A Taste of Life Beyond School
Internships let Ph.D. students sample career opportunities outside the research lab.
What do you want to be when you grow up? It is one of the biggest questions in life. And, after 20 years of schooling, students pursuing a biomedical doctorate definitely want to get it right. Most dream of working in academia, according to a 2017 Nature survey of graduate students worldwide. The survey also pointed out that only 15 percent reported useful career resources at their school.
But three students from the Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences got something better than advice—they got to try out a career through the school's internship program. Designed to get Ph.D. students out of the labs, these school-funded experiences provide a chance to explore interests, network with professionals, and sample specific careers.
For David Hinton, Ph.D., that meant a chance to try out the business side of science. For Kirsten Coffman, Ph.D., the opportunity meant a plan for the future, and for Elizabeth Eckert, the career development internship meant identifying what she doesn’t want to do.
A Dose of Reality
To help doctoral students decide on their career paths, Mayo’s graduate school encourages them to apply for a career development internship. They can spend 100 hours in one of a variety of organizations that need biomedical expertise ¾ biotech companies, pharmaceutical companies, colleges, government agencies, professional associations, and many others.
“We initially talked about internships in these settings as alternative careers,” says Bruce Horazdovsky, Ph.D., associate dean and the school’s director of career development, “but there are actually more opportunities for a Ph.D. outside of academic science. In truth, running your own lab is the alternative career.”
Mayo’s graduate school introduced the career development internships in 2012 to help students find and prepare for their chosen niche in science.
“We needed to give our students these kinds of exposures,” says Dr. Horazdovsky, who also plans monthly seminars for advice and networking with Ph.D. professionals across the job spectrum. “We don’t want our students to be like those without career resources in the Nature survey.”
In the beginning, most internships were in specialized areas of Mayo Clinic. Now the majority are with a growing list of collaborating organizations that tailor the experience to the student’s interests. The number of students completing an internship has grown every year, and the school’s eventual goal is for all Mayo Ph.D. students to do a career development internship.
“Great experiences have turned into real jobs,” Dr. Horazdovsky says. “And we’re beginning to see a shift in where our graduates go. More and more, they’re looking to do science in a different kind of environment.”
The Business Side of Science
Student teaching convinced David Hinton that he did not want to be a high-school Spanish teacher, as was his original plan. Instead, he became a research technician at Mayo Clinic and five years later began working on a doctorate in neurobiology.
Determined to choose better this time around, Hinton used two internships to explore his interest in product development. With Mayo Clinic Ventures, which guides Mayo Clinic research discoveries toward commercialization, he worked on a collaboration with an Israeli business incubator to develop medical-device products for unmet health-care needs. Hinton interviewed Mayo physicians to uncover several ideas. Along the way, he learned about bringing inventions to the marketplace for the benefit of patients worldwide while generating revenue to support clinical practice, research and education at Mayo Clinic.
“It solidified in my mind that I did want to get into the business side of science,” Dr. Hinton recalls.
With Mayo Clinic Business Accelerator, a public-private partnership that promotes economic development through creation and expansion of new companies, Hinton assisted a number of start-up companies. After the internships, Hinton knew he wanted to work on the business development and management side of science-based ventures. He graduated in 2016 and was hired as the marketing and licensing associate in the Office of Commercialization and Industry Collaboration at the University of South Alabama.
“The internships are the reason I got this job,” Dr. Hinton says. “Others didn’t have that specific experience.”
He manages the university’s roughly 100 technologies, working with faculty, industry and government to turn inventions into products, and spin-off startup companies. Meanwhile, he began studying for a master’s degree in business administration to prepare for life as an entrepreneur.
“I am interested in starting a company in the future,” Dr. Hinton says. “A position like this allows me to learn from others’ successes and failures.”
A Desire to Teach
While working on a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and physiology, Kirsten Coffman landed an internship at Carleton College, a liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota, for a closer look at teaching.
Much of the time, she observed a human physiology class, where Bridget Jacques-Fricke, Ph.D., a visiting assistant professor, demonstrated a variety of teaching strategies, such as small-group problem-solving and hands-on demonstrations. She also introduced Coffman to pedagogy, the science of teaching.
“It was a great experience,” says Coffman, who subsequently helped start a Mayo pedagogy club. “Seeing the other side of preparing and delivering lectures and mentoring students was eye-opening. I already knew I wanted to teach at some point in my career. The internship cemented my interest in teaching undergraduates.”
She also really enjoyed being able to explain the concepts in a way that was meaningful to students.
“I get a lot of happiness out of being able to explain something to students who learn in different ways,” says Coffman.
Dr. Coffman graduated in September 2017, then joined the Thermal and Mountain Medicine Division at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Massachusetts, as a postdoctoral fellow. Research there aims to sustain and enhance physical and cognitive performance and minimize medical problems associated with extreme heat, cold and altitude. But she know someday, she’d like to join the faculty of a small college, where she could conduct research and use research projects as a tool to train and mentor undergraduate students.
Elizabeth Eckert, who plans to complete a Ph.D. in clinical and translational science in 2019, knows that she learns best by doing. Since she had no direct experience with regulation involved in translating technologies to clinical application, she jumped at the chance for a regulatory writing internship.
To help the translation of projects to clinical research, she learned about steps to test the safety and effectiveness of new treatments and worked on documents to apply for U.S. Food & Drug Administration approval. Although interested in regulation, she soon realized that her heart was not in being a full-time regulatory writer.
“I gained a lot of knowledge on the process of translation and the work of the FDA, but the pace of regulation is very slow,” Eckert says. “And it’s farther removed from the science than I want to be.”
Eckert says she’s glad she did the internship because she learned much about regulation, which affects research at multiple points along the journey from laboratory observation to new interventions to prevent, diagnose and treat disease. She also realized that she needs to expand her network and talk to more people in positions she might like.
“I’m not sure exactly where I want to be in the translational science spectrum,” Eckert says, “but learning what I don’t want to do is just as important as learning what I do want to do.”
- Jon Holten, March 2, 2018