March 13, 2014

BEST program will train Ph.D.s for nonacademic careers

Only 23 percent of biomedical science Ph.D.s get academic tenure track positions, and just 43 percent end up in academic research jobs, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

To address this disconnect between available positions and how Ph.D.s in biomedical fields are trained, the NIH has funded 10 universities, including Cornell, to start Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) pilot programs. Eight additional BEST awards to other institutions are expected to follow.

Cornell’s five-year, $1.8 million award will be used to develop new ways to prepare graduate and postdoctoral researchers for nonacademic research careers in four tracks: science communication; governance, risk and compliance; science policy; and industry, entrepreneurship and management.

“Cornell was selected partly because we have a great connection with industry and entrepreneurial entities” and strong research in life sciences, said Susi Varvayanis, senior director of Cornell’s BEST program. The program has had “enthusiastic support from top administration, the Graduate School, Entrepreneurship@Cornell and the Institute of Biotechnology,” she added.

A kickoff event March 18, open to the public, has drawn interest from faculty, graduate students and postdocs in such fields as biomedical sciences, pharmacology, environmental engineering, nutritional sciences, chemistry, immunology, computer sciences, physics, ecology and evolutionary biology. The event will feature panel discussions in each of the four tracks, a plenary speaker and a networking lunch.

Later this spring, Cornell’s BEST program will announce a call for applicants, with the first cohort of 30 starting this summer. Cornell graduate students and postdocs in a life sciences field are eligible to apply.

A baseline survey at Cornell will determine career aspirations and outcomes for graduate students, which will be used over the next five years to gauge the program’s success.

The program itself is very flexible, said Varvayanis, but will include approval from a graduate student’s adviser when applicable. As many fields allow incoming graduate students to rotate through three different labs, the BEST program could serve as a fourth rotation of six to 10 weeks in yet another lab, another field or even outside of academia, without adding time to attain a degree. Also, participants will gain hands-on experience to add to their curriculum vitae.

“Employers struggle with finding people with the skills for immediate employment, and the way to get that is tangible, hands-on experience,” said Varvayanis. For example, a student in the science policy track could work with faculty to create a bill for consideration by Congress. Or students in the risk assessment track could intern at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center of New York, a U.S. federal research facility that studies animal diseases, where they can gain experience understanding how such facilities deal with bioterrorism risks.

With the BEST program being built from scratch, “we don’t have all the solutions right now, but we hope over the next five years to enhance training opportunities for graduates and postdocs to prepare them for work outside of academic careers,” Varvayanis added.