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Penn Pathfinders: Guiding PhD students to Achieve their Career Goals

May 28, 2018

Finding the right career can be a difficult and often times stressful decision for PhD students, especially given the relative lack of resources and mentoring for those wanting to pursue careers outside of academia. The Penn Pathfinders program addresses this issue by guiding doctoral students to make informed decisions about career paths in the biomedical sciences. The program helps students thoroughly evaluate their career options, and provides a platform to explore how their passions, skills and values align with careers in academia, non-academic settings, entrepreneurship, and teaching.


The Penn Pathfinders program is a brainchild of Dr. Susan Margulies and Dr. Glen Gaulton. Susan Margulies was a professor in Bioengineering Department at Penn, and recently took over as the chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory. Glen Gaulton is a professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, as well as Vice Dean and Director of Global Health in the Perelman School of Medicine. Both, Dr. Margulies and Dr. Gaulton, have been involved in graduate education for many years, and have trained their own students who have followed diverse career paths. These experiences made them feel comfortable in providing advice to graduate students regarding non-academic career choices. Having held various leadership roles within Penn, they also realized that many mentors do not have experience in guiding students who wish to pursue careers outside academia. So they coalesced their thoughts and submitted grant applications to the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a structured training program that provides trainees in biomedical sciences and bioengineering with career development opportunities, and also investigate its effectiveness in comparison to non-trainee cohorts. They were awarded a $500,000 grant for three years in 2015 to pursue their efforts.



The program is currently in its second year of funding and has accepted two cohorts of about twenty people- a mix of biomedical and bioengineering graduate students. Each cohort meets once every month at workshops lead by experts in a variety of topics. These range from learning how to effectively present your research and communicate your skills, to efficient time and project management. The workshops are frequently followed by career panels, with panelists who have successfully pursued careers outside of academia. In conjunction with these group events, students have one-on-one mentoring sessions with Drs. Gaulton and Margulies to work on individual professional development plans. The progress of individual students is tracked via comprehensive surveys before and after each monthly session. I had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Glen Gaulton about some of the programs initial findings, which are being collated to be published later this year.


Gaulton says, “One of the main findings from the first two years of the program is that it isn’t enough to just have career panels, courses or workshops, but having all of these directed at the right time and sequence for students. For example, having a small workshop or informal session within the cohort about the challenges with networking followed by a career panel. There are quite a few career panels held on campus, but it’s highly beneficial to understand how to network with them and get the most out of it. Also, having people sit down and talk about their fears and reservations with their peers helps to identify and overcome them.”


My personal experience with the Pathfinders program has been extremely enlightening. I’ve had the opportunity to do an internship at Militia Hill Ventures, a life sciences venture capital (VC) firm thanks to one of the career panelists who came to speak to us. This internship has presented me with the opportunity to meet interesting people from biotech, pharma and VC firms, and as a consequence, expand my professional network. Unsurprisingly, my experience is by no means unique. In fact, about half of the students involved in the Pathfinders program are doing internships in fields that interest them. This includes a gamut of opportunities including writing, education (working at small colleges or high schools), projects at Penn Center for Innovation and Science Center, and many more. Of the two students that have graduated so far, one is a full-time teacher at Villanova, and one works at a VC firm. Both of them identified their ideal careers and explored their interest in these jobs over the two years of the program.


“The key is to make students aware of all the options and learn more about the things that interest them so that they can make a more informed decision about what is right for them,” summarized Gaulton.


When asked about plans to expand the program to include more students in the future, Dr. Gaulton is hopeful and enthusiastic. He and Dr. Margulies have presented the findings from the first two years of the program to the heads of BGS and Bioengineering, and they are committed to continuing the program and mainstreaming it into the curriculum. The grant was a pilot fund and the expectation is to work out the program and share the findings with other universities that run similar programs. The goal is to launch the program on a larger scale next Fall. Gaulton envisions the limiting factor to be finding the right mentors, and he is keen on identifying and mentoring professors in the near future.


He adds that, “Most of the professors are aware that not all trainees will go into academia. However, a lot of them are wrongly worried about the students’ quest to develop their professional attributes may impede the quality of their science and graduation timelines. But, there’s a way of providing professional guidance to trainees, without that negatively influencing their graduate training. The key is to develop these skills in conjunction with each other.”


Dr. Gaulton concludes with some valuable advice for grad students, “It’s never too early to start thinking about careers. Asking questions like, where do my talents lie? what kind of life do I want to lead? What are some of the doubts and fears I need to overcome? are a great step towards assessing what’s a good career fit for you. It’s always better to start thinking early in your PhD life and keeping your options flexible.”


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