Professional Development and Productivity

Post written by guest blogger, Janette Norrington, PhD, NIH Trainee

PhD scientists are increasingly choosing careers beyond academia, so many institutions have incorporated professional development within doctoral training. Professional development programs provide learning opportunities to doctoral students such as internships and specialized career workshops aimed to help students develop a broad set of critical skills. Students are exposed to different workplaces and taught transferable skills such as communication, working in teams, and leadership that are beneficial in academic and/or nonacademic positions. Career exploration programs allow students to have more options and flexibility in career prospects in addition to doctoral training.

There is concern among some faculty and institutions that professional development programs may take doctoral students’ focus away from research and the lab. Many doctoral programs struggle to shorten the time to degree, prevent attrition, and guide students to meaningful careers after training. There is some worry that participating in career exploration and development programs will negatively impact efficiency, research output, grant funding, and lengthen students’ time to degree. Doctoral programs often struggle to find the right balance of providing adequate professional development to students and intensive research training without losing students’ productivity.

A recent study analyzed data from ten US academic institutions to determine whether participation in professional development programs negatively altered biomedical doctoral students’ productivity or efficiency. Study investigators found that the participation in career development activities did not result in a significant impact on the doctoral students’ time to degree or publication record (Brandt et al, 2021). Even extensive participation in programs, including internships, was not associated with an increased time to degree or a reduction in publication output for doctoral students. In fact, two institutions found that high participation in career development programs was associated with higher first-author publication output and shorter time to degree compared with nonparticipants. Findings from the study demonstrate that programs that promote professional skills to complement scientific development are not distractions for doctoral students but are beneficial to graduate education.

Fortunately, more academic institutions and faculty are accepting the importance and benefits of career development for doctoral students. Studies show that more faculty view professional development programs as beneficial to trainees and that these programs lead to enhanced to happiness, positive effects in the lab, and more confidence in career exploration. While many studies have focused on doctoral students from biomedical fields, the conclusions about the benefits of professional development are likely applicable to graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in other fields such as STEM and the social sciences (Brandt et al, 2021). The next generation of scientists will not only need to be excellent researchers, but also be equipped with professional skills to prepare them for a variety of diverse and important careers in the workforce. Trainees can take advantage of the many career exploration and professional development resources available at the NIH with the knowledge that these programs are designed to enhance career prospects without hindering productivity and efficiency.

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