Professional Development for PhD Students

“No matter the discipline, graduate programs don’t do a particularly good job preparing doctoral students for jobs outside academia,” notes Professor Jason Papin, the graduate program director in biomedical engineering at the University of Virginia.

In response, the department established a professional development program called BME Going Pro two years ago for students considering careers in business and government. “Going Pro helps differentiate our department from other biomedical engineering programs,” Papin says.

After surveying industry professionals, the Graduate Committee devised a three-part program that includes a career development seminar, mentoring by an industry professional and a department grant for a two-month internship.

"Going Pro helps differentiate our department from other biomedical engineering programs."

Jason Papin, BME Graduate Program Director

The right information at the right time

The one-credit Going Pro seminar is designed to help graduate students make the transition from academia to the world of business.  Students find the seminar eye opening. Clifton Ray found the seminar to be an invaluable first step toward realizing his goal of a career in biotech and possibly biotech entrepreneurship.

Ray is working with Professor Shayn Peirce-Cottler and Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology Paul Yates on a stem cell strategy to treat diabetic retinopathy. “The seminar has helped me in a number of ways,” he says. “For instance, I didn’t know very much about the policy and regulatory environment for biotech before I participated in the seminar. That in itself was a revelation.”

Ray cited the session led by Julia Lapan, the director of the Center for Engineering Career Development as another high point. “She encouraged us to think about our strengths and weaknesses in terms of our career goals and to use this knowledge as a targeted foundation for professional improvement.”

Alumni mentoring

Students are responsible for finding their own mentor and shaping that relationship. Mentors are encouraged to go beyond simple career advice. “We hope that mentors ask students probing questions that cause them to think about their careers from new perspectives,” Papin says.

"Essentially, [Rob] was asking me would I be comfortable being the person who designs a study rather than the one who conducts it."

Sophia Cui, reflecting on the impact of her Going Pro mentor, Rob Janiczek

For instance, department alumnus Rob Janiczek (ECE ’03, ’06, BME ’11), a scientific director for clinical imaging at GlaxoSmithKline in London, is mentoring Sophia Cui, a graduate student in Fred Epstein’s lab. Cui is developing a less invasive way to detect early signs of heart disease with a novel application of MRI T1 mapping.

“As a graduate himself of the Epstein Lab, Rob knows that conducting MRI scans is a major part of my day-to-day research,” Cui says. “So I was struck when he asked me whether, after I graduate, would I be comfortable not touching the scanner again. Essentially, he was asking me would I be comfortable being the person who designs a study rather than the one who conducts it.” Cui decided that staying in medical imaging was more important than scanning every day.

Industry internship

The last step in Going Pro is the student internship. Of the 10 students in the program, three have completed an internship. Cui spent two months in Sweden at AstraZeneca, the multinational pharmaceutical company, and Ray spent his summer at ZenBio, a company that provides molecular biology and research products and services in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Going Pro Student Experience: Clifton Ray

Even before he arrived at UVA, Clifton Ray’s friends suggested he contact Anthony “Tony” Awojoodu, a graduate student in former faculty member Edward Botchwey’s lab. “They told me we had similar personalities,” Ray says.

As Awojoodu notes, Ray was also looking for an African-American perspective. “The black community at UVA is quite small, so Clif reached out to both me and my roommate when he arrived to find out more about the UVA experience,” Awojoodu recalls. When the time came for Ray to choose a Going Pro mentor, Awojoodu was a natural choice.

"One of the things I’ve learned from Tony is how applicable the skills you learn as a graduate student are to business."

Clifton Ray, reflecting on the impact of his Going Pro mentor, Anthony Awojoodu

Awojoodu went on pursue a career as a healthcare consultant at McKinsey & Company. In the process, he concluded that solving a business problem is not that much different than solving a research problem. “While there has never been a moment in a client session where I have had to recall something directly from my thesis research, I use the critical thinking and problem-solving skills I developed while earning my doctorate every day,” Awojoodu says.

This lesson struck a chord with Ray. “One of the things I’ve learned from Tony is how applicable the skills you learn as a graduate student are to business,” Ray says.

Awojoodu agreed to become a Going Pro mentor not only because of his existing relationship with Ray, but also because he feels that he would have benefited from mentoring himself. “I just happened to attend an information session about consulting,” he says. “I think it would have been useful for me to have a mentor who would have helped me explore other options earlier in my graduate career. That’s the role I want to play for Clif.”

Going Pro Student Experience: Sophia Cui

Sophia Cui had already worked part-time at a medical device start-up before coming to graduate school. For her Going Pro internship, she decided to explore what it would be like working for a large company. Cui secured a two-month internship at the multinational pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.

This in itself involved a change in roles. At UVA, Cui is developing a technique for using MRI to detect an early biomarker for heart disease. At AstraZeneca’s R&D facility outside Gothenburg, Sweden, she used MRI to develop or test their drugs.

Cui took away a number of lessons from the experience. “I learned that when you work for a large company, you can’t just focus on the immediate task,’ she says. “To excel, you have to understand how your activities fit into their larger strategy.”

Cui was also impressed by the emphasis AstraZeneca places on continuing education. “There was a constant stream of seminars that you could attend,” she says. “It was clear that the company recognizes that it is important for employees to add to their body of knowledge. I was impressed by that.”

For the moment, Cui is keeping her options open. Her next move is to learn about medium-sized companies to see what they are like. “The more I explore, the more options I realize I have,” she says. “That’s exciting.”


What’s novel about an industry internship for BME graduate students? 

Generally, there is also no mechanism for students supported by faculty grants to leave their labs and devote several months to industry internships. Going Pro was designed to overcome these obstacles.  Thanks to the Coulter Foundation, students receive a two-month stipend as well as a housing allowance.

Why aren’t graduate programs as well equipped to prepare students for non-academic jobs? 

The reasons that graduate programs fail to adequately equip students for nonacademic jobs are part psychological and part situational. Because faculty members have themselves made the journey from doctorate degree to academic position, there is the implicit assumption this is the natural—and indeed desirable—progression. Those who follow in their footsteps, Papin notes, are called traditional students even though, as in the case of biomedical engineering at UVA, “the reality is that less than 50 percent of our students pursue a position in academia.”  There are also practical obstacles to preparing graduate students for professional careers. Faculty members realize, because of their own career choices, that they don’t know enough about industry to provide meaningful advice.

What’s the content of the Going Pro seminar? 

In addition to covering such skills as resume writing and networking, the seminar is designed to provide insights on career options, recruitment processes and business cultures within the private sector. More often than not, these insights are delivered by guest speakers from industry and government and by professional development experts.

BME Going Pro