Emory Report
January 22, 2007
Volume 59, Number 16

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January 22 , 2007
Pilot program preps grad students for life beyond academia

by kim urquhart

While many doctoral students head down the traditional path to a tenure-track faculty position, others may take roads less traveled and pursue a career outside of academia.

A group of students and administrators in the Emory Graduate School’s Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences has formed a Career Development Committee to help such students navigate alternate career routes.

Career Opportunities in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences, a pilot program launched last spring and spearheaded by GDBBS Acting Director Keith Wilkinson, is drawing nearly 100 graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to its monthly seminar series. The committee also has been busy developing enrichment opportunities that highlight academic and professional connections in a number of fields like biotechnology, law and science writing.

The academic job market tends to be cyclical, and it is likely that more academic positions will open up as the baby-boomer generation retires in the next 10 to 15 years. But that market is only one possible career track — there is a growing need for highly trained scientists in industry, government, and international settings — and it is important for graduate students to consider the full range of future professional opportunities.

“There are a lot of creative ways in which students can apply their PhDs,” said Wilkinson, “and our PhDs are very well-trained in their thought process and the way they attack a problem.” In fact, five of the GDBBS’s eight PhD programs were recently ranked in the top five nationally in The Chronicle of Higher Education. This well-rounded training will serve graduates well, in many professional fields, he said.

The Career Development Committee is focused on “developing mechanisms to inform our students about their alternatives, and give them contacts and a network that they can begin to build on,” Wilkinson said. “And that’s what the speaker series is all about.”

Speakers at recent seminars have included a high school biology teacher, a museum director and a venture capitalist, as well as Emory’s own President Jim Wagner. Guest speakers are most often Emory alumni and draw on their own career paths to provide insights and advice.

Having access to the speakers — their contact information and audio files from the seminars are posted on the GDBBS intranet — helps not only to introduce students to new careers but to build relationships through networking. Students can also schedule informational interviews with the speakers during their campus visits.
The seminars are open to anyone interested in non-academic science-related careers. Recently, students from the chemistry program have accepted an invitation to serve on the committee. “We’re trying to do this as broadly as possible to accommodate all students,” Wilkinson said.

“Across the country in the sciences there is a lot of demand for this kind of program and this kind of approach,” said Wilkinson, a professor of biochemistry who has been involved in graduate education at Emory for more than 20 years. “The most important advantage for students at Emory may be that the student has some control over their career direction, and satisfaction that their training is consistent with their long-term goals and aspirations.”

GDBBS students can also take advantage of expanded teaching opportunities through the Graduate School’s TATTOO program and coursework across PhD programs, like those in biostatistics, epidemiology, computer science and informatics. The committee is also investigating ways for graduate students to obtain additional degrees within the same time as their PhDs or with a modest amount of additional time.

These opportunities are arranged on a case-by-case basis and include customized curriculums. This personalized approach is a strength of the program, Wilkinson said.

The multipronged program builds on the strengths of graduate education at Emory, which is known for its interdisciplinary, interschool and interdepartmental work. “Graduate education is about training the next generation of intellectual leaders,” said Dean of the Graduate School Lisa Tedesco, “and the challenges facing them will not come neatly wrapped in the terms of one department or discipline.” The GDBBS’s efforts to create connections between programs is one example of the way the Emory Graduate School promotes multiple ties among graduate programs and professional degree programs in medicine, law, public health and nursing, she said.

Educating graduate students about careers outside the realm of the university also involves educating the faculty. “One of the ways in which the success of a professor is gauged is the placement of his or her students, and so there is lot of emphasis on training students who then go on to become top researchers and faculty members,” Wilkinson said. “There is a little bit of a cultural change that has to be accomplished in educating the faculty that this is not the only viable or useful way that a student might use their degree. We should pay more attention to giving them skills to succeed in general without worrying so much if they’re going to be faculty in a tenure track setting.”

Faculty participation is important to accommodate the different training goals of each student, he said, adding that “mentoring is vital.”

The program will ultimately make GDBBS students well-rounded and competitive candidates in a wide variety of fields. “The satisfaction of the students and appropriateness of their training is reflected downstream in more accomplished and more visible graduates of the University,” Wilkinson said. “Our patina is burnished by that and we benefit as a university for turning out top leaders and influential people in a variety of fields.”