GSICE Program Helps Graduate Students Career Options

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Imagine yourself five years out from getting your PhD.  You could be a science journalist working for a newspaper, or in a boardroom actively convincing venture capitalists which of the latest scientific advancements they should back.  Perhaps the thought of working with politicians in Washington, DC to reform STEM education policy makes your heart race. Or, maybe you are simply unsure if academia is the right trajectory for you but don’t know what else to do.

If the latter applies to you, you are not alone. As far back as 1998, a study published by the National Research Council stated that the number of academic, government and industry jobs was inadequate for the number of PhDs being churned out, revealing a need to drastically alter how graduate programs prepare students for future careers. 

The NIH Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report stated similar findings in 2012, and suggested that graduate programs expose students to alternative careers early on in their training and provide support for the transition.

Luckily, at UCSF we have the visionary leadership that identified the need for this support mechanism and implemented a program five years ago called the Graduate Student Internships for Career Exploration (GSICE) program. A collaboration between UCSF’s School of Medicine, the Office of Career and Professional Development (OCPD) and the Graduate Division, GSICE’s mission is to “support mentored career exploration by providing career planning and internship opportunities for UCSF’s basic and biomedical PhD students so that they can make free and informed career decisions by the time of graduation.” 

During the four-month course, students are exposed to multiple career trajectories and actively participate in a series of workshops to improve their chances of obtaining an internship in the career of their choice. 

“As a whole, the GSICE program activities provided a structured exploration of my interests and guided me towards the careers that I would find most fulfilling,” said Veena Singla, PhD, an alumna of the course.  She interned with KQED’s Quest program, “a multimedia series that strives to deepen our understanding of some of today’s most pressing sustainability topics,” explained Singla. 

Now, she’s a staff scientist in the Health and Environment Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national nonprofit organization. “GSICE support was critical for my internship at KQED, and that internship helped guide my path,” she said.

GSICE Program Coordinator Alexandra Schnoes, PhD, understands the plight of graduate students trying to navigate their way through their own research and the great unknown of the future career path.

“You can simultaneously be really committed to your project but not want to do research long term, and that can sometimes be a challenge for [others] to understand—that those are not mutually exclusive,” said Schnoes.

Keeping that principle in mind, GSICE was designed to help students actively decide what they wanted to do after graduation. “Not only were we going to send students on internships, but there should be a process by which students figure out what those internships should be and be ready for the experience,” she added.

Thus, GSICE comprises a training component and an internship component.  The training component consists of a series of workshops designed to expose students to alternative careers; assess the skills, values and interests that each student possesses to determine which career might best suit them. The workshops also address real-world issues, such as improving resume writing, how to conduct informational interviews and a Myers-Brigg inventory to discover communication styles.

Additionally, students receive one-on-one sessions with a GSICE leader to help sort through the information and answer any questions they may have.  “Our vision is that no one does a default anything after they graduate from here,” said Schnoes. “If you do a postdoc, it’s because you know it’s the right career move for you.  If you don’t do a postdoc, it’s because you know you want to do something that doesn’t require it.”

The internship component provides students with the much-needed hands-on experience in careers of their choice in order to make an informed decision about their career trajectory. Karl Saldanha, PhD, took the GSICE course in 2010 and pursued an internship at Genentech. While there, he worked on implementing a mobile application that would “allow employees to view real-time production process data on their mobile phones,” Saldanha explained.

The internship was “great exposure to the biopharmaceutical industry, and helped me to confirm that this was the career path that I wanted to pursue following graduate school,” he added.

A preliminary analysis of the students that have completed the program indicates that those who pursued an internship were more likely to go into their field of interest, whereas those who did not pursue an internship more often stayed in academia. Furthermore, Schnoes has seen a change in the way outside organizations view graduate student internships.

“When GSICE started, the idea of graduate students doing internships was foreign. You had to explain to companies how it was going to work and why [they] should want a grad student and how that was different than an undergrad,” said Schnoes. “I’ve seen a lot more awareness, even just in postings. Now some sites will actually target internships to graduate students.”

Now that GSICE has hit the five-year mark, Schnoes and the OCPD are reflecting about future goals and priorities. The Motivating Informed Decisions (MIND) project is just getting started (see Synapse, February 28), and may take over the “early intervention” aspect of GSICE, targeting younger students and helping them explore alternative career options sooner rather than later. 

This will allow GSICE to focus on helping students succeed in obtaining an internship. Furthermore, the program at UCSF is reaching out to other campuses in order to help implement similar programs and foster cross-collaboration. For example, through a grant with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, GSICE is partnering with UC Davis to start a GSICE-like program there.

Finally, GSICE wants to expand here at UCSF, possibly growing to two workshop series a year in order to target a larger student audience.

Kate Vitale, who is currently enrolled in GSICE, emphasizes the importance of this training. "I feel really lucky that UCSF recognizes the need for a program like GSICE,” said Vitale. “The skills the program teaches are extremely valuable—even for students that are convinced that they want to stay in academia—and should be part of any graduate school education."