March 2012

Branching careers in biochemistry

Graduate students, from left, Whitney Johnson, Siggy Nachtergaele, Justin Rettenmaier and David Pincus organized the ASBMB career symposium in late January at the University of California at San Francisco.

On Jan. 21, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology sponsored a wonderful event: 225 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows gathered in Genentech Hall at the University of California at San Francisco to devote a full day to the discussion of career options.

The audience included representatives from Stanford University, UCSF, the University of California at Berkeley, San Jose State University, San Francisco State University and California State University at Fresno. The event was organized by four graduate students— Whitney Johnson and Siggy Nachtergaele of Stanford and David Pincus and Justin Rettenmaier of UCSF— with guidance from two faculty members, ASBMB Council member Jonathan Weissman of UCSF and me.

The program consisted of panel discussions on working in biotech; teaching in schools, colleges and museums; starting companies; and practicing patent law. The lunch hour included breakout groups so that students could meet with representatives of the career paths in a more informal setting. Reviews of the event were extremely positive, and several attendees inquired about organizing similar events at their own institutions.

The recipe for organizing this successful career day was really very simple. The organizers identified panelists by emailing faculty members and asking for suggestions and contact information for recent graduates; invited panelists suggested additional participants. By inviting alumni of each of the schools, the program offered a layer of connectivity for all involved. Panelists were pleased to participate and had fun in the process.

A look at the motivating data
The program kicked off with a presentation by Cynthia Fuhrmann, the program director of academic career development at UCSF. Fuhrmann summarized trends in career choices by recent graduates in biochemistry and molecular biology.

After polling Ph.D. students at UCSF, Fuhrmann and her colleagues found that the vast majority of students (92.3 percent) were strongly considering careers in scientific research, and 72 percent of those students were strongly considering a traditional academic career path. On the other hand, when students were asked to pick a single career option, only 44.8 percent chose a traditional academic career path (1). Seventy-one percent of all students surveyed were strongly considering at least one career path not directly involving scientific research. The most popular alternatives were business of science, teaching or education, science policy, and writing.

Fuhrmann and colleagues also found that as students got closer to completing their degrees, they showed a decreased interest in becoming principal investigators at research-intensive institutions. The gender difference also was striking: 21 percent of women and 39.5 percent of men wanted to pursue this track. Students were concerned about inadequate quality of life or work-life balance, competition, stress, and challenges of research funding. Twenty-five percent wrote that they disliked tasks associated with being a PI, such as grant writing and project management. By the later years of graduate school, fully one-third of students stated they would choose nonresearch career paths (1).

With so many of our trainees choosing non-PI career paths, we need to embrace the branching career pipeline. This is precisely why the ASBMB has begun to support multiple career workshops across the U.S. each year. In addition to future faculty seminars, universities need to initiate programs that teach skills that will benefit trainees preparing for diverse career paths— skills in oral and written communication, teamwork, networking, project management and leadership. We also need to reward mentors for training students and fellows who move into non-PI positions. For every postdoctoral fellowship and training grant application that asks mentors to document the fates of their former trainees, mentors should be positively rewarded for and proud to document the paths of graduates who have moved on to careers in biotech, teaching, business and law.

pres_msg_fuhrmann  pres_msg_weissman 
LEFT: Cynthia Fuhrmann is the program director of academic career development within the Office of Career and Professional Development and an assistant professor in biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California at San Francisco.
RIGHT: Jonathan Weissman is a member of the ASBMB Council and a professor of cellular and molecular pharmacology and of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California at San Francisco.

A little introspection goes a long way
UCSF’s Office of Career and Professional Development has developed a worksheet to help students prioritize career-related values, skills and interests (2). During the first hour of the ASBMB workshop, Fuhrmann guided the audience through the worksheet questions, which ask participants to rate how important it is for them to work alone or with others, for example, or have job stability, a high salary or a family-friendly work environment. The worksheet then asks participants to evaluate honestly their knowledge base, research and communication skills, talents in project management, and leadership skills. Finally, interests are evaluated to help clarify which jobs would be most and least satisfying.

Fuhrmann explained how to incorporate these issues into informational interviews with contacts in a given field: “Ask them if their position involves a lot of teamwork, or if their employer is family-friendly.” Many of the participants said they appreciated her encouragement for approaches to contact and learn more from alumni about career options.

When students and postdoctoral fellows have expressed to me an interest in teaching, I have tried to steer them toward middle-school and high-school teaching. My bias is that they will have a much broader impact as teachers of younger students; they will have the potential to interest someone in science for the first time and to educate the citizenry about the scientific method and evidencebased conclusions. Given the number of our students who are interested in teaching, we should all reach out to our schools of education and design paths for students to earn joint Ph.D.s and K–12 teaching experience and credentials.

For trainees interested in careers in biotech, more seem to be skipping the option of first completing a postdoctoral fellowship in an academic lab. It has been my impression that one enters biotech at a higher level and with more independence after a postdoctoral stint. Perhaps this is changing, and I welcome guidance from our industrial members in terms of how we should counsel and what we should teach our trainees to best prepare them for careers in industry.

Wholehearted thanks go to Johnson, Nachtergaele, Pincus, Rettenmaier and Weissman for organizing this event and to Fuhrmann for her inspiring presentation. The ASBMB provided lunch and staffing (thank you, Jessica Homa); UCSF, UC-Berkeley and Stanford covered janitorial service expenses. Altogether, 225 students truly benefitted.

Now it’s your turn. Each of us would be delighted to help you organize a similar event at your institution. You owe it to your students and fellows.

  1. 1. Fuhrmann, C.N., Halme, D.G., O'Sullivan, P.S., Lindstaedt, B. Improving graduate education to support a branching career pipeline: recommendations based on a survey of doctoral students in the basic biomedical sciences (2011). CBE Life Sci Educ. 10 (3):239 – 49.
  2. 2. The worksheet exercises will be published later this year as part of an online Individual Development Plan (IDP) at The IDP was co-developed by Fuhrmann and Bill Lindstaedt (UCSF), Philip Clifford (Medical College of Wisconsin) and Jennifer Hobin (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology).

Suzanne PfefferASBMB President Suzanne Pfeffer ( is the Emma Pfeiffer Merner professor of medical sciences a biochemistry professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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