Alumni Profiles Series: Dave McDonald

 November 1, 2017

Dave McDonald

Dave McDonald is Associate Director for Graduate Career Services in the Duke University Career Center. He joined the Career Center in 2015 as an Assistant Director and began his current role on October 1, 2017. Dave received his Ph.D. from the Duke University Program in Genetics and Genomics and took a postdoctoral fellowship in the Biology Department at North Carolina Central University to gain additional teaching and research experience. Along the way, he co-founded the NCCU Postdoc Association and developed professional development programs.

What made you decide to go to graduate school and why did you choose Duke?

I wanted to go to grad school because I liked research and medicine wasn’t for me, so I started looking around at places that were doing research I found really interesting. I was traveling the country looking at different schools and when I came to Duke I thought it was a very approachable environment and would be a good fit personality-wise.

What did you do after your Ph.D.?

I did a postdoc at North Carolina Central University that was funded by Howard Hughes Medical Institute and modeled after the Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award (IRACDA) programs. It was focused mostly on biology research, but also involved designing and teaching multiple sections of a biology lab. I was part of a group at NCCU conducting education research on how we could incorporate authentic research experiences into the college classroom.

When did you realize that you were not interested in a career as a faculty member?

It definitely happened at Duke. Coming in I was definitely research focused, but around my second year I got the inkling that “maybe I don’t just want to do research,” so I took some of the courses in the Certificate in College Teaching. I TA’d for one of the undergraduate biology courses where I got to know some faculty and was involved with the launch of a revamped course designed to incorporate more active learning. I also participated in the Preparing Future Faculty program, which broadened the way I thought about academia and made it less daunting. Through PFF I learned there are a lot of options on a continuum between research and teaching. [Editors' note: The Chronicle of Higher Education recently featured Dr. McDonald and Duke's Preparing Future Faculty program.]

When did you decide not to go the traditional academic research career path? What made you decide?

When I started my postdoc, research was still my main interest. I thought teaching, research, and education research would make me a bit more unique. The main image that comes back to me is that I could write you a teaching statement no problem, but whenever I sat down to think about science and my research I really struggled writing my research statement. At some point I realized it wasn’t that I needed to spend more time on it, but that it wasn’t really what I wanted to do.

How did you transition from your postdoc to your current position?

At first I did job searches on with keywords like biology and teaching. Eventually I added words like mentorship and found the job posting at Duke [for an Assistant Director of Graduate Career Services]. When I interviewed it seemed like I brought enough knowledge and experience, but the search committee was really interested in my motivation for working with students and propelling graduate education. After the first few months on the job, it was fun in a really refreshing way and I knew it was the right fit for me.

What kinds of things do you do in the day-to-day of your position, and what parts do you enjoy most?

As Assistant Director, most of my time was spent doing student interaction. I met with students one-on-one for between 15 and 45 minutes and talked about their career development. It gave me the personal interaction aspect of teaching, but without the grading and lecturing that comes with it. I also did group-format workshops and interactive events that have more of a traditional classroom feel to them.

In my new role as Associate Director I will still provide direct services, but I’ll also lead assessment for the Career Center. I’ll be using my research skills to assess questions like, “How do we know we are doing a good job?” and “How can we improve the way students receive services?” In some ways I enjoy the difficulty of assessing human or education-related questions; they are more amorphous than the some of the more concrete sciences. Another major part of the Associate Director position will be managing and mentoring my assistant directors. Basically I’ll be providing my team with what they need to be amazing and making sure their paths aren’t fettered with obstacles.

What are the most common issues that graduate students come to you with?

The most common thing is that students limit themselves in terms of career options, so we do some creative brainstorming to help them see what is actually open to them. I also meet a lot of students who haven’t fully thought through what they want to do or really who they are. I try to help them think about why they want a type of job and why it appeals to them as a person.

What advice do you have for graduate students?

The advice I have for graduate students is to network, but I think that advice is often given out in a vague kind of way. Networking is an exploratory tool to answer questions many students don’t know the answers to, like: “What is this career path?”, “How does this thing work?”, and “What does this company do?”  Networking is a research tool for a student’s career to answer those questions, similar to a review article in a field they are unfamiliar with.

It seems like Duke has made great strides in working to make sure grad students are well prepared for careers both inside and outside academia. thank you for your help with that!

That’s what drives me, that’s what keeps me going in this: I know there’s a need.  The culture of some academic departments is no longer hostile to non-academic careers and we are definitely getting traction, but the biggest impediment I see we have right now is people are not yet actively encouraging their students to explore and do something outside of lab work.  Whether it is something like committee work for the department, teaching, or writing for the communications office, I think that is the strongest thing we can be doing for Ph.D.s right now is encouraging them to do something outside their thesis work.


Dan Keeley
Dan Keeley

Ph.D. student, Biology

Dan Keeley is a Ph.D. student in biology and studies the role of extracellular matrix in organ development. He is also interested in science communication and science policy at the state and federal levels. You can learn more on his LinkedIn profile.