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
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
Download Recording [MP3]
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
Thanks. Cynthia, did you want to add anything, or should I go to the
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
Do you want to go first, Ann? Or I can.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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