Hundreds of attendees enjoyed networking and learning about their career options this year at the 20th Annual NIEHS Biomedical Career Symposium. Nearly 400 people registered for the April 21 event at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which shares a campus with NIEHS. Helen Chin, Ph.D. and Katie Glenn, Ph.D., both postdoctoral fellows at NIEHS, co-chaired the planning committee.
NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and John Vandenberg, Ph.D., director of the RTP Division of the EPA National Center for Environmental Assessment, welcomed attendees.
Birnbaum noted how the symposium has grown over the years. "The year we started this symposium I think we had 68 participants," she said. "This year we have over 400 registrants for this event. I think that speaks to not only the need for career information but the excitement about it."
Developing skills for different careers
Paula Stephan, Ph.D., a professor of economics at Georgia State University, gave the keynote speech, "How Economics Shapes the Early Careers of Scientists." According to Stephan, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are in a career climate very different from the one their advisors and professors had.
That makes it important to gain skills that are valued across different career paths, like giving effective presentations. Stephan encouraged trainees to look into skills that are valued beyond academia, like business acumen and team experience.
Her most crucial advice was to network. "I cannot emphasize enough the importance of networking," Stephan said. "In today's labor market, in which there are not a lot of well-defined positions, it’s very important." She advised using social media like LinkedIn, because companies do pay attention to profiles, and social media can help trainees navigate available jobs.
NIEHS trainee Cody Nichols, Ph.D., appreciated Stephan’s talk. "She detailed the career outlook for Ph.D.s and the holes in our training," he said.
A multitude of career paths
Participants moved from the opening talks into a day of exploring careers that need employees with doctorate degrees. This year there were nine panels of experts discussing how to enter and succeed in fields such as academia, entrepreneurship, consulting, and scientific outreach. "It was a great opportunity to learn what a career in industry entails, and about the desired skills and techniques that will help you achieve your career goals," said Thomas Hagler, a postbaccalaureate fellow at NIEHS.
The ten career development workshops were popular among attendees, who honed skills like networking, interviewing, writing resumes, and negotiating. They also took advantage of one-on-one consultations for individually tailored career advice, and curriculum vitae and resume help from professionals in a range of careers.
Inspired by Stephan's message, students and trainees found many opportunities to network with hiring managers and human resources representatives from across the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. A networking lunch provided an informal opportunity to chat with experts in careers of interest.
Chin and Glenn expressed hope that trainees came away with a better idea of what steps they can take to prepare for their future careers. "Our goals for this year's career symposium were to provide an overview of the current job market for Ph.D.-level scientists and advice on how to best position yourself to successfully get a job," Chin said.
Tammy Collins, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Office of Fellows' Career Development, reflected on their efforts. "Helen and Katie did a fantastic job leading the career symposium planning team, while at the same time gaining — and putting into practice — real-world leadership and team management skills that will benefit them in any career," she said.
Serving on the planning committee is a helpful way to prepare for transitioning to a career, as Nichols and EPA postdoctoral fellow Laura Carlson, Ph.D., pointed out. "Being a part of the planning committee was great because you got to interact with the panelists more closely and get more name recognition with someone in a field in which you are interested," Nichols said.
"The planning committee is a really great opportunity for EPA trainees to network with NIEHS trainees, and it offers an opportunity to shape the content, sessions, and speakers for the biomedical career symposium," added Carlson.
(Samantha Hall is a postbaccalaureate Cancer Research Training Award fellow in the National Cancer Institute Center for Cancer Research Laboratory of Toxicology and Toxicokinetics, housed at NIEHS.)