of explaining why your research matters, rather than offering the minutiae of mechanisms and bogging down key conclusions with details. He took the same approach in the final session of the CASE workshop.
The next day we would be traveling to the Hill to lobby our congressional representatives, and most of us were only familiar with specifying the research value of our work to colleagues. Other scientists speak our language; politicians and staffers do not. Toby taught us key aspects of the language that Congress does speak: they are greatly influenced by media coverage and the direction in which the media takes particular dialogues; they respond well to personal convictions on particular issues (especially narratives—they love a good story); and they are generally the most responsive to the needs of constituents in their districts. We tailored our approach accordingly, sitting down with other students from Michigan (U of Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech) also attending the workshop to decide which issues we wanted to bring before our representatives, and then who among us had narratives we could use to introduce our chosen issues.
We decided to focus on two pretty broad topics: scientific funding and education. The majority of our labs in Michigan are funded by National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense grants, so this topic was relatable to all of us and simple enough to draw up talking points for. I took the education side along with another woman named Nico (the first other female Nico I’ve ever met!). We had both been supported by scholarships and grants throughout our undergraduate careers and were now supported by a stipend at the graduate level at our public institutions. Enabling future biochemists to follow in our footsteps certainly depends on federal investment in our nation’s public institutions. However, the ability of students to pursue a STEM career also depends on the availability of federal loans to students who cannot afford the upfront cost of college. The other reason I chose to advocate for education was because I am against HR 4508, a bill before the House that will cut the amount of money students can borrow for their undergraduate education, allow for-profit institutions to compete for federal funding, and eliminate the 10-year public sector student loan forgiveness program signed into law in 2007 by President George Bush. These drastic measures alarmed me, and I wanted to express to my representatives how important it is to either amend the bill or vote against it.
Unfortunately, this story has an anti-climactic ending. The morning of our visit to the Hill, Washington was hit with a whopping two inches of snow, sufficient enough to shut down the federal government. We were able to meet with one staffer, but that meeting served more as a Q&A about how she went from a biochemistry Ph.D. to a congressional staffer. Still, that meeting broadened my understanding of the opportunities in policy available post-Ph.D., and I returned to Michigan ready to advocate for science at the state level. I am currently engaging in advocacy work in partnership with the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, but I never would have sought out this opportunity without the knowledge, skills, and confidence I gained from the AAAS-CASE workshop.
Niko Moses is a 5th-year Ph.D. student in WSU’s cancer biology program and is a BEST Phase III internship awardee for 2017-18. She is currently conducting a career exploration in WSU’s Office of Technology Commercialization. Niko’s dissertation research focuses on studying the interplay between HDAC6 and Chk1 in response to ionizing radiation in lung cancer, but once her Ph.D. is completed she will be transitioning into the legal realm to apply her scientific knowledge to either technology commercialization or science policy.
Academia is often associated with the archetypal disgruntled graduate student, the beaten down postdoc, and the disheveled, overextended assistant professor. And for good reason—research is hard and oftentimes, thankless. But it is also the perfect paradigm for developing resilience. Sometimes described as “grit” or “moxie,” resilience is a quality that refers to how we can bounce back after disappointment. Think of it as a kind of elasticity; you get knocked down, but instead of shattering, your sense of self remains intact, or transforms into something stronger and more knowledgeable than before.
Why does resilience matter? Why shouldn’t you go home and wallow after a failed experiment, a rejected grant, or an unpleasant encounter with a difficult advisor? Because wallowing won’t help you in the long run. Ruminating on the little failures will only drain your resolve. Someone who is resilient, instead, will focus on what she can learn from the failure, tweak her technique, and with a renewed optimism, move forward.
Easier said than done, I know.
If you’re thinking right now that you’re not very resilient, know that you’re not alone. In fact, a 2011 study found that disadvantaged students in the U.S. were less resilient than those from other countries. This is a problem since resilience is often touted as one of the most important traits required for a successful life. But self-awareness is a first step you can take toward shedding the victim mentality and embracing a resilient outlook.
A recent TED article outlined the steps you can take to become more resilient. Perhaps the most resonant was to stop waiting for the situation to change itself. This is the difference between the active wondering what you can do to rectify your problem versus the passive hoping that the problem will just disappear. In other words, be proactive about finding a solution instead of just waiting for some outside force to change your situation. Chances are if you choose the latter approach, you’ll be waiting for an awfully long time.
In general, experts agree that resilience requires a shift in perspective from an overarching negative view to a positive one. Dr. Loretta Breuning, founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, professor of management at California State University and author of The Science of Positivity and Habits of a Happy Brain writes that our brains did not evolve to create happiness as much as to wish it so. Part of this may be that in order to survive, our brains constantly scan for obstacles that could impede our progress. As a result, we gloss over the good as we try to preempt the bad. Breuning advises training our brains to build a positivity circuit by spending one minute three times a day looking for good things in our lives. She also suggests that when your efforts produce disappointing results, adjust your expectations and take another step while reminding yourself that most great achievements take effort that does not bring immediate results. That latter bit sounds a lot like resilience.
Academia can be extraordinarily stressful, especially these days. But know that what may seem like an unwelcome grind that consistently toys with your feelings of inadequacy, can be a wonderful opportunity to practice exercising that resiliency muscle. Doing so will help propel you forward to your goals faster and with greater purpose. Daydreaming and hoping are not necessarily bad qualities, but they are far less likely to produce results. So the next time you’re faced with an obstacle, whether tiny or gargantuan, try your best to assess what you can learn from the situation, and what steps you can begin to take to overcome it. Remember, even minuscule steps count; just keep moving forward. In the end, it will make your success all the more delightful.
B.S., Chemistry, University of Nebraska Omaha, 2008
Ph.D., Physical Chemistry, University of Kansas, 2014
Dr. Cassandra Ward is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Chemistry at Wayne State University. She held a postdoc at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 2014 – 2016. She participated in the BEST program starting in 2016, exploring the government and industry tracks, and won a Phase III internship for 2017. This past summer Dr. Ward interned at Wayne State University’s Lumigen Instrument Center, a comprehensive core facility that aids and trains researchers in mass spectrometry, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, x-ray crystallography, and electron microscopy. She continues to split her time between working at the facility and as a postdoc, and says she enjoys mentoring and collaborating with other students and researchers, especially those outside of her discipline. Dr. Ward hopes to transition to a full-time staff scientist position at Lumigen when one becomes available.
Q. Why did you decide to pursue the BEST program and what was your impression?
A. I moved here in 2014 with my husband, who is an assistant professor of chemistry, and I’ve been trying to find a job in the area doing research. I’ve been open to all possibilities, including academia and industry.
This is my second postdoc, so I’ve already participated in several career programs. Therefore I was expecting the same kinds of talks. But it was nice that BEST brought in people from the area who are actually in industry so that you could hear their stories about how they got their positions. You find out that most of them are like you and had to work hard to find a position as well, which is reassuring. Sometimes it seems like it’s easier for everyone else. Through the Phase II workshops and meeting the speakers, I realized how much networking you really need to do.
Q. You did an internship here at Wayne State at the Lumigen Instrument Center (LIC). How did you end up securing that position?
A. I had a few ups and downs with companies trying to find an internship, and things kept falling through. You would think companies would really want free labor, but it’s a lot more difficult than that, apparently. It just so happened that Dr. Judy Westrick, who runs the LIC, popped into the office and mentioned that they had a potential position available that would be well-suited for a physical chemist. She suggested that I start interning for her now and then when the position opened up, I’d be able to apply and already have work experience.
I’m still working at the LIC. I spend two days a week there and three days a week in the lab.
Q. Can you tell me about your internship and your collaboration with scientists in other disciplines?
A. The LIC is a core facility. I was doing a lot of spectroscopy like x-ray diffraction and crystallography. Anyone can come into the LIC, even those from outside of Wayne State, and have us run a sample and interpret it for them. But we also do a lot of training of students who will be using the equipment.
I am still a postdoc, and so I’m still on the research side of things. I have things I need to get done at the LIC, like maintaining the instruments and SOPs [Standard Operating Procedures], but I also have a research project. I also do the training for new students and collaborators.
Dr. Westrick brings a lot of traffic through the facility because she is trying to get more people, especially at Wayne State, to use it. One day she brought an anthropology class through a room where I happened to be working, and she mentioned to them that I’m a postdoc and that I have time to work on any projects they may have. One of the students ended up emailing me and asked if I could work on some samples. He came over with a few objects that previous students had dug up at a site down by the river. The samples had come from a factory that no longer exists, and this student wanted to understand what they were and from that, learn about what went on at the factory.
So we did an elemental analysis of the objects with the X-Ray Diffractometer (XRD) and used a program to do the identification. The XRD can identify both elements and phases. Elements can be rearranged depending on temperature. One thing the student wanted to know was the phase of some quartz that was found, to help figure out where it might be functioning in the factory.
The student’s team in anthropology is currently writing up their findings for publication.
I had never crossed disciplines to that extreme. It was neat to work with an anthropology student and be able to teach him about chemistry. I’ve always wanted to be more of a mentor, which is why I like being at LIC because you’re working with all kinds of people and helping them to fulfill their research goals. Plus the more collaborations you do, the more people you meet, and you never know how those relationships will develop.
Q. Do you have any advice for students or postdocs who are considering their career paths?
A. The best time to figure out what you want to do in the future is during your graduate training. There are so many opportunities out there for grad students to do internships, and you should take advantage of them. Make sure you discuss potential career paths with your advisor. They are there to help you reach your career goals, and will do whatever they can to help you succeed. Also, attend job fairs or career development sessions at your university and at conferences. You’ll meet a lot of people with different backgrounds who have advice that they are more than happy to share. Ask them how they like their position and how they got to where they are now.
The new year is a good time of year to check in with yourself and see if you’re on track with your job search and career goals.
And by goals, I don’t mean resolutions. Research shows that those fail 80% of the time, often by mid February, leaving you feeling guilty and remorseful. Part of the problem is that instead of making small, easily attainable goals that could lead to advancement down a new path, we often get swept up in the contagious zeal for potential change the holiday season promises. As such, we end up making lofty declarations that are unlikely to reach fruition.
The desire for self-improvement and change, especially if we’re not particularly happy with our current situation, is a wonderful and admirable thing to want for ourselves. And with a few tweaks in the way we think about enacting this change, we can surely make it happen. The key is simple: set small, quantifiable, daily goals that you are sure to accomplish. And perhaps most importantly, these goals cannot be vague.
Examples of vague goals are:
“I want to publish more.”
“I want to graduate.”
“I want a job outside of academia.”
Wanting to publish more is important, but it lacks specifics. A goal with a clearer vision requires some true soul-searching and objective assessment. This will help us to create a clearer vision of the steps necessary to get there. Those steps then become your specific, quantifiable goals. For example, what particular findings do you want to publish? Do more experiments need to be done, first? Where do you want to submit for publication? Who will you ask to help you write and edit the manuscript?
Depending on your answers to these questions, you can begin to design a plan. A more specific (and more likely, attainable) goal will look like this:
I will finish the two experiments required to complete this project in three months.
Do you see how we’re breaking down the lofty, “I want to publish more”? And if finishing those experiments feels overwhelming, break that down, too. Ask yourself: What materials do I need? Do I need help to do these experiments? Who will help me? Do I need to do more research? There is absolutely nothing wrong with breaking down a project, no matter how small, into simpler components. Doing this will help you to better understand your research, yourself, and what really needs to be accomplished. Doing this will help you to move forward, instead of simply languishing at the bench and daydreaming about better days to come.
A tiny step is still progress
I was just beginning to think about how to transition out of academia to a writing career when a fellow-member of my writing group introduced me to the philosophy of Kaizen. Kaizen is Japanese for continuous improvement. What this means is when we don’t know how to get started with a new goal, instead of being paralyzed, we take tiny incremental steps in that direction.
Let’s say you want to start doing yoga but feel very out of shape or unmotivated. Make a goal that is easily attainable, even if it feels ridiculous. You could say to yourself, “I am going to do one yoga pose tonight for 20 seconds.” The point is that every little step (no matter how small) counts.
I’ve written about the importance of taking small steps towards larger goals before here. And perhaps that’s a good place to start: Choose one item on the list and take one small step towards completing that task. The only thing you must do is complete that teeny tiny miniscule task today.
There are days when I have an article to write or a deadline looming and my brain is just not cooperative. These are the unmotivated moments when I truly cling to the Kaizen philosophy. Remembering that every little step is still progress, I open a new file up and give it a title (even if it’s not a very good title). It may not be much, but it’s an acknowledgement of the task at hand. It is movement towards the goal. Sometimes I take it a step further and do stream of conscious writing on my new document. Any idea I have that is even marginally related to the overarching theme of my work is quickly written down. Again it is progress. Sometimes one of those tangential ideas turns into something fascinating in its own right, something that I can get excited about. That’s when progress becomes exponentially faster and I am back on track.
That is what will happen to you. Tiny steps that seem inconsequential at the time will suddenly amount to something far grander and you will gain the momentum needed to propel you forward. By being consistent, you can turn 2018 into the most meaningful and accomplished year, yet.
B.E., Biomedical Engineering, Osmania University, India, 2010
Ph.D., Biomedical Engineering, Wayne State University, 2017
Uday Krishnamurthy is a senior magnetic resonance imaging R&D scientist at Siemens Healthineers. He was a participant in the 2015-2016 BEST Program when he discovered that he wanted to pursue a career in industry. During his time at Wayne State, he developed MRI techniques to image the developing fetus in utero.
Q. When did you participate in the BEST program and what tracks did you follow?
A. I participated in BEST at Wayne State in 2015 when I was a graduate student. I was interested in looking at all career paths, including the traditional Postdoc.I followed industry, teaching, and science communication tracks.
Q. Why did you decide to apply to the BEST program?
A. I was about two years away from my graduation and honestly, I was not even thinking about my professional career. It was more out of curiosity that I went to the first session. Things changed after a couple of sessions and workshops—they got me thinking about life and career after graduation.
Q. What role did BEST play in helping you to decide that you didn’t want to go into academia?
A. At the time, I enjoyed the academic environment and had not made my decision either way.
Most positions in academia and industry have great flexibility in the actual day-to-day role and job titles can be misleading. For example, you could be a professor at a university but heading up a section in the technology transfer office and dealing with other companies and aspects such as patenting and licensing. Similarly, with the same title, you could be a facility head dealing with budgeting, marketing, human resources, management, and not especially focused on research. Oftentimes you have the flexibility to mould your position to your interests.
When deliberating about what path to take, I was considering things such as whether I would enjoy the role, have career growth, the location, and any potential visa issues.
The BEST program introduced me to career paths I had not considered or was even aware existed. The workshops helped me to identify my transferable skills, personality traits, and positions that were a natural fit with my personality. Thankfully, the decision was not too hard. I felt that industry was the best fit for me.
Q. Through BEST, were there any skills that you realized you had that were surprising to you or that you realized you needed to work on?
A. I realized that simple things like public speaking and science writing, tasks that we already do during our Ph.Ds. are very valuable and sought-after. I wanted to diversify these skills to areas beyond the topics of my thesis. I started to take note of the major industry trends and what things most new startups were focusing on.
Q. How did you get your current position at Siemens?
A. I applied to a job posting. The interview process was long with multiple phone/ Skype rounds followed by two on-site in-person interviews.
I had worked on Siemens’ MRI scanner and technology through my Ph.D. and interacted with people from industry R&D on numerous occasions. When at a conference, I always tried to meet with the people I had previously emailed with. Following key industry trends and being aware of promising new technologies all helped me in during the interview process.
Q. What do you do at Siemens?
As a senior scientist in MRI R&D, my role is very diverse. Primarily, I manage joint collaborative research with premier academic partners and also develop novel MRI and PET-MRI imaging methods.
In addition, I also work on scientific publications, invention disclosures, provide proof of principle for novel methodologies, train academic researchers, and perform pre-product development. Understanding the product cycle (invention-to-product) and knowing what drives the adoption of technology in a clinical setting helps me greatly.
Q. What do you like most about this company?
A. The culture of the organization, particularly within my team, is very supportive and collaborative. Almost all of the senior management are Ph.D.s, come from a technical background, and therefore, value research and technical development. You have the freedom to follow your passion and design projects around those topics.
Q. Any advice for grad students or postdocs who may want to pursue this path?
A. Keep your options open. It’s never too early to start considering your career after graduation. It’s also important to have a solid elevator pitch ready (who you are, what your research entails, etc.) ready for any opportunity you might have to introduce yourself to others. Network actively and passively, develop a well-rounded personality—getting involved in the university community can help here—organize meetings, write scientific blogs, volunteer, make use of graduate seminars. And it goes without saying that you have to be good at your science.
Interviewed November 2017 by Lauren Tanabe.
Philip Cunningham has been at Wayne State since 1991, when he took a position as Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology as a microbiologist. His lab used genetic techniques to identify new antibiotic drug targets and isolate new antibiotics resulting in 10 patents. In 2011, he accepted an administrative position as Assistant Vice President of Research Compliance in the Office of the Vice President for Research. He was subsequently promoted to Associate Vice President of Research Integrity in 2015.
Cunningham received his Ph.D. from Southern Illinois University in 1987 and was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology from 1987-1991. He is the recipient of Wayne’s Career Development Chair Award and the President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. He was a National Academies Education Fellow in the Life Sciences in 2004 and was appointed an American Society for Microbiology Branch Lecturer from 2008-2010.
Q. What does the Associate Vice President of Research Integrity do?
As research has gotten more complex and as technology has proceeded, we have more risks. Because of risks that have turned into accidents, there have been a series of regulations put in place by different governments.
The idea of oversight bodies is to protect the people doing the research and the people around the people doing the research. For Wayne State to be able to do research with money from the federal government, we have to abide by a set of rules, and my job is to make sure we do.
I oversee biosafety, radiation safety, controlled substances, IRB (human subjects), IACUC (animals), conflict of interest, animal control, EHS (environmental health and safety), and research misconduct.
From the government’s standpoint, my job is to make sure Wayne State is following the rules, but from my perspective, I’m trying to help ease the burden of all those regulations on our researchers. In other words, what can I do to boil this down for them so they don’t each have to have become an expert in compliance? What can we do to make it so that people can do what they were trained to do which is generate data and move science forward?
Q. You started out as a scientist. How did you become the Associate Vice President of Research Integrity?
I was an active researcher for many years and then I was asked to consider this position, which was a huge change. I really had to think about it because my whole life has been research.
But there comes a time when it gets harder to get grants, especially in today’s environment. You have to look out for the young people because these are people who are just getting started and you can’t just dress them all up and then not give them the tools they need to succeed. My wife said, “At some point you’re going to lose your funding and I just can’t see you sitting in an office talking about the good old days. You need to be doing something to make a difference. [This job] will give you something to focus on and make changes.” I was so impressed with my wife!
Q. What is your day-to-day like?
When I took this job, I didn’t take it to put out fires. There’s a component of it that’s putting out fires, but really my job is more like putting down fire retardant. I want to spot the problems before they happen and I want to put things in place to keep them from happening, and we are really doing that.
We have a huge group of people in all these different areas and I meet with them on a regular basis. If there is some incident that occurs, we do a kind of a postmortem where we sit down and say, OK why did this happen? What could have prevented it? And what can we do now to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
That’s being reactive. My goal is to keep from having those postmortems.
A lot of my day is spent in meetings, back-to-back, attending these different groups, meeting with the people who are over all those areas I mentioned, and meeting with my boss, Dr. Stephen Lanier, the Vice President for Research at Wayne State.
So far it’s very gratifying. It’s sort of like research in that sense that you identify a problem, map out a plan to address it, and think it through to the end. If you don’t then you won’t put all the necessary controls in your experiments. In this field, I look at what we’re doing, I look at the situation as it exists now and I ask myself, But what if this were to happen? And I’m like, Oh, that would be a disaster! So what can we put in place to make sure that doesn’t happen. What are the liabilities here? What are the risks?
[This position] gives you a chance to do thought experiments, to think ahead, to be creative, and to make a real impact. Without burdening researchers, we’re trying to achieve an enhanced safety culture at Wayne State.
Q. Do you think doing a postdoc is valuable if a student is interested in an administrative position such as yours?
It depends on the type of administrative position. For instance, generally the associate vice president over sponsored programs, the person who does the pre-awarding, post-award, and oversees all the grants that come through Wayne State University or other institutions, that person generally does not have to be a scientist or have a Ph.D. or held a postdoc. Most of them have at least a master’s degree and they usually have a business degree of some sort because there’s a lot of accounting.
But if you think about what my job is, my job involves a lot of safety committees. You have to have some reasonable understanding of the science. The people I interact with are mostly scientists and I think they would be frustrated if they couldn’t talk to me in their own language. Plus for me to evaluate and help develop measures that would assist researchers in doing work that’s compliant with both the safety and regulatory federal regulations, I have to be able to understand them. So I think a postdoc is big plus, certainly at a major research institution.
But I’ve also had Ph.D. students through the BEST program who wanted to do compliance and asked if they could do an internship. We had someone come through and do an internship with the IRB office and learn how that works—what the regulations are, how you oversee that. That person went on and got a permanent position as an IRB officer at another university.
But I think to oversee all of the committees, like I do, probably being a bona fide researcher who has had an active lab is important.
Q. How can students find these types of positions and prepare for them?
Once they finish their degree, they should look for some kind of an internship to start getting experience and see how they like it. They can then use that as a launchpad to go someplace else or, if there are positions available, they can step into a permanent position at that institution.
I would also say business classes are useful because it helps to know the terminology. Communications classes, and some kind of management classes would also be helpful.