The promise of BEST

One school makes the most of an NIH-funded career-development program

Published May 4 2016

A University of North Carolina ImPACT student was funded for a clinical internship with a contract research and development organization. PATRICK BRANDT

There is broad consensus among policy makers, career experts, university administrators and others in the life sciences that the historical, apprentice-based model of graduate and postdoctoral training is no longer sustainable. In recent years, myriad recommendations have been advanced by the National Institutes of Health, scientific societies, university faculty members, thought leaders and trainees to overhaul the model and adapt training to the realities of today’s research environment (1–13).

In 2012, the National Institutes of Health released the Biomedical Workforce Working Group Report, which suggested, among other things, that the number of Ph.D.s awarded to students interested in biomedical research careers was outstripping job openings in the field. The report’s first recommendation was the creation of a competitive grant program that would enable institutions to train graduate students for a wide variety of careers in science — not just tenure-track research positions.

Within a year of the report’s release, the NIH had committed more than $25 million to the funding of experimental career- and professional-development programs through a new initiative called Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training, or BEST. Ten BEST awards were announced in 2013 and another seven in 2014 (14,15). My institution, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was one of the 2014 awardees.

Our experience with BEST has been enlightening and encouraging. UNC’s version of the program consists of three interlocking components: internships, career-focused peer groups and improved alumni network mapping.

Internships

In 2015, UNC started the Immersion Program to Advance Career Training, or ImPACT, a 160-hour paid internship program that supports 30 senior graduate student and postdoc interns each year.

The purpose of a UNC BEST internship is to provide an immersive experience in a career path not normally represented in an academic setting. As interns learn about the pros and cons of their desired career paths, build their résumés, and hopefully get new letters of recommendation, they also receive paychecks at their current stipend or salary levels and maintain their health insurance benefits. Funding comes from university sources, an endowment from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and matching funds provided by some of the internship hosts. Interns have worked in the following areas:

  • research and development at a local biotech company, pairing whole genome sequencing and computational computer programming;
  • policy at the science policy division of a local NIH institute;
  • outreach at a local science museum engaging the public about the microbiome;
  • teaching at a local college, developing and delivering an undergraduate course; and
  • business development with a new UNC startup company.

We will be tracking career satisfaction, compensation and other metrics over the next several years to gauge the success of the ImPACT program and already can report that satisfaction is impressively high among interns, host organizations, internship supervisors and research mentors.

Our survey results show that 93 percent of internship supervisors were satisfied or very satisfied with hosting an intern, 73 percent said they would be likely or very likely to offer the intern a position in the organization, and 100 percent said they were likely or very likely to host an intern again.

The interns who responded to our post-internship survey agreed or strongly agreed that the internship had made them more competitive for the job market.

We anticipated that the research mentors (that is, the principle investigators) of the trainees would be the least enthusiastic about the internships. One could argue that they have the most to lose, at least in the short term, since the productivity of their laboratories are affected while the interns are away. However, 86 percent of principal investigators surveyed after the return of the interns reported that the interns’ strengths across seven categories were about the same or higher compared with before the internship, 89 percent agreed that the internship would have a positive effect on the trainee’s competitiveness, and all but one of the PIs reported that the interns had met or exceeded their expectations.

Career cohorts

The career cohort model began as a grassroots effort led by trainees and since has been fostered and expanded by our office. Led by graduate students and postdocs who are all interested in the same career path, UNC’s career cohorts are organized around science policy, teaching-intensive careers, science and business, academic careers, and science communication. Each group has a faculty leader and receives a modest program budget from the university and from the BEST grant.

Cohorts generally meet once a month to network, share information, work on individual development plans or attend events with invited speakers. Each career cohort maintains a listserv for distributing announcements, job opportunities and career-related information, and each year we work with two or three cohorts to develop and fund a workshop series related to their careers of interest. For example, this academic year we held workshop series on science policy, pedagogy skills and science communication. The career cohort model empowers trainees to take control of their own career learning, provides leadership opportunities for trainees, and enables our office to respond quickly to new career interests and multiply our programming in a sustainable way.

Where to go for more
BEST information

The approaches taken by participating BEST institutions; how the results of various BEST programs will be shared with the research community; and a blog, news feed and discussion forum on best practices can be found at the consortium website.

More information about UNC’s career cohorts model is available here.

UNC maps its alumni network and makes aggregate reports of alumni information publicly available here.

Alumni network mapping

Trainees expect to have access to graduate program training outcomes, and UNC is committed to reporting complete and transparent alumni placement data (16). The university recently concluded a census of the 1,100 alumni who have graduated with a life science Ph.D. since 2000. Through a variety of online and personal contacts, we confirmed current titles, employers, and city and state information for 91 percent of our alumni. Aggregate reports of this information are publicly available to prospective students, current trainees and others.

Institutions that openly report these sorts of outcomes are at a competitive advantage when it comes to recruiting the best trainees — many of whom enter training with defined career aspirations. Presenting these data to our faculty also helps to create a training environment where career success is measured by many different outcomes and not just tenure-track attainment. Current trainees benefit from this expanded alumni network map when we invite alumni back to UNC for career networking lunches, seminars and workshops. We also connect individual trainees with alumni for informational interviews and, in some cases, actual job placements.

If institutions are to continue attracting a diverse pool of new trainees and preparing them to affect positively the changing scientific workforce, the graduate and postdoctoral training model will need to change. Universities, both those with and those without NIH BEST awards, are encouraging this process of change by devoting resources to career and professional development and implementing experimental training initiatives. We intend to keep the pressure on and the dialogue going as we pull and prod the entrenched training model out of its historical rut toward a new track of success for all stakeholders.

The gains of ImPACT trainees

Gentry

Leanna Gentry, a pharmacology doctoral student, worked part time at Cato Research in Durham, N.C., a contract research organization. Working with senior regulatory scientists at Cato on a regulatory affairs project, she learned firsthand about regulatory legislation, Food and Drug Administration compliance, how to submit new investigational drug applications, and regulatory reporting. Two months after completing her internship, Gentry graduated and was hired at Cato as a scientist without the need for a postdoctoral training period. Her position allows her to contribute to both clinical and regulatory strategy. Gentry says, “The internship gave me experience in drug development that I could not have gained otherwise in graduate school. Thanks in large part to the ImPACT award, I was able to secure a position in the competitive field of clinical research without additional postgraduate training.”

Hagar

Jon Hagar, a microbiology Ph.D. candidate, worked part time at a midsized biotech company called Parion Sciences, also in Durham. His main goal was to evaluate the scientific and commercial merit of candidate pipeline technologies. He was vigorously recruited for a full-time position at Parion but instead pursued an industry postdoc. With great recommendations and his industry experience from Parion, he was chosen for the highly competitive postdoc program at Genentech in San Fransisco. He will start his postdoc in July. Hagar says, “My time at Parion solidified my interests in early-stage drug development and business strategy. Insights I gained into these will be useful whether I pursue an industry career or academic career, the latter benefiting from my being better able to mentor trainees interested in industry and tailor projects to have translational potential.”

Mainz

Emilie Mainz, a chemistry doctoral student, participated in a full-time internship at BD Technologies in Research Triangle Park, N.C., working on a single-cell, next-generation sequencing technology that will be released this year. Her supervisors at BD were so impressed with Mainz that they encouraged her to apply to BD’s competitive, rotational position known as the Technology Leadership Development Program. The program, which Mainz will begin in July, prepares high-potential Ph.D.s for leadership roles across all aspects of research and development innovation within BD. Mainz says, “ImPACT supplied the rare opportunity to develop new technical skills while building a valuable network within the medical device industry. These experiences solidified my career path and undoubtedly made me a more competitive candidate.”


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Patrick Brandt Patrick Brandt is the director of career development and training at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a co-PI on UNC’s NIH BEST award.