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Symposium Demystifies Career Options For Ph.D. Chemical Biologists

Entrepreneurs, industry researchers, consultants, and more rub elbows with graduate students

by Carmen Drahl,
July 8, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 27

Credit: Carmen Drahl/C&EN
“We didn’t want the meeting to be all business,” van der Donk said. He took photos with this cardboard doppelgänger.
Life-size cardboard cutout of Wilfred van der Donk, chemistry professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Credit: Carmen Drahl/C&EN
“We didn’t want the meeting to be all business,” van der Donk said. He took photos with this cardboard doppelgänger.

“Show of hands,” said John Montgomery, as he displayed the first slide of his presentation. “Who thinks it would be pretty cool to try a job that’s totally different from what you’re trained to do?”

Hands shot up from roughly half of the 100 graduate students in the audience. “Okay,” Montgomery continued, “who thinks it sounds pretty cool but finds the uncertainty and potential irreversibility perhaps too intimidating?” Nearly every hand remained aloft.

Montgomery, a professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, was introducing a career panel that included an attorney, a consultant, and this reporter. It was an interactive exchange that typified the inaugural Regional Career Development Conference at the Chemistry-Biology Interface. Held last month at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, the conference was designed to demystify career options for Ph.D. chemical biologists. It convened chemical biology trainees from 10 universities across the Midwest.

Those trainees are, by their own admission, acquainted with few choices. “We’re highly exposed to careers in academia,” said Amber R. Smith, a graduate student at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. “But I came to see what other kinds of jobs are out there.” The meeting also gave them an opportunity to present their work to a different audience.

“Students can’t make a career choice that they don’t know about,” Illinois professor Wilfred A. van der Donk told C&EN. He led the organizers, all involved with National Institutes of Health-supported chemistry-biology interface training programs, who made the conference happen. The group obtained funds for the meeting from NIH, which later put out a general call for career development proposals.

As planning advanced, both the American Chemical Society graduate education report and the NIH Working Group on Diversity in the Biomedical Research Workforce report emerged, and organizers kept them firmly in mind, van der Donk said.

“Having a conference focused on careers allows students to ask both panelists and their advisers questions that might feel awkward in another setting,” keynote speaker Laura L. Kiessling, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told C&EN. To get students thinking about their skill sets, organizers asked that they arrive with a prepared 90-second elevator pitch about themselves. Student speakers were asked to limit talks to 10 minutes and to use their time to provide a broad overview of the goals and importance of their work.

Humor fostered a laid-back atmosphere. The program was peppered with jokes, and a life-size cardboard cutout of van der Donk was on display. Even keynote speaker Peter D. Senter, vice president of chemistry at Seattle Genetics and an Illinois alum, earned yuks with his take on funding: For a start-up, “the best kind of money to have is other people’s money.”

“Students need to weigh a multitude of career options and to seriously think about them throughout their graduate training,” Senter told C&EN. He thought the meeting did an excellent job of emphasizing that concept.

With laughs to break the ice, the floor was open for frank talk from entrepreneurs, assistant professors, and corporate executives. For instance, Trius Therapeutics Senior Vice President Karen Shaw told the group that one of her mentors “didn’t have any intention of mentoring.”

“But I watched him,” she recalled, and from him learned about how to motivate a team and when to kill a project. Shaw also addressed questions about women’s challenges in the workforce. “You’d like to think the glass ceiling’s gone,” she said. “But there’s still something to it.”

Comic strip about careers for PhDs (PhD Comics by Jorge Cham).
Credit: Jorge Cham/

Conversations spilled into the late-night poster sessions. “The panels seemed to go by fast, probably because most of the information was so new to me,” said Illinois graduate student Spencer Peck.

To find out how much students like Peck learned, conference organizers have contracted with an independent firm, Wind­rose Vision, to conduct evaluations. The confidential surveys, administered before and after the meeting, were designed to assess changes in students’ knowledge about and interest in various career paths, said Madeleine F. Wallace, the firm’s founder and president. Organizers will see the data in aggregate and use it to plan next year’s meeting at UW, Madison.

“Everybody wants to know at what point students make a decision about their future,” Wallace said. “The baseline we’re developing may give us an idea.” It could also be useful if organizers should decide in the future to keep tabs on students’ career outcomes.

Peck told C&EN he’s planning to do postdoctoral work next. “It’s good to know about the doors that are available to you,” he added, “even if you aren’t opening them right now.”



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