Four decades ago, over half of the PhDs in biomedical sciences went on to receive tenure-track positions. Currently, that number has dwindled to fewer than 1 in 6. This means that for a majority of biomedical PhDs, finding jobs outside academia is inevitable. As a result, these job paths are no longer considered “alternative careers” as they were once referred to. However, many graduate students and postdoctoral scholars across the country are still not aware of the many opportunities outside academia, and even industry research. In many universities, the career advice they receive is still focused around the more conventional jobs and career paths.
Recently, I sat down for a quick chat with Ashley Brady, PhD, to discuss the resources available for biomedical graduate students and postdoctoral scholars for advancing and enriching their careers. Ashley wears many hats in helping biomedical researchers in their early career stages with their professional development. She is the Director of Career Engagement & Strategic Partnerships in the Biomedical Research, Education, and Training (BRET) Office of Career Development and Manager of The Augmenting Scholar Preparation and Integration with Research-Related Endeavors (ASPIRE) Program at Vanderbilt University in the School of Medicine. We talked about how programs like ASPIRE provide resources for grad students and postdocs to navigate their training and prepare them for research and research-related careers, in academia as well as beyond the bench.
Aaram: Ashley, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. One thing I found interesting and wanted to talk to you about is that these days a lot more researchers entering the biomedical workforce after grad school or postdoc training seem to realize the need to open their eyes and minds to careers outside academia. I know of some programs like ASPIRE that provide useful resources to biomedical researchers who are transitioning from being a trainee to having a career in research or related fields. However, I have also heard from students in other universities that programs like these are far from being the norm. Can you talk a little bit about ASPIRE and similar programs that you are aware of?
Ashley: Of course! Maybe not all universities have dedicated programs that help students with the transition, but ASPIRE is not the only program to provide such resources. Broadening Experiences for Scientific Training (BEST) is an umbrella program offered by The National Institutes of Health (NIH) that has provided five years of funding to 17 US universities to develop seminars, workshops, internships, and other training activities to expose graduate students and postdocs to a broad variety of science-related careers. We are all working together as a consortium to establish best practices and share this with other institutions. You can learn more at the website, NIHBEST.org. These programs are not just about creating awareness of opportunities beyond the bench, they also help trainees evaluate and develop valuable transferable skills that would be useful to them in pursuing a career in science, whether that is in academia, industry, or elsewhere.
Aaram: I think it is really cool that programs like ASPIRE provide such a diverse array of professional development resources and enrichment activities. Are these resources specifically meant for people who are looking to transition into industry, or do people who want to pursue a career in academia also benefit from them?
Ashley: We like to provide a balance between academic and nonacademic professional development opportunities. We think that your PI and other professors are fantastic (and probably the best) resources when it comes to navigating the traditional research-PI route in academia, since they have already done that successfully. But when it comes to some other career paths, there could be other resources you can tap into, and we try to help with that. It’s not just about bringing you insights from people who have been working in research and research-related professions. With the resources we provide – courses, seminars, workshops, networking events etc. – we want to help students think about and improve skills that would make their transition to the job market easier. Also, many of these transferable skills are not exclusive for industry or academia. For example, having excellent project management skills would be an asset whether you are going to be a PI running a lab or a scientific writer for a medical communications company.
Aaram: You mentioned the importance of transferable skills. Something I have noticed is how many graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are unaware of their importance or unsure whether they have them. Do programs like ASPIRE offer any specific resources to help?
Ashley: The BRET Office of Career Development offers several resources as part of the ASPIRE program. We offer short modules that provide valuable exposure to our students and scholars in areas including communication, teaching, clinical research and business and entrepreneurship – one of the notable ones is EQ + IQ = Career Success where topics such as workplace communication, emotional intelligence, and building professional relationships are covered. Trainees also perform a self-assessment to recognize their strengths.
Another resource is the ASPIRE to Plan Workshop conducted by Kim Petrie. It includes interactive sessions emphasizing self-assessment, potential career options, and career planning to help young researchers create a framework and go from there.
We also provide a CV/Resume drop-in clinic for PhD students and postdocs, where we go through the student’s CV or resume (or even LinkedIn profile), and suggest opportunities for improvement. Sometimes we go over the skills they have and how these skills are aligned with careers in science or science-related areas that they want to pursue.
Aaram: These are some excellent resources for young biomedical researchers who are just starting out on their career path! Could you elaborate a bit on the science and science-related careers?
Ashley: Thanks! We are working hard to grow this program. And yeah, when we talk about careers in science, we usually think about research careers, either in academia or industry. But to me, science is not just about people pipetting, it is also about exposing people to diverse fields and views. It’s a larger umbrella, where people like you and me, who are not working at the bench, are still directly supporting the larger biomedical enterprise, in science-related professions – as a scientific writer or the manager of a career development program for young scientists.
Aaram: I wholeheartedly agree. We need more programs like ASPIRE. Scientific research does not happen in a vacuum. We should increase our efforts to inform young science professionals about opportunities that are available and help them develop transferable skills that make them competitive in their pursuit of science and related careers. Thank you, Ashley. I’m sure our readers will benefit greatly from your wonderful insights.