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Feb 8 / Sarah Sheesley

A New Year and a Smarter, Easier Way of Reaching Your Goals

by Lauren Tanabe, Ph.D.

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.


Jan 24 / Sarah Sheesley

Q&A with Uday Krishnamurthy, Ph.D.

Uday Krishnamurthy, Ph.D.

Uday Krishnamurthy, Ph.D.

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.

by Lauren Tanabe, Ph.D.


Dec 1 / Sarah Sheesley

Q & A with Philip Cunningham, Ph.D., Associate Vice President of Research Integrity, Wayne State University

Philip Cunningham, Ph.D.

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.

by Lauren Tanabe, Ph.D.

Oct 10 / Sarah Sheesley

Q&A with Joanna Sutton, Doctoral Candidate in Pharmacology

Joanna Sutton, Doctoral Candidate in Biomedical Engineering

Joanna Sutton, Doctoral Candidate in Biomedical Engineering

Joanna Sutton, Doctoral Candidate in Pharmacology

BS, Biology, Aquinas College, 2009

Joanna is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Pharmacology at Wayne State who participated in the BEST Program during 2016-17. She entered the business track and completed an internship at Proteos, a contract research organization, during the summer of 2017. She says that the BEST program helped her to make the decision to pursue a career in industry after her anticipated graduation in spring 2018.

Q. Why did you decide to apply to the BEST program?

I was having a lot of thoughts about transitioning into a career in industry, but I didn’t want to make a decision without knowing what I was getting into. BEST seemed like a good way to test the waters.

Q. When did you decide that you didn’t want to pursue the academic track, and how did BEST help you in your decision?

Participating in the BEST career exploration solidified my decision to pursue a career in industry, rather than academia.

I love research and benchwork, but I have my reservations about the academic research timeline. In academia, you can spend years working on the same disease, protein, pathway, and so on. There have been times during my Ph.D. where this “neverending” timeline made me feel like I was drowning in experiments and data that didn’t seem to have much of a purpose. Working at Proteos was great because the project timelines were much shorter, sometimes even just a matter of days or weeks. Upon completing a project, you could actually see the physical protein your work yielded for the client. You feel very productive when you can look back on all you’ve accomplished in such a short time. This business approach to research really appealed to me, and it is something I hope to continue with after graduation.

Q. Can you describe what you did during your internship?

I participated in an internship at Proteos, which is a contract research company primarily serving the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. They provide protein expression, purification, and analytical services to their clients. My daily responsibilities included producing recombinant protein in bacteria, purifying protein through affinity or size exclusion chromatography, and analyzing protein yield through SDS-PAGE, HPLC (high-performance liquid chromatography), and other biochemical techniques. Upon completion of a project, I was responsible for writing a technical report that detailed the results for the client.

I found that this work was a good fit for me.

I also learned a lot about working together as a team. I worked with the Protein Purification team, which was a very close-knit group. We all had a combination of solo and shared projects. For the shared projects, this often meant one person would begin the project and carry it out to a certain point, and then the next person would take over until project completion. Communication, organization, and trust were all required to carry this out effectively. Each week we had company-wide staff meetings to review all of the projects that were currently in the pipeline. Although I personally did not present at every meeting, listening was still a great way to learn how to effectively communicate the status of a project to the rest of the team. At the end of the summer, I presented my work to the company via an oral presentation.

Q. What did you learn about the skills you had (and those you needed to work on) during your BEST experience?

I gained proficiency in biochemical techniques including size exclusion chromatography, analytical HPLC, thermal shift analysis, and autoinduction of recombinant protein expression. I learned about the relationship and communication between Proteos and its clients through the technical reports and the customer relations software that they use.

I felt that my lab experiences and participation in BEST activities prepared me for the internship.

Q. What advice do you have for graduate students who are struggling with what direction to take with their careers?

If your gut is telling you to explore options outside of academia, don’t be afraid to pursue those experiences. It’s never too soon to start looking. You should confirm that track is indeed what you want before you close any doors. BEST can help!

by Lauren Tanabe, Ph.D.

Sep 21 / Sarah Sheesley

Q&A with Brijesh Yadav, Doctoral Candidate in Biomedical Engineering

Brijesh Yadav, Doctoral Candidate in Biomedical Engineering

Brijesh Yadav

Brijesh Yadav, Doctoral Candidate in Biomedical Engineering

BS, Biomedical Engineering, National Institute of Technology Rourkela, India

MS, Biomedical Engineering, Wayne State University

Brijesh Yadav was a participant in the 2016-17 BEST program. He completed a Phase III career exploration at Biogen, a biotech company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Brijesh is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. He always had an interest doing research in industry. He says the BEST program provided him with the hands-on experience he was searching for.

Interviewed by Lauren Tanabe, Ph.D.

Q. Why did you decide to apply to the BEST program?

BEST is a great initiative from the NIH, and it’s great to see Wayne State University’s active involvement with it. I’m currently pursuing my doctoral degree, which involves extensive learning and research. I’ve become familiar with the way academia works but was curious about industry. While working on some projects with our lab’s industrial partners, I realized that I was interested in experiencing industry employment and research culture. After attending the BEST orientation in Fall 2016, I finally decided to take the summer semester off and explore industry.

Q. When did you decide that you didn’t want to pursue the academic track, and how did BEST help you in your decision?

Right now, I’m in the completion phase of my doctoral program. When I started my program, I was quite open to a career in either academia or industry. But as I interacted and worked with more scientists from industry, my desire to get into the field became stronger. I was looking for an internship that would help me get that industry experience so that I could decide ahead of my graduation whether or not I wanted to go in that direction. Then BEST came into the picture. I had reached out to industry scientists and human resources departments by myself but being a BESTer allowed me to get the internship of my choice and negotiate benefits.

Q. Can you describe what you did during your internship?

I had an amazing time during my internship. I worked on a new and challenging project exploring cerebrospinal fluid volume measurements and optimization of drug dosing in newborns. I was able to use my expertise in medical imaging and, at the same time, learn about how ideas get distilled at a fast pace in industrial research. It was a collaborative project, so I got a chance to interact with lots of different scientists. Importantly, I was encouraged to lead the project and to take initiative. After the completion of my project, I was given the chance to present my work in a research talk. I was applauded for my hypothesis, results, and for my ability to drive this project to completion with a team.

Apart from research, my manager encouraged me to make connections through networking. I reached out to people and asked for their opinion about the important skills needed for a career in industry.

Q. What are the skills needed for a career in industry?

Initially, I thought that technical skills would be the most important for industrial positions. I was surprised to learn that a candidate’s confidence and personality mean much more than technical knowledge. I observed this during the interview processes.

Another important thing I learned is that one should be open to new ideas and have good translational ability. For example, if you have expertise in cell biology don’t stop yourself from trying something different like imaging. Industry loves those people who can add value beyond their expertise.

Connections are also very important and can help you to get interviews. Maintaining regular contact without annoying the person is an art. People move from one industry to another so quickly. Even a single connection can help you get your foot in the door.

Q. What did you learn about the skills you had (and those you needed to work on) during your BEST experience?

I had never led a scientific project before, therefore when I was asked to lead the project during my internship, I had some doubts. But it came to me naturally. I planned the study, prepared a roadmap to achieve goals, and made sure that everybody was on the same page. I now realize how important it is to have quality leadership, especially in industry, and consider myself fortunate to be able to have experienced being in that role.

I think communication is one skill that I needed to hone. Being a technical person, sometimes I overlooked my audience. Now I realize how important it is to convey your rationale and findings in a very basic way to clients, collaborators, and general audiences.

Q. What advice do you have for graduate students who are struggling with what direction to take with their careers?

I believe BEST is an excellent opportunity for doctoral students to experience something different from academic lab work while also helping to prepare them for the competitive industrial world. I would suggest using this program to explore any interest that might be a potential option after graduation. We should remember how challenging it can be to get a good research position in industry right after graduation.

Take advantage of BEST. It is for us. You have nothing to lose.

by Lauren Tanabe, Ph.D.

Sep 6 / Sarah Sheesley

Five Simple Things You Should Do Right Now

by Lauren Tanabe, Ph.D.

The start of the academic year is a time of excitement, but it can also be overwhelming as you begin to think about the steps you should take in your job search. Fear not, this post is full of easy tasks you can complete in between experiments that will have a big impact on your future. Start with small goals as opposed to larger intimidating ones that can leave you feeling depleted before getting started. As you complete the tasks below, you’ll start to feel better about the future and you may be surprised by the opportunities that arise.


1. Get Some Business Cards

At the SciPhD Bootcamp at Wayne State this past May, the presenters stressed the importance of always carrying business cards. You never know when you’ll need one! This is something that you can and should do, today. There are a number of online printing companies that offer deep discounts. I got 500 cards for $8 during a Vistaprint promotion. Be sure that you include all pertinent contact information and consider using an email address not affiliated with a university such as gmail, so that there’s no chance it will be terminated when you graduate. If you want to do something a little different, include a QR code on your card. When a prospective employer scans it, they’ll be able to read all about your qualifications — far more than you could ever include on a tiny business card.

2. Update Your LinkedIn Profile

What did you do over the summer? Did you participate in a BEST internship? Publish a paper? Join the Postdoc Association? It’s time to update that LinkedIn profile.

Make sure you have a professional-looking headshot, and remember that your profile should reflect who you want to be. It should be immediately clear to anyone reading the profile what your goals are. Are you searching for a job? Put it up there front and center. While you’re at it, make sure to fill in the Summary section or update it appropriately. It doesn’t need to be a thesis. Just make sure it’s professional, well-written, and clearly expresses your goals and achievements. Shoot for a little over 40 words. This will make your profile more likely to show up in someone’s search.

3. Facebook with Purpose

Sure, it’s fun to scroll through memes and see what’s going on in your friends’ lives, but these days, professional organizations and companies use social media platforms beyond LinkedIn. Do a quick search for companies you are interested in working for and follow their Facebook pages. Sometimes you can find job offerings posted here. Also search for groups, since there are organizations for every kind of scientist you can imagine. There are groups for those aspiring to positions in industry, writing, teaching, and business. Here you’ll be able to ask for advice and, in time, mentor others. It’s a wonderful way to make fruitful connections.

Perhaps the best part of being in these groups is that you will continually be reminded of things pertaining to your career interests as you scroll through your newsfeed — important, since keeping career goals at the forefront can be difficult when you’re trying to complete a Ph.D. Keep in mind that if you friend some of your new connections you will want to make sure your profile is on the professional side. If you’re tech savvy, you can use the control settings so that your new connections don’t see anything unsavory. It is critical, however, to keep in mind that your social media footprint should be a professional one across the board. It might be time to switch to Snapchat for more casual interactions with friends and family.

4. Set up One Informational Interview

Informational interviews are about exploring your options. If there’s a field that you suspect may be a good fit for you, or a company you might be interested in, then reach out to someone and set up an informational interview. Some of us introverts may find this task a bit daunting, but start with the goal of completing just one. Use your social media network to help you find someone. If you’re not sure where to start, look for fellow alumni — you both already have something in common. A simple 20-minute phone call or a chat over a cup of coffee could lead to more opportunities. Always end the interview by asking if they know of anyone else you could talk to. The worst thing that happens is you realize that a particular job may not be for you. Better to figure it out sooner than later.

5. Attend the Upcoming BEST Orientation and Activities

If you’re still unsure about what you want to do with your Ph.D., that’s OK. But don’t ignore your uncertainty; make an effort to gather more information so that you can figure out what might be a good fit for your skills and personality. Luckily for you, the Wayne State BEST program is about to kick off for the 2017-18 year. The program Orientation will take place on Wednesday, September 27th from 4:30 – 6:30 pm in Margherio Hall on the School of Medicine campus. Come, have some pizza and a beverage, and hear all about the various options for science Ph.Ds. Panel discussions in five different career tracks (research administration, teaching, business, government, and communication) are scheduled for the first week of October.

Don’t forget your business cards!

Aug 22 / Sarah Sheesley

Report from meeting on career outcomes

BEST members Ambika Mathur (Wayne State University), Abby Stayart (University of Chicago), Roger Chalkley (Vanderbilt University School of Medicine), and Patrick Brandt (University of North Carolina Chapel Hill) along with a members of the AAU, AAMC and some non-BEST institutions attended a recent meeting sponsored by Rescuing Biomedical Research. The BEST representatives’ reflections on this conversation about improving career transparency in biomedical Ph.D. career outcomes appears in an article on the NIH BEST website.

Aug 14 / Sarah Sheesley

2017 BEST Orientation: Dr. Elizabeth Watkins (UCSF) offers a national perspective on career opportunities and multiple career pathways for Ph.D. students and postdoctoral scientists


by Lauren Tanabe, Ph.D.

The BEST program for 2017-18 will commence with our Orientation on Wednesday, Sept. 27, in Margherio Hall in the School of Medicine. The Orientation will run from 4:30-6:30 pm and will introduce incoming doctoral students and postdoctoral scientists to BEST at Wayne. Current students and former BEST participants are welcome to attend.




Elizabeth Watkins, PhD, Dean of the Graduate Division and Vice

Elizabeth Watkins, Ph.D., Dean of the Graduate Division and Vice Chancellor of Student Academic Affairs.

For the final year of the program at Wayne State, we will feature a keynote speaker at the Orientation, Dr. Elizabeth Watkins of University of California, San Francisco. She is the dean of the graduate division, vice chancellor of Student Academic Affairs, and professor in the department of anthropology, history, and social medicine at UCSF.

As dean, Dr. Watkins and her staff conducted career outcome studies of all Ph.Ds graduating from UCSF since 1997. They also created an exit survey to allow graduates to discuss and reflect on their time as a means to improve upon student experiences at that institution. Dr. Watkins has served with the Dean of the Graduate School at Wayne State, Dr. Ambika Mathur, on several conference panels on the topic of Ph.D. career outcomes.  Dr. Watkins’ presentation at the orientation will offer a national perspective on career opportunities and multiple career pathways for Ph.Ds.  She will also address what skills trainees will need to succeed and how they can demonstrate competency in those skills to land diverse job opportunities.

Dr. Watkins earned both her B.A. in biology and Ph.D. in the history of science at Harvard University before joining UCSF in 2004. Her research investigates the relation between medicine, science, commerce, and culture in the US. Dr. Watkins has published many articles on the history of prescription drugs, birth control, estrogen and female aging, testosterone and male aging, and stress and disease. Dr. Watkins is the author of On the Pill: A Social History of Oral Contraceptives, 1950-1970 and The Estrogen Elixir: A History of Hormone Replacement Therapy in America, both published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Her work has been funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the NIH/National Library of Medicine, the National Academy of Education, and the National Science Foundation.

During the week after the Orientation, the BEST program will hold panel discussions on five different career tracks (research administration, teaching, business, government, and communication), also in Margherio Hall, from 4-6 pm.

These events are all free, but prior to attending attendees should register online.

For more information, email or contact the BEST Program Manager Dr. Heidi Kenaga at 313-577-5499.

Click below to download the Phase I flyer.

BEST Phase I events flyer

Jul 25 / Sarah Sheesley

Q&A with Zheni Shen, Ph.D.

Zheni Shen, Ph.D.

Zheni Shen, Ph.D.
Bachelor of Medicine in Basic Medical Sciences, West China Medical Center, Sichuan University
M.S. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, West China Medical Center, Sichuan University
Ph.D. in Biology, Wayne State University, 2015

Dr. Shen participated in the BEST program during 2014-15 in order to learn about options outside of academia. While she did not conduct an internship, she believes that the information she learned from attending the various panels and workshops helped her to realize she wanted to work in industry. Upon completion of her doctorate, Dr. Shen was hired by Total Toxicology in Southfield, Michigan. Today, she works there as a supervisor and scientist.

Interviewed by Lauren Tanabe on May 16, 2017.


Q. When did you decide that you didn’t want to pursue the academic track and how did BEST help you in your decision?

With academia, there are uncontrollable research results and an uncertain career path. This wasn’t for me.

Through BEST, I attended different panels and got exposed to different fields. I found that science Ph.D.s were not only in demand in academia, but also in industry, law, business, and other fields.

I attended both the Phase II industry/business and law workshops. The specialists discussed the inner workings of these fields to us. I got interested in the work that a Ph.D can do in life science and healthcare industry as opposed to pursuing the academic track. BEST played a major role in helping me to make this decision.

Q. What did you learn about the skills you had (and those you needed to work on) during your BEST experience?

The most useful skill I’ve learned through BEST was how to network over social media.

I learned Web-searching skills. For example, how to connect with alumni on LinkedIn, how to check out the companies that have employed lots of Wayne State alumni with similar backgrounds to my own, how to follow companies on LinkedIn, how to learn about the networking hosted by my connections, and so on.

Also, I practiced my spoken English and prepared my introduction ahead of time. It was surprising to me to discover that I already had the necessary networking skills. But at the same time, I realized that I needed to hone my interviewing skills.

Q. Why didn’t you participate in an internship?

Because there were more BEST participants than actual available internships. I applied to several internships, got interviewed by several companies, but was not offered an internship in the end.

Q. How did you go about finding your current position?

Through my connections. I registered for a LinkedIn account, sent out my CV to my connections/friends in the life sciences field, and let them know that I would appreciate if they could inform me of any openings in their companies/institutions.

I also applied to job postings I found on LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and the websites of the companies that I was interested in.

Q. Can you talk about your day-to-day activities in your new career?

I am currently a general supervisor and scientist in a clinical laboratory, Total Toxicology. My work is to research, develop, and validate novel methods to analyze drugs, chemical compounds, toxicants, bio-metabolites, hormones, and elements and alloys for medical, pharmaceutical, and toxicological evaluation.

I also generate and interpret final reports for the analyzed samples, daily, and consult with the clients on chemical, pharmaceutical, pharmacokinetic and toxicological interpretation of the reports.

Besides a whole set of clinical standard operating procedures, I’ve learned how to interact with clients (physicians) and how to coordinate with coworkers, which sharpens my teamwork skills.

I’m not doing bench work, currently. Mostly, I analyze data and do consulting and reporting work. There is nothing that I don’t like about my current position.

Q. It seems like you interact with a lot of clients. How do you use your networking and communication skills?

Most of our clients are clinical physicians. As a scientist, my responsibility is to provide toxicology knowledge support to them. However, performing high quality work in order to gain the trust of clients is a way of “networking,” because if they are satisfied with the services you provide, they will introduce other doctors who also need the same service. I talk with the physicians with a very supportive and patient attitude, trying to answer professional questions in a way that they can understand.

I also use everyday language. Most of the time, the physicians don’t expect to dig into scientific details, they just want to know generally about what could possibly influence the test results.

Q. Where do you see yourself in the future?

I see myself as a certified director or some kind of authorized specialist in the clinical laboratory field. My short-term goal is to be fulfilled with further practice, training, and certification in the clinical chemistry and clinical genetics field. My long-term goal is to use my knowledge to contribute to the clinical field as a biochemistry and genetic specialist.

Q. What advice do you have for graduate students who are struggling with what direction to take with their careers?

Just participate in the BEST program. It will help you make the decision of what direction to take.

by Lauren Tanabe

Jul 19 / Sarah Sheesley

Report on the second meeting of FOBGAPT [Future of Bioscience Graduate and Postdoctoral Training], June 8-10, 2017, Denver, CO

Traditionally, doctoral and postdoctoral training has focused on preparing individuals to continue the hallowed traditions of academia. Most faculty consider it their job to prepare students to become university faculty like themselves, focused on research and teaching, who will in turn guide their own graduate students to do the same.

Unfortunately, more than half of doctoral and postdoctoral trainees now leave academia, and due to the bleak outlook in external funding, that percentage is rising steadily. Forward-looking faculty and administrators, who are starting to rethink graduate and postdoctoral training methods, initiated the first Future of Biomedical Graduate and Postdoctoral Training (FOBGAPT) meeting, held in 2015 in Ann Arbor. The second meeting, known as “FOBGAPT2,” was held at the University of Colorado-Denver from June 8-10.  Dr. Ambika Mathur, the Dean of the Graduate School at Wayne State, was a member of the Organizing Committee for this event. She is also the PI of the NIH-funded BEST [Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training] grant, which puts Wayne at the forefront of the effort to modernize graduate training in the biomedical and life sciences. Also participating in this meeting was BEST grant co-PI Dr. Christine Chow and Associate Dean in the Graduate School Dr. Andrew Feig, both tenured faculty in the Dept. of Chemistry.

Through travel support awarded by FOBGAPT2 and the Graduate School, the three authors of this blog entry were able to attend the meeting in Denver and help mold the recommendations that will be published as a white paper. Tonya Whitehead is a Ph.D. candidate in Biomedical Engineering who will graduate this year. She participated in the BEST program’s pilot program in 2014. She has a strong interest in undergraduate education and curriculum development, and works in the Office for Teaching & Learning. Nisansala Muthunayake is a Ph.D. candidate in Biochemistry who will graduate this fall. She attended BEST Phase I and II events in each of the last three years and currently serves as the graduate student assistant for the BEST program. As a biochemist, she is very interested in science education. Dr. John Anneken is a 4th-year postdoctoral research associate in neuropharmacology, with an appointment in the Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences Department in the School of Medicine. He also recently completed Phase I and II of BEST, which has helped widen his view of his employment opportunities and career development.

Tonya Whitehead

The first evening of the FOBGAPT2 meeting provided valuable networking opportunities over food and drinks in the warm summer air of Denver, where participants became familiar with the expertise held by their fellow attendees as well as the breadth of institutions represented. The next morning, all meeting attendees gathered for a plenary panel discussion by three speakers, who established the general themes of the meeting.

The first speaker was Dr. Alison Gammie of NIH, who defined the most pressing issues facing research today, including the disturbing failure of reproducibility in published studies and the loss in gender and ethnic diversity as researchers progress up the career ladder. She also acknowledged the disconnect between the employment opportunities currently available to doctoral trainees and postdocs and the academia-only focus of most training programs, something that is well known to BEST participants. As part of the solution, Dr. Gammie discussed the incorporation of more explicit mentoring and career development criteria into T32 training grants and holding institutions accountable for meeting these revised requirements.

The next speaker on the panel was Dr. Julia Kent of the Council of Graduate Schools. She spoke to the current neglect of career development and non-academic career paths in the majority of training programs. In order to correct this, Dr. Kent discussed the need for actionable data on the career paths of Ph.D.s, particularly focusing on alumni of individual institutions who can demonstrate the value of career development programs. This approach could be used to identify common deficiencies typically noted by nonacademic employers, such as presentation skills and project management, so often marginalized in the current models of training programs.

The final speaker on the panel was an economist from Georgia State University, Dr. Paula Stephan, who spoke on why postdocs are overused in the current academic laborforce. Though there were several factors identified, the most important was their low cost, which is estimated to be as little as $16 per hour! The most common justification given for this level of compensation is the supposedly “portable” training component of a typical postdoc, but Dr. Stephan showed data questioning this view. She then proposed a multi-faceted approach to reducing the backlog of postdocs, the most gratifying of which was call for a revision in NIH guidelines to increase postdoc pay! Whether this is likely to be implemented is a different story, as she acknowledged.

Over the subsequent two days, FOBGAPT2 was divided into five workshops on these broad topics: (1) How to increase the diversity of scientists in senior and leadership roles; (2) How to increase engagement and skills of faculty in mentorship; (3) How to modernize (and keep updating) curricula and training while maintaining research and scholarship tenets; (4)  How to increase the engagement of the private sector and other potential employers in training paradigms and opportunities; and (5) What data on Master’s, PhDs, and postdocs can be collected nationally, and how can it be used to inform trainees and training?

What follows is a brief summary of the most important takeaways from each workshop.


The first workshop focused on how to better increase the diversity of scientists in senior and leadership roles. The workshop had five papers with interesting discussions related to the main topic: an overview of the academic scientist workforce; gaps in the pipeline with an emphasis on postdoctoral training; institutional responsibility in diversification of senior scientist and leadership positions; funding agencies and professional society’s responsibility in diversification of senior scientist and leadership positions; and a lightning round on best practices for diversification of academic scientists and leaders. There were very engaging discussions about challenges faced by members of underrepresented groups in obtaining senior and leadership roles. The potential impact of fewer funding opportunities on the success of the underrepresented groups and how institutions can recognize and address these challenges, at all levels of training, from graduate student to postdoc to junior faculty, was a recurring topic in this workshop. Some of the proposals that may be helpful in increasing the diversity of scientists in senior and leadership roles included establishing (a) a major funding mechanism to prepare underrepresented postdocs for transitioning into successful academic and nonacademic careers, (b) inclusivity training for all senior administrators, faculty, staff, postdocs and graduate students, and (c) beginning leadership training early for graduate students and postdocs.

Mentorship Improvement

John Anneken, Ph.D.

The next workshop focused on efforts to improve the frequently uneven mentorship skills of faculty. The ultimate goal of the workshop was to generate a list of recommendations and concrete action plans for increasing engagement and skills of faculty mentorship. As we all know, faculty mentorship plays a crucial role in the success of graduate students and postdocs, and many of you may have experienced both the benefits of a great mentor and the anguish and disappointment of an unproductive mentoring relationship. It should be noted, both in our own experience and as a common theme in these discussions, that the “mentor” and “mentee” alike have a role to play in the success of mentoring. A major recommendation to improve this two-way interaction was to formalize and continually revise expectations between the trainee and mentor. Further, institutional recognition for effective mentoring emerged as an important theme.  Faculty are under constant pressure to publish and obtain funding, but since there is no performance metric that factors mentoring into productivity, this crucial activity is often marginalized and neglected. In fact, this was a point of vigorous contention for some of the faculty during the discussions, i.e., the expectations being proposed put too much burden on already overworked faculty members. By incorporating development of and recognition for mentoring into institutional performance evaluation, alongside publishing and funding, faculty will be more engaged in promoting the career development of their trainees, to the benefit of all concerned.


This workshop focused on four areas of discussion: understanding the knowledge needs of students; identifying what the career paths graduate students and postdocs are pursing in the current job environment; specifying those competencies trainees need to pursue these paths; and determining ways to fund training. The group felt that many of the competencies were already included in contemporary curricula, but that programs are not doing a good job of articulating to students what they are learning and how they might use those skills. For instance, most Ph.D.s must plan experiments, allocate resources to their project (materials, human resources and equipment), and plan for adverse results. These experiences are aspects of project management, a skill that is highly sought after by all types of employers. Being more explicit with trainees about these transferrable skills is essential to encouraging successful professional development. The recommendations resulting from this workshop included creating a repository for faculty to share their best practices for incorporating competency into curricula. This would allow universities to identify strengths and address gaps in their current programs. Another recommendation was that universities strive to create a culture of transparent learning assessment, evaluation, and constructive communication. This will help trainees understand where they currently stand in relation to the expectation for someone at their level. Finally, they encouraged a shift in the incentive models of national funding agencies to support a modernized training structure.

Private-Sector Engagement

Nisansala Muthunayake

As many of you in the BEST program are interested in careers outside of the academic environment, this workshop was of great interest. One caveat, which was raised by several discussants, is that no representatives of the private sector were present for these discussions. Still, it was encouraging to see faculty who were willing to discuss these career options constructively. The discussion was framed around four questions. First, why should universities engage the private sector in graduate and postdoctoral training? The reasons seemed obvious (likely to those in the BEST program as well) and included providing more information about multiple career paths in light of decreasing funding and through internships, to produce trainees who can make better informed career choices. The second question was how do private sector entities benefit from taking on and/or funding trainees? The strongest benefit to the company would be the opportunity to generate a strong talent pipeline, which would be better tailored to their workplace culture. This is also a way to obtain relatively low-cost, highly skilled workers for their projects. The third question sought to understand the obstacles to this type of engagement. Most of the responses in the discussion were on practical matters of time and cost, as well as intellectual property issues that arise within companies. The final question concerned how to get faculty support for these private sector training opportunities. The major concern expressed by the faculty attendees was the potential impact on degree completion rates for doctoral trainees and loss of productivity on their primary research projects. There were suggestions on how to overcome this, including leaves of absence or timing the training opportunity to following graduation, prior to officially leaving the program. Further, it was suggested the faculty would benefit from the training as well, seeing improvements in employee time management and the potential for bi-directional learning of novel techniques to be applied in their own labs. Recommendations from this workshop included actionable, institution-specific data on the career outcomes of graduate and postdoctoral participants in private sector training in order to concretely demonstrate the value of such programs. In addition, increases in private sector training engagement should be encouraged and supported by faculty as integral components of career development for all trainees, graduate and postdoc. Finally, a clearinghouse for best practices should be created to overcome potential roadblocks, such as nondisclosure agreements and work authorization problems for international students.

Data Gathering

The theme of the final workshop was what data on Master’s, Ph.D.s, and postdocs can be collected nationally and how can they be used to inform trainees and training. Junior scientists, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers alike are interested in data about career outcomes, salaries, benefits and other aspects of academic training to make better informed decisions about their future careers. Before attending this workshop, we thought that data about many of these aspects would be extremely hard to find. But after this workshop, it became clear that there is already a great interest in gathering this type of data. Each discussion section focused on a different level of trainees (Master’s, Ph.D., postdoctoral) and the types of data that would be useful to obtain. Across all levels, demographic data was deemed important, to better characterize who is being trained. For Master’s students, discussants were interested in finding out the reasons for enrolling in a Master’s program, reasons for exiting a Ph.D. program with a Master’s degree, and the salary of the first job after receiving the Master’s degree. Concerning Ph.D. trainees, the main areas of interest were focused on time to degree, number of publications, and participation in career development or internships. Data that might be collected from postdoctoral trainees included employment-based questions about institutional support and compensation, as well as the quality of mentoring and general career outcomes following completion of postdoctoral training. Overall, discussants suggested that individual institutions collect these data, and then aggregate nationally so comparisons and improvements can be undertaken. Collating data from a variety of academic programs will enable institutions to more realistically describe available opportunities and enable junior scientists to make informed decisions about their future careers.

At this stage, the results from FOBGAPT2 are only recommendations. To make them a reality, students, postdocs, and faculty (current and future) need to engage in the national discussion and fight for these changes. We recommend that readers look at the FOBGAPT2 website to learn more about the meeting and read the white paper that is scheduled to be published in July of this year. Talk with your program directors and ask them to consider the recommendations for implementation. Without grassroots support, the training structure that has become increasingly obsolete in today’s workplace environment will continue unchanged.