Career fair. Image credit: Penn State (flickr: pennstatelive)
Career fair. Image credit: Penn State (flickr: pennstatelive)

My involvement with the GPD began in 2012, when under the auspices of the Immunology Graduate Students Association (IGSA) I helped to initiate the student-run Career Development Series, which invites alumni from our department to talk with graduate students about their career paths. The goal of these sessions was to give students insight into the exciting and horrifying prospect of “the real world”, for like many other senior PhD students, I had started attending networking events and generally seeking any career help that I could find. In 2013, I attended the University of Toronto’s Biomedical Career Development Workshop and it was here that I encountered Dr. Nana Lee. Nana, along with Dr. Reinhart Reithmeier, developed and implemented a course in graduate professional development in 2012 for all incoming graduate students in the Department of Biochemistry. As a perspective article in Science Careers pointed out, this course “transformed the thinking of the students and opened their eyes to the realities and opportunities of the job market”. Fortunately for Immunology, Nana approached our chair Dr. Juan Carlos Zúñiga-Pflücker about starting a similar program in our department. As a result, we had our own first GPD course in January of 2014. To ensure that the new course incorporated Immunology alumni, I, along with IGSA members Leesa Pennell and Jasty Singh, collaborated with Nana on the networking portion of the GPD course. I also decided to take the course myself to become better prepared for the job market after my PhD.

The Layout
The first installment of the GPD course ran from January to March 2014, with a 3-hour long session held every other week for a total of 6 sessions. The sessions encompassed a broad range of topics, such as how to acquire professional skills for a successful scientific career, how to land the job, how to career transition through life, how to choose the best post-doctoral position, and how to communicate effectively in different settings. Each class was arranged around a specific theme and was followed by networking sessions with successful PhDs from a variety of professions including medical writing, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, consulting, technology transfer, sales, government, and post-doctoral work. These guest speakers came with their own stories and helpful advice on how to land a job in that field. Students had the opportunity to interact with the speakers individually and as a panel, with further networking done in a more casual social setting after each class.

Sessions encompassed a broad range of topics, such as how to acquire professional skills for a successful scientific career, how to land the job…and how to communicate effectively in different settings.

The class also involved written assignments designed to help students build on their job-searching and communications skills, and to challenge them to really consider their future careers. The first assignment was to write a summary of their research that condensed complex research proposals into simple ideas suitable for a general audience at the level of a Grade 10 education. The next involved finding a real job posting and writing a one-page resume and cover letter for the position; the idea here was to highlight attributes important for the job instead of writing an academic CV. The third assignment was either to write a one-page job proposal to transition from a full-time Application Scientist to a part-time one due to new parenting responsibilities, or to create a new position that did not previously exist. The crucial element required in either assignment was to be creative and resourceful. The last assignment was to select two of the professionals present at any networking event and explain why they would be key assets in a professional network. This assignment challenged the students to treat networking as something purposeful that would lead to future connections. All in all, the assignments were wonderful complements to the course materials and helped students become more prepared for the job market.

The Entry and Exit Surveys
career-infographic-v2In the first class, students were given an entry survey to assess how prepared each individual perceived themselves to be for the job market, followed by questions about their long-term goals and five-year plans. The students were also asked to identify the essential skills that were previously developed to succeed in the job market. A second survey with similar questions was conducted at the end of the term, which additionally asked students to identify the skills they felt that they had acquired during the course.

The majority of the graduate students taking this course were in their fourth year and above, and many of their five-year plans involved professional goals such as “to graduate” or “to find a job or a post-doc position” while a few involved personal goals such as starting a family. Prior to the course, fewer than 40% of the students felt that they had all three essential job-searching skills (networking, resume/cover letter writing and interview/elevator speech); those numbers dramatically increased to roughly 70-90% after the class. Similarly, very few students felt that they understood the basic operation of a business prior to taking the class; that number increased to just over 30% after the course. With regard to the need for mentorship, many of the students believed that they had a mentor in academia, but few felt that they had a suitable mentor outside of academia. Encouragingly, most students felt very comfortable with the personal skills they had acquired in academia, such as oral and written communication. They also felt at ease with leadership, people management, financial management, and work-life balance. The confidence in oral communication skills was further enhanced during the course, presumably through the crash course on communicating research to the general public. By the end of the course, the majority of students reported feeling moderately prepared for the job market challenges ahead.

The End Result
All of the GPD students who completed the survey chose to recommend this course to others, a clear affirmation of the much-needed career aid that this course offers. Michael Wortzman, a recent PhD graduate from Dr. Tania Watts’ lab, successfully landed a job after an initial meeting with Dr. Christine Williams, VP of Research and Policy at the Canadian Cancer Society. During the networking sessions in the course, he had the opportunity to chat with her and express his interest in working at the Society. He responded to the job posting online a few days later while keeping in touch with her over email. He was then given the chance to complete a written assignment that led to two face-to-face interviews, ultimately resulting in a job offer for Assistant Director in Research Programs. When asked whether he would recommend this course to other students, he said, “Yes,” and added, “At the very least, it enables you to start thinking about the next stage in your life, and what kind of challenges lie ahead of you, along with strategies to overcome them.” When asked which particular aspect of the course really helped him land the job, he responded, “In particular, the exercise in which we developed the skills to succinctly explain our research in just a few minutes in an engaging and accessible way to the public was a key skill that my employer was looking for. In fact, I gave my presentation impromptu during my first interview!”

He may be an exceptional example, but the majority of the students who took the GPD course felt more confident in their ability to find and secure a future career. When asked to compare between the Immunology and Biochemistry students, Nana found that there were a lot of similarities. For instance, the intention to pursue academia often shifts after third year and by that point, many students are not sure how to change their trajectories. Some students are not aware of the many options out there besides professorship and industry research. Many students do not realize that the interests outside of the lab can be assets to job-searching and should be included in a resume, especially if the interest involves leadership. In the Fall 2014 term, Nana will be bringing a new and improved GPD course to the Department, with more emphasis on mock interviews, group projects and leadership skills. When asked to summarize the whole course into one take-home message, Nana responded by saying, “Start early to find your passion, develop the skills and network to get there, and implement to success.”

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Angela Zhang

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3 thoughts on “Are We Prepared? A Student Review of the Graduate Professional Development (GPD) Course

  1. Congratulations on completing the GPD course and describing your experience so well in this article! As Special Advisor to the Dean of SGS I would like to ensure that all our graduate students have the opportunity to develop their skill set and build their network so they can take advantage of the diverse job opportunities available to them in today’s global job market.

  2. Thank you for the article! I am pleased that GPD is strengthening the graduate program and with feedback, the course is always being enhanced. For example, this year I have Dr. Arash Zarrine-Afsar to address how to start a company and Dr. Cynthia Goh to address entrepreneurship. Just to clarify on the last statistic that you presented. The question posed was “Do you feel more job-market ready after taking GPD?” and the selections were 1) not at all 2) a little 3) somewhat 4) mostly and 5) already have a job lined up.

    It’s been a pleasure getting to know some of you and I look forward to working with the rest of you soon.

  3. Thank you, Dr. Reithmeier! As a graduate student about to defend her PhD, I sincerely appreciate the recent push from SGS and our own department for graduate professional development. Many of us senior students feel more prepared for the job market – and it is certainly a good feeling. While I believe that many of us are still trying to figure out exactly what we want to do after graduation, having developed professional skills certainly lessens the anxiety.

    Thank you, Nana, for the clarification. The new additions on entrepreneurship in the course will undoubtedly help us think about where and how we can take our research and our ideas to the next level.

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