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At Bench and Beyond Symposium, students explore careers beyond the walls of academia

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Self-discovery, mentorship and innovation: They may not be the first words that come to mind as topics at a biomedical graduate student conference, but at the first Bench and Beyond Career Symposium on May 19 the air was abuzz with those words and many others as students explored science careers beyond academia.

“There are a lot of words that sound scary, but we actually do these things on a day-to-day basis,” said Paul Hargarten, a graduate student completing a Ph.D. at Virginia Commonwealth School of Medicine’s Department of Biostatistics. “Words like ‘informational interviews,’ ‘networking’ and ‘vision mapping’ that we heard today have very simple meanings.”

Hargarten, who self-declaredly is in the discovery phase of his career search, attended the symposium along with about 100 other graduate students from VCU’s Schools of Medicine, EngineeringPharmacy and the College of Humanities and Sciences. Co-sponsored by VCU Career Servicesthe Center on Health Disparities, the School of Medicine and the Graduate Student Programming Board, Bench and Beyond was a one-day career symposium held at VCU’s MCV Campus for graduate and postdoctoral scientists and researchers interested in exploring careers in industry, government, nonprofit and education.

“A lot of graduate students in the biomedical sciences start school thinking they are going to be tenure-track faculty members,” said Katybeth Lee, associate director of health sciences careers and professional development at VCU Career Services. “In reality, one in 10 students is going to become a tenure-track faculty member.”

“We wanted the symposium to focus on helping trainees hear about career paths they don’t encounter in their daily training.”

There are other jobs out there, Lee said, but traditional graduate training does not help connect the science with jobs outside of academic medicine.

“We wanted the symposium to focus on helping trainees hear about career paths they don’t encounter in their daily training and to network with people who work in those careers,” she said.

Through breakout sessions, networking opportunities and skill blitzes, trainees learned about diverse ways to apply their scientific talents.

Twenty-five speakers, including 13 VCU alumni, told students about their careers that are not tenure-track faculty positions. Speakers included representatives from privately owned scientific research and pharmaceutical companies, government agencies such as the National Science Foundation, educational centers such as the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, nonprofit organizations such as the United Network for Organ Sharing, the University of Richmond, VCU and VCU Health. The experts represented a range of scientific disciplines and provided insight on how to enter and excel in their professions.

“Students heard firsthand from scientists who had successfully landed careers outside of academics and were encouraged to establish professional relationships that could help inform their own career development,” Lee said.

At the science communication panel, science writers from the private, academic and educational sectors spoke about what to do to prepare for a career in that field.

“Any experience outside the walls of academia can be helpful to widen your worldview,” said David Malmquist, Ph.D., news and media director at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Students who attended the clinically focused science panel heard from clinician scientists who spoke about work-life balance techniques and the value of mentors.

Get a coach and a mentor,” said VCU alumnus Pravin Jadhav, Ph.D., senior director of innovation and business transformation at Otsuka Pharmaceutical Companies. “I always look for role models who are what I want to be like. That keeps me motivated and focused on my goals.”

Keynote speaker Joshua Hall, Ph.D., encouraged students to get involved in the community while they are still in school and to pay attention to what they enjoy doing.

“The public has a certain image of scientists in their mind that may not be accurate,” he said, describing the mad scientist, Albert Einstein-looking character in a white lab coat. “The best way for us to address that is to be out in the community as scientists.”

Hall, who serves as director of the postbaccalaureate research education program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, advocated for students to spend time self-reflecting on their personal interests when thinking about their career options.

“Remember, this is your career, not your principal investigator’s career, so you need to figure out who you are and what you want to do and go from there,” he said.

At the end of the symposium, Hargarten said he felt inspired to forge ahead in his career search.

“I have pieced some parts of the puzzle of my future together today in talking with people and learning more about what my career options are,” Hargarten said. “Exploring what is out there is a key part of the career search process and this day was great for that. I hope they continue this for students in the future.”

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