Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Paper Presented at Education Conference

Hi everyone, here is the paper I presented today at CICE. Since it is in the proceedings and people have taken photos of my presentation, I will make it available here. Enjoy!

Innovative Integration of Professional Development into the Curriculum for Bioscience Graduate Students

Nana Lee and Reinhart Reithmeier
Department of Biochemistry, University of Toronto, Canada


To accommodate the changing career and professional skills required for graduate students in the current and future employment market, we are implementing an innovative approach to graduate education at the University of Toronto. With the increasing production of graduate students and severe competition for academic research funding, an increasing pool of PhD students are leading roles in business, finance, social programs, government, start-ups, education and other areas outside the traditional academia. We propose a much needed supplement in the curriculum of higher education to help train the future scientific leaders both in and out of academia. The graduate professional development course trains the graduate student in areas of communication, leadership, taking initiative, problem-solving, creative ways in serving the world with their science and passion, thinking “outside the box,” mentorship, ethics, achieving and developing a successful academic or nonacademic career while integrating family and outside interests.

1. Introduction

     University higher education was established to train and cultivate new university professors. A national survey of over 4,000 doctorate students showed that today’s doctoral programs show a “mismatch between student goals, training and actual careers” [1]. Current surveys have shown that more bioscience graduate students choose nonacademic careers, due to fierce competition for academic positions or other reasons. According to Helm et al [2], four types of graduate students emerge from doctoral programs: 1) those pursuing academic careers who eventually acquire such positions, 2) those who prefer to teach versus research and acquire positions in community colleges, 3) those whose first choice is academia, but are unable to do so and are forced to seek nonacademic positions, 4) those who choose a nonacademic career altogether. The current rate of PhD production has increased to a “surplus” [3, 4], and new PhDs must work in nonacademic positions where other skills besides research are just as important.
     Employers seek out skills such as communications, leadership, administration, interpersonal skills, and technology skills [5]. Other skills include creativity, initiative, maintaining life balance and wellness, networking, and mentorship. Academic curriculum are misaligned with the PhD student’s career options and intentions and restructuring graduate education has been proposed since 2000 [5]. Professors are apt to mentor and advise with academic issues but most are not aware of the nonacademic directions available to students. Graduate students are left finding their own guidance through student-run career organizations, societies, and websites.
     Higher education administration has the responsibility to guide its graduate students throughout their career development, whether it may be academia or not. Tools, resources and skills should be made available from the first year of graduate school, and throughout their graduate experience as studies have shown shifts in career trajectories through time [2]. We are proposing a pilot course at the University of Toronto to all Biochemistry graduate students so they are aware of career development options and skills to be acquired during their graduate studies, outside the realm of scientific experiments. We hope that such changes in the curriculum will better prepare the graduate student in pursuing a rewarding and satisfying career during and after their academic studies. We also hope that with the acquired career transitions skills, students can apply them throughout their early, mid, and later years as a scientist. We envision this course to serve as the foundation in a long-term goal of establishing a collaborative program within the university to serve the need for career development and leadership skills for graduate students.

2. Body of Knowledge

     Current career development workshops for bioscience graduate students are student-run organizations (Life Science Career Development Society), but they do not reach all students, and most students do not think career development is a priority early in their graduate studies. Mentoring programs do exist (Life Sciences Ontario,) but at the financial expense of the student. Organizations such as MITACS also provide industrial fellowships that match companies with PhDs and postdoctoral fellows; however, not all applicants receive a position. Although career centers do provide excellent workshops, they are mostly marketed and geared towards undergraduates. The pursuit of career development in graduate school is sometimes discouraged as running another experiment to publish is deemed as more important.
     Through recent career symposiums and discussions with life science graduate students at the University of Toronto, not many had a mentor outside of academia and “soft’ skills had not been sought after and developed throughout their graduate career. Many were not aware of the nonacademic career options available. Some were not aware of the importance of LinkedIn and social media networking. Skills such as oral and written communications, finding the hidden job market, finding appropriate career mentors, leadership, conflict negotiation, client relations, and life balance need to be integrated with the academic curriculum to ensure the success of our trained students. The curriculum must also include career and life development skills as career paths change with marriage, family, aging parents, and outside interests. Women scientists, in particular, should be provided with the resources available with maternity leave options and the fellowships available upon their return (CIHR, NSERC.) They must be given the options and tools required to re-enter the system after childbirth and childrearing.
     Helm et al [2] proposed nine recommendations for graduate student administrators which are briefly summarized here: 1) provide tailored career services through departmental collaborations, 2) offer programs so students can explore nonacademic career options, 3) encourage internships and job shadowing, 4) assess PhD programs for all types of careers so students develop in teaching, research, service and outreach, 5) expose students to different career paths via alumni, 6) help students understand the range of roles they will have as faculty and range of institutions available for employment, 7) provide professional development workshops, 8) adapt faculty awareness so that advisors can support student’s career path regardless of their choice, 9) develop a PhD database to track career pathways to provide faculty and students a realistic picture of the PhD job market. A program at U of Toronto which can address these and the previously mentioned recommendations can provide bioscience graduate students career guidance during their studies (early, intermediate, and later) and alumni with career transition services through websites, forums, discussion groups, and one-on-one consults.
      With the career transition skills acquired through the proposed course and continued career consulting, the graduated scientist can use these throughout her/his career, as the science career outside academia is usually dynamic and changes every few years. Mid-life scientists also undergo career changes as companies restructure with economic and science-based transitions within the biotechnology market. As retirement age approaches, most scientists from academia and industry, still desire to contribute. Career transitions skills are also needed in finding ways to maintain scientific connections with roles such as publishing books, establishing non-profits, board memberships, fundraising, continual mentorship, and outreach programs. These early, mid and later life career changes are very individualized, but the acquisition of career transition skills will certainly help with each experience.
     Other graduate departments at UCSD, USC, Michigan State, NCSU offer a graduate student career development and leadership program, led by a faculty director. The long-term goal at U of Toronto is to establish a similar program in conjunction with Career Services, Student Life, Continuing Studies (Mentoring,) OISE, Institute of Wellness, Life Science Career Development Society, U of Toronto Postdoctoral Association, School of Graduate Studies, Faculty of Medicine and partner with corporate sponsorships which fund leadership programs in higher education. The proposed pilot course will provide preliminary feedback to establish a long-term goal of such an innovative program at the University of Toronto.

3. Conclusion

     To meet the need for more graduate students choosing nonacademic careers, we are establishing a graduate level course focused on cultivating the professional development skills required to succeed during and beyond graduate school education in the biosciences. It is offered to all entering graduate students and strongly recommended for current MSc, PhD students and postdoctoral fellows. Interactive lectures will include expert lecturers and classroom discussions regarding the practical aspects of succeeding in graduate school, choosing and training as a postdoctoral fellow, integrating family commitments, career options in and out of academia, career transitions, internships, and developing strong communication skills. Topics to discuss include effective networking, best methods of searching for and landing the job, management of start-up biotech companies, global scientific issues, bioethics, outreach, clinical applications, social implications, maintaining career development, finding a mentor, and the importance of clear communication with mentors. Students will develop skills in writing proposals for scientists and the general public. Students will also develop skills in oral communication through actual networking and presentations in class. Most classes will be followed by a question and answer period with guest speakers from various industries and careers such as those from Patent Law, Biotech Toronto, Career Centre, Office of Research Ethics, Management Consulting, Science Writing, Health Policy Management Evaluation, Public Health, MaRs, OICR, Government, Non-Profit Organizations, Education and World Issues. Included with the class is personalized career consulting for each student, specific to each individual’s career and life goals.
     We envision that the pilot course will grow so that all bioscience graduate students at the University of Toronto will be trained with these skills and tools in the near future. We also hope to develop a collaborative career and leadership program to provide an innovative and much needed service to all current graduate students and alumni bioscientists from the Faculty of Medicine. Another long-term goal includes a creation of a national network with all graduate departments in Canadian universities to share mentors, internship opportunities, alumni experiences and other career development programs.

4. References

[1] Golde, C.M. and Dore, T.M. “At Cross Purposes: What the Experiences of Today’s Doctoral Students Reveal About Doctoral Education.” Pew Charitable Trusts. 2001.

[2]  Matt Helm, Henry Campa, III, and Kristin Moretto. “Professional Socialization for the PhD: An Exploration of Career and Professional Development Preparedness and Readiness for PhD Candidates” Journal of Faculty Development. Vol. 26, No. 2, May 2012. 5-23.

[3] “Doctoral Degrees The Disposable Academic: Why Doing a PhD is Often a Waste of Time, Dec 16, 2010. The Economist.

[4] David Cyranoski, Natasha Gilbert, Hedi Ledford, Anjali Nayar, Mohammed Yahia. “The World is Producing more PhDs than ever Before. Is it Time to Stop?” Nature. 20 472, 276-279, April 2011.

 [5] Jody Nyquist and Donald H. Wulff. “Envisioning the PhD: Recommendations from National Studies on Doctoral Education.” 2000.  


  1. We also hope to develop a collaborative career and leadership program to provide an innovative and much needed service to all current graduate students and alumni bioscientists from the Faculty of Medicine.

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