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Training for Career Success at the University of Texas
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Maya Sapiurka


With the release of the National Academy of Science’s recent report on The Next Generation of Biomedical and Behavioral Sciences Researchers, the need for innovative and forward-looking training programs is more urgent than ever. Programs looking to revamp their professional development and training curricula may want to consider the model set by the University of Texas at Austin’s 21st Century Graduate Education Initiative. The programming, run through the College of Natural Sciences (CNS), is intended to prepare graduate students and postdocs for their future career by providing both formal and informal training opportunities.


“When people see our students and postdocs being successful at the next stage of their careers, that says something good about the University of Texas and the College of Natural Sciences.”


From 2015 to 2017, two CNS committees were convened to consider how University of Texas at Austin’s graduate and postdoctoral training programs could better prepare trainees as the next generation of scientists and to shape the future of science through innovation. The committees’ work resulted in the 21st Century Education Initiative, which is designed to accomplish four broad goals:

  • To streamline and enhance student’s paths to their degree
  • To make graduate education more flexible and efficient
  • To ensure that all students and postdocs explore and prepare for their desired career opportunities
  • To ensure that all students and postdocs acquire big data skills

CNS offers monthly seminars on career and funding opportunities inside and outside of academia. These seminars, open to postdocs and graduate students, are scheduled to provide minimal interference with lab work. Additionally, CNS provides a career development specialist, Po-Tsan Ku, PhD, for graduate students and postdocs. Ku offers group and individual consultations on all aspects of the academic and non-academic job search and interview process.


Littlefield Fountain, University of Texas at Austin. Robert Yarnall Richie Photograph Collection courtesy DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University

Key to preparing trainees for their future in the biomedical research enterprise is the development of “soft skills” not formally taught in graduate programs. To address this, CNS is developing a workshop on these foundational skills to be piloted in Fall 2018. According to Dan Knopf, PhD, associate dean for graduate education and professor of mathematics, this workshop will include units on effective communications, conflict resolution, resilience in the workplace, disability advocacy, and more. Says Knopf, “These are transferable skills that we believe are important whether you’re inside or outside of academia, and more to the point, I think if you develop these skills earlier you are more likely to have a smooth path, whether it’s through your postdoc or whether it’s through your graduate school experience.”


For trainees wishing for more formal training, CNS offers “concentrations” in teaching and mentoring, communicating science, and leadership and project management. These subjects were chosen after surveying the student population to determine what courses would be of greatest interest. These concentrations consist of one to three courses with classes held in the later afternoon or early evening. Those who complete the concentrations receive a certificate from the dean’s office that can be listed on their resume or CV. According to Knopf, 35 individuals participated in the concentration pilot program, ten of whom were postdocs, and they are currently working with the LBJ School of Public Affairs to create a concentration in science and public policy.


Illustration by Alexandra Taraboletti

When asked about the challenges of creating such a comprehensive initiative, Knopf acknowledged that changing scientific culture happens slowly and that some faculty need to be reassured their programs aren’t broken. The key is to remind faculty that there is always a need to provide improvements that will benefit the trainee, the program, and the institution, and that these changes are in response to calls from national organizations and data supporting the conclusion that graduate students and postdocs are pursuing a wide range of opportunities. Beyond providing trainees with the opportunities they have asked for, the 21st Century Graduate Education Initiative benefits the institution.


“I hope this will help us recruit stronger students and stronger postdocs,” said Knopf, “and they’ll go out and be more competitive for their next positions. The main reason for doing that is because it’s good for them, but it’s also good for us. When people see our students and postdocs being successful at the next stage of their careers, that says something good about the University of Texas and the College of Natural Sciences.”


Most exciting of all to Knopf, this initiative is “an opportunity to really enhance graduate education and postdoctoral training in ways that cut across the traditional silos and boundaries. This training, though it may be integrated in different ways in different programs, is important to you whether you’re working in molecular bioscience or in physics or in mathematics. It’s a true coordinated effort within a college of science. I think this opens up a recognition that a college of science can, without impinging upon individual programs’ autonomy, begin to help its PhD programs put students and postdocs first.”


Maya Sapiurka is a training and policy associate at the Society for Neuroscience.