As part of my resolution to better understand my career goals and options by attending more seminars at Tufts and then sharing my experiences with you, I decided to join the Tufts Mentoring Circle Program. Here’s a brief breakdown of the program’s kickoff event, which was held on October 6th in Sackler 114.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the program, the mentoring circles, open to all graduate students and postdocs at Tufts, are meant to provide a social and educational experience for mentors and mentees alike, bringing together people who, based on a previously submitted survey, have similar career goals and interests. At this first event, the circles, which have an average of five or six people per group, were brought together to meet one another and discuss objectives for the year. Since on my survey I indicated a strong interest in industry, my group consists of postdocs with the same inclination and a mentor who currently works as a scientist at a prominent pharmaceutical company in Cambridge. My experience will be unique to my personal goals, as those who stated an interest in academia are grouped with other academia-bound grad students and postdocs, similarly to how those who are working towards an alternative non-academic career, like science writing, are also assigned to one another for the duration of the program.
After we introduced ourselves within our groups over pizza and salad, the organizers of the program gave a short presentation on tips and suggestions for how to have a successful circle. The importance of preparing for and attending every meeting was heavily stressed. We were also encouraged to mix up the format our meetings—instead of always just going to a coffee shop and talking, we can go to events together like symposiums, seminars, or even networking events. As someone who finds networking to be an intimidating and nerve-wracking experience, the prospect of having someone come along and act as a safety net seems fantastic and will make me more likely to attend.
After the presentation, groups were left to themselves to chat, set goals, and eat more pizza. In my group, every person had the opportunity to talk about what their dream job might entail—whereas some of the members had pretty specific career ideas, others, including myself, could only speak in broad strokes about factors like work-life balance, travel, and flexibility. The meeting was casual and fun, and it was actually a relief to hear some postdocs, even a few years out of graduate school, have undeveloped ideas about their careers and are still figuring out where they want to end up. Together, we decided on topics that we would like to discuss and goals that we would like to achieve throughout the year and we signed a “Mentoring Circle Contract” that stated the following: “We understand that each of us is responsible for maintaining the confidentiality of our shared communications, meeting regularly at the times we have agreed upon, and actively participating in circle discussions”. Though this was only our first meeting, I can tell we all have a lot to learn from one another and I am excited for the new professional and friendly circle I am now a part of! It’s like joining a club where the main project is you and your career.
Definitely keep an eye out for the program’s announcement next year, and also keep in mind that American Women in Science (AWIS) is another organization through which some of you can join a similar circle.
The annual Tufts New England Case Competition (TUNECC) is a unique, student-organized venture that brings together outstanding teams of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from multiple disciplines and institutions to solve a current life sciences business problem. Each year, the TUNECC Executive Board together with the Center for the Study of Drug Development (CSDD) choose a relevant topic that incorporates both therapeutic and business components to be the focus of the all-day case competition and following panel discussion. Previous years’ topics included new market entry assessment of biologics and post-merger and acquisition integration strategy for a large pharma and an antibiotics biotech. This year the teams tackled Research & Development (R&D) productivity of immuno-oncology field on the example of Juno Therapeutics, a T-cell therapy clinical stage biotech. In addition, a career fair ran throughout the competition, facilitating more opportunities for related conversations and also networking between participants and sponsors.
Two weeks prior to the competition–which took place on August 5th–the assembled teams received their case and were given ten days to brainstorm and structure solutions to the proposed problem. At the competition, the teams presented their proposals in several rounds that were judged by representatives from contributing sponsor companies. For this third year of TUNECC, 17 teams consisting of students from a total of 17 academic institutions nationwide participated, with 5 teams competing in the final round. A first-place prize of $2000 was awarded to the team JT Consulting Solution from Tufts University & Boston University, while second place went to Pennovation, a University of Pennsylvania team ($1000), and third place to Chiron Consulting, a team of students from Vanderbilt University, University of Rochester, University of Arizona and Duke University ($500).
The participating teams this year were highly competitive and deeply engaged in the subject matter, which carried over into a lively discussion during the panel discussion portion of the event. Representatives from sponsoring companies spoke to their experiences with managing company growth and investment to maximize R&D productivity, or rather “doing the best science you can do but also being the most productive.” This conversation evolved as the panel went on, touching on where and why the industry is struggling, the pros and cons of small biotech versus ‘big pharma’ models, and hurdles to approval, pricing, and regulation in drug development. The depth and breadth of the discussion showed how closely intertwined these topics are when considering science in the business setting.
In addition to the high degree of participant engagement, the variety of Tufts programs (multiple Sackler and Medford graduate programs as well as the School of Medicine) and academic institutions from across the country represented at TUNECC is a key component to its continual success. Such cross-institutional collaboration encourages broader thinking and discussion by providing new and different perspectives for each participant to consider when tackling life sciences business problems. The increasing commitment of sponsors from life sciences consulting business sectors also strengthened the event, with the number of sponsoring companies increasing to 11 total this year, almost double the number at the event’s initiation. Not only did this impact the case competition itself but also the day-long career fair and topical panel discussion by providing richer opportunities for forming cross-discipline connections. This achievement was a highlight for this year’s TUNECC Chair Alexandra Taracanova (Pharmacology), who commented that it was rewarding to see “industry being supportive…and interested for what we offer as an event” and was very satisficed by “great talent at Tufts being supported by corporate firms.”
Jennifer Nwankwo, PhD (Pharmacology ‘16) was presented with The Founder’s Award of Excellence for founding, leadership and continues support of TUNECC since the day of its inception in 2014. Additionally more past TUNECC executive members and participants, Julia Keith, PhD (Microbiology ‘15) Hailing Yang, PhD (CMP ‘15), Julie Coleman, PhD (Neuroscience ‘16), Michael Baldwin, PhD (CMP ‘15), and Ben Dake, PhD (CMDB ‘15), attended as judges, sponsor representatives, or simply enthusiastic observers this year, providing the event with increased continuity and a strong network of individuals who return and share their experiences in transitioning from academia to life sciences business.
TUNECC will continue to build on its great momentum in the coming year under the direction of Andrew Coleman (Neuroscience). Applications for new Executive Board members will open in December while applications for case competition teams will open sometime in Spring 2017 for the 4th Annual TUNECC in late Summer 2017. To find out more about TUNECC and previous events visit our website.
Corporate Sponsors: Back Bay Life Science Advisors, The Decision Resources Group, Clarion Healthcare, McKinsey & Company, Putnam Associates, CBPartners, Simon-Kucher & Partners, The Boston Consulting Group, L.E.K. Consulting, ClearView Healthcare Partners, and TechAtlas Group of RA Capital Management.
Additional Support: Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development and Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences.
In the April issue of the Sackler Insight, we published an editorial discussing the career development resources available for Sackler students, their effectiveness and how they could be better suited to the dynamic landscape of a post-PhD worklife. As a follow-up, the Graduate Student Council (GSC), in collaboration with the Dean’s office, developed a survey to hear from students about their needs. This editorial will focus on the outcomes and suggest recommendations to be implemented by the GSC and the Dean’s office.
The survey was conducted over a period of 2 weeks, and around 1/3rd of all Sackler students responded, with representation from all class years and programs. Majority of the respondents had either prior research experience in an academic setting or had come straight from their undergraduate institutions, as shown in the pie chart below. While career development opportunities were of varying degrees of priority among the respondents at their time of graduate school interviews, almost all respondents, regardless of class year, considered these opportunities as a high priority at the time of the survey.
The survey also asked the students to indicate how many career development events at Sackler they had participated in over the last 2 years and to rate their usefulness. This data has been summarized in the bar graphs below. The same was asked for any career development opportunities outside Sackler the students had participated in. The students were also asked to indicate reasons they were unable to attend the events at Sackler and what kind of events they would like to see more. Lastly, an open-ended question was posed to gather additional comments from respondents. After analyzing the data, we identified 3 premises that were prevalent among the responses.
1. Alumni network building
Majority of respondents to the survey advocated for more networking opportunities and information regarding alumni’s current jobs. The comments section also focused on the disconnect between alumni and the current students. While there are no Sackler specific alumni databases, as is true for other Tufts schools, it should be noted that Tufts does maintain a database of all alumni through the Advancement office. Individual schools can request alumni information through the advancement office and vice versa. There is already an existing network of Tufts alumni called Tufts Online Community (OLC) that allows Tufts alumni and students to establish and maintain connections. More info on the OLC and how to register for it can be found here – http://tuftsalumni.org/who-we-are/faqs/#community-what-is. Additionally, the Dean’s office, who keeps track of the Sackler alumni through social media services such as LinkedIn for training grant application purposes, also update the alumni information on the Sackler website (can be found here – http://sackler.tufts.edu/Student-Life/Career-and-Professional-Development/Career-Outcomes). Given that this existing database can be effectively used for networking, we urge the Sackler students to utilize this resource for their benefit. We also urge the GSC and the Dean’s office to hold a workshop to showcase this resource and guide the students on how to use it most effectively. A stronger alumni network can also be made possible through student organizations such as TBBC, who have been able to form a tight-knit group of peers across programs and class years.
Full-time Career Development Office
There have been requests for a full-time career development resource to be made available for the Sackler students. However, due to the small size of the school, and the cost associated with hiring new employees and setup, it is difficult to be justified considering that PhD-track Sackler students do not pay tuition. However, if there could be a collaboration between the PHPD programs in the TUSM and the Sackler school, it could potentially provide a critical mass to warrant a full-time career office to serve all the schools on the Boston campus, albeit for broader services such as resume reviews. The changing landscape of the post-graduate work opportunities also indicate that there is a need for alternative career options, related to the healthcare and biomedical professions, which can be addressed through collaborative efforts between the various schools on the Boston campus. For example, last year the Sackler GSC collaborated with the Friedman nutrition school to host a career fair. Even if a full-time career resource center on the Boston campus is not possible, it’d serve the students well if the GSC, the PDA, and the Dean’s office could organize a few resume review workshops for students and post-docs throughout the year.
Career Development Events & Resources
The bar graph showing the usefulness of the various career development events and resources indicates that most respondents find the seminars organized by Career Paths, TBBC and PDA to be most useful. However, some respondents commented on the focus of these seminars to be heavily biotech or industry-centric, which could undermine the needs of students who are not looking into get into such fields. While in general there might have been an increased number of events with such a focus, it should be noted that the GSC have sought to put out a diverse group of seminars, panels and workshops to help students pursuing any non-academic career path. Historically, the career paths committee of the GSC have focused on non-academic careers since that was the gap that needed to be filled – the Sackler faculty are well-equipped to provide advice on academic career paths, but that is not necessarily true for non-academic ones. In addition, a clear distinction needs to be made between the seminars organized by the various student groups – TBBC seminars will be focused on the biotech industry whereas the GSC seminars are more likely to include a diverse group of topics, based on their mission statements. This being said, it would also serve the GSC well to have a standardized version of event flyers for easy recognition. It would also help to showcase their previous events through the blog so students unable to attend such events can follow-up on what was discussed and presented.
In the last year, the PDA, GSC and TBBC have all worked closely together to host events that have been well-attended and lauded, and this is a trend that should continue to aid students and post-docs alike. However, more visibility and promotion of these events are required for a well-rounded attendance, as indicated by some survey respondents.
MyIDP was indicated to be really useful by the respondents who had used it, although this resources was not used by majority of the survey users. This shows that there is a need for a myIDP workshop that would help guide the students on using the valuable resource, which was deemed to be more useful than talking with thesis advisory committees. This workshop can potentially be done at the beginning of the academic year in September, to help the incoming and the rising students. Recent graduates should also be invited to a panel on different careers as mentioned in myIDP. This would further aid to establish connections between current students and alumni. Additionally, grant writing workshops should also be organized for both students and post-docs, as requested in the survey.
This survey was conducted to gauge student interest in career events and resources and how the existing ones can be tailored to better fit the needs of the Sackler student population. While valuable data was obtained from this survey, it should be noted that this data is inherently biased since the respondents are more likely to seek out career development opportunities within and outside Tufts, and are likely to be more active in participating in events and workshops. Even with these limitations, it can be safely said that Sackler students have laid down a strong foundation of career development resources and events through their own enthusiasm and efforts and grassroots organization. And it is to this collaboration between student organizations and the Dean’s office that we should turn to ensure proper career development resources are made available for Sackler students and post-docs.
This two-part editorial by the Insight team seeks to open a discussion between faculty, students, postdocs and the school administration about whether the school is prepared for meeting the changes in the future of PhD holders. The first part will address the current available resources and the unmet needs of the students/postdocs, and will also explore some possible solutions. The second part, to be published in the next issue of the InSight, will carry the opinions of all parties involved collected through a survey and communication, which will serve as a stepping stone towards meaningful changes that will benefit us all.
Editors’ Note, 4/11/16, 1:30 pm – The article has been modified to include corrected information regarding the BEST award application by Sackler. Previously it had stated that Sackler had applied for the BEST award and was not awarded due to lack of proper infrastructure. However, after communicating with the Dean’s office, we have learned that Sackler had applied in conjunction with other Tufts graduate schools and it is speculated the application was not funded partly due to complex administrative structure and evaluation and dissemination plans. The changes are reflected in the article.
The Doctorate in Philosophy (PhD) is a degree awarded to recognize original contributions to collective human knowledge. Thus, it is no surprise that the next step after getting a PhD is to join the bastions where such knowledge is curated and cultivated, i.e., to pursue an academic career. However, given the current structure of an academic job and the nature of academic tenure, a bottleneck in academic positions have taken firm root in the last years. According to Nature, the number of postdocs have jumped by 150% between 2000 and 2012 while the number of tenured or full time faculty positions in the US has either remained stagnant or fallen. While the debate on how to improve the lives of postdocs and other non-faculty PhD holders rages on and restructuring of federal funding for scientific research is ongoing, the increasing number of PhDs leaving the traditional path and venturing into other professions is readily apparent.
In recent years, the PhD degree has been developed as a marketable asset with a accompanied with a powerful skill set — the ability to think critically, solve problems and troubleshoot, be organized and detail-oriented. The idea that the skills required for obtaining a PhD are also recognized as required to be successful in any other profession, and is now being echoed by career counselors. While industry research positions were once spoken about in hushed voices before, these positions are now not only coveted, but other non-research jobs are also becoming more prominent in seminars and career advice panels for biomedical graduate students and postdocs.
This trend is also evident within the graduate student population here at Sackler School of Biomedical Graduate Sciences, where more than half the alumni have pursued non-academic careers. As the funding climate struggles to recover and academic positions become more scarce, the question arises of whether the existing model of career development for student and postdoctoral trainees is sufficient to ensure future success and achieving their goals. It is apparent that career development training outside of academia is required, but the support for this by the curriculum and administration at the Sackler School seems to lag behind our peer institutions, and even our colleagues on the Medford campus have access to the Tufts Career Center and the students in the Fletcher School have their own Career Services office.
Resources currently available for students at Sackler interested pursuing non-academic careers are mostly driven and organized by the students themselves. These student-led initiatives have produced a full roster of seminars and workshops focusing on such career options held nearly weekly between the Career Paths Committee of the Sackler Graduate Student Council (GSC) and the Tufts Biomedical Business Club (TBBC). These groups have become increasingly active over the past few years, with their efforts growing into independent events like the Tufts New England Case Competition (TUNECC), as well as collaborations with the Tufts Postdoctoral Association and student groups in the School of Medicine. Additionally, the Tufts Mentoring Circles group has provided students peer guidance and spaces to discuss such career options among themselves. Every student initiative listed here has sought more interactions with Sackler alumni, but the information to facilitate that exchange is not readily available. Student leaders at Sackler have expended great effort to build the career resources the student body needs, but these efforts are reaching the limit of what they can achieve and will only be short term and partial solutions without additional resources and support infrastructure. Some of this could be built by students, like shared repositories for maintaining records and thus institutional memory so energy is expended solving new problems instead of rehashing old ones. The most important piece, however, cannot be done by students alone: an accurate, current database of Sackler alumni and their occupations that is accessible and searchable.
We appreciate that the Dean’s Office has recently increased its support of these student efforts, but believe that more can be done. An increased contribution to co-sponsorship from partial funding of one or two events with the GSC annually to a series of three annual workshops and career panels over the past two academic years, and the interactions between a handful of students with Sackler alumni through the new “Day in the Life” program are good starting points. However, the student body and Sackler as an institution would derive greater benefit and return on an investment in career development and advising staff, similar to those available at the Fletcher School and the Medford campus, but scaled for Sackler. It would be mutually beneficial, as it works to the advantage of a school to have an engaged student body that will recognize and appreciate the school’s support in shaping their careers as alumni. Furthermore, this infrastructure could be a common point for alumni to rely upon and connect with students and each other.
The lack of formal career development resources at Sackler has been identified by peer reviewers as an area for improvement, and puts us at a competitive disadvantage for student recruitment and securing grant funding. Prospective students actively seek graduate programs that provide career development, and among the recommendations made by the review committee for the newly-merged CMDB program were formal non-academic career training options and an expansion of extramural internships through the alumni network and faculty connections. Funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) evaluate grant applications on this aspect of graduate training as well. For example, F31 grant applications to support graduate students require descriptions of career training and development; the proposed changes will essentially strengthen the Sackler students’ applications and may increase the number of extramurally funded students, alleviating the pressure on the school. A more recent example includes the NIH Broadening Experience in Scientific Training (BEST) awards, a funding opportunity established in 2013 in response to the state of the biomedical workforce and to prepare trainees for diverse career paths that utilize their PhD training. Boston University received a BEST award in 2014 for its biomedical research programs in part because of its existing career development and support infrastructure. It should be noted that Sackler, along with other graduate schools at Tufts, had applied for the BEST award. While the reviewers had found the application to be strong in certain areas and to have “potential for high impact”, they also noted weaknesses that included “complex administrative structure and the evaluation and dissemination plans”, which could partly be responsible for the award not being funded (source – email communication with Sackler Dean’s office). These issues can be addressed with the establishment of the proposed infrastructure development and can further strengthen such grant applications in the future.
The faculty mentor plays an important role in shaping a mentee’s future career — the mentor’s support and guidance are essential for the mentee’s career development. While Sackler faculty are generally supportive of students and postdocs, it is critical for them to come forward and actively support mentees’ who choose to pursue careers outside of academia and research. The Greater Boston area is known as a hub for biotechnology research and business, with companies specializing in everything from drug development to consulting. Many recent and local alumni maintain a connection to Tufts through their faculty mentors absent a career development office at Sackler, and both students and postdocs would greatly benefit if the faculty mentors shared these connections, and offered guidance and support on leaving academia.
The current funding climate and the stagnation of academic positions, along with the burgeoning postdoc crisis, amount to conditions favorable for a paradigm shift. We cannot just keep focusing on the academic jobs traditionally held by PhDs. In order to better adapt to this changing landscape of post-doctoral work, the students, postdocs, faculty, and administration need to work together to bring about improvements to the environment at Sackler, specifically:
Developing an accessible, searchable, up-to-date database of Sackler alumni that can be used by students, postdocs and faculty looking for career advice and connections.
Faculty support in the form of guidance and connections in developing non-academic careers.
Career development support staff for students from the Tufts and Sackler administration, so as to cultivate an engaged alumni population.
Comments, suggestions, and other feedback on this editorial can be left on either the InSight blog or via this online form: Anonymous feedback form: http://goo.gl/forms/PXEfcLfgeX
A survey to collect more detailed data from the student body will be conducted by the Sackler GSC in the coming weeks.