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D’Anne Duncan

A day in the life of an assistant dean

This is the first installment of our new Day in the life series, which explores the varied career options available to STEM-trained job seekers.

D’Anne Duncan—a Ph.D. neuroscientist—no longer performs bench research, but she still works in academia on issues that are close to her heart. In her position as assistant dean for diversity and learner success, she’s tasked with developing programs that foster an inclusive environment for graduate students and postdocs at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

When Duncan was a trainee, she decided that she wanted to have an impact on the lives of Ph.D. students and postdocs. “Not necessarily in a direct way like supervising them on their science, but making sure that they have the tools that they need so that they can succeed while they are training,” she says. “Once I realized that this is a whole career that people have, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s really exciting.’”

Duncan, who completed her Ph.D. at Northwestern University in 2011 and a postdoc at Vanderbilt University in 2014, jumped into the world of academic administration with a management position for the Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training program. Three years later, she joined UCSF as director of diversity and learner success. She was promoted to her current position in August 2019.

Science Careers spoke with Duncan to find out what her day-to-day job is like and what she considers to be the greatest joys and challenges of her administrator position. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: What does a typical workday look like for you?

A: A big chunk of my time goes to one-on-one advising and mentoring sessions with graduate students and postdocs. I also have meetings with collaborators on campus, which mostly revolve around planning professional development workshops and figuring out holistic approaches to promote trainee success. Living in San Francisco, for example, we’re challenged with high costs of living, so we often talk about our students’ access to basic needs such as food and housing. I also attend budget meetings, and I often dedicate part of my day to proposal writing for professional development grants.

Q: Do you work on long-term projects, or is your work more fast-paced?

A: I mostly work on long-term projects. A big part of my job is to run our summer research training program for 50 to 60 undergraduates, who are mainly from underrepresented-in-science backgrounds and who come to campus to gain research experience. I also oversee another program that supports underrepresented students in the first 2 years of their Ph.D. program. This involves long-term thinking and planning about how to build community and offer professional development opportunities that will lead to academic and personal success for all of our students.

Q: What elements of your academic training are you still using today?

A: The biggest thing that I bring to the table in my job is the fact that I’ve earned a Ph.D. and understand academic culture. I faced a lot of challenges during my own training, as a woman of color, that I now see my mentees going through. This allows me to provide real-life advice and to directly support the needs of graduate students and postdocs from underrepresented groups.

My writing and data analysis skills are also really useful. At UCSF, we approach program design with a scholarly perspective, researching evidence-based approaches and collecting data to figure out which program elements work. Education is a different field than what I studied during my Ph.D., but the data analysis skills that I learned are transferable to my current job.

Q:  Are there any skills or elements of your training you don’t use anymore that you miss?

A: I don’t miss working with animals, or the physical act of pipetting. But I do miss the discovery of science. Having said that, a lot of the other things that I see faculty do, such as grant writing and mentoring, are things that I do as well.

Q: What was your biggest challenge when you started in your current position?

A: Our graduate division is home to about 30 different programs and they all run independently of one another, with their own set of program administrators and their own set of faculty members. So, one of the biggest challenges was just getting a lay of the land of all the different things that are going on on-campus and building strong relationships with all of these constituents.

Q: What is your favorite part of your job?

A: I enjoy working with the population that I’m serving and seeing them thrive and feel valued while they’re on campus—that’s big for me. Working with faculty members has been great, too, because many of them want to see change that better supports all grad students and postdocs, and they really want to be collaborative on that change.

I also appreciate that I have autonomy to think about what I would like to achieve, and what I think would be great for UCSF and its graduate students and postdocs. My goal is that I’ll be able to help foster an inclusive environment that will continue to attract others to UCSF and diversify our research community.

Q: What hours do you typically work?

A: I’m usually in the office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. I also sometimes work until 7 p.m., as many of the events that we host are scheduled after students are out of labs.

Q: What does your office look like?

A: My office is bright and spacious. I have an affirmation wall with pictures of people that look like my students and a printed-out version of Michelle Obama’s quote, “When they go low, we go high.” Sometimes students come in with a down moment, in part because life as a Ph.D. student is difficult. The wall helps to make them feel comfortable and to uplift them.

Q: Are there elements of your job that you think some people might dislike?

A: Being in meetings, probably, and sending emails. Working on diversity and inclusion also comes with some challenges because not all academics agree that diversity and inclusion is important, so change can be slow.

Q: What advice would you have for graduate students and postdocs who are interested in working in a similar role?

A: Talk to academic administrators about what their day-to-day looks like, what their job entails, how they got there, and what they’ve struggled with. You’ll find that many of them have Ph.D.s. That’s the biggest thing, and then also be open to opportunities for potentially working with administrators through an internship or volunteer experience. Gaining some hands-on experience will help you get a realistic understanding of what the job involves.

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