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Mariava Phillips
October 25, 2023

Assistant Dean Michael Jarstfer and Associate Professor Jacqui McLaughlin are working together to ensure Ph.D. programs offer students contemporary professional development and opportunities for career growth. 

To start this effort, a three-year National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovations in Graduate Education grant, of almost $500,000, was awarded to this project. Michael Jarstfer, Ph.D., Assistant Dean for Graduate Education at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy and associate professor in the Division of Chemical Biology and Medicinal Chemistry is the principal investigator of this project.  

“Ph.D. training has largely followed an apprenticeship model over the last 100 years. The result is that students are very effectively trained in the science associated with their research advisors’ group.  However, the jobs Ph.D. students obtain after leaving graduate programs require broader training, particularly in career specific professional skills,” said Jarstfer. “The grant we received from the NSF will allow us to explore ways to make professional development and career specific, student-centered training an integral part of each Ph.D. student’s training.” 

This proposal was created in partnership with co-principal investigators, Jacqui McLaughlin, Ph.D., director of the Center for Innovative Pharmacy Education and Research (CIPhER) and associate professor in the Division Practice Advancement and Clinical Education, Rebekah Layton, Ph.D., director of professional development programs at the UNC School of Medicine, and Partick Brandt, Ph.D., director of career development and training for the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program at Carolina. 

Usually, Ph.D. training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduate programs include course work, exams and research leading to a dissertation. Each component is primarily focused on discipline-specific concepts and skills and the dissertation is focused on research that is typically in line with a faculty advisor’s grant. This approach is ideal for those seeking careers as independent research scientists and those who desire to go into academia, but not everyone follows that path. 

“Doctoral graduates are increasingly exploring career paths beyond academia, emphasizing the need for our curricula to evolve and better prepare students for their professional journeys,” said McLaughlin.  

This project proposal points out that the career opportunities and interests of Ph.D. graduates are becoming more and more broad. With that in mind, it’s important to incorporate career exploration and professional development into Ph.D. training. 

The team is planning to develop a model to maximize student-centered Ph.D. training with individualized competencies that can be integrated into any STEM graduate program, which they call MyPhD.  

“I’m excited about the MyPhD initiative because it will formally introduce career-based skill acquisition and personalized career mentoring into the scientific backbone of the UNC Ph.D. experience from the time of the first committee meeting through to the dissertation defense,” said Brandt. 

MyPhD will integrate skill development in leadership, communication and management alongside scientific knowledge, technical skills and data interpretation. Developing guidelines to facilitate creating individualized student-centered competencies and assessments throughout a student’s doctoral training is also part of the proposal. The goal is to increase retention in Ph.D. programs, enhance program environments and increase student well-being.  

“Supporting doctoral trainees in the myriad of career pathways available to them is crucial to building and maintaining a diverse, innovative, and productive biomedical workforce – both inside and outside of academia,” said Layton. “We hope that successful aspects of this pilot program can be scaled up, with lessons learned and promising practices maximizing the potential benefits of competency-based, tailored doctoral milestones broadly.” 


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