Coming to a Department Near You: Ph.D. Survival Skills Training

The term "survival skills" calls to mind movies like G.I. Jane or the kind of woodsy team-building exercises that corporations have been buying into of late. You know the program: squads of paunchy execs running through a Marine Corps training regimen; people who normally wear business suits swinging from ropes in a jungle setting or learning which berries and mushrooms make a healthy breakfast. These images must seem far removed from the lab world and the day-to-day existence of grad students and postdocs. But they're not. I returned recently from wilds of Vail, Colorado, after participating in the sixth annual running of an intensive course entitled "Teaching Survival Skills and Ethics." And this particular survival-skills course might soon be influencing the way you are taught, right at your own institution.

Don't worry, you won't be learning how to capture trout in the local waterway using your bare hands, and you won't be told how to construct a bivouac in the lab for the next time your experiments run into the night. Instead, the survival skills that you will hear about through this program include job searching, speaking skills, grant writing, and other practical information you'll need to make it out of your current graduate degree program or postdoc position.

This course was originally developed at the University of Pittsburgh under the auspices of Michael Zigmond (professor of neurosciences) and his colleague Beth Fischer. It is based on a curriculum for graduate students that Zigmond and Fischer have been developing there over the past 15 years. About 6 years ago, they began to disseminate their educational model to other institutions via these annual train-the-trainers workshops. To date they have trained over 100 faculty members, the great majority of whom have returned to their home institutions to implement a course in survival skills or ethics or both. The workshop is supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, although participation is by no means restricted to individuals working in this discipline.

The Major Survival Skills

The workshop highlighted many of the survival skills that are required for success in any career, and I found myself enjoying the flow of the topics. We discussed scientific ethics and learned about the varying perspectives of the best minds in this area from Howard Schachman (University of California, Berkeley, and National Institutes of Health Ombudsman for the Basic Sciences), who gave a delightful keynote address. The next day, we covered the topics of oral communication and presentation skills in great detail, as well as the critical subject of grantspersonship. (What more important survival skill is there for a career in academia?) We also explored new concepts in creativity training; participated in how-to workshops on networking, mentoring, and supervising; and took a minicourse on developing technical writing skills.

Although I can't focus on each of these topics in this short column, I'm sure you'll agree that these skills are critical to scientific careers in academia, industry, or even outside of research altogether. But most successful people don't just pick these skills up; they are taught to them just as they learn or are taught all sorts of other skills and techniques. That is the purpose of the Survival Skills workshop, and it really dovetails nicely with Next Wave, which has published excellent articles on many of these topics.

The "Jobs" Section of Survival Skills

It is the organizers' belief that most faculty members have little, if any, experience outside of academia, and so another major focus of the conference is to provide participants with practical information on the range of careers available to their students. Given the broad range of opportunities, one of the key skills that scientists need to survive is the ability to seek out and land the job that is best for them. It was from this angle that I was asked to give a presentation on jobs in biotechnology, including information such as what sort of jobs are available, how to find those jobs, what biotech employers look for when hiring, what activities these jobs entail, and so on. In addition, there were a number of other speakers from industry who participated in this session and then stayed throughout the conference to network.

Three years ago I gave a presentation at the same conference and made a blunder that I will never forget. I stood in front of a group of 40 attendees from prestigious academic institutions all over the world and introduced myself as the "fellow whose job it is to take your graduate students and postdocs and introduce them to the real world."

Oops! Fell flat. Real flat. In fact, I spent the next 15 minutes digging myself back out of that hole with my audience, who had no idea that they weren't a part of the real world. Today, I use this story to reinforce how important it is to consider the viewpoint of the audience before stepping up to the podium.

This year, my talk centered on the differences between the rules that drive science in the "real world" of academia versus the "parallel universe" of industry. Most fundamentally, the maxim in academia that "Good science will always sell itself" is given in industry as "Good science has to be sold." And whether you like it or not, one of the major survival skills you'll need to make the academia-to-industry transition is an understanding of this small but oh-so-important piece of philosophy. It affects the way you write your CV, the way you interview, and the way you ask your boss for a raise. Products and ideas are sold daily in this parallel universe.

The fellow giving the next talk, Dick Woodward, reinforced the same concept. Woodward is a well-known consultant to the biotechnology industry (see Dick's Tooling Up column linked below), and his presentation entitled "Small Companies and Other Weird Things You Can Do With a Graduate Degree" focused on the breadth of job possibilities in smaller biotechnology companies. This contrasted with the comments of Jillian Evans, director of pharmacology at Merck, who spoke about scientific life in a large corporation. Here are some of the points the two speakers made about the two types of companies:

Small Companies:

  • Often difficult to publish

  • Tremendous cross-discipline pollination on project teams

  • Requires risk tolerance

  • High visibility in the organization

  • Lots of autonomy and influence on the company

  • Little bureaucracy and hierarchy

  • Room for rapid growth

  • Easy access to nontraditional career choices

Large Companies:

  • Publishing is encouraged and positively affects your career

  • Much more department centered

  • Very little risk of instability

  • Visibility in the department as opposed to the company

  • Less autonomy and more bureaucracy

  • Big mergers require melding of corporate cultures

My big surprise when listening to these two speakers was that although Peter Fiske and I have often focused on the differences between industry and academia in our "Tooling Up" columns, Evans spent quite some time discussing the fact that there are more similarities, particularly in the large company setting. I hope we can discuss these similarities more extensively in a future Tooling Up column, but in the meantime, I expect that the whole "academia-versus-industry" conversation will continue to unfold elsewhere in Next Wave.

Future Resources at Your Institution

Zigmond and Fischer taught each section by discussing a general framework of the problem area (for example, goal setting and time management) and then providing a speaker with personal knowledge of the matter at hand. They have also put together an extensive bibliography and reference section on each of the topics covered in the workshop; this bibliography is available at the Survival Skills home page.

Because this is a "train-the-trainers" meeting and not an open conference, attendance is restricted to those who pledge to set up a course to teach the same material within a year of participating in the workshop. So whether you attend personally or not, I can assure you that you will be hearing more about "Survival Skills" training as previous attendees propagate the lessons of the workshop at their home institutions. Individuals from many of the best universities in the United States have already been through the workshop; Canada and Australia have been represented as well.

If you are interested in following up on this and possibly participating in onsite courses of this nature, contact the University of Pittsburgh to see who from your institution has participated. She or he may very well be developing your university's very own course on "Survival Skills and Ethics" for scientists.

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