Developing the Right Skills for Your Scientific Career

In this episode of Expert Insights for the Research Training Community, Dr. Cynthia Fuhrmann, assistant dean of career and professional development in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and Dr. Ann M. Stock, co-director of the Rutgers Biotechnology Training Program, explain how to apply the individual development plan process and identify relevant technical, professional, and career-specific skills. They also discuss leveraging resources—including advisors, mentors, and external materials—to support skills development.

The original recording of this episode took place as a webinar on July 15, 2020, with NIGMS host Dr. Alison Gammie. A Q&A session with webinar attendees followed Dr. Fuhrmann and Dr. Stock’s talk.

Recorded on July 15, 2020

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Podcast Transcript: Developing the Right Skills for Your Scientific Career

Announcer:

Welcome to Expert Insights for the Research Training Community—A podcast from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Adapted from our webinar series, this is where the biomedical research community can connect with fellow scientists to gain valuable insights.

Dr. Alison Gammie:

Hello, everyone. Thanks for tuning in today. We hope that you’re all doing well during these challenging times.

Today’s webinar is part of a larger series that’s being hosted by NIGMS, and it’s to provide an opportunity for the training community to engage with individuals on a variety of topics that are relevant to biomedical scientists. Past webinars on a broad range of subjects are available on the NIGMS web page. You can put in the search term “NIGMS webinars,” and it should pop right to the top.

Today’s webinar is entitled “Developing the Right Skills for Your Scientific Career.” And without any further ado, it’s my pleasure to introduce today’s speakers.

We have Dr. Cynthia Fuhrmann. Cynthia earned her Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology at UCSF. She’s currently an assistant dean of career and professional development in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, and she’s an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular pharmacology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She has 15 years of experience directing programs in professional skills training and career planning for early-career biomedical scientists. She founded and directs UMass Med’s Center for Biomedical Career Development. This is a scholarly incubator for educational approaches in Ph.D. career development. She co-authored MyIDP, an interactive career-planning website that is hosted by the American Association of Science, and it’s used by nearly 200,000 early-career scientists worldwide. Her work on career-interested Ph.D. students has really contributed to the growing national dialogue over career preparedness for biomedical scientists, and we’re really thrilled that she is taking the time today to speak with us.

Our second speaker is Dr. Ann Stock. Dr. Stock earned her Ph.D. in comparative biochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. She’s currently a distinguished professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and the associate director for the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine. Her research focuses on bacterial signal transduction, with an emphasis on principles of system design and structure-function studies of two-component signaling pathways. Dr. Stock is involved in a number of professional activities nationwide that are relevant to training the next generation of biomedical researchers. This includes serving as a co-director of an NIGMS-funded T32 program, the Rutgers Biotechnology Training Program. As you may know, these programs have a longstanding internship component involved with them. Ann will bring her experience as a mentor and program director to today’s discussion.

And without taking any more time, I’ll turn the webinar over to Cynthia and Ann.

Dr. Cynthia Fuhrmann:

Thank you so much for that introduction. When we think about this question of how to develop the right skills for your scientific career, we think about a couple of primary questions built into that. First of all, what are the right skills that you might need to develop? And secondly, how do I develop those skills? How do you develop those skills as an individual? These are really unique questions for every individual, and so what our goal is today is we’re going to give you a brief introduction and overview to give you some tools for addressing these two questions yourself. And we look forward to some discussion at the end of this brief introduction. Let’s start with these two questions: What are the right skills?

Dr. Ann Stock:

So first of all, we need to define what we mean by “skills,” and Cynthia and I find it useful to categorize skills into three different types: technical, professional, and career-specific skills. So technical skills are generally defined as those that are specific to the conduct of laboratory research in your own discipline—for example, designing experiments; precision and accuracy in data collection; analytical and problem-solving abilities such as interpreting data and troubleshooting; proficiency in procedures and use of laboratory equipment that could be as specific as a particular form of microscopy or animal skills; and, of course, knowledge of literature both in a general discipline and related to a specific project.

Professional skills, on the other hand, are less discipline specific and include, for example, communication skills, both oral and written; interpersonal teamwork, mentoring, and leadership skills; and, of course, organization, planning, and time management.

Career-specific skills are as diverse as the range of careers. For example, classroom teaching experience is important for an academic career, especially at primarily undergraduate institutions, while something as different as mastery of illustration software, drawing, and design skills would be necessary for a career as a scientific illustrator. So I won’t continue to elaborate on this because given the great diversity of careers available to bio scientists, this list of career-specific skills is almost endless.

But before we move on, I should note that while it’s useful to categorize skills, the lines between the categories are definitely blurred. Furthermore, how professional skills are used in other sectors such as industry or even how a specific professional skill is applied in a role as a student or a postdoc may differ from how it is applied as a faculty member. The good news it that many of the skills that you will develop as a bio scientist will be transferable. But you should also be very willing and ready to learn on the job. And as I have mentioned, there are many relevant skills, and you will need to identify and prioritize which are the skills that you need to develop. Fortunately, there is a framework to assist in this process, and this tool is the individual development plan that Cynthia will describe.

Dr. Cynthia Fuhrmann:

You may have heard of the concept of an individual development plan before, and hopefully your program or even advisor have encouraged you or required you to develop individual development plans. The reason why this is so important is because your professional development and your skills development really are individualized to each one of you. And so the idea behind an individual development plan is, of course, to result in you proactively developing a plan for your own professional development in the coming year. But it’s not just about the product that is the action plan, such as the two shown here, at the end of an individual development plan process.

It’s really the process of creating an IDP that is key. And that process comes down to really stepping back from your day-to-day work and reflecting and assessing yourself and gathering information from others to understand, what are my key areas of growth? How has my progress been going so far on my project? Where do I want to move forward in my future career path? And how might I need to continue developing, including my skills development, any experience that I need, developing my network, or other aspects to move forward towards my future goals?

And so the individual development plan process, or IDP process, includes this reflection and self-assessment piece. Lots of discussions with mentors and others. Career exploration—because often as we are in training, our career, typically, actually, our career interests shift over time, and it’s really important to be informed about various options available to scientists, to reflect on what your strengths are and what you’re excited about doing in the future, and to even innovate next avenues for your own path.

As you do this, you’ll probably identify a number of skills to develop, but what you’ll need to do is prioritize, and then ultimately for your action plan and your IDP, set goals. Because this is a process, there are tools available to support you, to guide you through that process. So myIDP, which I was the one of the four original co-authors for, came out in 2012, and it was the first individual development plan tool tailored to Ph.D.-level/graduate-level scientists.

So all of us, as co-authors, really actually work specifically with biomedical scientists so that that tool really does have a biomedical twist. Other tools have come out since then that are focused in other disciplines, such as ChemIDP for chemists, or ImaginePhD for social scientists and humanists, all of which are focused at the graduate and postdoctoral levels. A number of universities and graduate programs, training programs, even individual labs, have also developed their own IDP processes or tools or forms to guide you through an IDP process, but at their heart, it’s this core process that’s important. We felt like we really wanted to make sure we brought this process forward, because in identifying your skills, that skill development is a key part of your own professional development and your IDP.

So how do you identify what your strengths are and what your skill gaps might be? A number of these IDP tools include in them skills assessments—a list of skills common to scientists that you can use to think to yourself and self-assess where your strengths might be. A lot of literature actually has demonstrated that people aren’t the best sometimes at assessing their own strengths or weaknesses, so it’s highly advisable to talk to others as you do this. You could even print out a list from myIDP or others and give it to a research advisor or to peers or colleagues who work with you, or just have a conversation with them to learn more from them about what your particular areas of strength are and what some skills areas are where you might want to grow.

There are also additional tools available that you should explore. For example, if your university or institution has a career center or a graduate school and someone trained in career counseling, they might have tools such as the Clifton Strengths Finder, or other tools that you can use to explore what your own particular strengths are. So a key question remaining, then: What are the skills that I’m going to need for my future career path? And some of those might be clear and some, for many of us, if we’re moving into a career path that’s a little less well-known, we might be a little hazy about what skills we’ll actually need.

Dr. Ann Stock:

So once you’ve decided on a potential career, there are many ways to begin to identify career-specific skills. A really logical place to begin is to look at job postings and highlight the listed skills. You can also read articles or career profiles at myIDP or at scientific societies or on your own campus and career centers.

For instance, those interested in academic careers, there’s been a recent rubric of assessment skills that was published in the American Society of Cell Biology’s Life Science Education journal that’s cited here. You can attend the live or virtual career panels.

And one upside of the current COVID-19 restrictions is the abundance of online content that is now broadly available. But most importantly, you want to talk to people. And you might be really surprised at how willing people are to assist others interested in similar careers. Alumni are great resources, so is your LinkedIn network or contacts through scientific or professional societies. Some institutions have some immersive experiences that can help as well, and one of these is job shadowing.

Unlike internships, job shadowing is not focused on a project, but rather is focused on exposure to a career. And in a shadowing experience, you typically would spend a couple of weeks following a professional around, seeing what a particular job actually entails. Another immersive experience is job simulation workshops that Cynthia will elaborate on.

Dr. Cynthia Fuhrmann:

So the concept of job simulations is new to the Ph.D. sciences, and it emerged in the last couple of years. The idea is that immersive experiential opportunities, like internship programs, might be ideal for getting experience and also even exploring career options and understanding better the skills needed in those careers.

But there are also opportunities, ways we can simulate a small piece of those internships, and that’s called a job simulation. A job simulation is basically just taking a task that is common to a career path and doing an exercise related to that task. You’re doing the work in the frame of mind of someone in that role. It gives you that experience.

It also gives you experience in recognizing how some of the skills that you’ve developed, such as your communication skills or others, might apply directly to this type of task. So there’s libraries of job simulations specific to Ph.D.-level scientists. One of them is the InterSECT library, which is available at intersectjobsims.com. This library provides detailed instructions and resources for job simulation exercises that might take about four to eight hours, maybe a little bit longer, to complete.

Another library that we developed as part of our curriculum at UMass Medical School is called the MicroSim Library. We call them MicroSims because we designed them as part of our curriculum to just be one to two hours, so there are tasks that are even a shorter time commitment. Either one of these are good opportunities to get a sense, from reading these job simulations almost on your own and practicing them, to get a sense of what skills might be valuable for a given career path.

You won’t necessarily develop the skill in depth, but mostly it gives you an opportunity to then have an informational interview with someone and even discuss your job simulation with them, show them your product, ask them questions about how that job relates to their common role.

We do these exercises, the MicroSims, as part of our curriculum at UMass Medical School, and our students have shared that it’s been extremely valuable to them to discuss with the professionals, these Ph.D. scientists in these roles, exactly how these activities play in their jobs. And you can access our MicroSims in our educators portal at best.umassmed.edu.

So how do you develop your skills? So if you’ve identified the types of career-specific skills you might need, other professional or technical skills you might need in your training or for your own professional development, and you’ve prioritized the list of skills you want to develop, then how do you identify how to do that?

Well, often we would think if we want to develop skills we should practice them, maybe we take a course. If I want to develop my grant-writing skills, maybe I could take a course in how to write grants. Interestingly, as you progress in your career, there will be workshops and courses available to you, and as Ann mentioned, more and more so in a virtual sense so that more and more people can participate in these types of courses and workshops.

But also, as you specialize in what you do, there may or may not be courses and workshops available. So as we coach our students and postdocs in creating individual development plans and action plans for actually how to develop their skills, we suggest this framework.

To think about how you might get training or learn strategies for that skill. How you are going to practice the skill, because practicing is really essential for developing it. And how you can get feedback from people knowledgeable about that skill. And so on this slide I show a few examples of where these pieces might come into play in this framework.

You could take a course or a workshop to do all three of those things—get training, practice, and get feedback. But you can also, for example, talk to your research advisor and share that you want to develop your skills in writing grant proposals, and might they share with you an example proposal that they’ve written that you could then look at carefully and have a few discussions with them about the strategies that they used to develop that proposal.

Or perhaps you could even help them develop a part of the grant proposal. So there are ways that you can think about and build right into your research training how you can develop skills that you can use within your training and beyond for your next steps in your career.

Dr. Ann Stock:

Regardless of the extensiveness of the skills that you have developed, as we mentioned previously, you should be ready to learn on the job. You can’t possibly learn everything ahead of time, and of course, it isn’t expected. This is especially true for career-specific skills, and for these it is largely about the awareness of skills needed and the recognition that there are differences in settings. In fact, learning things ahead of time is not even necessarily desired, because employers like to shape their own employees. And there will certainly be differences in specific methods in different settings, so the important thing is to be adaptable and be curious. Transferable skills and the ability to learn, the things that are inherent in biosciences training, are really the things that will help you.

So as we wrap this up, in the past few minutes we’ve attempted to provide an overview of the topic. And these three elements that we’re listing here we believe are particularly relevant—specifically how to apply the individual development plan process for skills development, how to identify and develop the relevant technical, professional, and career-specific skills, and how to leverage resources to support skills development. And these include interactions with your advisors, your mentors, your institution, and also external and online resources. So we would be happy to discuss these issues with you or anything else related to developing skills for your scientific career, so we’ll get started on some questions and answers, hopefully.

Dr. Alison Gammie:

Great. That was wonderful. Thanks, both of you. We already have some questions in the chat, and I’ll start with those. So one question came about the job simulations, and the question is, “Is there some sort of evaluation process that’s involved so that a person can get feedback on their performance?”

Dr. Cynthia Fuhrmann:

So what we encourage students/postdocs to do is to extend this experience by doing the job simulation and setting up an opportunity to talk to a professional who does that type of work. Those follow-up conversations can be so, so rich.

And so the InterSECT library may have some evaluation pieces to help you self-assess, but in the end, you’re going to get the richest feedback by talking to someone who does this type of work. And I will say that if you reach out to somebody, they may have never heard of job simulations because this is kind of a new thing, but I bet they will be…What we’ve found is that professionals get really excited about this.

You can imagine, they’ve been doing their job; they remember being a Ph.D. and not being sure what they’re going to do next, and remember being in your shoes, and to hear that there is an exercise that mimics what they do, they’ll be curious to see what the exercise is, and they will probably really love giving you feedback. So be ready for a specific and really rich conversation.

Dr. Ann Stock:

So I’ll just add to that. At our institution, our job simulations that we do are run as workshops, and they’re really intended more to identify skills that are necessary in tackling some of the things and projects or scenarios that one would encounter in a particular job, rather than actually using the short, couple-hour workshops for the development of skills.

And in our institution, the majority of our job simulation workshops are run by professionals in the field that we bring in from various companies, neighboring industries, government offices, etc. And so these are wonderful contacts and resources to help create the connections that students and postdocs can follow up with later on to get more information about skills. And not only what the skills are that one might need, but what types of courses or resources or other activities might help in the development of those skills.

Dr. Cynthia Fuhrmann:

I’ll add, too, that something we found is that peers learning with each other about career options and thinking about these things can be a very, very valuable experience. And so something that you might want to consider, students and postdocs out there, are recruiting other friends who have similar interests to you and doing job simulations together, doing them individually and coming together to meet and inviting a professional to Zoom in with you on that discussion. So there are a lot of opportunities to do this creatively and learn from each other and have richer conversations.

Dr. Alison Gammie:

That’s great. Thanks to both of you. We have another question that is about any advice that you have for junior faculty in terms of career development and identifying skills and how to develop those skills.

Dr. Ann Stock:

That’s a really great question, and it might be somewhat institution specific. Clearly, there are many different types of academic environments that one finds oneself in, and the skills that will be emphasized and needed at different types of institutions, whether they’re research-intensive or primarily undergraduate institutions, are likely to be somewhat different.

So I hesitate to emphasize a particular set of skills. I think, as a starting point, the literature reference that we cited earlier that was put out by the American Society for Cell Biology is a very nice place to start that kind of defines broadly some skills that are important in academia.

But I think that it can, in part, be guided by the institution, the culture of the institution, and very importantly, mentors at the institution. And I know that at many institutions now a required a component of an offer letter is assignment of a mentor. And these mentors can be very, very useful, but I suggest going beyond the individual mentor that is assigned.

I think that people, especially academicians, should have multiple mentors, and you might find that different people would be most appropriate for mentoring in different areas. And so I encourage you to reach out to create your own network of mentors and rely on them to help you not only with identifying the skills but also with the strategies and the resources available at the institution, whether it be perfecting or honing grant writing skills to being a better lecturer or a better educator.

There are many resources within institutions, typically, that are available for faculty development. There at many resources available at professional societies and scientific societies as well that can help out in that regard.

Dr. Cynthia Fuhrmann:

I want to emphasize national resources to build on that. Scientific societies, professional societies are an awesome resource, and even serving on committees for professional societies can help to broaden your network amongst other colleagues and identify external mentors that way through those relationships you built on committees. I will also say that there are some specific skills that come to mind when I think about junior faculty.

One is leadership and management skills and mentoring skills. So the Office of Intramural Training and Education at NIH, led by Sharon Milgram, offers some great workshops on leadership and management. Many of them are focused for students and postdocs, but they also host things for faculty. And in fact, some of those resources are available as recordings and free online as live events, and so their website is a good one to go to for some of that introductory training in leadership and management.

Another resource that comes to mind is that NRMN, the National Research Mentoring Network, which offers, in partnership with CIMER, training in mentoring. And so you can participate in those trainings individually, as well as groups through your institution, and the training available includes culturally aware mentorship, which is very, very important.

Another resource is presentation skills. The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science is an awesome resource for enhancing your presentation and communication skills about science and teaching skills. For example, through CIRTL—and I’m forgetting the full acronym for CIRTL—CIRTL is another fantastic resource for developing teaching skills.

There are a lot of resources out there, and partnering with individual mentoring, peer groups, maybe things offered through your office of faculty affairs and through these national opportunities can help you develop some skills there.

Dr. Alison Gammie:

Great, thanks. So we have another question. A person is trying to get a career launched in bioinformatics. Given the current global situation, this person is not sure it’s the best thing to do, so they’re looking for advice. Are there any online trainings for developing quantitative computational skills? Should they try to get a master’s or Ph.D. degree? But they’re also a little bit nervous about the state of education right now. So any insights you can provide would be appreciated.

Dr. Ann Stock:

So I think that there really is a question of what level one wants to be using bioinformatics for, and that would certainly determine whether a master’s or a Ph.D. would be necessary for the types of careers that one might want.

Certainly delving into a graduate degree would provide a deeper skill set that would allow one to go further within the field. There is a little bit of a question of exactly what one means when one says “bioinformatics.” It can mean different things to different people, and certainly at different levels, whether it’s the application of existing tools to mining biological information, or whether it’s at the pushing the envelope at the next level of actually creating new tools to take things in new directions, and the latter probably would require an advanced degree.

So I think that, like any advanced degree, one of the better places to start is looking at institutions and programs on websites of various graduate programs for places that have strengths in bioinformatics. And then a big decision of how far one wants to go down the path of developing computational skills that will allow you to really push the field forward and whether joint degrees in computer science as well as in the biosciences could be valuable to you.

I’m myself not familiar with online courses that are available in bioinformatics. I suspect that they exist. I suspect very strongly that if not many of them exist now, that within the next year we’re going to see an absolute explosion in these sorts of activities and things that are available, because during the restrictions that have kept us away from bench research in the laboratory, an enormous number of young scientists have been pursuing computational and bioinformatics projects.

For example, our summer undergraduate research program this year has been entirely remote with everyone doing bioinformatics projects. So we’re going to see, I think, actually a boom in this area going forward, and I think that many more opportunities will be available in online format.

We’ve seen during the pandemic many, many more resources popping up, and many schools that had had only minimal online opportunities are now providing extensive online courses that are broadly available. So I think stay tuned, and I’m not sure that that’s helpful, but I do think that we’re going to see a change in the landscape going forward.

Dr. Alison Gammie:

Thanks. Cynthia, did you want to add anything, or should I go to the next question?

Dr. Cynthia Fuhrmann:

I will concur with what Ann shared. And I agree; I think there’s a lot of opportunity here. Also for Ph.D.s looking into data science, if you Google around about data science, you’ll learn about data science programs that provide another gateway or entryway into more computational types of work, if you haven’t been doing computational work in your training.

Dr. Alison Gammie:

Great. Thanks. So we have a question. A starting postdoc is really thinking about leaning towards academia, and one of the things that they’re trying to figure out is the balance of time to spend on their benchwork or their research versus exploring skill development and career. So how do you balance that, and what’s a good amount of time?

Dr. Cynthia Fuhrmann:

So something I think is valuable to keep in mind is that often skill development can go hand in hand with your day-to-day research responsibilities. So for example, if you—and I know things are different right now—if you have a rotating student who you’re working with or an undergraduate student who you’ll be mentoring, really take that as an explicit opportunity to develop your leadership and management and mentoring skills.

Recognize that you have this opportunity coming up and pair that with attending a workshop or course on leadership and management skills and giving yourself homework and really explicitly putting the strategies that you learn to practice as you’re mentoring or supervising that person. So that’s one example where those skills will be critical to you in your future, and you can use them now in a practical sense and develop them now explicitly.

You can even share it with your current research advisor or other mentors who you’re in touch with that that’s a skill that you want to develop and ask them to give you explicit feedback. Maybe even ask them to get some feedback from any mentees that you’re working with. So there are ways that you can think about how you can get training, practice, and feedback, thinking back to the framework that I shared, in the day-to-day context of what you’re doing.

I will share that it’s always a question of how to balance your professional development, your career development, even career exploration and networking, with the day-to-day push forward to move your research forward.

In some ways, the pandemic has created opportunities for people to step back and be forced to reassess where they can’t go into the lab, for example, and their experiments have to go on pause. At the same time, don’t feel pressure that all of your career and professional development answers are going to come through right now, because there are also a lot of other strains on all of us.

For every individual, what’s happening in the world right now and moving forward is going to impact us in different ways. So where you can, take advantage of opportunities, but assess your wellness at the same time, and balance the best you can.

I will say that this is a really good question, because one thing that people notice sometimes is they set aside or delay their professional development or their career planning because they think, well, I really needed to get this experiment done, or I really need to get this paper out. And though those key priorities are really important. They’re what we think of as important and urgent, and the important, urgent things are the things that tend to swamp us.

And so wherever you can, try to build some self-awareness about how you’re also balancing the important and urgent things with the other things that are important to you, like your career planning and professional development, that aren’t maybe so urgent. Because you won’t be able to develop a network in the blink of an eye, in a moment, when you need one later on.

And to be truthful, networks provide a great balance and energizer in talking to people that you know outside of your institution and in the career paths that you’re interested in throughout your training. So it’s great to take these key professional steps and start them early on and continue them with a good balance for what you’re doing in research.

Dr. Ann Stock:

I’ll just add to that that I think that it can be helpful if you’re considering a career in academia to consider the type of academic career that you’re interested in. There are different types of institutions, as we mentioned before. There are academic careers at primarily undergraduate institutions, where there’s more emphasis on teaching and less emphasis on research.

There are the more research-intensive academic positions at medical schools and at R1 institutions. And so that balance could, in part, be driven by where you see yourself end up. If you’re aiming for an academic career at a primarily undergraduate institution, where you will be doing research but teaching is very important, there are some interesting programs, such as the NIH IRACDA program that allows you to pursue a postdoc with a balance between teaching activities and research, that can be a really great opportunity to get your foot into the door for education.

If, on the other hand, you are focused on a research-intensive academic career, then as Cynthia mentioned, it’s great to be able to balance the development of skills and integrate them in with your research, but those skills are not going to land you the job.

Having served on many search committees, I can tell you the research trumps all in terms of getting your application looked at. Once you’re at that level and you have the invitation or the interview, etc., some of the professional skills, presentation skills, writing skills come a little bit more into play. And certainly, all of the skills that we’re talking about are critical for success once you enter the position, but you definitely do not want to swing too far in the direction of compromising research, because it’s going to get you in the door. And to some extent, that’s true in high-level industrial positions as well.

Dr. Alison Gammie:

OK. Great. So there’s a question which is a really wonderful question. It says that networking is such an important skill for junior faculty and, obviously, for other types of careers. So they are a self-described introvert and would like some advice for how to build your network when you are introverted by nature. And the worry is that this is really going to be a barrier to their career progression.

Dr. Ann Stock:

First of all, I just want to emphasize to whoever is asking this question, you’re not alone. In reviewing our IDP forms, the individual development plans that students submit as part of the required curriculum in the biotechnology program, we found that uniformly students rated themselves low on networking skills. And as a result of that, we’ve started to integrate some activities into our courses that help develop those skills.

We have some workshops where people do role playing in terms of networking in various types of scenarios, and it can be very helpful to watch the strategies of other people in networking. We’ve also had talks from some of our alumni who are out in industry coming back and telling us about strategies for networking, including cold calls to people in the industries and companies that you’re interested in getting your foot in the door. And it’s amazing to know how receptive professionals can be in terms of encouraging others to enter their specific careers and their career paths.

So I think that part of this is just a realization that you can reach out and talk to other people if you’re respectful of their time. Attending scientific meetings and professional society meetings can be very valuable in terms of an ability to reach out to other individuals who have similar interests. And there are often activities at meetings that specifically will bring people together in networking-type sessions. But Cynthia may have some additional guidelines.

Dr. Cynthia Fuhrmann:

I think that’s great. I’ll add that, as an introvert myself, something that I’ve learned about people who feel a little less comfortable going into a networking event with lots of people is that if you reframe it as having your own goal for the number of people you want to meet—and maybe it’s three. I want to have three valuable conversations with people where they further my knowledge in something, or obtain three business cards from people. You can quantify it. It’s a more attainable goal, and you’re thinking about the individual conversations.

Individual conversations are sometimes easier than thinking about going into a large room with a lot of people you don’t know. Another aspect is reaching out individually to people. We talked about doing this in informational interviews. Absolutely people tend to be very happy to talk to people. If you don’t get a response, I would send an invitation for a 30-minute conversation again a week later.

And then if people are just busy or it’s not their cup of tea, then go on to the next person. But generally these individual conversations can be much easier to have, and it’s just really about learning about that other person’s career path and how they got to the next step, and then sharing some of the thoughts that you have and asking your in-depth questions.

And when you start with this conversation where you’re learning more about the career path, and that’s the goal for the conversation, it’s a little bit easier to have that goal. And if the conversation went well, you can move forward with that relationship by asking, “This has been so helpful and valuable. Might we connect again in a couple of months to talk further about this?”

And for me at least, I’ve taken a couple of informational interviews in my career, and I found that mentoring relationships developed out of those. And those external mentoring relationships, people who I feel like they are getting to know me, I’m getting to know them and they can offer me advice, have been so valuable both as a trainee and then on through my career.

Dr. Ann Stock:

Let me just add that networking, of course, is by definition connecting one person to the next person to the next person, and it can be very challenging to do that sort of cold-call situation or meet someone who’s completely unknown to you, but you can try to do this by steps. Try to really take networking to its heart, and reach out to the next level through someone that you know.

So within your own environment, you have a laboratory that presumably has a number of alumni that have left the laboratory who have gone on to all sorts of interesting careers in various places. Use that network.

There are very few people that I know that aren’t always eager to connect with other people, the next generation coming through a particular research laboratory. The same thing can be true within a graduate program or postdocs coming from a particular department. So try to reach out possibly to alumni where you feel a strong connection, and get them to make the introduction the next level up to the people that you’re interested in meeting. And LinkedIn can be a very valuable tool in that sense to try to figure out which of the potential alums might be the important connections to the types of people that you want to meet.

Dr. Cynthia Fuhrmann:

And I’ll just throw in there members of your lab. Ask students and postdocs, as well as your advisor, “Hey, do you know anyone who does this or is at this type of institution? I’m interested in moving in that direction.” Our students, when we challenge them with doing informational interviews in our courses, often say, “Yeah, I called my uncle’s friend.”

It’s often through connections that are actually pretty close to you that you can start this. You can think about networking as a PCR reaction. You just need to start with a couple of the easy calls, and then at the end of each call say, “This was so valuable. From talking to you, I really want to learn a little bit more about what it’s like to work in a startup company. Do you know anyone I could connect with, and would you mind introducing me to them?” And the network grows, and it’s really just about being curious about what other people have done and learning from their experience.

Dr. Alison Gammie:

That’s great advice. Thanks. So we have another question that is, if somebody is trying to look attractive to industry, for example, in the area of, let’s say, data science, and their degree doesn’t necessarily signal that they have those skills. What does it take to convince a person who’s reading the CV that a person actually has the skills that they’re looking for? Do you really need to have a degree? Do you need to have published research where it’s clear that you have those skills? What kinds of things, from your perspective, would be needed to look attractive? And you can answer it generically. It doesn’t have to be specifically about those skills.

Dr. Cynthia Fuhrmann:

I’ll take a first stab at this one. I will say that this is going to be so dependent on the employer, whether they’ve worked with Ph.D.s in the biomedical sciences before or people with your type of skill set before. If in your example given, Alison, if it’s about, I’m a molecular biologist but I want to move into data science. If they have hired a molecular biologist or someone else at the bench who has moved into computational work and seen that successful before, then it’s not going to be so much of a stretch.

But if they are not even used to hiring Ph.D.s, for example, or it’s a broader stretch for them, then you will…Those are people for which your résumé or CV or cover letter will need to help them see the connection. I would say networks are particularly valuable in these cases, where you want to switch fields. The more that you can network and talking to people, you can, A, learn more about that next field or that next setting so that you can use the right language and jargon in your cover letter and in your résumé to help them see how the skills you do have translate, or at least that you’re informed, and you’re curious, and you know where your gaps are and where you’ll grow, so you have the right language and are very well informed about that next piece.

And B, where these people you’ve been talking to are in the field or even at the given employer and can directly suggest you. Almost all employers will say (and I do this myself) if someone personally recommends somebody that they know or talk to and say, “I think this person would be a great fit,” generally that gets you through the door to the interview stage.

And then, again, if you’re really passionate about this and you’ve learned a little bit about it, even if you don’t have the hard skill set there, they’ll see that in the conversation even more easily than you might be able to demonstrate in your résumé and be able to move forward.

We just had in one of our career pathways communities in our curriculum this spring one of our alumni who had been really much at the bench, had done very little bioinformatics types of work, and then she moved into mostly a computational type of role.

So these types of steps happen all the time. And it’s about using personal connections, professional connections, and also being able to demonstrate in your application that you’re a good fit. But as much as you can be specific in the application, that’s the best thing.

Dr. Ann Stock:

It goes without saying, but we’ll mention it anyway. An application for a job needs to be highly tailored to that specific position. A CV is not the same thing as a résumé. You need to know when you use one and when you use the other and really how to tailor the résumé to a specific job, especially in industry.

People in large positions in industry do not get time off to hire new people. In general, when they’re expanding their groups this is something that gets done on top of their 9 to 5, 40-hour-a-week position on their own projects. They get, for every position they have, oftentimes hundreds of applicants that they’re sorting through. And they give the résumés no more than a few seconds of perusal as they’re going through the stack after hours.

You need to have things so up front and tailored that those key words jump out for the specific position. So again, networking can be very important to help get your foot in the door or to even find out more about the particular position that is being advertised, if you’re responding to something that isn’t coming through a specific reference.

Dr. Cynthia Fuhrmann:

And coming back to some of the things we’ve talked about, if you think about for this example of moving into a more computational space, think about within your current research projects ways that you can contribute either on your project or for your research group more broadly by learning some coding or learning some computational methods that would benefit the research group or your project.

That’s something that your advisor could then refer to in a reference. You can highlight that as a bullet, even if it was a project that you took on for a month, and you’re thinking that was a small part of my overall thesis or my overall postdoctoral research.

But like Ann said, that’s the piece where you tailor that in the résumé and indicate that as one of those few bullets in your résumé that you contributed in that way. It demonstrates that you can learn these skills and put them into play in a way that benefits the team.

Dr. Alison Gammie:

That’s great. So we’re closing in on time here. I want to make sure I get to some of these other questions. So one person asked, “For networking, is it quantity or quality? Is it better to have lots of connections, or is it better to have a few really strong ones?” What are your thoughts?

Dr. Cynthia Fuhrmann:

I would say, if you have quantity and quality, of course that’s awesome, but just a number of people connecting to you on LinkedIn or on Twitter or on Facebook or whatever, those aren’t going to necessarily be relationships that benefit you.

So it’s really about relationship building, and I’ve heard a network be defined as where people will be willing to do a favor for you. So when you meet someone at an event or virtually or on an informational interview call, certainly connect with them via LinkedIn. Send a thank you message afterward that is specific to your conversation or how you work together.

A few months later, look for reasons to thank them again or reach back out to let them know that your paper’s now published that you had been discussing or that you’re moving forward to the next piece of your career.

So find ways to develop relationships, because it’s really the relationships, even if they’re small touchpoints, that will really be the most beneficial to you. But all of us have some people in our network who are really just touchpoints and we barely know them and others who we know better, and that’s just a natural thing.

Dr. Alison Gammie:

Great. So we have another question about publications. I’m assuming the person is headed for academia, and they’re asking what should they be working for in terms of publications and first authorships, and if you have any advice in that regard.

Dr. Cynthia Fuhrmann:

Do you want to go first, Ann? Or I can.

Dr. Ann Stock:

I could. Based on searches that I have been on, I would say that we see a real mix in terms of publications, those that have large numbers of publications, those that have small numbers of publications that are high impact.

So one or the other there. It certainly isn’t a numbers game. It isn’t necessarily an impact game. In terms of authorship, I would say it’s critical that you have at least some first-author publications. If one is looking for a leadership position in industry or a PI position in academia, you need to be able to own your own research.

Really, what a school wants is to make sure that you’re going to be a successful faculty member, that you will be able to develop an independent research program. And it’s certainly recognized that team science is an emerging reality and very powerful, but there needs to be still some ownership of the project that you would be proposing and the ability for you to go out and secure funding for your own research.

So I think it’s also important to realize that unless you’re being hired as part of a team or a large program project, if you’re going to be looking for an independent faculty position, you will need to start up your laboratory from a relatively small state.

You will not have access to dozens of personnel in the laboratory and people that are contributing different parts of the project. And the institution that hires you is going to want to know that you can get a research program off the ground yourself, training personnel in your laboratory, with appropriate collaborations elsewhere, but where the ideas and the project is really owned by you.

Dr. Cynthia Fuhrmann:

I want to encourage all of you to check with your graduate schools and any central career center or professional development center on your campus. Because there might be people there who are able to meet with you individually, help you look at publications or other areas of your experience, and help you think about for your next career step that you’re seeking, how are you positioned, and how might you sell yourself on your application, and how do you strategize some of these pieces, demonstrating either your independence or working on a team or collaboration. There are a lot of great resources on your campus, and you should seek those out.

Dr. Alison Gammie:

Great. Well, we’re coming right towards the end, and I want to give you each time to be able to give some parting advice to the group.

Dr. Cynthia Fuhrmann:

I think these unusual times that we’re in right now give us a really awesome opportunity to step back and take that early step of the IDP process, which is to really reflect. Many of us have been reflecting on our own wellness, on our own family, on things that are important to us in life, and that includes our career. Our career and professional development are also intertwined with all pieces and elements of our identity.

And so I want to encourage you, as you think about who you are as a professional, the skills that you have, and how you move forward, wrap within those all the aspects of what make you, you. Embrace and value all the different experiences that you’ve had in your life and all the different elements of your identity and carry those forward. And if one thing that you do, one skill that you develop during this time is greater self-awareness of things that you value, things that are important to you, the strengths that you have, areas to grow, that self-awareness will give you a professional maturity that will help you move forward across all of your skills.

Dr. Ann Stock:

So I think that was wonderful advice, and I would like to echo that. I would like to say that when you hear a webinar like this or someone talking about all the skills that you need to master, it can sound a little bit overwhelming. View them as opportunities.

There’s absolutely no way you’re going to learn and master everything. You are gaining a lot of skills just inherently in the training that you’re receiving as a bio scientist, and those skills are definitely transferable, and they’ll go a really, really long way.

So don’t get overly stressed about all of this. Realize that in any career it’s an ongoing learning process, and if you have an exciting career, you’ll be learning new skills all of the time. So don’t forget to have fun along the way. Be passionate about what you’re doing and a lot of this will come naturally.

That being said, don’t completely shy away from the skills that you don’t have. There’s a natural gravitation for us to continue to do the things and to emphasize the things we’re good at. And for a long way that is a good thing, but if there are gaps, figure out a way that they can be worked in. But most of all, just really enjoy the journey.

Dr. Alison Gammie:

Great. Thank you so much. Thanks to both of you for taking the time out of your busy schedules. We really appreciate it and appreciate you thinking deeply about these topics and all the great work that you’re doing out there. So that concludes our webinar for today, and we’ll see you next time. Bye.