The Ins and Outs of University Career Days

"Career Day" is a growing phenomenon in some of today's better universities. In the past, advisers and department chairs have acknowledged only the pure route of an independent academic career. Those students who went off into industry or other alternative career channels seemed to have somehow fallen off the edge and into a ravine. Although their names would come up from time to time, most would agree that these few were certainly "tainted" by their choice of career. As you know from reading Next Wave, this is changing.

Now that the discussion about job futures for grad students and postdocs is reaching a fever pitch, many institutions are supporting open discussion on campus about the various career options available to scientists. Some of these Career Days are sponsored by individual department heads who have found a few extra dollars in some slush fund. Others are sponsored by graduate student associations or postdoc associations, who have grant money given to them for such a purpose by the university.

I've attended a number of these events in the last year and have also recommended several speakers from industry. I went into these believing that we would be working with the local graduate advisers and department heads, doing some mini-career counseling: interview tips, résumé preparation advice, etc.--in short, the kind of information any professional needs prior to an important transition. But I had a few surprises!

A Lack of Interest

I noticed immediately that very few--if any--faculty members could be found at these sessions. I had come into this thinking that with all the talk about the "glut" of scientists in the job market, these mentors would want to hear from the panels about alternative career opportunities. (After all, these are graduate advisers.) Most of the speakers and panelists from industry that I have spoken with were equally surprised. Perhaps much of the talk about alternative careers is still lip service for many life sciences department heads. My guess, though, is that these kinds of events are often seen as more of a way to placate the grad student and postdoc community. (Many professors just don't see the need--yet--to provide any kind of training for the "life" part of the "life sciences." Career Days are just the tip of a change that I think will benefit everyone.)

Because of a lack of career consulting available on campus, the events I have attended in the last year have been focusing on relatively basic information (including many of the topics that Peter and I write about in the Tooling Up columns). Each of these sessions has been well worth attending for the students, who consistently show up in greater numbers than the planners anticipate.

The Structure of the University Career Day

Although career days like this have been held for many years, they have been a very scattered phenomenon. These days, a formula appears to be developing for what makes a successful event. Here is a typical agenda:

8:30 a.m.

Career Day begins with a coffee and donuts reception, allowing students and speakers to mingle and get acquainted. This is followed by a brief introduction to the day's activities by the department head or graduate student who championed the project.

9:15 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.

Keynote presentation by an industry or government luminary: perhaps a local CEO of a biotech company or an alumnus who has gone on to fame in an alternative career path.

10:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

Short Q & A session leading into a coffee break

10:30 a.m. to noon

All panelists give short presentations (10 to 15 minutes each) on their personal career development. Speakers usually include a patent attorney, science writer, government scientist (FDA, USDA, etc.), biotechnology research manager, science education or public policy specialist, technology licensing manager, consultant, etc. Many of them are alumni.

Noon to 1:30 p.m.

Box lunch provided to all in an atmosphere designed to promote one-on-one conversations with the panelists.

1:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Panelists form small groups of three or four each and have extended question-and-answer periods. There are usually three of these breakout sessions concurrently, which means that attendees can visit the two of most interest.

4:30 to 5:30 p.m.

The entire group meets once again for a workshop on "Job Search Basics."

5:30 p.m.

Reception follows, once again promoting one-on-one interaction between the students and the speakers and panelists. Generally, the committee that organized the event takes the panelists and speakers out to dinner for a more formal "thank you."

Tips for Organizing a Career Day Event

Here are a few issues to consider if you decide to play an active role in planning one of these events:

Funding: Many Career Day events are sponsored by the university, often petitioned by department heads or grad student associations for special funds earmarked for educational purposes of this sort. Other sources include local biotechnology centers (many larger cities and/or universities have a biotech center for tech transfer or for starting "seed" companies) and larger biotech or pharmaceutical companies in the local area (try the Human Resources department!). In addition, supplier companies that sell instruments or reagents will often contribute and ask only for a small table or booth to show off some new wares.

Organization: Everyone I have spoken with says to get the buy-in from as many faculty members in biology, chemistry, and engineering as possible and as soon as you can. It is essential to have them on your side to promote the event, to suggest panelists, and to be committee members. Don Ball, who organized a very successful event at Virginia Tech last year, reminded me that these faculty members are critical to the proper marketing of your event. Done correctly, each one is a part of the selling process in making your event successful.

Finding Your Panelists: This is often not as difficult or as expensive as you would imagine. Make a list of each of the alternative career areas you wish to have represented and have each committee member suggest alumni or others whom they know who work in those fields. If you run into trouble, start asking others, even outside of the university, and you will come up with a long list of initial contacts. Check out the bios that have appeared in Next Wave for ideas as well. Many times these people will be coming from out of town and will require expense reimbursement. But don't assume this, because some of them may be able to tie your meeting in with other business on behalf of their companies. Moreover, many employers are willing to underwrite the costs of travel for a good cause of this sort.

A Brighter Future for "Life" Training

For several years, Dr. Michael Zigmond and Beth Fischer, of the University of Pittsburgh, have been conducting workshops and seminars for real-life "Survival Skills." Their fourth annual workshop is to be held this summer in Colorado, and it targets department heads and graduate advisers from universities around the country. In these sessions, Zigmond, Fischer, and staff will provide many schools for the first time with instructions and tools to implement programs like the Career Days above. Brighter times for training regarding alternative careers for scientists may be just around the corner!

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