Organizing events offers early career researchers an opportunity to develop transferable skills attractive to multiple industries, says Aliyah Weinstein.
Contributor Aliyah Weinstein
In an era when the career paths that PhD graduates will follow after graduation vary greatly, it is more important than ever that trainees are prepared to take on careers both inside and outside of the academy. The non-technical skills that are necessary to complete a PhD, including leadership, analytical skills, and time management, are useful in many career paths. However, it is often difficult for trainees to identify and nurture these skills while remaining focused on the technical skills required to complete their studies. Furthermore, the necessity for trainees to prepare themselves for a wide array of careers is unique to this generation of scientific trainees, and the mechanisms to prepare trainees to recognize and practice the skills needed to successfully navigate diverse career paths is lacking at many institutions.
One way that some students have found to take this task into their own hands is by organizing local scientific meetings. This provides not only the opportunity for trainees to present their work and connect with other members of the scientific community, but also to hone skills in networking, finance, and writing, among many professional skills that can translate to careers in and out of academia.
Conference planning provides opportunities for trainees to practice networking skills with more senior scientists. Alyce Anderson and Rachael Gordon, who for the past three years have been involved in organizing a professional development conference at the University of Pittsburgh, stress the importance of having an advisor involved in the conference planning committee. They recommend identifying a faculty member who has previously been involved in organizing meetings, to work with and learn from throughout the planning process. “Garner institutional support from people who work on professional development,” suggest Gordon and Anderson. Such faculty may support a conference by providing students access to their network of scientists outside of the home university as potential speakers, and guidance on the mechanics of putting together a successful meeting. Additionally, working with faculty is an opportunity for trainees to establish close relationships with them, opening the door to potential long-term benefits including further mentoring and letters of recommendation.
Managing and understanding finances are a critical part of any career, but students often have few opportunities to learn these skills while in school. Scientists seeking academic and industrial career paths, especially, benefit from learning how to obtain the funding necessary to pull off a meeting. “Scientists need to procure funding within their institution and from national funding agencies,” says Gordon. Securing funding for a conference provides an opportunity for students to practice many of the skills necessary to do so. “It provides hands-on experience in managing an organization, budget, and being fiscally responsible. This process is not unlike obtaining grant funding for research: we say what we’re going to do, do these items, and report back to our financial sponsors,” says Anderson. While on different scales, the skills involved in managing the finances of a conference and those of a scientific research project are much the same. Because most trainees are not involved in the financial aspect of their graduate work, practice in other settings can give those trainees a leg up when looking for jobs in the future.
No conference is successful without attendees, and successful marketing of the conference is essential to bring in registrants. Anderson emphasizes that marketing a conference requires many of the same techniques scientists must use to market their research to funding agencies and the general public. Anderson translates her skills in marketing conferences via social media, posters, and online to her scientific career: “Doing exciting science is all based on how it is marketed to the public and your audience,” says Anderson. “Having clean figures that are appealing, and being able to sell the importance of your research to an audience, is something that only comes with practice,” and that practice can be found in activities outside of research.
“Recruiting speakers from diverse areas of the scientific community has helped me to learn how to write professional emails,” continues Anderson. Gordon adds that reaching out to external speakers helped her to become “more articulate” in expressing her thoughts, including her goals for the conference and her expectations of speakers. Effective communication skills such as these translate to careers in and out of academia, as it is imperative that scientists are able to effectively manage those they work with, and communicate to others outside of their home institution.
Finally, Julie Boiko, who works with Anderson and Gordon, emphasizes that students involved in planning a conference should not limit their participation to their area of comfort. “Collaboratively, we bounce everything off each other, so as much as we delineate things, the others of us are equipped to take over,” says Boiko. Besides helping the conference run more smoothly, this practice allows every student involved to improve skill sets with which they may initially feel less confident, and leave the process with a broad repertoire of transferrable skills that can be applied whether they pursue an academic or non-academic career path in the future.