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A Constellation of Change: the Broadening Experiences of Scientific Training (BEST) Program
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Ian Street


Five years ago, NIH funded a new program dedicated to the proposition that all career outcomes for graduate students and postdocs are of equal value. The Broadening Experiences of Scientific Training (BEST) program was competitively funded at 17 sites across the United States, in which BEST consortium members aimed to develop unique programs to guide graduate students and postdocs in career path decisions. BEST funding will be ending in 2019 and assessments of its overall impact on training and career development are beginning.


Discipline-specific training of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars is the primary goal of academia. However, this period of intense training can result in the loss of the need for a trainee to build a platform from which to launch future successes in several potential career paths. The current culture is such that the purpose of graduate training is to produce an academic research scientist. Yet statistics show that a vast majority of graduate students and postdocs don’t end up in academia. The BEST program strove to change this culture and to lower barriers to entry into multiple career paths by providing professional development as well as time for trainees to experience fields beyond the academic research path.


Chalkley and BEST associate director Laura Daniel are enthusiastic about BEST consortium programs being taken over by individual universities.


Changing a Culture

The NIH BEST consortium funding provided support for a shift in a long-standing life sciences culture, allowing individuals and institutions to take steps towards acknowledging and better documenting the real outcomes of graduate students and postdocs. BEST Consortium principal investigator Roger Chalkley said that the reach of BEST has already influenced 11,000 trainees; the full extent of the consortium’s work and impact will be published in a forthcoming book in 2019. Significantly, faculty appear largely supportive at BEST institutions, allowing their trainees time away from lab to do internships and workshops, as well as continuing to offer guidance in the academic career path in which they are de facto experts.


While BEST participants have successfully moved to careers beyond the academic life sciences, challenges still remain. Expanding trainee experiences while simultaneously maintaining high standards for research is no easy task. BEST doesn’t intend to supplant the advisor, but rather to complement their mentorship and training. The BEST program has also seeded funding for professional development staff to administer and implement BEST programs. Chalkley recalled his thoughts at the beginning and now, “How are we going to be able to pull off these programs, with ambitious goals, with only a few people? Now seeing it at the back end, they did do it, and the implemented programs really worked at the [BEST] schools.”


BEST may also have additional benefits to assess. Chalkley pointed out that a significant contributor to poor mental health amongst graduate students is career uncertainty. With career path development being at the forefront of BEST’s mandate, Chalkley’s hypothesis is that the mental health of graduate students and postdocs at BEST Consortium schools would be better than those without BEST programs. If this idea is tested and turns out to be supported, the implementation of BEST-like programs can be one mechanism for universities to significantly reduce anxiety and depression in trainees.


Infographic showing percent of PhD trained scientists attaining different careers.

Almost 80% of the biomedical research trained professionals will enter positions outside of academia (Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report). BEST was formed in 2013 to address the training barriers and gaps to match the flux in career opportunities. Source: BEST


A significant impact with further to go

Although BEST has clearly had an impact on biomedical training in the United States, more work is needed. One good sign is that many BEST institutions are continuing their programs in some form after the BEST funding period ends, and Chalkley and BEST associate director Laura Daniel are enthusiastic about BEST consortium programs being taken over by individual universities. Although it may take strong initiative and a champion within the university administration, Chalkley and Daniel stress that it is possible start a “miniature BEST” program on a low budget at any institution with faculty open to broadening mentoring networks. Furthermore, graduate students and postdocs can seed peer mentoring groups with minimal financial support to help bring in professional development trainers.


Though BEST has reached thousands of trainees and inspired many to adopt its model, it has limits. Some trainees contacted for this article requested anonymity because of the continuing threat imposed by the skewed power dynamics and perverse incentive often present in academia, where research results for publications and the demands of the advisor still come first in too many labs. Furthermore, results of an unscientific Twitter poll indicated that several graduate students or postdocs who could have benefited from it only had a vague idea that the BEST program existed. Unfortunately, most respondents had not heard of it at until recently.


Each BEST Consortium member has its own website hosted by its institutions that gives a sense of the programs and their outcomes. This has led to some non-BEST institutions like UAB, Washington University, and Duke to adopt some BEST ideas into their own professional development programs, according to Daniel and Chalkley. There are also examples of other departments at BEST schools developing similar programs based on BEST models and even extending the programs to undergraduates.


Aline Nachlas wrote about her experiences in the Atlanta NIH BEST program in October POSTDOCket. More experiences of trainees can be found on the BEST website.


The investment by NIH in BEST has had a positive impact on its participants, and with more and more trainees taking up the initiative to explore a full range of career paths, the beneficial effects of BEST will be undoubtedly continue to be felt widely in the graduate and postdoc community.


Ian Street, PhD, is the deputy editor of The POSTDOCket. He has a doctoral degree in plant biology from Washington University and was a postdoc in the Schaller lab at Dartmouth College. He is currently a virtual lab manager at HappiLabs. He writes and edits at his science blog, The Quiet Branches, as well as Botany One. He is also a cohost of The Recovering Academic podcast.


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