Helping our Program Help Us with Career Development

 May 28, 2014

L-R: Lauren Lilley Lohmer, Erin Soule, Melissa Keenan, Jared Barrott, Allie McClure, Richard Mortensen, Marcela Kokes. Not pictured: Matt Crowe, Sarah Lawson Gemberling.

My graduate career has been a bit bumpy (although whose hasn’t!), and during my 3rd-year slump, I spent a lot of time asking myself if I really wanted a PhD.  By having to face this question, I realized very quickly that I had no idea what a PhD could do for me.  I knew I wanted out of academia, but what else was there?

Last spring, the director of the Cell and Molecular Biology (CMB) program, who also happens to be my advisor, asked for my advice on how the program could help students better prepare for their career.  We considered many ideas, but landed on a required annual conversation with someone at Duke.  Amazingly simple and straightforward, this approach would give students a push to help themselves think about their own careers.

There were a few other considerations that we brought to the CMB student body during a town hall meeting.  For example, I was worried that some students would not feel comfortable discussing career plans with their advisors, and we decided that the required conversation must be with someone other than their advisor.  This strategy avoids any potential conflicts and, even more importantly, encourages students to build their network.  It also became clear that students were having a hard time knowing where to even begin.  This was my problem, too, but by this point I had been going to events on campus through WiSE and the Duke Career Center.  I was developing of sense of potential careers, but it was still a hodge-podge of ideas.

So my advisor suggested putting together a committee.  I gathered nine CMB students across different years and fields, with the goal of helping students in our program navigate the different career resources at Duke and online.  We started by gathering a long list of resources ranging from Duke courses to local networking groups to online articles about how to pick a postdoc.  When we were deciding how to organize these resources into something practical for students, I invited the instrumental Dr. Melissa Bostrom to help us develop a framework.

We recently went live with our webpages.  We’ve provided a vetted list of resources to help CMB students with the career development process at different stages of our graduate program: getting started, getting more in-depth information, and preparing to transition to the next step.  While our goal was to help CMB students, most of our resources can be used by students in any of the biomedical sciences.  It would be great to see more student-led groups gather their own resources and share them as well as their experiences in career development with us and the Duke community.

I hope that students will find the webpages helpful, especially so they can feel more confident in trying to decide on a career path and, in cases like mine, feel confident about finishing the PhD.   I’ve found the resources as well as the process of thinking about career development very worthwhile; I now realize that, actually, I do wish to become a faculty member in academia.

Allie McClure is a PhD Candidate in the Cell and Molecular Biology and Molecular Cancer Biology programs at Duke University, and she studies how yeast cells can find their mating partner as a model of gradient tracking. You can find Allie on LinkedIn.