Preparing Graduate Students for the Job Market
Inspired to Rethink Neuroscience Training
Hermes Yeh, current chair of the SfN Committee on Neuroscience Departments and Programs (CNDP), which organizes the conference program, posed a question that served as one of the central themes of the day’s discussions: “Of the PhD graduates in neuroscience, only about 20 percent actually enter academia. The other 80 percent opt for non-traditional career paths. Should we be embracing or including in our graduate training programs some aspects that will prepare students for non-academic career paths?”
In striving to address this question, speakers on the “Providing Opportunities for Non-Traditional Career Choices” panel discussed how well prepared they were when transitioning to careers beyond the bench. Christopher Tobias, Executive Vice President at Dudnyk, a healthcare marketing agency in Philadelphia, described how after working as a bench scientist for the first ten years of his professional career, he found himself suddenly unprepared for many of the common skills needed in a business environment — including financial management and business presentation skills.
Program directors and faculty members came away from the conference invigorated to apply many of the training concepts they learned about during the conference.
“It is very inspiring for me to make connections with others thinking about the same issues and to see the range of creative solutions to student training and its funding,” said Bruce Johnson of Cornell University’s Department of Neurobiology and Behavior. Johnson was also part of the panel discussion, “Letting Challenges Drive Creativity and Invention.”
With what he learned at the conference, Johnson added, “I will make more of an effort to bring graduate students and postdocs into the loop on what’s going on behind the scenes of their research projects and help make the writing and reviewing processes more transparent.”
Janet Finlay, who directs and teaches in the behavioral neuroscience department at Western Washington University, attended the conference for the first time. “I was really impressed with the emphasis at many top-tier research institutions on opportunities for postdoctoral trainees to obtain meaningful undergraduate neuroscience teaching experience,” Finlay said. “There were some nice ideas floated about how to better connect undergraduates at primarily undergraduate institutions with graduate students — I’ll definitely be exploring those options further.”
The conference offered a range of panels followed by interactive group discussions about nontraditional career choices, international exchange programs, and neuroscience boot camps for graduate recruits. Karen Gale, chair of the admissions committee and professor of pharmacology at Georgetown University, found the neuroscience boot camp discussion particularly interesting.
“I enjoyed hearing about a spectrum of boot camps, some of which were a bit less ambitious and more in line with what we could envision introducing for our own program,” said Gale, who also was a panelist in the “Letting Challenges Drive Creativity and Invention” discussion. Georgetown tested out its own six-day boot camp program in 2012 with its incoming class of PhD students.
Neuroscience Training in Challenging Times
Keynote speaker Steven Hyman outlined the need for institutional programs to think more broadly about their trainees’ graduate experiences. Hyman is a former Harvard provost and now a visiting scholar at the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research within the Broad Institute’s Psychiatric Disease Program.
Graduate students should embrace the interdisciplinary nature of neuroscience by specializing in a subdiscipline, Hyman said. Students need to be prepared to participate in “big science” projects that involve many types of scientists and scientific goals, such as the human genome project.
“It is important to develop students’ depth and skills in some home area of neuroscience,” Hyman said. “Important problems increasingly demand cross-disciplinary collaboration.”
Hyman also acknowledged that students are dealing with a different professional landscape and feeling the pressure to publish. He said training programs need to teach students about the benefits and challenges to various approaches to publishing. “It is important not to let students discover the complexities of the [publishing] landscape randomly or by accident,” Hyman said. “They should understand the difference between a monopoly publisher versus society publishers versus open-access journals.”
“Big science” also has complicated the already difficult process of appropriately crediting students for their research contributions in large-scale projects. “We must do a better job of ensuring credit for work done when there are many authors,” Hyman said.
Hyman is optimistic about the future of the neuroscience field, but thinks graduate programs could improve the effect of their training if they put it in the context of an eventual job search. “We should be bullish about the future, while advocating for it in the right way so our students have all of the career options that we want for them,” Hyman said.
Neuroscience programs also should explain the realities of the academic job market to their students. “Academic jobs remain limited,” Hyman said. “We don’t want to discourage people, but we need to have realistic conversations [with students].”
Collaborating for the Future
The NDP conference also marked the launch of SfN’s new Educational Resources in Neuroscience (ERIN) web portal, a database of books, software, lab exercises, digital images, tutorials, videos, and other resources funded by NSF/Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science. The portal, introduced by Richard Olivo of Smith College, provides a forum for collaboration across the international neuroscience training community by allowing faculty to share and evaluate syllabi, lab exercises, and ideas about innovative approaches to teaching and learning.
Eric Wiertelak, director of neuroscience studies at Macalester College, was particularly impressed by the portal. “I know that I will use the ERIN resources in my work at Macalester College and encourage my faculty to do the same,” Wiertelak said. “Expanding our ability to deliver the curriculum is always labor-intensive. But with the portal in place, some of that intensive labor has already been done for us.”
A panel on international exchange programs also highlighted how collaboration can enhance students’ training experiences. Panelists offered case studies of successful international exchange programs that help students learn new techniques, broaden their intellectual perspective, build international collaborations, cultivate new teaching methods, and increase awareness of international graduate training opportunities.
Save the date for the 2013 Annual Conference on Neuroscience Training, to be held March 8 in Washington, DC. Check the Careers and Training section for more workshop and registration information.