Program Staffing

Moderator: Roger Chalkley, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine
Panelists: Emma Flores, University of California Irvine; David Fruman, University of California Irvine; Tamara Hutto, Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology; Nael McCarty, Emory University; Kim Petrie, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine

Website content compiled and edited by Laura Daniel, Carol Rouzer, Ambika Mathur, Roger Chalkley, and the workshop panelists

Photo of the Program Staffing Panel

Of the 18 BEST Consortium institutions; seven had career development programs before the grant award. Following the BEST award of ~$250,000 per year to each of the 18 institutions, all programs used funds from the grant for the creation of various career development programs to test their effectiveness on career outcomes and determine if the programs were cost-effective. The consortium consists of 42 co-PIs and an additional 34 individuals that play significant supporting roles. Of the 76 members, all but 9 have a Ph.D. or equivalent. The average full-time equivalent effort (FTE) is 2.2. It is easy to see that the majority of the NIH funding goes to paying salary and fringe benefits of staff who design and organize the many activities.

The staff in charge of career development programs spends their time on a variety of different tasks. Examples include strategic planning, committee outreach, program development and execution, marketing and communication, mentoring and advising, employer and alumni engagement, research evaluation, analysis of outcomes, and dissemination of results. The relative amount of time spent performing these tasks varies from institution to institution. In addition to the functions that are directly related to producing career development programs and evaluating results, staff must also seek advice from outside sources to obtain expertise not readily available internally. Staff must spend time networking to create these relationships and to establish other resources such as internships and idea generation. Some of the collaborations occur at organizations’ meetings such as National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), Graduate Career Consortium (GCC), BEST teleconferences, the annual BEST meeting, and other career or graduate education national meetings.

BEST Program staff bring a wide range of background and skills to their institutions. Most have relevant experience in the academic research setting and in working with graduate students and faculty. The staff is also familiar with adult learning principles and have a working knowledge of career and professional development processes. Other needed skills BEST staff bring are relationship building skills and coaching skills.

Staffing structures at three presenting school

Staffing structures at three presenting programs

As a part of the panel discussion on staffing, the University of California at Irvine, Emory University/Georgia Tech, and Vanderbilt University each addressed the composition of their trainees, program models, career development services, and the efforts and structure of their staff. You can see from the figure that each institution has different requirements for staff effort allocation.

Program models initiated by BEST Consortium members fall into one of three categories. The cohort model primarily delivers the programming to a subgroup of trainees at the institution. An advantage of this model is its small scale and the fact that trainees who do not participate can serve as controls. Community building is inherent in this model and proves to be a useful way to create broad support networks. However, because of the popularity the activities, some are opened to all trainees, including the “controls,” so they are not perfect controls. The other two models welcome all trainees, the only difference being in the number of trainee participants. One has a large number of participants and the other is relatively small. The size of the school and the number of departments included in programming determines the number of trainees supported by the program. Regardless of the model, all programs are trans-institutional, none focusing on a single department.

University of California, Irvine

UCI’s Graduate Professional Success (GPS)-Biomedical program comprises of 800 Ph.D. students and 300 postdocs found in 4 schools, 10 Ph.D. programs, and 20 departments. The program uses a hybrid cohort model, with the full range of services offered to registered trainees (180 graduate students and 60 postdocs) and some services provided to all 1100 trainees. A Trainee Council comprised of 12-15 trainees gives guidance from their perspective to program staff. The programs offer career exploration, professional skills training, internship preparation, and networking and mentorship.

Percent effort of UCI staff

Professional Development Providers at UCI have offices across the entire campus, including the Graduate Division, Applied Innovation, the Division of Career Pathways, the Division of Continuing Education, and the Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation. The BEST program itself operates with 1.5 FTE; the staff consists of an associate director, an evaluator, and an alumni relation specialist. The majority of staff efforts goes into strategic planning and outreach with the implementation of programs a close second.

One problem faced by UCI staff is that the PI, who is a faculty member, frequently gets responses from people in the university whereas the associate director, not a faculty member, does not, primarily because people the title faculty carries an authoritative weight. Thus, it may be advisable to have a faculty member involved in the program to help make contacts within the institution.

In addition to institutional faculty, UCI has established multiple external partnerships that provide career-specific training on several topics. UCI partners with local companies as well as organizations such as Activate to Captivate, LDOS (Loh Down on Science) Media Lab, OCTANe, SciPhD, and SmartStart. External partnerships also include alumni, which frequently participate in career and networking nights, as well as in the alumni mentoring program. Some of these external partners provide the trainees with additional resources without added costs; however, this does require effective marketing and communications to engage these external partners.

UCI cautioned the audience to be careful how you approach your program alumni. It has been their experience that alumni are usually happy to be involved with the trainees and invest their time; however, they are less receptive to monetary requests.

In summary, the program relies a lot on input from outside people, and although most services are provided free of charge to trainees, experience shows that charging a fee for activities, which involve significant time commitments, increased engagement and participation. This very modest fee-for-service can provide additional resources for funding the programs.

Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology

The Atlanta BEST program is the only BEST consortium initiative that is a partnership between two reserach institutions. It is housed in the Emory Laney Graduate School with a subcontract to Georgia Tech. In total, there are 24 biomedical-related Ph.D. programs and 35 departments house postdoctoral fellows. Before the BEST award, career services for graduate students were very limited. The Emory Career Center primarily serves undergraduates, and the Georgia Tech Career Center mainly serves graduate students in engineering. Now, five individuals, representing 1.25 FTE, staff the Atlanta BEST program. The majority of staff efforts goes to strategic planning, outreach, and program development and execution; however, additional effort is also required for evaluating program outcomes, mentoring trainees, marketing/communication, and engaging internal stakeholders and external partners.

Percent effort of Atlanta BEST staff

The first four years of their program was a cohort model, limiting attendance to only 20-30 pre-selected trainees per year. The application process required a letter from their primary faculty advisor. As activities were tested and improved, they were then offered to the broader communities. The fifth year of the program will use the experiences of the first four years to expand the program beyond cohorts.

Just like UCI, Atlanta BEST has taken advantage of volunteers and alumni, creating more resources without added FTEs. For example, following the BEST initiative, the Atlanta Society of Mentors, a community of faculty, students, postdocs, and staff focused on improving mentoring of trainees, was formed in 2015. The National Research Mentoring Network inspired the program. Mentor and mentee training occurs over six to eight consecutive sessions. So far, 43 faculty members have participated, and 16 have received certificates, which requires attendance at six out of eight sessions. Responses to the program have been very positive with 100% of attendees saying they have made or plan to make changes in their mentoring practices as a direct result of the training.

The first four years taught Atlanta BEST many key lessons:

  • Trainee self-assessments are a particularly important part of the program. Self-reflection should be an integral part of professional development programs, ranging from career exploration to mentorship and leadership.
  • Activity-based experiences are much more effective than passive ones. Getting trainees to engage in activities and produce deliverables ensures trainees get the most out of the activities.
  • Institutional support for the programs is more important than the support of individual mentors. This doesn’t mean mentor support is not important, but if trainees feel their institutions and programs support their broader development, they are more likely to participate in broader professional development activities, even if they have resistant mentors.
  • Trainees need space and time to work on these topics. Some need more time and support than others, so providing a foundation of offerings for everyone with options to go deeper is an ideal way to design these programs. These additional options can be more specific activities, one-on-one conversations with a coach or professional development counselor, alumni mentor matching, or online resources to do further independent work – to name a few.

 Vanderbilt University

Vanderbilt’s Office of Biomedical Research and Training (BRET) serves ~650 Ph.D. students that are recruited into 15 Ph.D. programs through 3 admissions departments. It also serves ~450 postdocs in 25 departments throughout the university and the medical center. Ninety percent of the graduate students and 65% of the postdocs are US citizens or permanent residents.

vandy staff

Percent effort of Vanderbilt staff

Like several other institutions, the BRET office had an Office of Career Development, established 2005, before BEST funding; however, BEST funding enabled the institution to markedly expand their services, resulting in the creation of ASPIRE (Augmenting Scholar Preparation and Integration with Research-Related Endeavors). Vanderbilt decided from the beginning that they would open their program to all graduate students and postdocs. However, due to space, cost, or course design, certain offerings have capped attendance. In the first year three of ASPIRE, 63% of students and 76% of postdocs participated in at least one of the programs, and ~10% of trainees engage in an internship or externship. Internships are relatively labor-intensive to set up, even if the trainee finds the position for himself or herself. This is because considerable effort is required to make sure that each entity’s responsibilities are well defined and all legal issues have been addressed.

Six people contribute to the mission of the BRET Office BRET Office of Career Development, including the 3 PIs of Vanderbilt’s BEST award. The other members of the team are the Director of Career Engagement and Strategic Partnerships (who fosters employer and alumni relations), and an Assistant Director and a Program Manager (who oversee the daily activities and management of the office). The team works closely with the Director of Outcomes Analysis, who tracks alumni outcomes and is the program evaluation for BRET and BEST programs.  Out of these seven people, five hold a Ph.D. degree in the biosciences, one holds an M.S. degree in higher education, and one holds a B.A in HOD (Human and Organizational Development). In total, the office operates using 5.75 (including the evaluator) FTEs, 2.43 of which are funded by BEST. The staff manages in-person and online resources for trainees; they design, arrange, and deliver programs; and they organize various ASPIRE activities directed towards professional skill enhancement, exploration of a variety of career paths, and enhancement of career-specific skills.

As mentioned above, half of Vanderbilt’s program staff was in place before receiving BEST funding. The Dean recognizes the value of the program and has supported it for a decade; therefore, it is expected to continue when funding ceases. It is worth noting that the career development office is not only an effective recruiting tool for incoming graduate students, but it also increases competitiveness for T32 training grant applications. Institutional funding acquired through training grants more than compensates for the investments in the career development programs at Vanderbilt. However, the best argument for offering career development services is that this is the right thing to do for our trainees.

Overall Discussion

Following the panel’s presentation, the discussion was dominated by concern regarding the end of BEST funding. The institutions spoke about ways to raise money as well as ways to cut cost so they could continue providing services, although likely abbreviated. One way that UCI is considering lowering costs is by finding a substitution for SciPhD.

It is just now becoming clear that career development services need to be offered to attract the best people. As of now, the effectiveness of these programs is mostly anecdotal. Therefore, it will be essential to accumulate additional data to test that such programs work and can, therefore, serve as a valuable recruiting tool.

Currently, UCI has 80 trainees who completed their program. They are gathering information on program outcomes using trainee and alumni interviews and focus groups. They believe that narratives derived from these interviews are powerful tools that help leverage support from institutional stakeholders. Their early data show that the existence of this program influenced 49% of recruits’ decision to choose UCI. Trainees are aware that funding will soon run out and have begun to ask about the future of the program. The UCI career program has set a precedent for their trainees; now the trainees expect them to continue, and it is important that UCI be able to deliver. It is also important, however, to stress to that career development must occur in support of their research training, not in place of it.

The Atlanta Best Program will likely lean heavily on Emory for maintenance after BEST funding is no longer available. The intent is that the fifth year expansion will enable the institutions to “right size” the program for the future. Location of the center is a concern: will it reside with the graduate school or the career center? Location plays a vital role in the success of a program because trainees are more likely to use the services if they are located conveniently. Atlanta BEST is developing strategies to secure the resources necessary for program continuation when NIH funding is no longer available.

One concern following termination of the BEST award is that institutions will increasingly rely on T32 grants to provide funding for the career development activities, which could cause fragmented efforts. This is because most T32-funded programs are specific to the department or the group of departments directly involved in the grant. To prevent fragmented efforts, it is important for the institution to step up and take a leadership role. We do not recommend that the institution take over such programs, but that it should provide a broader base upon which T32 programs can build. The idea is to work with topic-specific training grant programs rather than to get in their way.

The BEST program is very broad and can set an example for other institutions. It can also become a service center in support of all aspects of professional development.

Despite the BEST Program’s obvious interest in career and professional development, it is important to remember that graduate students and postdocs enter our programs as a result of a desire to do research. Many, if not most, do not come with a specific career goal in mind. So far, the BEST Consortium experience shows that supporting these trainees is in the interest of the taxpayer who is funding this support. The current trainee cohort is obviously adequate to fill the currently available academic faculty positions. But many trainees do not follow this career path. Indeed, many choose not to do so. The overwhelming majority of these trainees enter careers that still undoubtedly contribute to the taxpayer goals of understanding and fighting disease. They occupy essential roles in society and pay their own taxes. Thus, these programs are not under-employed.

It is also important to realize that these programs empower trainees to find things they want to do and pursue careers suitable to their talents and interests. Thus, contrary to some current thinking, our training programs are not exploitative. In fact, they are working quite well. The increase in the breadth of training is remarkable, and it clearly will not go away.

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