9 thoughts on “What is one way to implement a program, at any level, that provides the professional skills development that lead to multiple career pathways for U.S. STEM graduate students?

  1. At the graduate level:

    The Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Graduate Research and Education at the University of Tennessee partners with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to offer an Energy Science and Engineering (ESE) doctoral program (http://bredesencenter.utk.edu/index.php) for students interested in completing a degree that offers more than just a deep science background. This fellowship program was created with funds from the state, and uses those funds to initially support students recruited from any and all STEM fields from around the country (for approximately 12-18 months). This creates a department with graduate students from chemistry, physics, math, environmental sciences, biology, etc; all with an interest in energy. Those students are then encouraged to apply for outside support, either from partners at the lab, or national fellowship programs (GRFP, NDSEG, EPA STAR, etc). While in the program, students create their own class schedule and, in addition to their science curriculum and research, pursue a ‘knowledge breadth’ curriculum in either entrepreneurship or policy. This program has already shown to promote professional skill development in areas of interdisciplinary communication and research collaboration as well as open doorways to career paths in government, industry, as well as academia.


  2. Sometimes I think we would be better off if there were two different PhD “tracks”, an academic PhD and a professional PhD. The professional PhD would offer more training in professional skills and would include more instructors with industry experience. It would also be shorter, no more than 4 years, since one of the things that budding professionals need most is the opportunity to devote most of their young adulthood to getting job experience and climbing the career latter, not doing endless schooling. The academic PhD would be extremely competitive to get into, like getting into medical school, and would produce only as many graduates as academia has jobs for. That way, each person who gets in would know that they have a secure academic career ahead of them (unlike the current state of affairs in which so many PhD holders spend decades of their adulthood desperately working to hang on to a scientific career that is never really secure).

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  3. I like the idea of Anonymous Dec 20!

    Another idea I like is for professors to encourage their students to spend one summer or semester pursuing a non-academic internship-like experience, such as science reporting for students interested in science communication. This would ease the transition into non-academic careers for students who desire those.

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  4. How about a 2 week course with trainees and experts from all over the US that focus on teaching these skills? This could be similar to what EMBO runs for postdocs or young PI’s to learn how to manage a lab, but focus on a broad range of skills useful in all careers.

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  5. I think that first thing that graduate students should be introduced to is people who have gone into all different types of career paths. As a first year graduate student I knew I could go into academics or industry and that was it. It wasn’t until I went to my first big conference and listened to some of the career talks there that I really started to realize all the different paths I could take. Providing that information is the first step. The second step is to have universities offer professional development classes, which start to educate students on what skills they need and what they need to be able to do once they receive their PhD

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  6. A lot of universities – especially the large campuses – offer lots of professional development opportunities/classes. However, at least in my program, many of the graduate students feel that they can’t get away from the lab long enough to attend a 6-week course on teaching or a half-day workshop on interviewing/CV writing/negotiating/etc. The resources are out there but the change needs to be one of cultural, of making it allowable and encouraged for students to seek that training instead of being “chained to the bench” so to speak.

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    • Hannah, I can’t agree with you more! I’m on a large campus where resources specifically targeted to the professional development of graduate students are available and becoming more and more plentiful each year. Unfortunately, graduate students in my program either a) feel guilty being away at a four-hour workshop in the middle of the day, even if it’s only once or b) don’t see the value in these resources! Even free food can’t lure these students away from the bench!

      In my 4+ years as a graduate student, the only time I can recall being told by a faculty member that developing “soft skills” was important was during a departmental orientation in my first year. Even then, the message was that these were skills that we would naturally pick up through teaching, research, group meetings, and having to write papers.

      Universities can create all of the resources and opportunities for graduate students that they want, but until students are encouraged (or required) by their department or major professors to take advantage of these resources, nothing is going to change. At least in my department, I think that the biggest change needs to be a cultural one.

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  7. The variety of career options available today demands a diverse array of skills. The postdoctoral experience will be more relevant to career and professional development if the scholar seeks or is offered opportunities to acquire, maintain, or improve such skills.
    The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) has established six core competencies to offer guidance to individual postdoctoral scholars who must seek out relevant training experiences, in collaboration with mentors, institutions, and other advisors who provide this training.

    The six core competencies are:

    1. Discipline-specific conceptual knowledge
    2. Research skill development
    3. Communication skills
    4. Professionalism
    5. Leadership and management skills
    6. Responsible conduct of research

    For more details on these competencies see – http://www.nationalpostdoc.org/publications-5/competencies

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  8. At Emory we have been fortunate to receive an NIH BEST (Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training) grant in collaboration with GA Tech. We’ve developed a two year program for graduate students and post docs. In year one, the trainees explore career options broadly. In year two, trainees focus on a particular career area and participate in some sort of internship in their career area of interest. We try to limit the number of required activities to 1-2 hours per week. Faculty mentor (PI) support is required. PIs must write letters of support on behalf of students. Culture change amongst the faculty is really important. We’re hoping that PIs that support students who want to pursue professional development opportunities will be rewarded by having more students wanting to work in their labs. More information can be found here:
    Here is a magazine about the program prepared by the trainees: http://issuu.com/atlantabest/docs/best_magazine_issue_2_11-17-2014

    While this program focuses on Biomedical Sciences, it has broad appeal to our students in all STEM disciplines. Some of the events are open to all graduate students and post docs.

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