University of Massachusetts Medical School

Program Title: BEST

Key People: Cynthia Fuhrmann, Morgan Thompson, Phillip D. Zamore

Program Summary

Our training environment: The University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS) is a freestanding campus of the UMass system and the sole publicly funded medical school in the state. The first PhD students were admitted in 1979, and in the past three decades the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS) has grown to more than 350 research faculty, 350 doctoral students, and 325 postdoctoral scholars. Basic biomedical science students are admitted into an umbrella Ph.D. program and then become affiliated with a discipline-specific graduate program upon joining their thesis lab. The central curriculum includes an emphasis on writing and presentation skills through “Communicating Science,” a course required for first-year students. Prior to the BEST award, UMMS had only recently begun offering centralized support for career development across career paths, including monthly seminars through the Office for Postdoctoral Scholars (since 2009) and individual appointments and workshops via an Assistant Dean position focused on career and professional development (2012). As such, UMMS acts as a test case for institutions seeking to develop new career-related programs in a context without the resources available through an on-site undergraduate campus (e.g., career services, writing center, business school). Our efforts have been bolstered by support from a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Guidance grant (2013-14) and an NIH BEST award (2013-2018), resulting in the creation of the GSBS Center for Biomedical Career Development (2014).

Our goal: We aim to empower all Ph.D. and postdoctoral scientists to take informed action early in their training, building the skills and experience needed to succeed in their scientific training and in their future careers. We aim to reach this goal by means that will enhance research productivity, while not lengthening time to degree. Specifically, we work to

  • encourage deeper exposure to and mentoring for multiple career paths within students’ field of interest. Provide contextual support by connecting students to peers who share common career interests, and mentoring by a Ph.D. scientist actively employed in the field who has successfully navigated career transitions
  • facilitate identity formation with more than one career path, supporting future adaptability
  • enhance institutional connections with alumni and external partners

Our approach is informed by Lent, Brown, and Hackett’s Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT), a well-established model focused on factors (including self-efficacy, goals and likely outcomes, and contextual support) that influence career interests and decision-making.

Defining characteristics of our approach and related hypotheses:

  • Reach all PhD and postdoctoral scientists by requiring professional development as a critical component of doctoral and postdoctoral training. We hypothesize that incorporating professional development into the standard training experience will empower PhD and postdoctoral scientists to take action earlier and more efficiently move into their desired career.
  • Teach professional skills in the context of what scientists need to succeed at each stage of their training. We hypothesize that a time efficient just-in-time strategy will increase PhD, postdoc, and faculty receptivity, and further maximize learning outcomes by supporting opportunities to practice skills in the context of their thesis research.• Encourage openness to and informed investigation of multiple career options.We hypothesize that this will enhance self-efficacy and encourage identity formation in a way that will enable PhD and postdoctoral scientists to adapt in future career transitions.
  • Treat all career outcomes equally. We aim to model appreciation for all career options, with a focus on allowing scientisits to determine their own best fit.
  • Test our approaches and hypotheses with rigorous evaluation and research methodologies.

All Ph.D. students will be required to:

  • Participate in a professional development co-curriculum (short, periodic workshops or mini- series) integrated into the standard training experience in the first few years of graduate school. Objectives: Strengthen professional skills needed for success in both thesis research and future careers (including interpersonal communication and leadership, presentation, writing, career planning, and communicating with mentors)
  • Discuss career planning and preparation beginning in Year 1 and culminating in a mini-course in Year 3 in which students create their first Individual Development Plan (IDP)
  • Create and submit an annual Individual Development Plan (IDP), beginning in Year 3. Objectives: Empower students to annually create a plan that includes goals for their research, skills development, and career advancement. Students are encouraged to seek mentorship and discuss the IDP, in whole or in part, with multiple mentors.
  • Complement students’ annual feedback from their advisor and thesis advisory committee
  • Join two learning communities themed around career pathways of students’ interests, each led by trained student co-leaders and a Ph.D. scientist actively employed in the career path.

All postdoctoral scholars are required to attend a two-hour “Career Planning via an IDP” lesson as an addition to the already-required Responsible Conduct of Research course.

All PhD and postdoctoral scientists will have access to additional opportunities to enhance their own training based on priorities they set in their IDP, including:

  • Advanced professional skills and career-specific training
  • Partnerships offering site visits, shadowing, and full- and part-time internships
  • Professional development scholarships for unique opportunities off-campus
  • Online resources, including a new website to complement our curricula,

To hear Cynthia Fuhrmann speak about the UMMS BEST program watch her talk (starting at hour 4, minute 34) presented at NIGMS Symposium on Catalyzing the Modernization of Graduate Education (April 11, 2016).

Beginning Strategies

In 2014, UMass Medical School launched a mini-course required for third year Ph.D. students: “Career Planning via an Individual Development Plan (IDP).” Despite initial resistance to the requirement to attend a course in their third year, in post-course evaluations (24/26 students responding) 92% of respondents stated they were “glad” they participated in the course, with several expressing gratitude for being “forced” to consider their long-term goals. This course is a capstone feature of UMMS’s new multi-year professional development co-curriculum, rolling out for all biomedical Ph.D. students as part of UMMS’s BEST program.