Being upfront about goals and creative about gaining experience can launch a career.
Elise Covic, now Deputy Dean of the College at the University of Chicago, entered academic administration even before she completed her PhD in computational neuroscience when she became director of an undergraduate research training program. She describes how she navigated her way from research and into a satisfying career in academic administration.
What was your experience like in graduate school?
Graduate school was just a practical step for me; I was working as a research technician because I thought that was what I thought I should do fresh out of college with a biology degree. As grad students rotated through the labs, I learned their stipend was about the same amount as my salary. Why not get a PhD for work you enjoy doing? It’s the one point in your life when you can focus on something that you love and can be completely creative and know a microcosm that no one else knows as in depth as you do.
When did you realize you didn’t want to keep doing research?
I saw people that I respected lose their funding and struggle, and I thought ‘I don’t like this’. I don’t have that fire in my belly. I’m not thinking about my project when I wake up.
When I came out to the head of my graduate program to say that I wanted to pursue this non-research path, he said ‘you need to run the computational neuroscience summer research program.’ And I did. I was interfacing with the NIH, and I was helping one of those students teach courses as well. All through graduate school, I was one of those involved students. I administered a lot of programs. I was chair of the Dean’s Council. I cofounded and directed the University of Chicago Biotechnology Association.
After the University of Chicago, you became the associate director of the medical scientist training program (MSTP) at Northwestern. Why were you a good fit?
The Northwestern MSTP wanted someone with a PhD in the sciences to advise their students. They liked that I had run an NIH training grant-based program. Then about a year later there were leadership changes at the University of Chicago MSTP. And my fomer PhD supervisor told U Chicago’s MSTP director, ‘you know she’s been running an MSTP longer than you have, you should try to recruit her.’
What’s something you put in place at MSTP?
We tried to create systems to integrate the curriculum. We wanted something that would permeate through every phase of training. We implemented structures so that students could apply for F30 grants. Their thesis proposal was in the form of a grant application so that students could hit the ground running when they joined research labs.
Now you have moved beyond MSTP. You have responsibilities to broad programs in undergraduate education, including humanities. What’s that like?
In the scientific and medical environment, there’s quick debate. Scientists will always say, I don’t’ know but I’ll find out. You bark and you take action. Here, it is very different from working with strictly science. There’s a lot of debate about every issue.
How do you use your scientific training in your job today?
Thinking linearly is an aspect of the job that is absolutely necessary. You have to be methodical. You need to be willing to try things and explore things. You need to be okay with failure and say ‘let’s try this and if it doesn’t work, we’ll learn things about what does’.
For more on Elise Covic, see here.