Although the Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology (BCMB) at University of Tennessee, Knoxville, already had a well-established seminar series on career development, many faculty conversations revolved around how to introduce students to non-academic careers. The answer came in the form of a course named “Oh! The Places You’ll Go…with a PhD in Science.” Using a supplemental funding award (MCB 1616495), Dr. Maitreyi Das reimagined the seminar series.
“Oh! The Places You’ll Go…” built on the seminars by adding speakers from diverse career tracks and requiring students to prepare for each speaker through assigned reading, research on the speaker’s career field, and classroom discussion. After each seminar, students met with the speaker in an open forum to discuss the speaker’s career track, life events that led to the decision to pursue a particular expertise, and the logistics of transitioning to their non-academic specialty. The class also included segments on developing “soft skills,” led by Department Head Dr. Dan Roberts and Associate Department Head Dr. Gladys Alexandre. Skills developed included crafting an elevator pitch, assessing the need for and type of postdoctoral training, and interviewing skills.
Perhaps the most valuable change was requiring students to write an Individual Development Plan (IDP), says Dr. Das. Although the assignment was much more difficult for the students than initially anticipated, the exercise helped faculty realize that students did not know how to think about career development. The exercise helped students and faculty alike identify their respective strengths. The biggest benefit was that interactions between students, speakers, and faculty strengthened faculty commitment to helping students develop a career path. “It helped change department culture,” Dr. Das says.
“We expect this experience to provide a long-lasting impact on the ability of our departmental faculty to support and guide graduate students who wish to pursue different careers after their PhD,” says Dr. Das. “We also expect this course to become integrated into our Ph.D. training program. This program is helping students prepare for career paths they did not realize were available – let’s help our best people!”