Emory Laney Graduate School
Georgia Institute of Technology

Program Title: Atlanta BEST

Key People: Cora MacBeth, Nael McCarty, Mary Delong, Tamara Hutto, Wendy Newstetter, Lisa Tedesco, Keith Wilkinson

Program Summary

The Atlanta BEST Program (NIH 1-DP7-DE024096) is designed to reshape the preparation of the biomedical workforce, in part by preparing biomedically trained PhDs for careers outside of academia. It represents a joint effort by the two leading producers of biomedical research scientists in Georgia: Emory University (a private institution) and the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech, a public institution). Key components include career exploration and professional development programming for doctoral students and postdoctoral scientists. Faculty approaches to mentoring and innovative curriculum changes are also part of the BEST mission to aid research universities in training the scientific workforce for the array of professional occupations available to well-trained scientists.

One among 17 programs across the US, the Atlanta BEST program is uniquely designed in a cohort style. Cohorts mean that there are groups of PhD and postdoctoral scientists who are building the basis of this culture change through community building and peer mentoring. Scientists interested in the program apply online, answering questions that provide an understanding of the breadth and scope of their interest in learning about non-academic career options. Applications are screened by the BEST program leadership, who also take into consideration the applicant’s progress in their research program and his/her progress toward the degree, if a student, keeping in mind the goals of not allowing involvement in the BEST program to substantially extend tenure as a grad student or postdoc. Included in the application process is the provision of a letter of support from the applicant’s principal investigator. This is essential, because we want PhD and postdoctoral scientists to be able to commit the required amount of time to participation in the BEST program, without having to worry about doing this behind their PI’s back. In some cases, this forces the initial “difficult conversation” between scientist and advisor regarding the scientist’s interests in non-academic career options. In addition, since we seek to engage faculty in providing better mentoring around the breadth of career options, having the PI write a letter of support brings them into the cohort of faculty that are committed to this enterprise. The BEST program seeks to recruit approximately 30 new PhD and postdoctoral scientists each year. This number is kept low so that we can build community and peer-mentoring activities that would be less effective with larger numbers. However, only some of the activities sponsored by the BEST program are available only to BEST PhD and postdoctoral scientists in the cohorts – many activities are offered more openly to the broader pool of scientists across our two institutions.

The training that these BEST cohorts receive give them a broad range of foundational knowledge and skills, including those related to the legal side of science, collaborative translational science, drug discovery, regulatory science, clinical innovations, and communication to broad audiences such as policymakers, K-12 educators, and the general public. The Atlanta BEST Program takes advantage of a full range of relevant activities at Emory and Georgia Tech and in the Atlanta biomedical community at institutions such as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and members of the pharmaceutical and medical device industries.

This effort aims to transform the culture of training – in both a top-down and bottom-up approach – by creating new opportunities for both the PhD and postdoctoral scientists and the training/mentoring faculty. For the PhD and postdoctoral scientists, we admit one cohort of 20-30 scientists per year (both predoctoral and postdoctoral, half from each institution). Each scientist is appointed to the program for two years, although they are encouraged to be involved throughout their training. Faculty activities initially target the Principal Investigators/advisors of those PhD and postdoctoral scientists, plus leaders of all of the biomedical research based graduate programs from the two universities and other members of the training faculty who are supportive of the career development of biomedical researchers. Ultimately, the goal of the Atlanta BEST Program is to establish, implement, and assess innovative approaches and activities to broaden and complement traditional research training in the biomedical sciences.

Aim 1: To expose PhD and postdoctoral scientists to a broad variety of career pathways beyond academia. During year one of the Program, scientists receive individualized career mentoring and leadership training. Goals of this year are to: 1) generate self-awareness that influences career choices; 2) develop the team building and leadership skills to facilitate career success; 3) connect the scientist through formal and informal networking to other members of their chosen career path; and 4) provide an accessible, multilevel mentoring program and a cadre of experts in various career paths. Year one of the BEST Program is structured in small group activities that facilitate community and team building, exercise of leadership, peer mentoring, and executive function.

Aim 2: To provide PhD and postdoctoral scientists deep immersion into a specific career pathway beyond academia. This involves experiential activities and part time internships associated with a specific “Track.” Each scientist selects one of the six Tracks that include: Entrepreneurship & Business; Science Communication & Public Policy; Education & Outreach; Tech Transfer & Intellectual Property; Government & Nonprofit Research & Research Administration; and Biotech/Pharma Industry Research & Management. A part-time internship relevant to that track will be undertaken, taking advantage of the rich opportunities that exist in Atlanta.

Aim 3: To better equip faculty at Emory and Georgia Tech to train graduate students and postdoctoral fellows for the 21st century workforce. We are developing opportunities for faculty to facilitate the preparation of PhD and postdoctoral scientists for a wider array of research careers, and thereby also broaden their outlook and connections.

Read the Ph.D. and postdoc perspective in the Atlanta Best Magazine.

Beginning Strategies

Our most useful strategies are:

1)  Our cohort model. By empowering a cohort model of 20-30 dedicated trainees, they are finding the support and reassurance they need to explore careers, ask questions, and make decisions; and

2) The focus on self-assessments and personal reflections on interests, needs, and preferred work environments and job duties using the Birkman Method, Strong Interest Inventory, and the MyIDP website to help PhD and postdoctoral scientists understand what types of careers will motivate and satisfy them.

Through this process and exposure to career information, PhD and postdoctoral scientists are able to cross careers off their list and highlight careers they should gain experience in, through activities such as informational interviewing and additional immersive experiences.