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Biology Bootcamp Reboot

November 30, 2017
Biological Sciences Building

In recent years, both federal agencies and the media have noted an increase in the number of PhDs trained in the biological sciences, but the number of tenure-track positions for these PhDs has not increased at the same rate. Furthermore, reports from Woolston and Roach and Sauerman have shown that, overall, PhD students in the biological sciences demonstrate a declining interest in faculty careers. Thus, graduate programs are in a position to provide tools to guide students in discovering and preparing for future careers. These reasons were driving factors for creating a program-specific professional development course called “Biology Bootcamp,” funded by a Professional Development Grant from the Graduate School in the spring of 2015. The positive responses from the 2015 participants reinforced the idea that such a professional development course was beneficial to graduate student training, leading to a repeat offering of the course in Spring 2017.

Shorter, more focused course

Feedback from the first iteration of the course included a list of the most useful topics. Using this data, we took the top six topics and shortened the course to a half-semester. We then updated the syllabus to include short descriptions and objectives for the topics: Transferable Skills, Time Management, Networking, Science Communication, Job Applications, and Interviewing.

Certain topics were modified based on feedback. For example, during the Time Management class in 2015, we asked students to fill out a time allocation sheet to determine how they would divide a limited number of hours among competing priorities, including research, writing grants, meetings, spending time with family, etc.  During this exercise, we asked students to assume that they were a professor at an R1 institution. Given that an R1 institution professor is not reflective of the diversity of science-related careers, in the 2017 iteration we provided a broader perspective by having examples from two other professionals – a professor of the practice and a professor at a primarily teaching institution.

In some cases, the topics were successful, and no changes were made. The Interviewing panel, which consisted of Dr. Karin Pfennig (UNC-Chapel Hill), Dr. Michele Malotky (Guilford College), and Dr. Aron Silverstone (Syngenta), continued to be candid and informative. Panelists offered personal insights into life and culture at their respective institutions, how to reach those positions (including the interview process), and the qualities of a successful candidate.

Throughout the course, we cultivated an open safe space. This space allowed students to voice fears, concerns, and challenges without repercussions or judgment. We as instructors tried to encourage, motivate, and address these points and to provide the appropriate tools to aid in student development. This also generated honest discussions about other topics, including mental health, the two-body problem, and diversity in science. These are important challenges in the changing academic landscape and each topic could be expanded into specific classes for the future.

Room for improvement

While the course ran more smoothly the second time, there were a few suggestions for future iterations. The Time Management topic would still benefit from more examples of professors at different stages and different institutions, alongside professionals in other non-academic positions, such as industry, government, and science communication. As for the Job Applications class, while it is valuable to examine job applications, the immediate next step for many graduate students is searching for a postdoctoral position and applying for postdoctoral fellowships. We could dedicate some time for looking at these types of applications before examining job application packages.

The most common feedback was that there was not enough exposure to careers outside academia. This was perhaps because we did not focus on creating an Individual Development Plan and other Graduate School resources, which would have introduced some broader career options. The lack of exposure to non-academic careers was also deliberate; there is already a course for exploring careers: Succeeding Beyond Graduate School: Career Options with a PhD in the Biological Sciences. In the future, we will emphasize in our advertising that Biology Bootcamp complements the course on broad career options through its focus on self-discovery, skill development, the job search process, and challenges in science.

Future iterations

The spring 2017 course solidified a core set of topics that proved to be useful and engaging to all participants. Future iterations of Biology Bootcamp will follow the same format with modifications to each topic as time progresses. But most importantly, this format can serve as a template for other departments or graduate programs at Duke or elsewhere to develop such a course that caters to the specific needs of their graduate students. We look forward to seeing how other departments and programs adopt this model and make it their own.


Patrick Green

Patrick Green

Ph.D. candidate, Biology

Patrick Green is a Ph.D. candidate in the Biology Department at Duke. He studies the interaction of animal behavior and biomechanics in animal weapons, using the ultrafast weapons of mantis shrimp as a study system.

Irene Liao

Irene Liao

Ph.D. candidate, Biology

Irene Liao  is a Ph.D. candidate in biology. Her dissertation research is on trait evolution in plants, specifically how reduced nectar production evolved in a highly selfing morning glory species.


Mohamed Noor, Ph.D.

Mohamed Noor

Professor of Biology

Mohamed Noor, Ph.D., is a professor in the Biology Department at Duke. He does research and teaches classes on genetics, evolution, and their interface.


Kathryn Picard

Kathryn Picard

Ph.D. candidate, Biology

Kathryn Picard is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biology where she studies the evolution and diversity of marine fungi. 

Professional Development Tag

  • Career Development
  • Career Paths
  • Professional Development Grant