Erin Hopper, Ph.D., received her degree in Chemistry in 2009. She is currently the research director in the Office of Research and Graduate Education at the University of North Carolina General Administration, the system-wide office that serves the 17 UNC campuses across the state.
What professional or career plans did you have in mind as you were completing your graduate degree?
I entered graduate school thinking that I would pursue a career in industry. About midway through my graduate program I started thinking that continuing a career in bench-top research might not be for me. I found a lot of support and room for professional development with the Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) group at Duke. I joined the planning committee for WiSE and started developing programs. I also participated in events sponsored by the Office of Postdoctoral Services, which helped me develop professional skills. It was my involvement with these two organizations that helped me discover that I was passionate about professional development for science trainees.
What has your career path looked like since you graduated?
Even though I had found something I was passionate about, I still wasn’t sure that I wanted to leave bench-top research. I actually had a job offer for a position in industry, but I decided to turn that down to accept a postdoctoral position at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). I continued developing my research skills but was also able to gain more experience in educational programming. I helped organize the annual NIEHS Biomedical Career Symposium and chaired the NIEHS Trainees’ Assembly (the postdoc association) while I was a postdoc and participated in other activities to help build up my resume for a career in professional development. I had a great mentor in the Office of Fellows’ Career Development at the NIEHS who was supportive of my career aspirations and a great role model for how to communicate science.
After my postdoc I became the director of the TIBBS program at UNC-Chapel Hill. Communication was a large component of my position, and I enjoyed working to create a unified look and feel for the program. Working directly with students and postdocs to help them achieve career success was extremely rewarding. I was in this position for about three years before starting my current job.
Tell us more about your current job. What is your favorite thing about what you do?
I work in the Office of Research and Graduate Education at UNC General Administration, where I direct the Research Opportunities Initiative (ROI), a new program that provides state funding to support research at universities in the UNC system. We have a budget of $3 million per year and recently funded our first six projects. My function is to manage the process of recruiting award applications, make award recommendations for approval by the President, manage the budget, and decide how many awards we can give out.
Another major role is to evaluate award outcomes and communicate these outcomes to state legislators and other stakeholders. One of my primary goals is to educate people about how research benefits the state and how university research and funding is important to the training of students and postdoctoral fellows. I love the communication aspect of my job and am very excited about some of our upcoming initiatives. We recently launched our website and are working on a video series to communicate specific outcomes of the ROI-funded research projects.
How did you learn the skills relevant to your current job?
My previous position as Director of TIBBS allowed me to build skills in program management that have been directly applicable to my current position. I don’t have any formal training in communication, but I’ve been able to gain skills while on the job by working with supportive colleagues. When I need to learn new skills I am able to reach out to the UNC network. For example, I have recently partnered with the Office of Research Communications at UNC-Chapel Hill to create a communication plan, design our website, and manage our videography project, all of which has been a lot of fun. I also network regularly with colleagues who do similar grants management work, such as individuals at the NC Biotechnology Center. Although it’s been a hard road to get where I am, I have no regrets about earning my Ph.D. I love science, and I especially enjoy being able to be part of it without working at the bench. I can’t imagine a better job for me.
Any advice you’d like to share with current Duke graduate students?
If you choose to pursue postdoctoral training, develop a clear idea of what you want to accomplish as a postdoc. You don’t want to get to the end of graduate school and start a postdoc just because it’s the next thing to do, so the earlier you can start thinking about what you would like to do after graduate school the better.
Also, start thinking about professional development opportunities early on in graduate school. Take advantage of tools such as myIDP and opportunities to develop both written and oral communication skills—these will be necessary in any career.
Finally, take some time to do something else in graduate school outside of your research project. Don’t limit your opportunities to try new things and discover what you like because you feel pressured to always be doing science. An hour of time here and there during your graduate training could save you months or even years of time down the road if it helps guide your career decision-making process and allows you to build skills that will help you get your first job.
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