Cornell University

Program Title: BEST

Key People: Avery August, John Parker Chris Schaffer, Susi Sturzenegger Varvayanis

Program Summary

There is a great need for trained scientists in many sectors of our economy and society, including academia and government/industry. BEST (Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training) is not just set to help PhD students and post-docs find jobs, but rather it is focused on helping these trainees to better learn about and contribute successfully in career paths where their expertise is desperately needed. The nationwide consortium of 17 institutions awarded BEST grants funded by the National Institutes of Health are working together to redefine the paradigm for PhD education. Collectively the group is publishing in scientific journals the message that times have changed and faculty can no longer only train PhDs who will follow in their footsteps to become academics.

The Cornell BEST Program has been providing trainees exposure to the various career options for PhDs via seminars in collaboration with department seminar series organizers, and via the signature “Careers in…” panel discussion series which cover tracks with concentration in: Science Policy; Communication; Governance, Risk and Compliance; and Industry, Entrepreneurship & Management. BEST also hosts an annual symposium where all four tracks are featured. In addition, several trips, workshops and courses have been strengthened or developed to give an overview of the fields, increase awareness of possible careers suited to PhDs, and provide hands-on experience.

Numerous fruitful outcomes have emanated from trainees’ participation in BEST, which have led to further successes in science policy, science communication, industry and entrepreneurship, including the formation of new companies and securing federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funding. Several trainee-run clubs have been formed including the Cornell Graduate Consulting Club (CGCC), Advancing Science and Policy (ASAP); and others that collaborate with the BEST Program, such as the Technology & Entrepreneurship Club (TEC) and Biotechnology Club. Together they provide training, interactions with practitioners in the field, case competitions, practice describing their expertise in the language of their future employer (or funder), and practical advice on how to find and land a job using the skills learned. Another successful outcome is that trainees may increase their resolve to become tenure track academics, but with increased skills as a consequence of an informed decision.

BEST program guidance has helped change the culture on campus: several postdoctoral societies or student run symposia have incorporated career development panel discussions as a new paradigm, and PhDs and postdocs have been empowered to bring a national ComSciCon conference to Ithaca for regional participation. Other students and postdocs were awarded BEST travel funds to attend conferences beyond their academic discipline. The BEST Program has also funded professional society membership to select trainees in the New York Academy of Sciences, the Licensing Executives Society, the Medical Liaison Society, among others.

Cornell BEST doctoral students and postdocs have gone on to advocate for and practice what they learn. Through mentorship they have learned about the writing and editing process. They have authored articles in the BioMed Breakthroughs Industry Report, the Atlanta BEST Magazine; run and won business case competitions; interviewed for alumni magazines; and shared their opinions on energy generation, and even the future of the postdoctoral experience with Science. They have also given keynote talks, formal presentations at industry conferences, participated in live Science Cabarets and won prestigious policy fellowships.

As any ‘BESTie’ will tell you, the more you engage, the more you benefit. This and many other lessons, like ‘opportunities aren’t found, they’re made’, underscore the importance of honing skills beyond your technical expertise for your future success. Cornell BEST enhances training opportunities for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) through an individualized, flexible program that empowers trainees to acquire the knowledge and skills to become more credible for an ideal career outcome.

KEYS to SUCCESSES

  • Flexibility: a program that is ready when students and postdocs are, offering opportunities at the dose they are ready to receive, increases both faculty buy-in and trainee empowerment
  • Personalization: as no two careers are identical, neither will their training needs be so; we also encourage and support student/postdoc-initiated ideas
  • Experiential opportunities: to be able to say ‘I’ve done that’ and write it on their resume (we partner with the Cornell graduate school, career services, and office of postdoctoral studies who offer over 200 workshops a year on general career and professional development; CU-CIRTL, Center for Teaching Excellence, etc. cover other focus areas that we co-advertise)
  • Gaining professorial buy-in: it is dependent on how we have marketed the program
    • the skills learned will foster success in any field, including academia
    • we are not pushing students to careers beyond academia but rather are enabling an informed choice for future success
    • we offer a resource to alleviate faculty pain points (if they have no experience in industry, or feel they can’t connect trainees with mentors or opportunities in science policy or intellectual property law, e.g.) and to showcase their successful alumni

CHALLENGES

  • Measuring impact vs. maintaining flexibility: Many BEST participants enter the program by filling out an application, are put on our mailing list, have an individual consultation & attend events, but not necessarily in that order. Since we do not have a fixed cohort that goes through a prescribed sequence, it complicates the assessment and reporting of the effects of the program.
  • Scale up vs. personalization (we are at around 250 participants: think individual consultations with each, a few times a year!): To get around this issue, we are developing career interest hubs around consulting, science policy, communication, etc. and via collaborative efforts tying in to existing entrepreneurial hubs. Additionally, these hubs give real leadership experience to trainee heads, and cross disciplinary connections that were an unexpected beneficial outcome.
  • Reporting on a moving target population: Maintaining current lists of graduate students (when did they leave? did they take a short postdoc here?) and postdocs (different ‘employee’ database, emails non-active after departure) across the 40 departments we serve is tricky, both for communication and reporting.