Synergy of Science and Career Development

How can we help cell biology students follow career paths that are right for them? When I ask students what they want to do with their PhD, I get a range of answers including industry, academia, science communication, government/policy, and others. Regardless of the answer, it’s possible, or even likely, this will change over the course of a graduate career. To help my own students navigate this terrain and ensure that I’m putting my efforts toward their current professional goals, my lab has a biannual career development meeting to reassess where each student thinks he or she currently stands. After identifying firm goals, our next step is to further explore those career options to see if a student’s goals are really aligned with his or her interests and develop skills to help the student be competitive for those career options.

Career Development Week
One of the most effective ways I’ve found for this exploration is to have one week set aside each year for all lab members to focus on career development. During our career development week, I typically provide a long list of career development opportunities and activities. To encourage all lab members to participate, I assign points for these activities and give away prizes for students who score the highest.

What kinds of activities are on this list? Some are baseline activities that are generally good for visibility regardless of career path. I encourage lab members to be in control of their own narrative by putting up what they want potential employers to see in an online search. This might include creating a website, joining Twitter, getting an ORCID, or making a Google Scholar profile.

Other activities might focus on written communication (e.g., form a peer writing group), oral communication (e.g., prepare an elevator pitch to be used at conferences and at visiting speaker lunches), time management (e.g., block off a fixed amount of time for daily writing/thinking or try the Pomodoro Technique for focused progress), or career exploration (e.g., conduct informational interviews or use Interactive Simulation Exercises for Career Transitions1).

During the week, students decide which activities to participate in, complete their chosen tasks, and record their progress along with their thoughts about the utility of the exercise. At the end of the week, we have a lab meeting where points are assigned for each activity, scores tallied, and prizes awarded. The point values of the various tasks are not announced beforehand so that the resourceful lab member can’t game the system by participating only in high-scoring activities. I tend to assign higher points to tasks that have disproportionate value or require students to step outside their comfort zones.

Career Development Activities Directly Benefit Research
For both students and their advisors, it’s easy to put career development efforts on the back burner. Time spent on these things can feel like time lost from research. But those concerns are shortsighted. First, it’s advisors’ responsibility to help students identify and explore career options right for them so they can align their skillsets and be competitive for those jobs. Also, many activities directly benefit one’s research efforts. For example, any development of communication skills (whether written or oral) can help students effectively convey their science. This can improve manuscript writing, fellowship applications, oral presentations, and beyond. Also, improvements in these skills are often accompanied by a boost in confidence and willingness to engage others in scientific discussion.

Second, by articulating the goal, the actions of the advisor and the student can be better aligned with less friction. Further, it’s easier to make progress toward defined goals that are more concrete than the nebulous quest to eventually finish a PhD.

Lastly, career anxiety is a reality for most people. Reducing the stress of that uncertainty can improve a person’s wellbeing so he or she is not preoccupied with existential dread. Indeed, at the end of our career development week, all of our lab members seem refreshed and have a renewed commitment to their research.

I think we should want to pursue activities that empower students even if we didn’t see these side benefits. However, clearly seeing a net gain in enthusiasm and productivity might persuade the reluctant to set aside research time for career development.

Students Devise Their Own Career Development Strategies
After several years of doing this activity, I particularly appreciate the ideas students come up with on their own beyond the offered list. Some students have talents that have been under-utilized or have their own contacts they may be inspired to finally connect with. Some of my students signed up to be pen pals with kids in a middle school science class. Communication skills developed from this activity might be exactly what is needed for the lab to effectively engage broad audiences at large meetings. This activity could also help lab members explain the significance of their work in fellowship applications.

Importantly, career development week stimulated out-of-the-box strategies. One student decided not to shave until a draft of his manuscript was finished, which he said truly motivated him to keep pushing. I’ve written about the experience of our career development weeks to date.2,3,4 In addition to career exploration, several students participated in outreach and advocacy activities such as overhauling the STEM week activities at their child’s school and joining the Coalition for the Life Sciences to advocate government policies supporting the biomedical sciences.

My graduate students Brittany Jack and Brae Bigge summed up one career development week this way:

By focusing on career development this week, I was alerted to what I was already doing to advance my career and how much more I could be doing to advance my career. The most valuable part of taking the time to focus on career development is that we are reminded what our goals are and why we are doing everything we are doing. Sometimes, the overall goal gets lost in the day-to-day activities and I am refreshed when I take the time to think about 10 years down the road. What does that look like? How can I make an impact now on what happens 10 years from now?

—Brittany Jack

While everything we do in graduate school is supposed to help prepare us for our future career goals, many times we get so caught up in the little things that we forget the bigger goal that we’re working toward. This week gave me the opportunity to step back and remember why I’m doing all of this. I got to work on my website and CV, explore potential career options that I hadn’t previously thought of, and start some reading/writing/idea generating habits that I hope stick!

—Brae Bigge

So if you want to help your students find their own path to success toward their chosen career goals, all while lighting the fire of purpose, I highly recommend starting your own career development week!


About the Author:

Prachee Avasthi is an Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College. Twitter: @PracheeAC