Duke’s DICOTS Network nurtures graduate students looking to continue their scientific careers without becoming tenure-track academicsSeptember 19, 2016
Emily Miller, a graduate student in Duke’s genetics and genomics program, gingerly fingered a sample of a surgical mesh attached to a slab of silicon representing human tissue.
“How would surgeons respond to how thick the mesh is?” she asked. “Are they stubborn about changing how they do things?”
“They don’t change easily, which is why we want to provide this hands on sample,” responded the surgeon, researcher, and entrepreneur who was asking for feedback on how to pitch his new product to the salespeople who could help get the product into the medical market.
Miller has no plans to become a surgeon or a salesperson. But, she says, the opportunity to participate in an informal marketing feedback meeting was one of many experiences over the last year that have opened her eyes to the complex journey that medical therapies and devices face.
“I had no idea how rigorous the process is to move a product through the pipeline, and how many people are involved,” she says. “I’d never even thought about the marketing angle before, but if people don’t buy the product, what good will it do?”
Miller gained her insights into the translational process by participating in the Discovering Career Options in Translational Science (DICOTS) network. DICOTS, which is funded through the Duke CTSA, matches graduate students and postdoctoral students with advisors and mentors to help them explore the myriad careers for which their PhD degrees may be an excellent preparation.
“We know that only about 20 percent of the students who go into PhD programs will end up with careers that look like those of their academic mentors – being faculty members and principal investigators on research grants,” says Vivian Chu, MD, an associate professor of medicine at Duke and director of DICOTS.
Chu started DICOTS in 2014 to provide a structured way for students to reach out beyond their academic mentors for career advice. “We open doors for these students to gain insight into what it is like to be in a scientific career that doesn’t include being a principal investigator on an NIH grant,” she said. In addition, the students in the program become resources for each other, sharing useful tidbits about which career fairs focus on which fields, and offering a supportive ear to those with similar career anxieties.
“MORE THAN A SNAPSHOT”
The CTSA Education Core piloted the program in the 2014-15 academic year with five students and a short list of staff and faculty willing to share more about their careers. By the 2015-16 academic year, the student cohort had grown to 15, and the list of possible mentors had grown to 20. These mentors represent a range of jobs, from clinical trials project managers to science writers and regulatory consultants, to name a few.
Each participant in DICOTS chooses an area to investigate and is paired with one or more advisors who can help them explore that career path through casual conversations, shadowing, invitations to professional events, or other methods.
DICOTS matched Miller, who was interested in learning more about project management, with Vonda Rodriguez in the CTSI Project Management office. As her schedule allowed, Miller attended meetings, read reports and proposals, and “got a feel for what goes on behind the scenes.”
“Vonda was great at inviting me to participate in a whole range of activities, so I got a much better sense of what a project manager does,” Miller says. “I came away with so much more than the snapshot of a career you might get in just one conversation.”
Emily Snavely, who studies microbial pathogenesis, used the DICOTS network to connect with and shadow Nancy Henshaw, the section head in the Duke clinical microbiology laboratory.
“I’ve been shadowing her on and off for almost two years now, and I’ve had the chance to learn the ins and outs of the job,” Snavely says. “For example, I now know that it is definitely not a 9-5 job. And I know that the field is rapidly changing toward automation and bioinformatics tools and next generation sequencing. But I also know that the career I want is to be the director of a clinical microbiology lab.”
“THAT EXTRA BIT OF MOTIVATION”
In addition to shadowing and learning from mentors and advisors, the DICOTS network encourages participants to learn from each other. The group gathers approximately once a month for professional development presentations from Career Services staff on issues such as resume writing or building professional networks, and small group interviews with representatives from industry. But they also take time to share their own journeys.
“People keep telling me I should get as much experience as possible, even if it is just an internship, because people want experience along with a PhD,” said Keri Hamilton at a DICOTS network meeting last April, just two weeks after defending her dissertation. Having spent her time with DICOTS learning about the many different facets of medical writing, she said she felt much more comfortable tweaking her resume and cover letters to match the type of writing a prospective employer wanted.
The hard work paid off, and in May of 2016, she accepted a position as a grant writing specialist with Eva Garland Consulting in Raleigh.
GETTING CAREER CONVERSATIONS “OFF THE BACK BURNER”
When Chu began the program, she feared that faculty members who were actively mentoring the DICOTS students might frown upon the program, feeling it might intrude on their mentor/mentee relationship. But no such animosity arose.
“I think people recognize the importance of having more than one mentor these days,” Chu said.
While much of the focus of DICOTS is on introducing jobs that don’t lead to a faculty-level position, sometimes the DICOTS experience points directly back to academia.
Katie Dickerson, who participated in the DICOTS program in 2015-16, is now a junior faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry and a CTSA KL2 scholar.
“DICOTS was important for me because it provides a natural, yet structured way to start building a network. It gives you that extra bit of motivation and comfort, knowing you have a group of people to talk things over with,” Dickerson says.
Chu chuckles at the irony of an academic like herself leading a project that may lead students out of academia. But she is dedicated to the need to develop a workforce that isn’t focused solely on traditional academic roles.
“I like pulling students out of their everyday routines and getting them thinking about careers,” she says. “It’s an important subject that is all too often left simmering on the back burner. DICOTS gets it back on the radar, with lots of support and accompaniment.”