Unique Internship Program Helps Graduate Students Explore Career Paths

By Juliana Bunim on March 01, 2011
Evelyn Chang

Evelyn Chang participated in the Graduate Student Internships for Career Exploration program at UCSF.

A unique internship program is preparing UCSF doctoral students to make career transitions outside of academia – bringing their excitement and training out of the lab and into the world.

One of the first of its kind in the nation, the Graduate Student Internships for Career Exploration program (GSICE) launched in June 2009 with 17 students, and now has its second cohort of 18 students – providing them with the mentorship, professional skills and hands-on experience to help them make informed career decisions at the end of graduate school.

“We want to stop students from moving into postdoc positions by default because they are unaware of what opportunities exist or because they lack the confidence and experience to pursue those opportunities,” said Alexandra Schnoes, PhD, GSICE program coordinator. “We help them make these career transitions and see that they can bring the benefit of science and scientific training to many different careers.”

When Evelyn Chang, a sixth-year doctoral student in the Tetrad Graduate Program, discovered the GSICE program, she recognized she wasn’t as clear as some of her classmates about choosing a career in academia.

“All through graduate school I was exploring alternate [career] options and UCSF was good at providing opportunities to learn about them,” said Chang.

She settled on wanting to pursue intellectual property law, but struggled with how to get experience and how to find more information.

“GSICE was the thing I had been waiting for because the program had contacts at places where I could gain legal experience,” she said. “While the internships I applied to aren’t exclusive to people in the program, I don’t think many of us would’ve even heard of them if we hadn’t participated.”

All basic and biomedical science graduate students, who have passed their qualifying exams, are eligible to apply for the program. The application process includes a written application and panel interview.

Accepted students first participate in a training period consisting of six workshops that help them identify their career preferences, and equip them with a plan to explore careers and the skills to attain their chosen career path. The most unique feature of the program is the quarter long full-time internship that students undertake to get hands on experience in a specific career area.

After completing her PhD at UCSF, Evelyn Chang accepted a position as a patent agent in the Palo Alto office of the law firm Wilson Sonsini.

During a ten-week summer internship at Fluidigm, a biotech start-up in South San Francisco, Chang not only gained experience working in their legal department, but her background in scientific research helped her grasp the application of the technology they were developing, and understand how it actually works and what competing technologies are out there. “For IP law it’s all about understanding the technology and translating it into legalese,” said Chang.

After returning to campus and completing her PhD, Chang accepted a position as a patent agent in the Palo Alto office of the law firm Wilson Sonsini, and reports that her GSICE/Fluidigm experience played a major role in helping her get the job.

Other GSICE students have focused on business relating to science at Burrill & Co, investigated science communication careers at BioCentury, explored science education at KQED and conducted industry research at Genentech and Novartis.

Planting Seed for Career Success

The seed for GSICE was planted three years ago, when it became apparent to Bruce Alberts, PhD, a prominent biochemist with a strong commitment to the improvement of science and mathematics education, that PhD students had a wide diversity of career interests and needed more help whether they planned to pursue careers inside or outside of academia.

Alberts, who co-founded the successful Science and Health Education Partnership at UCSF, is a professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, editor-in-chief at Science Magazine, and US Science Envoy.

“As faculty we need to do more to show that we value career paths, freeing our energetic and talented graduate students to better explore all of their options,” said Alberts, past president of the National Academy of Sciences.

Alberts quickly found others who supported the idea. He met with Keith Yamamoto, PhD, executive vice dean in the UCSF School of Medicine; Dina Gould Halme, PhD, former Associate Dean of Research and Special Projects in the UCSF School of Medicine; and Bill Lindstaedt, MS, director of the Office of Career and Professional Development (OCPD) to turn the idea into a reality.

The program is financed by contributions from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and Morrison & Foerster, in addition to student fellowship support from the Graduate Division and in-kind support from the School of Medicine and the OCPD.

“UCSF is one of the few places in the country where such a unique career exploration program model could be launched,” said Lindstaedt. "PhD students in the biomedical sciences across the country would benefit from access to a specialized career development program like GSICE, but the success of the GSICE idea at UCSF is based on Bruce’s [Alberts] ability to initiate effective collaborative efforts among academic, administrative and student service units.”

The ultimate vision for GSICE is that the program elements will become an embedded part of graduate training, not just at UCSF but around the country.

“The program is not just about providing internship opportunities, but also about guiding and supporting students as they explore career options and decide what it is they want to do,” said Theresa O'Brien, PhD, director of Research Strategy and Special Projects at the UCSF School of Medicine, who directs the GSICE program. “We think about it as a training program. Traditional graduate programs offer mentorship, skills development and hands on experience focused on academic research. We’re augmenting the traditional training program so students can be prepared for the wide variety of careers that are open to them.”

Photos by Susan Merrell