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Graduate School students Kimberly Mulligan, left, and Sydika McKissic get ready for Commencement. (photo by Joe Howell)

Graduation 2012: Biomedical Sciences training prepares grads for many paths

BY: MELISSA MARINO

5/17/2012 - A Doctor of Philosophy degree may mark the highest level of academic achievement, but many students graduating with Ph.D.s in the biomedical sciences say that the most valuable lessons learned in graduate school had little to do with science.

Janina Jeff smiles after receiving her Ph.D. in Human Genetics. (photo by Joe Howell)

Janina Jeff smiles after receiving her Ph.D. in Human Genetics. (photo by Joe Howell)

Andrew Benesh gets ready for the Graduate School ceremony on Library Lawn. (photo by Joe Howell)

Andrew Benesh gets ready for the Graduate School ceremony on Library Lawn. (photo by Joe Howell)

Maria Mercedes Abreu talks with a classmate at the Graduate School ceremony. (photo by Joe Howell)

Maria Mercedes Abreu talks with a classmate at the Graduate School ceremony. (photo by Joe Howell)

“You come in here expecting one thing — how to be a researcher, how to have a lab and do all this great stuff,” said Kimberly Mulligan, Ph.D., who completed her doctoral work in Molecular Physiology and Biophysics. “But what I really learned was how to be an independent thinker. I learned a lot about myself in graduate school.”

Mulligan, who began a postdoctoral fellowship in January in the Center for Science Outreach, was among the 90 biomedical science graduate students who completed their doctoral programs this year in Medical Center departments. An additional six biomedical students completed their research in the Department of Biological Sciences.

Mulligan may have come in to graduate school expecting to go the traditional, academic route, but she quickly learned that there are other career paths for which a Ph.D. can prepare a person. In fact, non-academic careers are becoming more common and desirable among biomedical science grads.

Kim Petrie, Ph.D., director of Career Development in the Office of Biomedical Research Education and Training at Vanderbilt, noted that, like Mulligan, many of the graduating students (40 percent) expressed an interest in pursuing non-research/non-academic careers.

However, traditional academic and research routes remain popular, with 60 percent of students expressing interest in faculty positions in academia or research in government, industry or nonprofit organizations.

The majority of this year’s graduates – 76 percent – are planning to do a postdoctoral fellowship. Their academic achievements certainly prepared them well for the academic track.

On average, students graduated with two first-author papers and two additional non-first author papers. And 25 percent of students had independent fellowship funding during their training.

Another noteworthy statistic is the diversity represented by this year’s group of doctoral graduates: 15 of the 96 graduating students are underrepresented minorities.

Janina Jeff, Ph.D., who earned her degree in Human Genetics in the lab of Dana Crawford, Ph.D., was among the first group of doctoral students in the Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity, a program supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health. The program began in 2001 as a post-baccalaureate program, and in 2007 was converted into a doctoral program to help attract and retain underrepresented minority students in academic research.

When Jeff first came to Vanderbilt, she did not think academia was particularly appealing. But the graduate school experience unexpectedly led her down the traditional path.

“When I first came here, I thought 'I don’t want to work in the lab, I don't want to be a scientist,’” Jeff recalled. “But one of the biggest motivators to stay in research, in academia, is probably my mentor. She said that when she was in grad school, she said the same things. I can't imagine her being anything else besides (an academic researcher).”

“I'm still not sure how I fit into it, but (academia) looks more realistic.”

Mulligan attributes her unexpected change in direction to the larger lessons of graduate school, the ones from beyond the lab bench.

“Even though it feels like a totally different path, it would not have been possible without what I've learned in graduate school. I've learned how to think.”

“It wasn't just book learning I got in graduate school,” Mulligan said. “It was 'life learning.’”
 

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