Collaborating for Success: Professional Skills Development for Undergraduates, Graduates, and Post-Docs

CINF symposium at the Fall 2017 ACS Meeting in Washington, DC
Jeremy Garritano and Elsa Alvaro, symposium organizers

Employers in every sector seek to hire employees that have a variety of skills and talents. Though there are not always standard definitions, effective communication, critical thinking, creativity, initiative, and adaptability continually rank high in surveys related to desirable skills employers seek. However, these skills are not always part of the academic experience. With only a small percentage of STEM graduates securing tenure-track positions, expanding the training to cover these areas can have a great impact on their careers as future STEM professionals.

The symposium “Collaborating for Success: Professional Skills Development for Undergraduates, Graduates and Post-Docs” took place Monday, August 21, 2017. It explored the professional development needs of undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers in chemistry and other STEM fields. It also revolved around ways that institutions, graduate programs, funders, professional societies, and libraries are contributing to their success.

Several talks focused on the professional development needs of graduate students from a programmatic approach. Laura Regassa and Nadeene Riddick of the National Science Foundation (NSF) spoke about the NSF Research Traineeship (NRT) program, which encourages new models in STEM graduate education. They discussed the professional development skills that have been more often addressed in NRT projects: science communication, including oral, written, and digital communication; mentoring (both faculty and student mentoring); career preparation, such as internships, networking, and career paths; and research ethics, including responsible conduct of research and ethics of data acquisition and management.

Also from a broad perspective, David Zwicky described a needs assessment project aimed at understanding how to support graduate students at Purdue University. The overall needs that surfaced were: 1) professional development, including teaching, building professional identity, coding, communicating professionally, and project management; 2) spaces, such as spaces for collaboration and research; and 3) information resources, data services, and software.

Rigoberto Hernandez of Johns Hopkins University addressed the topic of diversity and equity in chemistry departments, and talked about the Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity and Equity (OXIDE). OXIDE works with department chairs to reduce inequitable diversity barriers to career advancement through National Diversity Equity Workshops (NDEW) that facilitate discussion between department chairs, federal agency representatives, and diversity policy leaders.

Danielle Watt of the Chemistry at the Space-Time Limit (CASTL) Center, one of the NSF Centers for Chemical Innovation (CCI), discussed how CCIs train STEM students in leadership. Danielle described professional development needs identified by trainees and how they are addressing those needs. Specific examples include training in innovation, collaboration, and effective communication.

The symposium also focused on the professional development needs of undergraduate students. Thomas Wenzel of Bates College, who chairs the ACS Committee on Professional Training (CPT), addressed the importance of skills development on the ACS certified bachelor’s degree in chemistry. The 2015 guidelines state that “programs must provide experiences that go beyond chemistry content knowledge to develop competence in other critical skills necessary for a professional chemist”. These skills include problem solving, chemical literature and information management, laboratory safety, teamwork, communication, and ethics.

The symposium balanced these broad, programmatic perspectives by including talks that described examples of developing specific skills. Donna Wrublewski of Caltech discussed her experience organizing Data Carpentry workshops to teach programming skills to scientists and engineers. Ron Kaminecki focused on the development of courses on patent information research and analysis to equip students who have a scientific background with practical skills in patent research. Svetla Baykoucheva of the University of Maryland described the implementation and assessment of a program aimed at helping students develop information literacy skills, including finding, managing, and sharing scientific information. From a database provider’s perspective, Mindy Pozenel from Chemical Abstracts Service described their recently created Chemical Class Advantage (CCA) modules for instructors to use in organic chemistry courses. These modules encourage students to use SciFinder to discover the scientific literature, as well as provide opportunities for students to demonstrate their ability to read those articles while quizzing them on the content of the articles. Megan Sheffield (Clemson University) and Marguerite Savidakis-Dunn (Shippensburg University) spoke about developing data management skills in chemists. Rachel Borchardt of American University described the major metrics available to chemists, including journal Impact Factors, citation distributions, and altmetrics, and discussed the importance of mastering those metrics to influence the research evaluation narrative. Along the same lines, Antony Williams of EPA talked about the importance of creating an online presence, and the free tools available for that purpose; specific examples include LinkedIn; Slideshare and Google Scholar to track publications and citations; ResearchGate for networking and citation tracking; Publons for getting credit for reviewing papers; Kudos; Figshare; and altmetrics tools such as ImpactStory and Altmetric scores.

Developing safety skills was addressed in presentations by Joseph Pickel of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Samuella Sigmann of Appalachian State University. Joe described his experience transitioning to a safety officer position after a career as a scientist, and discussed the skills required in a research operations position. Sammye spoke about embedding safety professionals to engage with faculty and help educate undergraduate students and develop their critical thinking skills.

The importance of communication skills also featured prominently in some of the presentations. Christin Monroe of Princeton University discussed the Science Communication Education Network (SCENe). A collaboration with the NSF-funded communication program Portal to the Public (PoP) National Network, this workshop seeks to develop communication skills of scientists, including their ability to engage with different audiences, and build confidence as communicators. Kiyomi Deards of the University of Nebraska Lincoln reported several ways to engage with a wide audience and facilitate broader impacts; high commitment examples that Kiyomi described include Sci Pop talks and partnering with the Undergraduate Research Council to showcase undergraduates’ research and creative work.

Finally, expanding career opportunities for STEM graduates was also a recurrent theme of the sessions. Amy Clobes of the University of Virginia and Natalie Lundsteen of The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center described the work of the Graduate Career Consortium (GCC) organization, which helps members provide career and professional development for doctoral students and postdoctoral scholars. They discussed several specific resources for occupational exploration, and also ways to incorporate these tools into the work of librarians, including engaging with campus partners or collaborating with GCC. There were also two talks from professional societies with a careers focus. Shannon O’Reilly of the ACS discussed how the ACS on Campus program has evolved since 2010 to meet the career and professional development needs of students and faculty in the chemical sciences. The program has become increasingly modularized as well as expanding out to international audiences. Scott Nichols of AAAS gave an overview of AAAS Professional Development & Career Services, including myIDP, which is an individual development plan to help explore career possibilities and set goals, and the AAAS Career Development Center resources.

To conclude, the symposium offered a nearly comprehensive overview of the many approaches to contribute to the professional development of STEM students and graduates. The combination of programmatic approaches and case studies focused on specific skills was particularly enriching, and encouraged a very positive engagement among the different speakers and the audience.