Doctoral students in the biomedical sciences can pursue professional development opportunities unrelated to their lab work without negatively impacting their research productivity or lengthening the time it takes to earn a degree, according to an analysis of doctoral training at 10 universities, including Virginia Tech.

study published in July in PLOS Biology addresses the concern that students who participate in professional development activities to explore a variety of career possibilities may prolong their already lengthy, research-intensive doctoral education.

It turns out that professional training does not diminish research output nor lengthen the time required to obtain a doctoral degree, according to data that looked at research manuscript output and biomedical Ph.D. training time at National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded universities. 

“In addition to proficiency in research, members of the future biomedical workforce will need professional skills in oral and written communication, working in interdisciplinary teams, and leadership,” said Michael Friedlander, vice president for health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech and executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. “The take-home message is doctoral students should explore professional development opportunities and prepare themselves for the possibilities of a variety of diverse and important careers that include but are not limited to academic positions.” 

The study was led by University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, with Virginia Tech and eight other academic institutions. All of the institutions participated in an NIH-funded, five-year program known as Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST), which is intended to foster innovative programming and enable professional development. 

At Virginia Tech, the principal investigator of the program with Friedlander was Audra Van Wart, then an assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and co-director of the translational biology, medicine, and health doctoral program.

Van Wart is now the director of University Postdoctoral Affairs at Brown University and is among the authors of the study, along with Virginia Tech’s Brent Bowden, program coordinator for the Faculty of Health Sciences in the office of the Vice President for Health Sciences and Technology. Van Wart and Bowden contributed significantly to the analysis of the Virginia Tech data and the writing of the manuscript. Other universities that were selected for funding by NIH and who participated in this study are Cornell University, the University of Chicago, UC Irvine, Boston University, the University of Rochester, Vanderbilt University and Wayne State University.

“This study provides some of the very first systematic quantitative data in the biomedical sciences on a national level that directly evaluates the concerns that additional activities such as those focused on professional development and career mentorship and planning would potentially hinder productivity,” Friedlander said. “The publication output from funded research laboratories is a major determinant of their long-term viability and thus, anything that would detract from the major contributions graduate students make to that enterprise would be a concern. This study addresses that concern with data. Dr. Van Wart and Mr. Bowden are to be congratulated for their careful implementation and analysis of the Virginia Tech part of the study and providing useful information to help guide students and their faculty mentors.”

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