By Natalie Losada
An ode to all academic researchers.
All graduate students and postdocs conducting research, whether in STEM, social sciences, or humanities, spend much of their time coming up with the best possible story for their dissertation or research project. For most academic researchers, it is easier to focus entirely on their thesis, grinding away at their desk or lab bench, than think of life after graduate school or the postdoc. I used to be one of these people until the iJOBS program allowed me to easily explore a plethora of career options available after graduate school. That’s why I’m here to convince you to participate in the iJOBS program. And the first place to start is the annual iJOBS symposium.
On October 25th, 2023, graduate students, postdocs, alumni, industry professionals, and faculty gathered at the Rutgers University Busch Student Center for a day of celebration and professional development. The Rutgers iJOBS symposium is an annual event to facilitate networking, provide updates on program events and the progress of the iJOBS trainees, host a keynote address, and hold a professional development workshop to teach trainees.
Every year at the start of the symposium the iJOBS director, Janet Alder, PhD, gives an inspirational speech about the purpose of and progress made by the iJOBS program over the years. Rutgers was one of 17 schools to receive the NIH BEST grant to broaden training for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in 2014. This grant was intended to introduce research trainees to the wide variety of career options available to them, as well as allow the trainees to network with and learn directly from industry professionals. In fact, the breadth of options offered by the program isn’t even covered by “industry professionals” – there are professionals in government positions, non-profit organizations, academic faculty jobs, and so much more. The overwhelming success of the iJOBS program at Rutgers led to its expansion to graduate students and postdocs at Princeton, Rowan, NJIT, and Stevens Institute of Technology. The iJOBS program has four phases: 1) inquire, where you attend career panels and skill-developing workshops, 2) initiate, where you officially apply to the iJOBS program and are assigned a general mentor and a shadow host in a job field of interest, 3) implement, where you receive one-on-one sessions with resume and LinkedIn experts, and 4) instruct, where you are in your desired career and you help guide the next generation of iJOBS trainees.
If your first thought after reading this is “I don’t have time for this, I need to finish my research”, then you’re not alone. Dr. Alder addresses this misconception every year with concrete evidence proving the power of this program. A publication by the directors of different programs across 10 of the 17 universities that received funding found that doctoral students across all academic institutions who participated in the program had the same time to degree or manuscript output as students who did not. This finding clearly indicates that joining the iJOBS program does not take away from your research progress, and the speakers at this year’s annual symposium proved that there is much to gain from joining.
After Janet’s introduction, we heard from the keynote speaker, Brandon Higgs, PhD, the VP and Head of Translational and Clinical Data Sciences at Genmab. Genmab is an international biotech company that is using data science to facilitate “data-driven decision making” to advance pre-clinical product development. I’ve been to multiple symposia, including three from iJOBS, and in general, the keynote speakers speak in a way that commands the room. However, Higgs, with a subtler tone, spoke about something more powerful than anyone thought could be true. His talk was about the impact of artificial intelligence on the future drug development workforce. AI is one of the buzzwords of 2023, yet many people don’t understand what it is and how it works. They just know it works — kind of like that herbal remedy your parents hand you when you’re not feeling well while saying “just take it, it works.” Brandon Higgs began his speech trying to demystify AI and identify its differences from Machine Learning and other advanced computer terms that are often conflated. Then, he provided numerous examples of language learning models and their current uses, which in my opinion are the easiest to comprehend as a non-AI developer because everyone speaks a language. I was shocked by how fascinating the presentation was, and how it illuminated the ubiquity of AI across all fields. Right now, ChatGPT (a language model) may be most familiar, but you can find similar technology in every field for almost every task.
The next part of the symposium was led by Supreet Bains-Sharma, PMP, SCP(SHRM), a management consultant and professional speaker who conducted a professional development workshop on “Effective Teamworking”. To facilitate networking, Janet Alder divided the room into different career options/jobs, where, at almost every table, sat a professional in the career assigned to that table. The wonderful thing about this teamworking workshop is that it applied to everyone. Supreet spoke metaphorically of the Argentinian soccer team (to highlight the importance of teamwork). We all likely have heard of Lionel Messi, one of the most famous Argentinian soccer players, but not every fan or sports broadcaster discusses the other members of his team. Though an entertaining topic of conversation, the critical point was that Messi only succeeds when his team acts cohesively. The goalkeeper must prevent the other team from scoring, the defenders must prevent their opponents from shooting and pass the ball to their team members to get it out of their half of the field, and Messi and his fellow forwards and mid-fielders must take the ball up the field and get a shot on their opponent’s net. Every member of the team has their purpose. Similarly, Bains-Sharma outlined the stages teams go through as they actively or passively decide a leader, learn about each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and decide each team member’s role in order to function in the most efficient manner. She also highlighted an adjustment and learning period which is often the cause of the awkwardness some people feel when working with a new team. But being aware of it, allows you to help navigate through these stages and prevent initial standstills.
Besides the art of teambuilding (and the awareness and patience required for it) Supreet also focused on giving and receiving feedback. This may seem unrelated to team building, but knowing how to give and receive feedback is an essential part of working as a team. It is best to receive feedback in a calm manner and ask questions when necessary. Sometimes we focus too much on the negatives and don’t stop to think how this feedback is going to help us grow and improve? When you approach conversations with this perspective, you can reap the benefits of constructive feedback and avoid any frustration. Giving constructive feedback is just as, if not more, important than receiving feedback from your team. The most important lesson I took from the talk was “praise in public, criticize in private”, which Supreet repeated multiple times during her talk. If you want to help others improve, and help the team improve their work output as a whole, you need to give constructive feedback. This means no vague or confusing complaints; you should be clear about what was wrong and point out what was done correctly. And most importantly, to enable true and calm listening, do not attack your teammate, hence “criticize in private”. Teammates should give each other a chance to understand the problem, fix it, and further discuss the issue in case there are external problems that arise. I know as the reader, this seems obvious, but when we don’t consciously think of these things it’s easy to forget to implement them. Keeping your mind on the bigger picture – what the feedback is meant to accomplish and what your team goals are – will help keep you and your team on a path of improvement.
The iJOBS symposium is always an enlightening experience. Learning about the growth of the program and where trainees are in their careers is inspiring. The keynote speaker Brandon Higgs’ discussion on the power, versatility, and benefits of AI kept our sight set on the future while Supreet Bains-Sharma grounded us in the present by reminding us of the importance of feedback and teamwork in our everyday lives. The symposium has endless opportunities for networking and learning about potential careers, and hopefully reading this has convinced you to sign up for next year’s symposium or at least learn more about the iJOBS program and past iJOBS symposia.
This article was edited by Junior Editor Antonia Kaz and Junior Editor Kylie Ryan Kaler.
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January 12, 2024