Graduate students trained as researchers can follow a multitude of career options both in and outside academia. Often, graduate students realize very late that they’re best suited for a career outside academia--or even that other options exist. This year, we (four Ph.D. students and one professor) used funding from The Graduate School to help address this issue by designing and teaching a "Biology Boot Camp" course to help Ph.D. students in the biological sciences identify their career goals and gain tangible skills to achieve them. We each led two to three sessions on topics including identifying transferable skills, giving effective presentations, management of time and people, and networking. In a previous blog entry, we shared our experience preparing for this class as it was just beginning. We now take the opportunity to reflect on the course.
How we succeeded
Overall, students felt that the course broadened their perspective and made them aware of issues and career options that they had not previously considered. Even though few (if any) courses are required in the biology department, well over half of the enrolled students thought the course should become required, and many others felt it should be strongly encouraged. Many students appreciated their new awareness of topics we covered in the course and wished they were aware of them earlier in graduate school. We feel that these responses reaffirm the reasons we designed the course.
Our most popular session was a panel discussing job applications and interviews. Three speakers participated, from UNC-Chapel Hill, a research university; Guilford College, a liberal arts college; and Syngenta, a biotechnology company. This class illustrated successful strategies that spanned institutions—even ones as simple as having an upbeat attitude. Students especially appreciated the panelists’ candor in discussing sensitive issues, such as the influence of gender biases on hiring decisions. The Q&A session was particularly fruitful, as panelists shared their experiences as both interviewers and interviewees.
In another popular session on transferable skills, students voiced concern about the skills developed over the course of earning a doctorate and feeling unqualified for non-academic careers. After participating in activities designed to identify soft skills gained during their Ph.D.s, students were surprised to realize that many skills they’ve developed are in demand outside academia. For example, the statistical analysis and problem-solving that most graduate students utilize daily are crucial, and surprisingly uncommon, in the real world.
What we'll try to improve
While Duke's biology program has a high academic job placement rate compared to the national average, students felt we didn’t explore non-academic career options deeply enough. For example, our discussion of time management focused mainly on academic schedules, but most students lack knowledge of what a non-academic’s daily calendar looks like. For future iterations of the course, we hope to create more connections to non-academic jobs by soliciting resources from professionals in diverse careers, discussing specific job ads, and designing mock applications for those jobs.
Another shortcoming of the class, as with any class, was our inability to cover all desired topics. Students had hoped to address topics such as diversity in science and maintaining the boundary between professional and social behavior with colleagues.
Finally, many topics emphasized career challenges. In future iterations, we plan to focus the final minutes of each class on a positive discussion.
First and foremost, we are deeply grateful to The Graduate School for providing us the resources to host this class. It was immensely helpful for improving our own professional development, awareness, and insight into careers in the biological sciences. Developing and teaching classes ourselves, as well as watching each other lead, gave us greater experience with diverse pedagogical approaches.
As for the future of Biology Boot Camp, those of us who are not graduating would like to offer it again next year. We won't try to make it a required class at this time, but by diversifying topics and responding to student feedback, we hope to expand enrollment and potentially encourage repeat enrollment. We hope this class will continue to provide useful discussions for instructors and students alike as we move forward toward our chosen careers, and perhaps to serve as a model for similar initiatives in other departments or programs at Duke.
Ph.D. candidate, Biology
Erin McKenney is a gut microbiologist in the biology department. Her dissertation research focuses on colonization in captive lemurs, but she is also interested in a broad range of interdisciplinary teaching and research.
Professional Development Tag
- Career Development
- Career Paths
- Professional Development Grant