Office Hours With the Education Committee – June 2018

Dear Educator,I’m a trainee at a research university. I like doing research, but I have enjoyed my experiences teaching students in the classroom and the lab even more. I don’t really know what I want to do when I move on from here, but I want to do something that involves education. I’ve been a TA and have guest taught when my advisor was out of town, but I don’t have lots of experience in education. Mostly I’ve just worked in the lab for many years. How is my scientific training useful for a job search in education? How do I figure out what career options are available for someone with my expertise?

Sincerely, Poised for Pedagogy

Dear Poised,

It is great that you are asking these questions! Many trainees are in your position: questioning best next steps to take and what career path to choose. In fact, research on postdocs and their career paths suggest that most students entering graduate school do not have a clear idea of what career options exist.1 An infographic compiled by ASCB and COMPASS, the Committee for Postdocs and Students within ASCB, shows career paths that biology graduate students choose based on data from the 2012 National Institutes of Health Workforce Data Report.2 The career positions include tenure-track and non–tenure track academic positions, industry or government research positions, and non-research science related jobs. Similarly, a recent publication in Nature Biotechnology visualizes postdoctoral employment trends around the world.3

Because you mention that you want to pursue something education-related, an assumption many people make is that education-related careers exist only in academia. While this column will focus primarily on the academic environment, please think broadly about what an education-related career might look like—in the private sector, a nonprofit, a business, or even a consulting firm. Your experience teaching, designing learning experiences, and communicating with a broad range of people will serve you well in “teaching” people about a service provided by an industry or new product development or strategy in business. Please also reflect on the idea that many of the skills you have developed will be broadly transferable to many careers. Sinche and colleagues identified skills that PhDs in various careers reported using in both research-intensive and non-research-intensive careers.4 These skills include being able to innovate, work independently, collaborate, manage projects, learn quickly, and manage time.
One of the first questions you might ask yourself is to what extent you want to continue doing research as part of your professional life, and whether you want the setting to be at an academic institution. Biology Education Research (BER) is a burgeoning field that falls under the umbrella of Discipline Based Education Research (DBER),5 with the research focus on classrooms and how students learn biology. There are many possibilities for careers after training in BER in academia, including tenure-track biology faculty conducting DBER, professor of practice/lecturer, faculty developer in a campus Center for Teaching and Learning, director or coordinator of a STEM education program, or science education research analyst. A recent essay in CBE—Life Sciences Education describes these careers in more detail, along with how training in BER can contribute to these careers, although research is not necessarily a part of each of the career paths.6 If you are interested in conducting education research and the college or university setting is not a requirement for you, nonprofit education research organizations may be a good fit for you. In some cases, these organizations are evaluating education programs that are implemented at various sites (including K–12 schools).

If you are interested in positions that do not involve education research, teaching at other institution types, such as at a community college or in a science museum, may be of interest. Do some homework by exploring your favorite job posting website for keywords that encompass your interests. For instance, there are biotech companies that develop products for education purposes (one example is kits for K–12 teachers), so you might find curriculum development or educational partnership jobs.

Another element to consider when you are identifying next steps is how to get the experience you need to land the job. A recent study of an internship program for graduate students in biomedical sciences showed that participants had an increase in their confidence to pursue a career track.7 Look into possibilities for internships or part-time positions that will give a preview of what that particular career path might be like. Perhaps with the successful implementation of programs at the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of California, Davis, by Schnoes and colleagues, other institutions will make internship programs available to graduate students and postdocs. Another option you might consider is a postdoctoral opportunity like an Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award. A number of institutions around the country have support to increase postdoctoral training in pedagogy as well as research and balancing the two. Take advantage of the resources available at your current institution to best prepare yourself for the next step, and good luck with whatever direction you choose for your
next step!

The Education Committee

1Gibbs KD, McGready J, Griffin K (2015). Career development among American biomedical postdocs. CBE—Life Sciences Education 14, ar44.
2Polka J (April 11, 2014). Where will a biology PhD take you? (infographic).
3Xu H, Gilliam RS, Peddada SD, Buchold GM, Collins TR (2018). Visualizing detailed postdoctoral employment trends using a new career outcome taxonomy. Nature Biotechnology 36, 197.
4Sinche M, Layton RL, Brandt PD, O’Connell AB, Hall JD, Freeman AM, et al. (2017). An evidence-based evaluation of transferrable skills and job satisfaction for science PhDs. PLoS ONE 12, e0185023.
5National Research Council (2012). Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering. (SR Singer, NR Nielsen, HA Schweingruber, Eds.). The National Academies Press.
6Aikens ML, Corwin LA, Andrews TC, Couch BA, Eddy SL, McDonnell L, Trujillo G (2016). A guide for graduate students interested in postdoctoral positions in biology education research. CBE—Life Sciences Education 15, es10.
7Schnoes AM et al. (2018). Internship experiences contribute to confident career decision making for doctoral students in the life sciences. CBE—Life Sciences Education 17, ar16.

About the Author:

EdComm is the short name for ASCB’s Education Committee.

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