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Carbone Cancer Center

Student/Postdoc Professional Development Series

Providing McArdle students and postdoctoral fellows with professional development training in a variety of industry careers. 

The McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research has recently implemented a new seminar series for students and postdoctoral fellows that provide them with career and professional development training.  This program is unique in the department in that it is the only one completely devoted to providing career-oriented guidance.

Its primary focus is to expose trainees to careers outside of academia.  This seminar series consists of informal talks between current trainees and McArdle Alumni who have pursued a variety of academic and non-academic careers since completing their training at Mcardle.

Why is there a need for this new initiative?

Many former trainees of McArdle have pursued the “traditional” academic career path of completing a postdoctoral fellowship after their graduate training before pursuing distinguished tenured academic professorship positions at universities across the world.

Other former trainees have pursued equally impressive “non-traditional” career paths in industry where they have also been able to achieve great success and make substantial contributions to biomedicine and technology.

Unfortunately this career path is still considered taboo for current trainees.  Antiquated ideologies and pressures to pursue academic positions still exist in the academic industry as a whole.  This has created a culture where pursuing anything other than an outstanding postdoc after graduate school is considered to be a failure and is largely frowned upon.

Though the academic career path is historically considered to be the preferred path graduate students are expected to take, it is unrealistic that every graduate student trained at McArdle, let alone any biomedical science program, is able to pursue tenure-track professorships at competitive research-oriented universities.  These days, fewer than one in six biomedical graduate students are able to pursue these esteemed positions.  This is mostly due to the tightening of the federal research budget over the last decade or so.  Consequently, many students are compelled to consider careers in industry.

In order to support these students, the university as a whole has implemented many new resources for them to adequately prepare themselves to pursue careers in industry.  Hopefully these progressive initiatives will help in slowly diminishing and eventually eliminating the outdated, academic-focused career expectations and encourage students to embrace industry-focused career training.  In accordance with this directive, McArdle has enthusiastically implemented its professional development seminar to better prepare its trainees for careers in industry.

What is the structure of the seminar?

The seminar talks consist of informal conversations and discussions between McArdle alumni and students and postdocs.  These invited speakers are asked to provide a brief oral summary of their career path between the completion of their graduate career at McArdle and their current position.  We also ask them to describe their industry and current position in detail.  The hope is that students can learn about different careers and opportunities that are available to them after their graduate training.  These careers are generally not well known to most students currently in the department.

After the brief introduction by the invited speaker, attendees are encouraged to ask questions of the speaker further inquiring about the things they learned during their career progression that proved to be useful for their current position.  The best questions that have been raised have involved asking the speaker of the experiences they wished they had in graduate school to better prepare them for their current career, a description of their roles in their current jobs, and any further advice they can impart on current trainees interested in pursuing that career.  The goals of these talks are that students can leave these conversations with newfound, personal insights about these careers as well as having established a personal connection to someone in that career.  This kind of networking can lead to new opportunities for students they would not have been exposed to otherwise.

Who are these speakers?

During the fall semester of 2016, we met with six individuals who graciously spoke with us at length about their career paths.  We met with:

  • Alex Shoemaker, Ph.D., an Associate Director at Abbvie in Chicago, Illinois who is pursuing a career in the biopharmaceutical industry;
  • Jamie Hadac, Ph.D., a Consultant at bioStrategies Group in San Francisco, California who is pursuing a career in the pharmaceutical consulting industry;
  • Sybil Williams, Ph.D., a Principal Scientist at Merck in Boston, Massachusetts who is pursuing a career in the biopharmaceutical industry;
  • Zachary Pratt, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of Biology at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin who is pursuing an academic career at a smaller liberal arts institution;
  • Daniel Knauss, J.D., Ph.D., an Intellectual Property Litigation Associate at Cooley in San Francisco, California, and David Casimir, J.D., Ph.D., a Patent Attorney at Casimir Jones in Middleton, Wisconsin, who are both pursuing careers in intellectual property;
  • and Michelle Bennett, Ph.D., the Director for the Center for Research Strategy at the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, who is pursuing a career in science administration. 

All of these individuals provided personal insights about their motivations for pursuing their career paths and their experiences navigating the non-academic job market.  They were honest about their experiences but also strongly encouraged us to explore our interests and not be afraid to pursue unconventional opportunities.  We are incredibly thankful to each of them for the time they spent speaking with us and providing unparalleled guidance about career development.  We hope to maintain contact with these individuals and rely on them as sources of advice and support as we begin to pursue our own post-graduate careers.

We hope to continue this initiative every semester moving forward, each time welcoming a new set of speakers who will bring with them new sets of experiences and insights.  We are currently setting up the programming for the spring semester of 2017.  If you are a student or postdoc who is interested in this seminar series, please reach out to Alexandra Law at adtorres2@wisc.edu.  Alex is a graduate student at McArdle who is involved in setting up this program. 

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