The CAMB Symposium helps strengthen the CAMB community by bringing together current and former students. Twenty-seven CAMB alumni, whose careers range from tenure track professors to patent judge, attended the symposium. They participated in career panels to share their post-graduation experiences, and give current students advice on how to navigate life after graduate school. Despite the varied career paths of the panelists, each panel discussed similar themes.
Many of the panelists commented on things they did, or wish they had done, during graduate school to help them while looking for jobs. Panelists stressed that networking is an extremely important skill to learn during graduate training. This includes interacting with potential employers outside of Penn, as well as older students and alumni from the different CAMB subprograms. Students should not be afraid to reach out to alumni, but also networking with people you currently work with can be just as helpful. Additionally, they advised students to take advantage of various groups at Penn in order to learn as many skills as possible during graduate school, technical or otherwise. For example, to learn more about the business side of science some panelists participated in the Penn Biotech Healthcare Consulting Group. One alumnus who was interested in teaching, completed the Center for Teaching and Learning certificate offered at Penn.
The panelists also highlighted the importance of communicating clearly and effectively. One panelist advised that when interviewing for academic positions, a huge weight is placed on your chalk talk, an hour or so long presentation where you present your first potential NIH grant to faculty members at the University you are interviewing for a position at. For both industry and academic positions, it is incredibly important that you can communicate your science well and defend your research ideas. A panelist tip to improve your science communication skills is to get outside of your lab and speak to people from various backgrounds about your work. Additionally, try to set up collaborations during grad school so that you can get a wide range of strong letters of recommendation. Finally, learning how to ask the right questions is a critical skill that will follow you through any future science career.
Another topic addressed by the panelists was different aspects to consider when looking for a job. Even though your current research might be in a specific area, it is important not to box yourself in and label yourself “just a virologist” or “just a microbiologist.” By getting a PhD, students do not just learn about one specific scientific field, but how to adapt and work out difficult problems. These skills allow students to apply for positions that might be out of their comfort zones. The panelists strongly urged current students to learn how to sell themselves and their skills. While interviewing, it is important to talk to people that hold similar positions to get an idea of what the work environment is like, and how happy people are in their current role. For jobs outside academia, your boss might not always be your mentor, so it is key to get a feel for how the company or institution is run. When applying to any job, it’s also very important to have confidence in yourself and your degree. Students were advised to apply for any position that interests them, as casting a wide net cannot hurt. One of the panelists wanted to remind students that biology is universal, and to think about how your skills and expertise will benefit the lab you want to join. Diversity improves research, and different training allows you to have a unique view on various projects.
A question that many current students face is whether or not to do a postdoc. The panelists said a postdoc is necessary to be more competitive on the job market, and some found it challenging to find a job without one. This is especially true when trying to break into industry, so additional work experience is crucial for those positions. While it is possible to get a non-academic job without a postdoc, it can still be valuable to do one as you will gain more experience, develop new skills, and even regenerate your motivation for science. The final driving point the panelists made was to have intent when pursuing a postdoc. They caution against devoting longer than three years to that position, and to pick a postdoc lab that will allow you to achieve your career goals afterwards.
As for general advice, the panelists said it is important to really think about what you want for yourself after graduate school so you can take a step back and decide what skills you need to accomplish that goal. This self-reflection can help focus the types of jobs you apply for. Last but not least, you should never say no to an opportunity, both during and after graduate school.
To see a list of all the panelists visit the CAMB Symposium site