Last fall, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences here at the University of Massachusetts Medical School hired, for the first time, an Assistant Dean for Career and Professional Development. Cynthia Fuhrmann, PhD, has been on the job since September, working hard towards her charge of establishing an overall program for career planning for the doctoral students at our university. Dr. Fuhrmann comes to us from the University of California, San Francisco, a school that has proved to be a leader in the area of academic career development.
Why, you might ask, do students in such a specialized field need help deciding on a career? Haven’t they already done that? Isn’t that why they’re here pursuing graduate studies? The answer seems to be both yes and no. Many students do enter graduate school with some idea of the direction that their career will take. Most probably believe that they’re on the well-trod path of those who’ve gone before them, because for a long time, careers in science followed a pretty specific pipeline:
Undergraduate degree in a science -> Graduate degree in a science -> Postdoctoral training -> Tenure-track faculty in academia
Like many other professions today, however, the path that we used to follow is nowhere near as clear-cut or as straight. Today’s doctoral students are just as likely to end up working for biotech companies, for the government, or for universities, or even some combination of these. They may end up doing research, creating new products or drugs, teaching, writing, policy-making, or any number of other things. In fact, as more and more students earn PhDs, the number of tenure track positions available to them lags significantly behind. Even if they enter their graduate studies wanting to stay in academia, the odds of doing such are against them.
The National Institutes of Health and other funding agencies have noticed this trend and are beginning to call on graduate schools and programs to better prepare their students for a broader career path. Students need to have ways to explore their different career options, develop the skills they need in these different areas, and gain relevant experience that will serve them well as they move into the biomedical workforce. Thus, schools like UCSF and now my own institution, UMMS, are designing programs, services, and educational opportunities to meet this growing need.
I had the chance to hear Dr. Fuhrmann speak last week. In her presentation, she outlined this need and her vision, goals and anticipated outcomes for her new position. I’d had some brief communication with her earlier and we have plans to work on a project together in the future, but this was my first opportunity to hear first-hand why the University created this new position and what will come out of it. A little more than half-way through her talk, she put up the following slide:
As I read the different pieces, particularly the spokes off of the “Professional Development Skills” balloon, I couldn’t help but notice the striking resemblance between these skills and those that we’ve been talking about in our own profession. Strong writing and editing, including the ability to write proposals for projects or grants, are needed by young scientists. They’re needed by librarians and/or informationists, too. When graduates become researchers, they likely need to know how to present their work, their proposals, their findings. They likely need to know how to teach the subject(s) that they’ve learned. It’s expected of them. The same can be said for the librarian. It’s expected of us. We all need to know how to manage projects. We all need to know how to manage (or at least work successfully with) other people. We all need to become more creative and more innovative. In other words, we’re all in the same boat.
Will library and information science schools get on board with biomedical science programs and begin to develop the necessary programs to best prepare their graduates in these areas? And for those of us already working, can we or do we easily find the opportunities that we need to continue our professional development around these things? It’s true that you can learn a lot on the job, but it’s also true that simply standing in front of a classroom of students is not teaching. Juggling projects is not the same as managing them. Working with people via forced teams or committees doesn’t guarantee the best outcomes. Networking is more than talking to people at a party. We need to learn and hone the skills necessary in these areas that will bring us success. It needs to become a priority.
It’s my hope that as we continue to branch out in our own field, we will begin to see more clearly the skills we need for success and then, once we identify them, have the support of our institutions, our administrations, and our professional organizations towards meeting them. I hope we can expand our offerings of CE classes at professional meetings, bringing in courses that touch on some of these other skills. I hope we can be supported to go to different kinds of meetings and events outside of the usual suspects. And more than anything, I hope that we individually have the spark and initiative and excitement to do so. With these all coming together, we will surely strengthen both ourselves and our profession.
Special thanks to Cynthia Fuhrmann, PhD, for her insights related to this post and for sharing her presentation slides with me.