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Taking the Mystery out of 'Alternative' Careers: UAB's Student-Run Industry Roundtable

The face of science today is changing. Research skills are still valuable to those in academia and industry, but they're also ever more important in business, government, law, and many other disciplines. And with products, profit, and patents at stake, there is a growing need for people who are able to bridge the gaps between academic science and business and industry. However, many graduate students, wearied by the daily grind of lab life, may not be fully aware of such opportunities. It doesn't help that many faculty are unfamiliar with careers outside of academia and that campus career centers, which tend to focus primarily on the needs of undergraduate students, are not always fully informed. When faced by these challenges, graduate students can whine and complain, or they can take matters into their own hands, as a group of students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) did a few years ago by creating the Industry Roundtable (IR).

What We Are and What We Want to Do

The Industry Roundtable's goals include the following:

  • providing a forum for networking with scientists in industry

  • stimulating students to begin thinking about their future careers early in their educations

  • making information about alternative careers available to students

  • dispelling antediluvian notions of what are and are not "proper" careers for scientists with Ph.D.s.

I've been involved with the IR for only 1 year and have already come to appreciate greatly its value to the UAB grad student population. What I'd like to do here is share a little of the IR's success by providing a practical framework that others may wish to adopt as they work to create their own student-run industry outreach initiatives.

How the IR Is Organized

The IR is composed of a group of volunteers headed by a president. The informal nature of this structure allows students interested in the IR and its goals to get involved at many levels. Although we are proud to be able to say that the IR has remained student run, it has definitely benefited from the financial, promotional, and technical support of the UAB administration. Nevertheless, says Joan Lorden, dean of the graduate school, "it is important that the students drive this as much as possible. They develop many of the skills that they need for success: leadership, team work, ? independence."

What the IR Does

The IR has become UAB's principal tool for promoting science-related careers outside of academia. Since its creation in 1993, the IR has continued a seminar series, created a career development library, hosted an annual career workshop, and run an active Web site. Visiting speakers from biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, government, law, and finance give the monthly seminars. Topics are selected based on input from graduate students, as well as through the personal connections of the volunteers. Many UAB alumni who now work in these fields are happy to come back to speak. The Career Development Library, housed in the university's career center, is a collection of materials about careers in science and industry.

The IR Web site,, provides an extensive source of information for graduate students. It contains bios of seminar speakers, with links to their specific jobs; a list of recommended readings; and links to job-site engines and sites related to science, industry, and career planning. The Web site also serves as an example of the importance of university support: The editor of theses for the graduate school serves as its webmaster, adding information that the IR gives him to the website.

The annual Career Day workshop organized by the IR is open to all graduate students and postdocs on campus. Career Day 2000 included a keynote address by Dave Jensen of Search Masters International and Tooling Up columnist for the Next Wave. In addition to a keynote address, the day's events typically consist of panel discussions with scientists working in biotech and pharmaceutical research, intellectual property law, small college teaching, and government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health. Concurrent sessions address more practical issues, such as job searches, conflict in the workplace, lab management, and family considerations. Registration for Career Day is handled through the university, and one credit hour is given to those who attend.

Finding Funding

Obviously the activities of the IR require a funding source, and, in fact, one of our initial hurdles involved finding that funding. Presently, the IR receives financial support from several sources. Support for the seminar series, including refreshments and travel, lodging, and honorarium gifts for the speakers, is provided by the Alabama National Science Foundation Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and Oak Ridge Associated Universities Visiting Industrial Scholars ProgramThe UAB Graduate Student Association, the UAB Graduate School, and the UAB Office of Postdoctoral Studies currently support special activities such as Career Day.

Faculty Perceptions

In addition to the struggle to find funding, the founder of the IR, Jimmy Reddoch, anticipated that some faculty members might view the presence of "industry" groups in an academic setting as inappropriate. However, faculty have been very supportive, and many are involved in Career Day. Indeed, Andy Crouse, the current president of the IR, notes that supportive mentors have helped in the success of the IR and the active involvement of its volunteers, in spite of having to take time away from the bench.

Ongoing Success

The IR's achievements can ultimately be measured in terms of its effects on the graduate student population. Susan Schade, a UAB alumna who now does research for a small biotech company in Birmingham, says that the IR helped her in its "exposure to different career paths and networking" and allowed her "to make contact with all kinds of people not at UAB." Undoubtedly, the IR has increased student awareness of the wide variety of career opportunities that are available to Ph.D. scientists today. Its sustained success is based on a dedicated student volunteer group, secured funding, and ongoing university support. And as long as the demand for Ph.D. scientists remains strong across the career board, groups such as the IR will continue to play an important role in the accomplishments of every university's graduate student body.