Workshop and Course Development

Moderator: Terri O’Brien, University of California San Francisco
Panelists: Barbara Schreiber, Boston University; Inge Wefes, University of Colorado Denver|Anschutz Medical Campus; Keith Micoli, New York University; Janet Alder, Rutgers University
Website content
compiled and edited by Carol Rouzer, Laura Daniel, Ambika Mathur, and the workshop panelists

The BEST Consortium institutions have offered both workshops and courses as part of their programs. By definition, workshops usually focus on one content area or theme and usually last only one day. Courses, in contrast, typically cover multiple content areas and are delivered over many days. Depending on the institution and goal of the workshop/course, it may or may not be listed in a course catalog, may or may not provide credit, and may or may not have gone through an official approval process. However, in most cases, there is an emphasis on an interactive, hands-on approach.

The motivation to offer a particular course or workshop may come from many sources:

  • Trainees may request it
  • A gap in training may be identified by faculty, staff, or potential employers
  • A similar offering might be highly successful at another institution
  • A funder might require it.

Workshop or course content falls on a large continuum. It could be broadly applicable to research training, broadly applicable to general career development, or narrowly related to a specific career. The process of course development also falls along a large continuum; content is created with either total reliance on outside experts, co-development with experts outside and inside the institution, or total reliance on program faculty/staff. If these two continuums are viewed as a pair of perpendicular, intersecting lines, they define four quadrants in a two by two matrix into which workshops/courses fall. Courses required by a graduate program tend to fall in the top half of the quadrant and are attended by a large numbers of trainees. An example could be a scientific writing course, which could be developed with or without expert assistance. In contrast, a workshop on science policy could fall in the lower left quadrant, likely relying mainly on outside experts. A relatively small number of people would be expected to attend.

For institutions with financial resources but lack available personnel, a greater reliance on outside experts for course design is likely favored. The opposite would be true for institutions with more available faculty/staff but lower financial resources. Clearly, efforts must first be focused on providing broadly applicable, foundational offerings, with more specialized ones coming after those broader needs are met.

workshop continuum

Regardless of the offering, it is critically important to have well-defined learning objectives. For career development, these usually include:

  1. Empowering trainees and motivating them to identify and pursue their career goals
  2. Helping trainees to develop skills, such as communication, career exploration, and career planning
  3. Encouraging them to practice what they have learned by providing hands-on exercises

Identifying required resources is important for workshop/course development. Key resources include:

  1. People, who usually require some form of compensation. Consultant fees vary widely, typically ranging from $1,000-25,000. Teaching credit may compensate faculty. Alumni and community partners may be compensated for travel and provided with an honorarium. Program staff usually do not require compensation outside of normal salary and benefits, but their participation takes them away from other activities.
  2. Other expenses, including fees paid for assessments, food, transportation, classrooms, etc. These non-personnel related expenses are relatively small in comparison.

Meaningful assessment of workshops/courses is particularly important. Methods include pre- and post-evaluation surveys, focus groups, learning objectives, and career outcomes. The ultimate results of assessments are used to refine and improve the workshop/course, determine its value in career outcomes, and garner support for future offerings. Note that qualitative data, such as testimonials, are particularly useful in demonstrating benefits to prospective trainees of the workshop/course.

General helpful hints:

  • Experiment, start small and then refine the workshop/course and then let it grow as you find out what works.
  • Get experts when needed, as credibility matters. Trainees recognize and appreciate hearing from people with expertise in the relevant field.
  • Leverage your unique institutional circumstances, such as incentive structures and faculty within your institution but not in your department or school, to get results.
  • Most trainees will rise to the expectations you set, and many will engage deeply in these types of workshops/courses; however, for some, unexpected research or personal circumstances may limit their engagement.
  • It is important to realize that graduate students and postdocs have different needs and expectations that must be taken into account when designing workshops/courses for these two populations.
  • Do not be discouraged if a workshop/course has a small enrollment. It may still have a significant impact.

Finally, institutionalizing a successful workshop/course can help with sustainability. Get the offering approved to provide credit when it is appropriate.

A handout summarizing one example workshop/course for each of the 17 BEST programs is now available. The handout is intended to demonstrate the diversity of workshops/courses offered and includes details about the programs’ overall approach, learning objectives, target audience, resources required, lessons learned, and links to more information.


Download Sample Workshops PDF


Examples of Successful Workshops/Course

University of California, San Francisco

University of California San Francisco’s BEST program offers a single course delivered annually to a cohort of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. The Catalytic Course is a series of workshops that occur in three full-day sessions, all held on Saturdays.

The purpose is to provide the skills, and knowledge trainees need to effectively explore careers.

Learning objectives include:

  • Help students to use the Working Identity model, based on a book by Herminia Ibarra, to understand the features of successful career transition
  • Use the myIDP module to identify 2-3 career paths that might be best for them
  • Define goals for an informational interview
  • Prepare materials needed to initiate such an interview
  • Synthesize and reflecting on information they collect about careers of interest.

Required resources include people who lead the curriculum, coordinate the course, serve as guest speakers, and participate in career panels. Once established, organizing the course requires approximately 0.65 FTE for 3 months. Self-assessments and meals are provided at the cost of roughly $30 and $15/person, respectively. A classroom large enough to accommodate 90 people is required. It is estimated that providing this course to another institution would cost $20,000 in professional fees.

Evaluation of the course has included pre- and post-course surveys, formative assessment after the first and second session, observation of the trainees in peer teams, and trainee testimonials. Data indicate that ≥94% of trainees show improved ability to describe a range of career path options, identify careers that interest them, define goals, prepare for an informational interview, and possess a more precise sense of how to explore career options.

Experience so far demonstrates that the cohort model builds trust and community among the trainees. The career-neutral approach has been highly successful, as has the highly interactive nature of the curriculum. Trainees are inspired and encouraged by Ph.D. professionals, and course alumni are the best recruiters. A noted issue is that not all who enroll complete the program due to family or health issues. Trainees also need targeted encouragement to deal with gaps in motivation, particularly for informational interviews and mentor conversations.

UCSF MIND outcome

University of Colorado, Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus

On average, workshops at the University of Colorado, Denver/Anshutz are designed to total 15 contact hours in the form of 6 weekly 2.5-hour sessions. All workshop sessions are evaluated by pre- and identical post-event assessment questionnaires. Participants can earn a certificate of participation for completing at least 5 of 6 workshop sessions.

An example of a very successful, but more extensive, 4-day workshop is Project Management. A project is defined as a temporary endeavor, with a set beginning, a definitive end, and undertaken to create a unique product or service. Trainees have noted that the nature of scientific research, including its uncertainty, leads many to assume that their projects are not controllable. However, attending the workshop led participants to conclude that many common errors and failures in the lab can be avoided if correct project management approaches are employed.

The Project Management workshop provides instruction in 10 key management areas: management of scope, time, cost, quality, human resources, change, communication, risk, procurement, and stakeholders. All of these tasks must be handled while initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closing the project. The workshop instructor is a Project Management Professional who collaborates with a faculty member who provides the appropriate science context. Attendance of all four days is required. Trainees who complete the 30-hour program, which is currently paid for by the BEST program, receive a Certificate of Participation, this meets the minimum qualification to take the Certified Project Management Associate (CPMA) examination. This certification is internationally recognized.

Following the workshop, trainees strongly agreed that project management is valuable for success in biomedical research and that students, postdocs, and faculty can all benefit. In an effort at the university to engage faculty, the program conducted a condensed workshop for junior faculty, who also found the training very valuable.

Challenges in offering the workshop include a four-day time commitment and buy-in from mentors. So far, the majority of enrollees have been postdocs. Instructors’ fees for the outside expert are around $2,200/person. While the CU BESST Program has negotiated a considerable discount, the cost is still too high to offer the course, long-term, for free. Offering the training as a tuition-based course would require an additional time commitment for exams and homework, which would lead to further competition for precious time. Therefore, CU BESST plans to offer the workshop by cost-sharing between the trainees (or their mentors) and the university.

New York University

A particularly successful course at NYU has been Medical Communications. Medical communications agencies provide strategic consulting services to help pharmaceutical companies educate physicians, patients, and other stakeholders about new therapies and the conditions they treat. Jobs within medical communications include medical writer, medical editor, account manager, and editorial project manager. The short-term goals of the course are to introduce the concept of medical communications careers to trainees, build knowledge of the relevant career paths, and increase understanding of the required skills. The long-term goals are to facilitate career transitions into medical communications for all, help graduate students to avoid an unnecessary postdoc if they choose this career, and build a cohesive network of alumni for all participants. The course is open to all graduate students and postdocs on both of NYU campuses. It began as a 2-hour workshop but expanded to a 4- and then an 8-week course.

Learning objectives help to define the length, size, and scope of the course. In this case, the learning objectives are to enhance the trainee’s understanding of career paths within medical communications, provide a basic knowledge of clinical trial design and publication. Also, the course hopes to teach trainees how to transition from academia to medical communications, understand the most valued skills in medical communications, and complete a relevant writing assignment that demonstrates real-world skills. Topics covered include introduction to medical communications, careers in medical communications (publications and strategy), promotional education, clinical trials, a practice writing test, the transition to medical communications, and resume writing. The course is delivered in one-hour weekly sessions in the form of lectures, group work, individual projects, and panel discussions. Participants have weekly writing assignments and receive written feedback and evaluations on all assignments. Outside speakers include representatives from several medical communications companies.

Resources required to run the course include a classroom that seats 30 people with A/V capabilities, funds to provide dinner (pizza and soda), funds to pay external experts who also serve as course directors ($3,000 is typical compensation, split according to duties), funds to support the recruitment of alumni and local professionals as panelists, and staff to assist with logistics and curriculum development.

The assistant dean coordinates and organizes the directors (~ 10 h per course), the assistant director coordinates the day-to-day logistics (~1-2 h/week), the program coordinator books rooms and orders catering (<1 h/week), and the program manager designs the registration form and promotional materials (~10 hours/course).

At the advent of the 8-week course in 2017, 42 students enrolled, and 31 started the course. Of those, 21 completed it. Seven were students, and 14 were postdocs. From the 4-week course given in 2016, six trainees completed the training. Four of these are now medical writers, 1 is a medical project manager, and 1 is an assistant professor. One of the graduate students became a medical writer directly after graduation, without doing a postdoc. An unexpected result of the course is that outside speakers have expressed an interest in coming to campus to recruit. This will result in the first Medical Communications day at NYU in the spring of 2018, with five companies already committed to sending a representative.

A somewhat unexpected observation is that as the workload and time demand for the course increased, registration also increased. Using working professionals as course directors has been a strong aspect of the course, as has the requirement of a small payment from enrollees. Payment of the fee tends to increase retention while having only a minor impact on registration. On the other hand, increasing the number of sessions reduced attendance and required course expansion, increased logistical support, and greater workload for the course directors. Placing the course classroom location as close as possible to the cohort of potential enrollees is also important.

Rutgers University

Before obtaining BEST funding, Rutgers had no career development program at all for graduate students or postdocs; however, the program has been so successful that all state-supported universities are now adopting it. Thus, it has a strong likelihood of being continued after BEST funding is no longer available.

For the phase 1 inquiry phase of its program, Rutgers uses the SciPhD Leadership and Business Workshop, which is a commercially available course provided by Human Workflows, LLC, comprising partners are Randy Ribaudo and Larry Petcovic. The 4-day course, containing 35 contact hours, costs $25,000. Providing the course requires an addition 0.1 FTE administration staff for coordination and transportation between the two Rutgers campuses, lunch for the attendees, a room with space for 70 participants containing roundtables, and an open hall for team exercises. One must also have a database of alumni and local industry contacts.

Broad topics covered include the business of science, successful scientific communication, developing people skills, networking, the interview process, team performance tools, major leadership styles, financial literacy, and strategic project management for scientists. Although a major goal of the course is to make scientific trainees ready to enter the business world, the course is also highly valuable for those planning to remain in academia. Many of the skills are transferable, and running an academic laboratory is like running a business in many ways.

Rutgers has experimented with offering the course in many different formats from eight individual workshop sessions to a two-day concentrated boot-camp. Of these options, the boot-camp was clearly the least preferable. The long sessions required frequent breaks, and fewer trainees finished the course.

A post-workshop survey, trainee testimonials, and tracking of trainee career outcomes and experiences are being used to evaluate the course. Of the trainees who took the workshop in 2015, 2016, and 2017, respectively, 66%, 34%, and 38% also had an industry experience, such as an internship, externship, shadowing, or a job. Trainees were highly positive about the workshop, a vast majority agreed or strongly agreed that the training helped them to improve a broad range of career development skills. Rutgers’s overall experience with the workshop demonstrates that it helps to alleviate trainee anxiety about a career in industry. Particularly high points include the hands-on activities, the entertaining instructors, the take-home manual plus online materials, and the social aspect. Rutgers now opens the course to participation by trainees in neighboring schools, which helps to fill all openings in the workshop and defray expenses. Providing transportation from all of the different schools facilitates trainee participation. Trainees are advised to inform their mentors that they will take the workshop, rather than to attempt to solicit permission.


The workshop is highly successful, but it is expensive, which raises a question regarding long-term sustainability. Providing it requires institutional support and charging students fees help. If practical, opening the workshop to other institutions is another potential route for cost reduction. Alternatively, offering an in-house version

could reduced costs.

Some audience members stated that their institutions had also used SciPhD and that it had been highly successful and popular. However, the issue of expense was also noted by the audience as an impediment. One institution had contracted Randy Ribaudo to provide a more limited experience on one or two abbreviated topics for less money, which was also well-received by the trainees.

A more general discussion focused on the need to match course and workshop development to the specific needs and resources of each institution. Identifying and leveraging unique local resources is to be encouraged and will influence the types of workshops/courses that are offered. For this reason, one might question whether it is possible to outline a defined set of “BEST” offerings. Instead, perhaps there should be a menu of BEST offerings from which each institution could choose based on interest and resources. Nevertheless, certain core competencies are required, and the Consortium should work to define these and make recommendations regarding ways that they can be fulfilled.

Returning to the problem of cost, not just for the SciPhD workshop, but for workshops and courses in general, the point was made that money can often be saved by relying less on external people. This is fine as long as internal expertise is available; however, as noted above, credibility gained from having experience in the course topic is critical to success. If credit is granted for a workshop or course, then costs can be defrayed, at least in part, by charging tuition. This works for graduate students but not for postdocs, who likely have limited resources to pay such a fee; however, this could be fixed by offering them a tuition waiver is granted. An additional solution is to try and leverage administration support on the basis of increased trainee productivity and improved career outcomes. Other ways to maximize efficient use of available resources are to partner with businesses and/or nonprofits in the community as well as neighboring institutions and get alumni involved.

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Additional Resources

Workshop & Course Development Slides

Example workshops form 17 BEST