Go for It: Taking Courses Outside of Your Field

 In for grad students, for postdocs, PhD/Postdoc Blog, professional development

When I started my journey as an NIH blogger, I set out to write about my current experiences and to share any knowledge that I gained from them. Today, I want to discuss my latest adventure: taking a business course. As a 3rd-year graduate student, I finally feel confident in both my skills and productivity, but sometimes get lost in the routine of research. For my specific program, I finished both classes and teaching in my first year and then passed my candidacy exam at the beginning of my second year. Since then, I have dedicated most of my time to research. While this focus has led to many exciting results and even a publication, I recently found that I was searching for a new challenge. I started to look for classes that I could take that were outside of my comfort zone (chemistry), yet still applicable to any future career path I may embark.


What Course and Why?

As a student of The University of Chicago, I am grateful to have the opportunity to not only take graduate courses in other departments, but also classes at Booth School of Business. I was initially intimidated by the idea of taking a course with a bunch of MBA students; however, other Ph.D. students (who had previously done the same) assured me that it would be a rewarding experience. The course that piqued my interest was titled “Strategic Leadership.” This course is an introduction to how different social networks can lead to people having distinct advantages throughout their career. At first glance, it may not be clear how this course would apply to a chemist. Nonetheless, graduate school is not only a time to enhance your research skills, yet to work on your professional development as well, so I signed up. While my program is doing a great job at training me as a synthetic chemist, the chemistry classes I took during my first year did not teach me how to strengthen my social environment to achieve higher job success. Hence, my objective for taking this course is to learn how to prosper beyond the bench.


How Am I Benefitting?

Although I have only had two classes thus far, I have already begun applying some concepts to elevate my graduate experience. For example, we learned about “framing” in last week’s class. Framing explores how something that is initially viewed as a failure can be reevaluated from a different frame of reference to lead to success. To my delight, one of the examples Professor Burt used was chemically related: Pfizer’s success story of Viagra (Sildenafil). If you are not familiar, in 1991 the first human trial of Sildenafil for coronary heart disease proved to be ineffective, but the scientist noticed a surprising side effect. What would originally be viewed as a costly failure (drug development costs millions-to-billions of dollars) was turned into a triumph by framing the drug as an oral treatment for erectile dysfunction instead of high blood pressure and angina. I especially liked this example, because it is applicable to my day-to-day life as a researcher. It is easy to get frustrated when an experiment does not go to plan, yet some of the most significant discoveries arise from unexpected results. What one scientist may view as a failure and throw in the trash, another might investigate to understand what went wrong and ultimately make a novel breakthrough: it is all about framing.


I hope by reading about my positive personal experience you have been inspired to seek out a new challenge! Perhaps a science course in another field or an advanced math class you never got to take when you were an undergraduate. Graduate school is about learning and what better way to do that than to energize yourself with an exciting class outside of your specialization? This may seem like a daunting process to undertake, but if you choose a course that you find interesting, it will only boost your graduate or postdoc experience. If your school does not offer certain courses that you are looking for or cannot commit the time to go to class weekly, try online options. One of my favorite resources is MIT OpenCourseWare that has lecture notes, problem sets, and exams available for a variety of courses – free! You can also check out fellow NIH blogger Erica’s post with more website suggestions.


Until next month,

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