Career exploration and professional development programming can take many forms, ranging from university-wide events to peer student groups and one-on-one mentoring and coaching. One successful model for helping trainees gain career confidence is a structured cohort of trainees (PhD Students and Postdoctoral Fellows). Cohorts are a set group of trainees who share a common curiosity in exploring career options and also understand the value of relationship building for their professional development. Trainees in cohorts start and go through the program together. Michigan State University and Atlanta BEST (a collaboration between Emory University and Georgia Institute of Technology) each use a cohort model of programming to build community. Below are some lessons learned from their recent experiences.
Advantages of a Cohort Model
Power of Community: As a cohort, trainees help one another through the career exploration and professional development process. This peer and professional network usually outlives the structured programming and provides lasting support and resources. This community provides a “third space” where trainees can explore uninhibited by conflicts of interests and potential negative consequences. This space also exposes them to a diverse set of people and perspectives they otherwise might not have engaged with, expanding their networks.
Clarify Identity: Graduate school and postdoctoral fellowships can lead to challenges such as the imposter syndrome or ambiguity around career-related identity. Cohorts provide a safe place where trainees can feel comfortable asking questions, expressing anxieties, and sharing experiences in confidence. This enables trainees to talk through issues that might be preventing them from fulling understanding themselves, their interests, and what makes them happy. They help each other see they are not alone, that others feel the same way, and they are part of a team that can figure it out together.
Discussion Depth: In a cohort the same people regularly participate in the same workshops, are comfortable around one another, and have common familiarity with concepts and tools that have been introduced as the cohort progresses. As a result, new activities can pick up where the last event ended, so that the cohort can delve deeply into a topic and meaningfully reflect back on progress, as well as talk about possible changes in perceptions and understanding over time.
Institutional Fit: Your school or location might lend itself well to a cohort model. For example, Michigan State University prioritizes externships experiences, but given their location in East Lansing, MI, there are only enough companies and organizations to support externships for ~30 trainees/year, a subset of their biomedical graduate students and postdocs. Moreover, the school has successfully used small cohorts for other programs, making the cohort model ideal for their school.
Nuts & Bolts
People: Cohorts of 20-30 trainees work well and benefit from the diversity of backgrounds, programs/departments, scientific levels, and career interests. Both MSU and the Atlanta BEST Program incorporate PhD Students and Postdoctoral Fellows from a wide variety of disciplines.
Two years of programming: At MSU and the Atlanta BEST Program, trainees formally apply to the program and must submit a letter of support from their faculty mentor as part of the application process. Having faculty support their trainee’s involvement in the program is important.
Both programs start a new cohort every year and each cohort lasts for two years. The first year of programming has workshops focused on broad exploration. They meet every week or two and introduce careers and professional skills such as self-awareness and team building. The second year is for experiential learning and individual exploration, such as internships and externships, informational interviewing, taking courses, filling in skill and knowledge gaps, participating in informal coffee hours, engaging with new cohort trainees, and one-on-one coaching.
Building community: Activities such as ice breakers at the beginning of workshops and holding regular coffee hour events really bring trainees together. There are benefits to consistent, sustained communication, in person shared experiences, and unstructured time for trainees to have conversations with each other. As they learn about each other’s interests, they can work through their own plans better as well as become resources for each other as they continue their exploration. These bonds lead trainees to get more out of their engagement with the program.
Digital tools such as email listservs, social media, polycoms and webinars help to supplement in-person sessions, but to build team cohesion, nothing beats being there in person. This level of attention benefits from dedicated staff to respond to cohort needs, help navigate trainees, and facilitate campus programming.
Every cohort is different: Group dynamics and personalities highly impact the flow of discussions, and therefore the quality and impact of workshops. Some groups may be affected by physical space more than other groups, such as moving tables to sit closer together. Also, some groups may rave about a workshop and the next time it doesn’t have the same impact. Classic classroom management techniques are critical to adapt to each group and optimize dynamics.
Engagement: Trainees vary in the amount of support they need and the time it takes to figure out a career plan. Even in a cohort, not all trainees stay engaged for various reasons. The best approach is to adjust for where people are, by asking trainees (via session evaluations, for example) and being open to feedback . Both programs have found there is a certain point, around 6-8 months into the first year, where trainees will start to have different needs. One strategy MSU and the Atlanta BEST Program have both recently implemented to address this is having cohort trainees set up one-on-one appointments with experienced campus career personnel to talk through their individual journeys.