Life after Dissertation

UNC has received a $1.8 million NIH grant to expand training programs for graduate students and postdoctoral trainees who seek a career inside or outside academia.

Life after Dissertation click to enlarge Erin Hopper, PhD
Life after Dissertation click to enlarge Jean Cook, PhD

Many students in the medical sciences enter graduate programs simply wanting to learn how to do science, pursue answers to a research question, and push toward their doctoral degree. But somewhere along the way, students must decide on a career path, and it isn’t always as easy as you might think.

Since 2006, all UNC School of Medicine students have had access to career resources and guidance through the TIBBS program – Training Initiatives in Biomedical & Biological Sciences. Many of these resources – and much of the advice they might get from mentors – focus on careers in academia or perhaps industry. But what if students want to pursue one of many other viable careers?

Thanks to a $1.8-million dollar NIH BEST grant (Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training), UNC has created a new UNC program to create new resources for all science-oriented graduate students and postdoctoral fellows across UNC, whether they want to pursue a career in academia, industry, or something else.

It’s called ImPACT (Immersion Program to Advance Career Training) and it will expand the TIBBS program by offering a more diverse selection of workshops, individual career development plans, and career interest groups to both graduate students and postdoctoral trainees. Perhaps most importantly, ImPACT will provide funded, immersive career exploration externships, and shadowing opportunities with local employers.

“UNC has been thinking along these lines for a long time, well before offering broad career training was recognized as an important national issue,” said Erin Hopper, PhD, the director of TIBBS who will also spearhead ImPACT. “UNC has been really proactive in making sure we give the best career-training opportunities to our graduate students. This grant will dramatically expand what we’re able to offer.”

The externships – short, temporary on-the-job training opportunities – are the newest part of what the UNC School of Medicine can offer trainees. The current line-up of organizations that are part of ImPACT includes:

• Launch Chapel Hill

• RTI International

• Sigma Xi

• The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

• The Environmental Protection Agency

• Parion Sciences

• UNC’s Office of Technology Development

• The Kenan Institute

• The NC Biotech Center

• The NC Board of Science and Technology

• Becton Dickinson

ImPACT will continue to expand this list throughout the grant’s five-year duration.

One reason ImPACT is needed, according to Jean Cook, PhD, associate dean of graduate education in the UNC School of Medicine, is that faculty mentors aren’t always comfortable offering career advice to students interested in opportunities outside of academia. Also, the job market for PhDs in academia has cooled off over the past few years.

“We all know that professors do not retire as fast as students graduate,” Cook said. “So biomedical students, for example, simply can’t all become professors and run academic labs; there just aren’t enough jobs. And the reality is that sometimes the best students don’t want to become professors.”

The goal of ImPACT is not to take away from training students or helping them pursue careers as researchers. Rather, Cook said, the purpose is to acknowledge the reality of the job market and help parlay the skills they learn as graduate students into successful careers whether in research or not.

Cook and Hopper pointed out that successful graduate students learn skills during their training that will benefit them in a variety of careers in or out of the lab, such as how to solve problems, write, communicate clearly in various ways, manage projects, and critically analyze information.

“The entire process of earning a PhD gives students many skills that are relevant to a variety of careers,” said Hopper, who earned a PhD in chemistry before landing her job as a research program administrator. “I’ve been thinking about graduate student training and career opportunities for a long time, and I’m really happy to be able to bring this experience to our trainees at UNC.”

The principle investigator on the NIH BEST grant is Patrick Brennwald, PhD, a professor of cell biology and physiology. Patrick Brandt, PhD, Director of Science, Training, and Diversity in the UNC School of Medicine is also part of the ImPACT leadership team.

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