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Time travel for graduate students

Posted by , on 23 June 2015

Earlier this month, science & engineering graduate students at Washington University in St. Louis (WU) traveled in time. In the ballroom of the medical library, 70 students mingled with 15 young, professional scientists. At the first-annual Early Career Transitions Symposium, students got to fast-forward to learn what life might be like 5-10 years after graduation, and more importantly how to get there.

The symposium aimed to initiate discussion about the breadth of career opportunities for scientists by bringing together graduate students and local, young scientists. By inviting young scientists as our guests, the organizers targeted scientists who had recently made the transition from graduate school to their post-graduate career and whose experience would be most relevant to students nearing the end of graduate school.


Students and invited guests mingle at the Early Career Transitions Symposium at Washington University in St. Louis the evening of June 3, 2015.

Students and invited guests mingle at the Early Career Transitions Symposium at Washington University in St. Louis the evening of June 3, 2015. Photos credit: Pablo Tsukayama.


Anxiety among students about post-graduate opportunities is high, especially when students are considering leaving academia. With traditional, tenure-track positions stagnant, while Ph.D. awards continueto rise (Figure 1), trainees in scientific disciplines are taking control of their career paths. Nationally, groups like the Future of Research are starting the discussion about how science should work in the future. Others, like the National Science Policy Group, are advocating for increased research funding and giving students opportunities to explore a career in science policy.


awardsFigure 1. While the number of science and engineering Ph.D. awards has steadily increased since the 1980’s, the number of faculty positions has not kept pace. Reprinted with permission from Macmillian Publishers Ltd: Nature Biotechnology, Schillebeeckx, et al., 31, 938–941 copyright 2013 (doi:10.1038/nbt.2706).


But organization on the local level is essential for meaningful discussion about a student’s specific career path. That was the goal of student leaders organizing the Early Career Transitions Symposium.

The evening began with students and invited guests mixing and sitting down to dinner. Nathan Vanderkraats, Ph.D., was the keynote speaker. A computational scientist at Monsanto who did his post-graduate work at Washington University, Nathan urged students to follow their passion in their career. He encouraged each student to not “sell yourself short” – as graduate students in the sciences, you have a huge variety of skills, be confident of that and use it to your advantage. Finally, he cautioned not to let your scientific past determine your future. Simply because you have always been in a certain field, you should not feel limited to that field! Science is a way of thinking; bring your skills to bear on whatever the problem is you enjoy, whether it is at the bench or not. Decide where you want to be in your career and make that your reality.


Keynote speaker Nathan Vanderkraats advises graduate students to follow their passion.

Keynote speaker Nathan Vanderkraats advises graduate students to follow their passion.


Talking with the keynote speaker over dinner, biomedical graduate student, Erica Pehrsson, said she was struck by the different priorities in industry science; she learned “the focus is less on being the first to discover and publish, but instead on making sure that the result is reproducible and robust.” Graduate student Vasavi Sundaram said that she “felt hopeful about the career options post-graduation. It was very encouraging to learn that there are diverse job opportunities available. It stood out to me that the industrial sector accepts graduates with Ph.D. degrees even without a degree or experience in business development, marketing, etc.”

Graduate students at WU have been taking initiative to jump-start their careers for years. The BALSA Group, founded 2010, is a consulting firm staffed by graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. By participating in six-weeks long consulting projects, students get training in consulting and exposure to the local biotech community. Additionally, the BioEntrepreneurship Core organizes annual career panels and sponsors IdeaBounce competitions along with the WU Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship for students to learn about the entrepreneurial scene and pitch their own ideas.

Lastly, ProSPER (WU Graduate Students Promoting Science Policy, Education, and Research) was established in 2012 and is a career development group with an emphasis on science policy and communication. ProSPER identifies areas of need and creates opportunities for graduate students to explore. We have sent students to Capitol Hill for advocacy days, organized field trips to local industry to talk about the importance of science communication, and regularly have scientists speak about their career paths and experiences in the science policy arena.

Of the Career Symposium, engineering graduate student Jake Meyer noted, “The event was great. I have known that I do not want to stay in academia after graduate school but was unsure of the paths, or even the options, out there to build my career. I learned about several different avenues to take and develop now so that I can make the move out of academia smoother as I approach graduation.”

At the end of the evening, students came away feeling motivated and encouraged about the future. Career panelists often recount stories about one specific connection that leads to a dream job – and this perspective can seem discouraging, especially if you feel your professional network is small. But realize the strength of your network! It only takes one connection to lead to an opportunity. At the Early Career Transitions Symposium, WU graduate students traveled in time, met their future scientist-selves, and were building their professional network.


Students and invited guests talk about careers for scientists over dinner.

Students glean career advice from invited guests over dinner.

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