Development of Workshops and Courses

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ModeratorTerri O’Brien, University of California San Francisco
PanelistsBarbara Schreiber*, Boston University; Inge Wefes, University of Colorado Denver; Keith Micoli, New York University; Janet Alder and Jim Millonig, Rutgers University

*Barbara Schreiber was unable to attend the conference due to Hurricane Irma, Boston University was unable to present and therefore not included in the workshop proceedings.

Website content compiled and edited by Laura Daniel, Carol Rouzer, Ambika Mathur, Roger Chalkley, 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
  • Faculty, staff, or potential employer may have identified a gap in training.
  • A similar offering might be highly successful at another institution
  • A funder might require it
workshop continuum

Workshop continuum

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 interest. The process of course development also falls along a large continuum; content may be created with total reliance on outside experts, co-development with experts both outside and inside the institution, or there may be 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 have a large number of trainees attended. Whereas a specific workshop that requires expertise, such as a scientific writing course, would fall in the lower left-hand quadrant; relatively few people would be expected to attend

For institutions with financial resources but lack available personnel, they may favor a greater reliance on outside experts for course design. Whereas the opposite would likely 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 specialization coming after those broader needs are met. Regardless of the offering, it is critically important to have well-defined learning objectives.

Usual career development learning objectives:

  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:

  • People usually require some form of compensation
    • Consultant fees vary widely, typically ranging from $1,000-25,000.
    • Teaching credit may be used to 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 salary and benefits, but their participation takes them away from other activities.
  • Non-personnel expenses (relatively small in comparison)
    • Assessment fees
    • Food
    • Transportation
    • Meeting space

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 appropriate, 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 exclusively 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.
  • Institutionalizing a successful workshop/course can help with sustainability. Get the course approved to provide credit when it is appropriate.

A PDF (click here) summarizing one example workshop/course for each of the 17 BEST programs is now available. The document 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.

While the summary sheet gives a brief overview of one example from each BEST institution, each of the panelists covers example(s) from their institution in more detail.

Examples of Successful Workshops/Courses

University of California, San Francisco


Terri O’Brien – UCSF

University of California San Francisco’s BEST program offers a single course (MIND: Motivating INformed Decisions) delivered annually to a cohort of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. This course consists of 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 explore careers effectively.

Learning objectives include:

  • Helping students to use the Working Identity model, based on a book by Herminia Ibarra, to understand the features of successful career transition
  • Using the myIDP module to identify 2-3 career paths that might be best for them
  • Defining goals for an informational interview
  • Preparing materials needed to initiate such an interview
  • Synthesizing 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 three months. UCSF provides self-assessments and meals costing roughly $30 and $15/person, respectively. A classroom large enough to accommodate 90 people is required. They estimate that providing this course to another institution would cost $20,000 in professional fees.

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

Experience 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 for future sessions. A notable 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.

University of Colorado, Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus


Inge Wefes – CU Denver|Anschutz Medical Campus

On average, workshops of the BESST Program (Broadening Experiences in Scientific and Scholarly Training) at the University of Colorado, Denver/Anshutz Medical Campus are designed to total 15 contact-hours in the form of six weekly 2.5-hour sessions. An identical pre- and post-event questionnaire are used to evaluate the workshop. Participants can earn a certificate of participation for completing at least five of the six 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 leads many to assume that their projects are not controllable. However, attending the workshop led participants to conclude that they can avoid many common errors and failures in the lab if correct project management approaches are employed.

University of Colorado’s 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 managed 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 scientific context.

Attendance of all four days is required. Trainees who complete the 30-hour program, which the BESST program currently pays, receive a Certificate of Participation. The full workshop participation also meets the minimum requirements to qualify for the examination to become a Certified Project Management Associate (CPMA). The CPMA certification is internationally recognized.

UC Denver

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. To engage university faculty, the CU BESST Program conducted a condensed workshop for junior faculty, who also found the training very valuable (See graph).

Challenges in offering the workshop include the four-day time commitment and gaining buy-in from mentors. So far, the majority of enrollees have been postdocs. Expenses for the outside expert normally are $2,200/trainee. While Colorado’s BESST Program has negotiated a considerable discount, the cost is still too high to offer the workshop, long-term, for free. Providing 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

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Photo: Keith Micoli – 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.

Medical communications course learning objectives:

  • Enhance the trainee’s understanding of this career paths
  • Provide a basic knowledge of clinical trial design and publication
  • Teach the trainees how to transition from academia to medical communications
  • Understand the most valued skills in the field
  • 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. NYU delivers the course 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:

  • Classroom with A/V capabilities that seats 30 people
  • Funds to:
    • Provide dinner – pizza and soda
    • Pay external experts who also serve as course directors
    • Support the recruitment of alumni and local professionals as panelists
  • 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 outset 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, one is a medical project manager, and one 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, required course expansion, increased logistical support, and increased the 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

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James Millonig – 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 four PhD-granting institutions in the state are now participating in Rutgers iJOBS programming. Thus, iJOBS could ask for help supporting the program from those universities after BEST funding is no longer available.

As a part of Phase 1 “inquiry” of its program, Rutgers uses the SciPhD Leadership and Business Skills for Scientist Workshop, which is a commercially available course, provided by Human Workflows, LLC. The organizing partners are Randy Ribaudo and Larry Petcovic. The 4-day course, consisting of 35 contact hours, costs $25,000. Providing the course requires an additional 0.1 FTE administrative staff for coordination and transportation between the two Rutgers campuses, lunch for the attendees, a room containing roundtables with space for 70 participants, 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 two 2-day concentrated boot-camp. Of these options, the boot-camp was clearly preferable.
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, 66%, 34%, and 38% respectively, have had an industry experience, such as an internship, externship, shadowing, or a landed a job since the workshop. Trainees were highly positive about the workshop; a vast majority agreed or strongly agreed that the training helped them 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 fill all openings in the workshop. Providing transportation from the two campuses facilitates trainee participation. Trainees are advised to inform their mentors that they will take the workshop, rather than to attempt to solicit permission.

rutgers workshopThe workshop is highly successful, but it is expensive, which raises a question regarding long-term sustainability. In the absence of BEST funding, providing this program requires institutional support. Charging students fees help. If practical, opening the workshop to nearby institutions might be another potential route for cost reduction. Alternatively, dramatic cost reductions could come from offering an in-house version.

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 should be encouraged because the workshops or courses offered will be influenced by these items. 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. The Consortium should work to identify these core competencies and make menu recommendations based on an institution’s available resources.

Returning to the problem of cost, not just for the SciPhD workshop, but for workshops and courses in general. Relying less on external people is often a useful cost-saving strategy. A problem occurs when internal expertise is not available or, as noted above, credibility gained from having experience in the course topic is critical to success. Another way to defray costs is by granting credit and therefore 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. An additional solution is to attempt to 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, nonprofits, or both in the community as well as neighboring institutions and get alumni involved.

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Additional Resource