By Greg Barr
Andy Meixner knows his way around a research laboratory. He can tell you everything you need to know about fungi. But on a spring night at the Faculty Dining Room in Levin Hall, Meixner was struggling with the correct way to pass salt and pepper shakers around a dinner table and how long a proper handshake should last.
At the front of the room, Houston image consultant Toya Owens-Shepard was putting her forty-five listeners to the test. It was time, she said, for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to stop behaving like college-dorm louts.
“An interviewer often will want to put you in a dinner situation just to see how polished you are,” she said. Advising that using a straw to sip iced tea is déclassé but ordering red or white wine with any meal is perfectly proper, she counseled the group, “Let’s step it up a notch and be the professional that you are.”
To Meixner, a postdoc researching medical mycology in UTMB’s Department of Pathology, a dinner meeting with a prospective employer might be almost as important to advancing his career as being on the front lines of a research breakthrough.
Here’s why: the probability that a Ph.D. under age thirty-five will win an academic tenure-track job dropped from 10 percent in 1993 to 7 percent in 2003, says Paula Stephan, an economics professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta who has studied national trends in postdoc hiring.
As a result, many Ph.D.s end up accepting non-tenure-track work. Explains Cary Cooper, dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, “A lot of Ph.D. students have made up their minds that they want a job in academia, so they head into a postdoc, and then maybe move into another one, so you have some people out there eight years later and they still don’t have a faculty job.”
Meanwhile, according to a National Science Foundation survey, the number of Ph.D.’s employed in academia declined between 1973 and 2001 by about 14 percent—while jobs in industry and government are on the rise. Clearly, in this highly competitive climate, young scientists need every edge they can develop to find meaningful jobs—often jobs outside universities.
“I grew up in a small town,” explained Meixner, a Sweetwater, Texas, native who graduated from high school in Vernon, Texas, and received his Ph.D. in 2003 at the University of North Texas at Denton. “I’d never really known the correct fork to use or any of that stuff. It’s a hole in my skill set, and knowing how to handle yourself at dinner or how to break the ice without saying something inappropriate are ways to distinguish yourself from others.”
Owens-Shepard’s etiquette dinner is just one element of a multifaceted initiative by students, staff, and faculty that is coordinated by the Committee for Career Development (CCD), which was formed nine years ago at the GSBS to help students broaden their skills to further their professional careers. Together with the Organization of Postdoctoral Scientists, created in 2001, and the Graduate Student Organization (GSO), the CCD helps students and postdocs explore the maze of career-track options beyond academia, in everything from the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries to government and law. The CCD sets up career forums and seminars on topics ranging from polishing interview and networking skills to grant writing. It also brings successful alumni who have taken non-academic jobs in to discuss their own alternate career paths.
In creating the CCD, the faculty recognized that the employment landscape for students has shifted dramatically, noted Norbert Herzog, associate professor in the departments of Pathology and Microbiology and Immunology. “Historically we’ve always trained Ph.D. students to be clones of us, the faculty,” said Herzog. But as the number of available academic jobs has shrunk, a new crop of careers has materialized.
“When I was training,” Herzog explained, “if you went into anything other than academia, you were seen as ‘selling out’ or not worthy.”
Michael Schmiederer, a postdoc in Microbiology and Immunology, ran smack into that bias when job hunting in 2001. “The first person I interviewed with asked me if I was interested in a job in academia or industry and said that if I wasn’t interested in academia he didn’t want me to waste his time,” said Schmiederer, one of 270 UTMB postdocs. “To be honest, I got my Ph.D. to open doors, not to close them.”
“I’d never really known the correct fork to use or any of that stuff. It’s a hole in my skill set."
Gently prodded by students, Herzog and David Niesel, chairman of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and vice dean of the GSBS, helped organize a program in 2003 through which GSBS students working on their Ph.D.’s can concurrently earn an M.B.A. degree from the University of Texas at Austin using the UT Telecampus system. Another very popular program, the fifteen-week Advanced Business Management Certificate Program offered in collaboration with the University of Houston-Clear Lake, gives students a basic understanding of business and finance—everything from managing a grant budget to statistical analysis.
“Imagine the leg up for a student with a Ph.D. and an M.B.A.,” said Herzog. “They could go into venture capital or industry with that extra education, and even in academia they can use those management skills. I have to manage people and budgets and know how to market myself, but I was only taught how to be a bench scientist.”
Three GSBS students currently are taking the M.B.A. courses. One, Kendra Stisser, who began working on her Ph.D. in 2000 focusing on cancer biology, is about two-thirds through her online M.B.A. program. She is grateful to Herzog for creating this opportunity, which she said puts UTMB grads in an enviable position.
“I enjoy the business of science, and whether I stay in academia or go to industry, I think you need these management skills,” said Stisser, a former GSO president who is leaning toward becoming a consultant to the pharmaceutical industry and figures the M.B.A. will make her more marketable.
Bridget Hawkins, who heads the CCD, began her Ph.D. training in 2002 studying traumatic brain injury. A CCD-sponsored grant-writing workshop that year was an eye-opener: she saw that being isolated in the lab doing research might limit her options.“I really had no clue as to what career path I was going to take, so I wanted to be part of the CCD,” said Hawkins. “When I finish here there are so many different directions to go in and apply what I’ve learned. I know there’s going to be an interesting and rewarding job out there for me.”
GSBS 1999 alumnus John Garvish returned to speak to the GSBS students last February and described how his career path shifted from research to law. Garvish, now a patent litigator with McKool Smith in Austin, said his ideas about how to use his education began to evolve after he earned his Ph.D. While working on the CCD that year, he helped bring a patent lawyer to UTMB to talk to students—partly because he was thinking of pursuing that field himself. He observed: “I’m using my love of science to help the people who develop a novel product protect that idea from people trying to steal it.”