Build Your Own Professional Development Program: Some Assembly Required

Photo by Raúl Hernández González.

Building a professional development program can be done with some initiative, planning, and help from others. Photo by Raúl Hernández González.

A successful career after graduate school or a postdoctoral fellowship requires careful planning and training. The NIH recognizes the need for career/professional development in addition to the rigorous scientific training given during graduate school and postdoctoral training. Since 90% or more of students entering graduate school will not get a tenure-track faculty position (referring to Professors not Staff Scientists), the NIH emphasizes a need for broader training for other career paths. Thus, in 2013 the NIH launched the Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program. The BEST program awarded 10 institutions with $250,000 to enhance training for non-academic careers. Another 7 institutions were also awarded funds with the same purpose, for a total of 17 “BEST” program institutions. However, many institutions still have little or no funding for professional development programs. Such institutions can build professional development programs with nothing but interested trainees and a small group of leaders.

As a postdoc at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Smithville, TX (about 2.5 hours away from the main campus in Houston), I recognized a need for local trainee resources. There had been a graduate student council and postdoctoral association in place; however, both of these groups were operated minimalistically. Additional resources were provided in Houston and were sometimes available via videoconference. However, the need for in-person workshops, networking, and other resources became apparent. The availability of resources was less than ideal, but to improve would require time and effort. The general consensus was that someone else would eventually come along and provide those resources. I decided to begin to assess and meet those needs. No one gave me permission or assigned me this duty. I was not given extra time to develop these programs. I simply did it.

As the total number of students and postdocs was about 20 each, respectively, or 40 in total, I chose to group everyone together in a Trainee Association. In talking with trainees, I found that people were frustrated by the lack of in-person workshops and the weak connection with the Houston trainees and resources. I started by holding monthly professional development workshops. I used resources I had found at Career and Communication symposia and from the office of Faculty and Academic Development (in Houston) to develop a monthly seminar on professional development. Despite the small town atmosphere of the Smithville campus, few of the trainees knew one another. So after each professional development seminar I hosted a social hour at a nearby venue. Some trainees complained about the lack of funding and having to pay for their own dinner. But ultimately, trainee involvement increased tremendously. After just a year, I had an entire team helping me coordinate events, communicating with the Office of Faculty and Academic Affairs, writing proposals for institutional funding, and regularly attending the events. I managed to start ongoing discussions about career exploration, job searching, skills development, and advocacy.

Below are some tips and resources I have found for developing professional development programs on a budget:

  1. Assessing needs of trainees: Each institution has its own unique set of needs shaped by geographical location, size, faculty buy-in, funding levels, and trainee interest. These needs can be best assessed through online and in-person surveys.
  1. In-person workshops: Any institution can host in-person workshops, even without any money to pay for speakers by finding local expert volunteers. Advertising these workshops is critical to attendance and can be achieved by flyers, word of mouth, emails, and social media. Individuals can research a topic, present a talk, and then lead a group discussion. Workshop topics could include negotiation, interviewing, career exploration, networking, and CV/resume writing. For example, Columbia University released a Career Planning Guide that addresses preparing job application materials, building a career network, and gaining work experience.
  1. Social Networking Events: Bringing together graduate students and postdocs to talk about various topics stimulates innovation, motivation, and inspiration. Although the promise of free lunch is a great way to gather trainees, many value the networking opportunities more than the free food. A variety of activities and times will allow more people to get involved. Such events might include luncheons, coffee breaks, dinners, or other social activities (hiking, board games, etc). Institutions with little or no funding can still invite trainees to engage in such events, but require that the trainee cover the necessary expenses.
  1. Existing Resources: There are many physical and online resources available to trainees, yet many trainees are unaware of them.
    1. Institutional Offices: Offices of Student and/or Postdoctoral Affairs, Career/Professional Development, and Faculty and Academic Affairs exist at most large institutions. Unfortunately, institutional offices are often underutilized, mainly because people do not know what they are or what services they offer. Other offices may offer services such as career exploration, transferable skills, CV/resume writing, and trainee health. The best way to find out what a particular institute has to offer is to make an appointment with a person in one of these offices. UCSF’s Office of Postdoctoral Scholars offers career planning resources, information on diversity programs, definitions of postdoc titles, etc. The University of Texas MD Anderson’s Office of Faculty and Academic Development is an example of an institutionally geared resource that offers a wide variety of resources including, but not limited to, health and well being, individual/professional development, communication, and assistance with career exploration. CU Anschutz’s Postdoctoral and Career Development Office features a monthly newsletter, housing information for incoming postdocs, professional development resources via Lynda, and “non-bench” training. The Boston Postdoctoral Association has compiled critical information about careers in industry and relationships formed between members of the PDA and industry companies.
    2. Individual Development Plans: An Individual Development Plan (IDP) is an editable document that assesses and tracks the development of skills, interests, values, and goals. Although the concept of an IDP is hardly new, most trainees see them as a pointless chore. Although IDPs require some time and a great deal of interpersonal interaction (with supervisors, peers, and coworkers), they are well worth the trouble. An IDP will evolve with the trainee and allow him/her the opportunity to explore interests, learn new skills they might have been lacking, and reassess core values. Thus an IDP should be started as early as possible. There are numerous IDPs available including IDPs by Science Careers, The University of Chicago, Yale, Stanford, The University of Wisconsin – Madison, Scripps, and an alternative form of the IDP known as “Mapping Your Professional DNA.”
    3. Your Supervisor: PhD/Postdoc advisors are likely a great source of information on career planning and skills evaluation. Direct supervisors should be consulted when completing an IDP, as they will likely know a great deal about their trainee’s skills, aptitudes, and interests. However, supervisors who are unwilling or unable to discuss non-academic careers need not be the only resources for career planning.
    4. Creating a Mentor Network: Multiple mentors can help trainees cultivate transferable skills, professional connections (outside of academia), and guidance beyond the bench. To create a comprehensive group of mentors that cover all of a trainee’s needs, multiple mentors are needed. In “Eight Types of Mentors: Which Ones Do You Need?”, Dr. Farren provides a detailed framework of the types of mentors each person needs, how to seek out mentors, and ways to verify that your mentors fulfill your needs. The National Research Mentoring Network helps connect people at all stages of their profession with mentors. The University of Chicago has developed the myCHOICE program with NIH BEST funding to aid career and mentor network development.
    5. Career Paths and Exploration: Students and postdocs can find information on numerous career options through the NIH’s Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training website, Cheeky Scientist, The Columbia University Center for Education, and Versatile PhD.
  2. Sustainability: To ensure professional development programs continue after the founding trainees leave the institute, responsibilities must be handed down to “successors,” who are well-suited and willing to take on these duties. For example, months before leaving my postdoc position I began transferring my duties to other postdocs. I handpicked people to do specific jobs based on their aptitude. I selected a new PDA president and vice president, who both attended teleconferences with the Houston PDA before I left. This allowed me to share my vision for the growth of our organization. I also selected a trainee to communicate with our local department and the Office of Faculty and Academic Development. These three trainees worked together to write a proposal for funding of greater professional development resources. Using a Facebook page we created for our self-created MDACC Science Park Trainee Association, I was able to see this group flourish after my departure. The National Postdoctoral Association and the American Society for Cell Biology both provide information on sustaining organizations.
  3. Empowerment: Much like a thesis project, trainees must take the lead on their own professional development. Students and postdocs must stop blaming supervisors, institutions, and circumstances for a supposedly bleak job outlook.
  4. Sharing Successes and Failures: Tracking attendance and efficacy of professional development resources is crucial to gaining support and possibly funding. The names of attendees should be recorded and attendees should be surveyed about the utility, timing, and content of events. This will also allow more strategic planning of future programs. To enhance successful training programs in the future, please share both successes and failures with colleagues (especially those within the National Postdoctoral Association).

To acquire additional funds to help expand existing or newly developed resources, draft a proposal of the desired events, what these set out to accomplish, and how much money each requires. Discuss this proposal with institutional leadership. Even without funding, participants can be attracted by the quality and substance of events. This is particularly true of events that focus on career development rather than socializing.

Motivation and initiative are the cornerstones to progress. So instead of complaining about the lack of resources, think about how new resources can be introduced and developed on a budget.


Acknowledgements: I thank Adriana Bankston for her comments and suggestions.


About the Author:

Holly Hamilton received her PhD in Biomedical Sciences from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX. She then completed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship with The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Science Park, TX. She is classically trained in the arts of repeatedly failing, facing nearly impossible tasks, and challenging the status quo. She is currently volunteering for the Outreach Committee at the National Postdoctoral Association and writing articles to promote improved and sustainable scientific research. To provide feedback, discuss further, or collaborate please contact her at:
Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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