By: Samantha Avina
On October 28th, 2021, The Rutgers School of Graduate Studies (SGS) held its 7th annual iJOBS symposium (2nd virtual) to highlight the ongoing advances within the program and hear student testimonials about how their involvement in the program has helped advance their careers. More than that, the symposium served as a networking opportunity for attendees and a platform for students interested in the iJOBS program to learn more.
Led by iJOBS co-program directors, Drs. Janet Alder and Doreen Badheka, the symposium broke down into 4 main parts. These included welcoming remarks, phase 3 trainee panel discussions, keynote speaker lecture by Dr. Ildiko Antal, and a network/mentoring breakout session. Dr. Alder began by discussing what is involved in the iJOBS program itself and how students can get involved. For more detailed information about the 4 different phases of the iJOBS program, you can look here.
The purpose of the iJOBS program is to facilitate student exploration of career possibilities outside of academia and help students develop professional skills for non-academic careers. This is contrary to the traditionally encouraged academic career following a PhD. With less than 25% of PhD scientists estimated to hold tenure track or tenure-track academic positions1,2, programs like iJOBS have been created as an initiative to help an expanding PhD-holder population prepare for non-academic career opportunities. Because of this career landscape, Dr. Alder went beyond even talking about the phases of the program. She discussed results of follow-up surveys with iJOBS students, who have since graduated, to look at the composition of careers following graduation and after some time. Since the program’s foundation in 2014, as part of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) grant, data show students have been taking advantage of iJOBS as a resource. From the breakdown of graduated students’ first position, 54% went into for-profit jobs while 27% entered academic positions. Other categories included government (5%), nonprofit (7%), and unknown (7%). However, surveys several years into their current positions, show there was a 9% total shift toward for-profit positions and deducted from all categories, academia having the largest change (7%). Additionally, from the for-profit positions, over 95% of job types were science related or primary research. Of the science related positions, the majority of job sectors occupied by iJOBS participants included science writing/communications (33% 1st position, 26% current position) and business development/consulting/strategic alliances (21% 1st position, 24% current position).
Although students have clearly done well to take advantage of the iJOBS resources and opportunities once involved in the program, a larger concern is getting students to apply to the program. Indeed, factors contributing to this first hurdle for graduate students/postdocs have not gone unnoticed by iJOBS leaders.
Two of the most common worries for potential iJOBS trainees are: not having enough time to commit to the program and fearing disapproval of their Principal Investigator. Additional concerns often include prolonged time until graduation, decreased productivity, and publication output to name a few. With these concerns in focus, co-director Dr. Alder worked in a collaborative study with 10 other NIH BEST grant recipient schools. The goal was to determine if there was statistical support behind the concerns deterring students from investing in their professional development during graduate school. Excitingly, results pooled from across the 10 schools, including Rutgers University, showed there was no difference in time toward degree or publication output for students involved in professional development enrichment programs as compared to non-participating students1. The emphasis on students recognizing the iJOBS resources available and pursuing them was echoed throughout the symposium, including where phase 3 trainees spoke about their time in the program.
In the networking and mentoring breakout sessions of the symposium, students and postdoc attendees introduced themselves to other participants and took the opportunity to interact with current professionals in their career. Many phase 3 trainees who are now graduated, or on their way to defending their thesis work, talked about how they were nervous the program would take too much time or that they wouldn’t have the support of their PIs. However, the trainees found that it was manageable and allowed them to learn what is involved in their field of interest. This group of phase 3 trainees also noted that they did their externships (72 hours shadowing a mentor/participating in activities over the span of 1 semester) during the COVID-19 pandemic, when everything was confined to virtual participation only. This virtual transition did not deter the trainees, or their mentors. In fact, the concept of perseverance and willingness to take on new unfamiliar paths was a moving theme in the inspiring keynote lecture from Dr. Ildiko Antal.
Dr. Antal is in a way, the woman who has done it all and then some. Spanning more than 20 years of experience, Dr. Antal’s career path(s) has involved an array of different sectors including academic, industrial, clinical project management, and business management to name a few. At the iJOBS symposium she highlighted that throughout her career she had to become comfortable outside of her comfort zone. She had to utilize skills gained during her PhD and apply them in every new experience she found herself in. Regardless of if you are trying to figure out one part of a cellular pathway for your thesis or coordinating clinical trial data with scientists and businesspeople, the same core skill sets will apply. Critical analysis, troubleshooting, working well with your team, and overcoming setbacks are all assets PhD-holders develop during their doctoral studies. While Dr. Antal did explain how these skill sets make you competitive and help you grow, she emphasized that in the end you still want to do work that makes you happy and not be afraid to put your wellbeing and priorities (in her case, her family) first.
For me, hearing trainee testimonials and the inspiring commentary from keynote speaker Dr. Antal made me realize moving away from academia can be hard, even though they made it sound like a second-nature approach. It seems especially difficult when academia is all you’ve known. When I asked different breakout rooms the question, how do you make the transition to working with non-scientists, I received a lot of helpful (and comforting) feedback! Many iJOBS phase 3 trainees acknowledged that this isn’t frequently discussed but is a soft skill we can acquire through iJOBS workshops and seminars on communicating science to non-scientists. Different trainees told me it took them a moment to get accustomed to the language used in different departments (businesspeople, advertising, medical directors, company stakeholders, etc), while everyone towards the same project. They also mentioned it is fun to see how various professionals in a team setting work together as everyone brings different but insightful perspectives to achieve an overarching goal.
Another question I posed in a breakout room was whether iJOBS students can participate in multiple externships if they are not sure what profession they want to pursue. Here, iJOBS program co-director Dr. Doreen Bhadeka informed me that students can participate in multiple externships, but it is highly recommended students explore by attending multiple iJOBS events instead. Additionally, through iJOBS resources, students can set up informational interviews with professionals in fields of interest who can give more information on what is involved in their line of work. Dr. Bhadeka was excited to answer student questions, like mine, and stated she is always more than happy to discuss career development strategies with interested students.
In conclusion, the iJOBS annual symposium was a celebration of the program’s achievements in preparing graduate students for non-academic career paths and its continued expansion since its establishment in 2014. The gathering of iJOBS members at all different phases highlighted how far the program has come and the impact it continues to have on the Rutgers SGS community. Students are taking advantage of the continuously growing iJOBS network and, with the help of the program, are strategizing their exit from academia with a strong plan for the future. I found the symposium provided me with very impactful feedback to make informed decisions about my career development. If you haven’t already, check out some upcoming iJOBS events here, and take the first step toward developing yourself for your future career through the iJOBS program!
- Brandt, Patrick D., et al. "A cross-institutional analysis of the effects of broadening trainee professional development on research productivity." PLoS biology 19.7 (2021): e3000956.
- NIH. NIH Biomedical Workforce Working Group Report. 2012. Available from: https://acd.od.nih.gov/ documents/reports/Biomedical_research_wgreport.pdf.
This article was edited by Junior Editor Juliana Corrȇa-Velloso and Senior Editor Natalie Losada.
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