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Science career symposium stresses value of communication skills

Jun. 18, 2015, 8:52 AM

by Henry H. Ong

Approximately 300 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows recently attended a symposium at the Vanderbilt Student Life Center to learn about “science careers that put your communication skills to work.”

This year’s annual Biomedical Research Education and Training (BRET) career symposium featured 16 speakers, 12 of whom were Vanderbilt University alumni and whose careers included consulting, science policy, journalism, outreach and the nonprofit sector.

“From academia to industry and to government, communication skills are a necessary component of any career,” said Kathy Gould, Ph.D., associate dean for Biomedical Sciences, in her opening remarks.

The daylong event was sponsored by the BRET Office of Career Development and the Vanderbilt Medical Alumni Association, and was supported by biomedical science training grants.

A common theme was the power of networking. While networking could potentially lead to a job, connecting with people in the field can also provide valuable information about what a specific career actually entails and how best to make a transition.

It can be difficult to approach a stranger, but “you only need 20 seconds of courage. They can only say no and you will be no worse off,” said Denise Bottiglieri, Ph.D., CEO of the Healthcare Consultancy Group and a former Vanderbilt postdoc.

Volunteering is another good way to gain experience, demonstrate initiative and learn new skills.

At the beginning of her career, Katie Moisse, Ph.D., news editor for the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI) and former digital health editor at ABC News, volunteered at Scientific American and the ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) Society, the professional society related to her graduate research.

These opportunities allowed her to write regularly and to build her writing portfolio. Eventually, both organizations hired Moisse as a freelance writer. “If you produce a good product,” she said, “someone will pay you for it for fear of losing you.”

If a volunteer opportunity does not exist, create one.

Vanderbilt Neuroscience program alumnus Anuraag Sarangi, Ph.D., strategic consultant for ETHOS Health Communications, did just that. He helped cofound the academic chapter of the Tennessee Biotechnology Association, which has evolved into Life Science Tennessee.

Through this chapter, Sarangi was able to build his network and make contacts with industry leaders and entrepreneurs.

“Take consistent and sustained action throughout graduate school and the rest of your career,” he said.

Breaking into a nonacademic career can be daunting. However, a Ph.D. graduate will have many skills that will benefit different companies.

“It’s not what you’re trained to do, but how you’re trained to think,” said Vanderbilt Pharmacology program alumnus Steve Roberds, Ph.D., chief scientific officer at the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance. “A Ph.D. is a doctorate in philosophy. It is really about the thinking process.”

Speaker presentations will be made available behind a VU-net ID and password in July at the symposium website.

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