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A Graduate Course in Professional Development

CREDIT: Frank Flack (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

"It really has been life-changing for me. Without this course, I would have been just another Ph.D. student ... " —Kris Hon, Ph.D. candidate.

"I learned more skills here to better my career than I would have in my entire graduate degree otherwise." —David Gallo, Ph.D. candidate.

We found that, while most students were intent on an academic career when they entered graduate school, most were also aware that the majority of the graduates pursued other opportunities.

"I think that every graduate student should take this course … I feel more prepared about the job application process, networking, and finding the job … ." —Tina Sing, Ph.D. candidate.

"The main thing about this course is how it prepares students for the next step, and nothing else currently available at U of T does that in a consistent and systematic fashion." —Marija Cemma, Ph.D. candidate.

These are some of the comments from students who participated in a new graduate professional development course offered in 2012, in six 2.5-hour sessions offered every 2 weeks, by the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Toronto.

The intention of graduate education

Today, the majority of Ph.D. graduates in the biomedical sciences no longer obtain positions in academia. A survey of Ph.D.s graduating from the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Toronto (U of T) within the last 10 years revealed that only 15% remained in academia (compared to 35% in 1980 for all of Canada—look here and here). Most graduates found rewarding careers in the public (government, university, hospital) and private (biotechnology, patent law, publishing, sales) sectors.   

Although graduate students can find career guidance from university sources and student-run events, many find it difficult to find advice and mentors for nonacademic careers. Professors are apt to advise students for academia, as most supervisors have limited exposure to opportunities in other career sectors, such as biotech, law, policy, government, or communication. 

Reinhart Reithmeier and Nana Lee

Reinhart Reithmeier and Nana Lee


Courtesy of Nana Lee
Reinhart Reithmeier and Nana Lee

Graduate education is traditionally geared to train future professors and researchers. To prepare students for the diversity of careers available to them, it is necessary to restructure that training. A 1998 report from the National Research Council recommended that the Ph.D. remain a research-intensive degree but added that "graduate programs should expand their efforts to help students learn about the diversity of career opportunities open to them, and university departments should examine possible alternatives to the research Ph.D." 

Skills needed outside of the lab

Our graduate professional development course made the participants aware of the skill set they will need for lifelong career development. Along with excellent research skills, employers seek skills in communication, teamwork, interpersonal relationships, administration, and leadership. Other in-demand skills include networking, creativity, initiative, mentorship, and maintaining life balance. The best education for a graduate student is one that fosters leadership, imagination, and creative thinking; so they can bring something new to an existing profession or even create their own positions.

Implementation of the new graduate curriculum

The course was limited to 20 graduate students to ensure an intimate setting for open discussion. We found that, while most students were intent on an academic career when they entered graduate school, most were also aware that the majority of graduates pursued other opportunities.

The course included six classes. Each class contained a 1-hour lecture followed by a 90-minute guest panel discussion and a networking session with three or four professionals. Guest panelists were chosen largely from the department's graduate alumni, who spoke about their career pathways and the skills they developed during their graduate education that they find especially valuable in their careers.

The topics for the six classes were:

  1. success in academia
  2. success outside academia and career transitions throughout life
  3. the importance of mentorship
  4. research ethics
  5. how to succeed as a postdoctoral fellow
  6. how to cultivate essential soft skills during graduate school

The course also featured: a presentation by each participant for a panel that included a patent attorney, a newspaper editor, and an innovations specialist; a one-on-one consultation with Nana Lee, the course co-coordinator, a former senior scientist and director in the biotech industry who is experienced in career transitions and in dealing with life balance issues; and a presentation by U of T's Graduate Enterprise Internship program, which provides internships for students to explore opportunities in the business world.

 Assignments included a report about participants' research written in laymen's terms, another written for other scientists, and a cover letter and resumé customized for a job opening. Participants also wrote an essay about creating a career that combines their educational background and passions outside of science. In another valuable assignment participants made real "cold-call" contact with alumni to start building the network that will be essential to developing their careers.

Highlighted throughout the course was the importance of assessing one’s passions, of surrounding oneself with different types of mentors beyond the research supervisor, of effective communication, and the need to use and develop one’s imagination. These attributes enable a scientist to become successful in or out of academia.

Developed and implemented by Lee and Reinhart Reithmeier, the course in graduate professional development will become mandatory for all incoming biochemistry graduate students (about 25 per year.) The pilot course transformed the thinking of the students and opened their eyes to the realities and opportunities of the job market. But for these students, this is only the beginning. During this course they came to recognize that they need to develop new skill sets and a network, and work hard to create something new: their own path to a fulfilling career and life.

Suggested Reading

V. W. Maldonado, R. Wiggers, C. Arnold, "So you want to earn a PhD?: The attraction, realities and outcomes of pursuing a doctorate" (Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, Toronto, 2013).

A. B. Sekuler, B. Crow, R. B. Annan, "Beyond labs and libraries: Career pathways for doctoral students" (Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, Toronto, 2013).

J. Nyquist, D. H. Wulff "Recommendations from national studies on doctoral education" (2000).

Trends in the Early Careers of Life Scientists Committee on Dimensions, Causes, and Implications of Recent Trends in Careers of Life Scientists, National Research Council (National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1998).

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