Supplemental Funding Pays: Non-Academic Careers Class at UT-Knoxville

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!”

Although the department of biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology (BCMB) at University of Tennessee, Knoxville, already had a well-established seminar series to introduce students to non-academic careers, conversation among faculty often revolved around how to do better prepare students for the workforce. Then, a panelist who’d recently served on an NSF merit review panel told Dr. Maitreyi Das, about supplemental funding offered by MCB. Dr. Das applied for the funding and used it to supplement the seminar series with intensive coursework. The MCB blog interviewed Dr. Das to learn more about the experience. Excerpts from that interview are posted below. What did you want to change about the seminar series? The previous seminar series (which the department plans to continue) invited a minimum of two speakers per semester to talk about their career paths. We focused on speakers whose PhDs have found success in non-traditional ways. However, attendance was optional; and neither students nor faculty seemed to be benefitting from the opportunity as much as expected. What was different about the course? Unlike the seminar series, which was optional, we required graduate students enrolled in the department’s PhD program to attend. We also required students to write an Individual Development Plan (IDP). Although this was much more difficult for them than we anticipated, there were several benefits: the exercise helped faculty understand that we have so much more work to do in helping students think about career development. Next, the IDP exercise helped both students and faculty become much more adept at identifying their strengths. Perhaps the biggest benefit was that interactions between students, speakers, and faculty increased faculty conversations and the will to do more to help students. It helped change department culture. Can you give us more details about the course? The course was named “Oh! The Places You’ll Go…with a PhD in Science!” It consisted of discussion and reading regarding each career track ahead of a visit and seminar by a selected speaker. Students then met in an open forum with each expert to discuss the speaker’s career track, life events that led to their decision to pursue particular expertise, as well as the logistics of how each got their start in their non-academic specialty. Apart from the valuable information that the students gathered, they also had the opportunity to network with the speakers. In the majority of instances, the speakers expressed enthusiasm for this effort and several even extended invitations to internships to interested students. In addition to these exercises, my colleagues [professors] Dan Roberts and Gladys Alexandre worked with the students on the development of their “soft” skills and provided tools to plan and prepare for the career of their choice. Topics discussed included developing and maintaining an individual development plan for goal setting and career planning, mentoring and networking, crafting an elevator pitch, postdoctoral training strategies in various settings and the need to assess whether a postdoc is required for a career. The students also engaged in group activities where they role-played various career tracks. What’s next? 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, and expect this course to become integrated into our Ph.D. training program. Final thoughts? Let’s not limit our students to academia! This program is helping us to send scientists into the mainstream – let’s help our best people!

A few of the nearly 50 students enrolled in “Oh! The Places You’ll Go…with a PhD in Science pose with Dr. Das. Front, left to right: Udodirim Onwubiko, Brian Hercyk, Rosela Golloshi, Debalina Acharya. Back, left to right: Julie Rich, Dr. Maitreyi Das, Daniel DeGennaro, Kathleen King

 

 

 

 

 

 

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