The Johns Hopkins Gazette: February 12, 2001
February 12, 2001
VOL. 30, NO. 21


JHMI Revs Up Postdocs' Career Skills

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

To better prepare biomedical graduate students and postdoctoral fellows for leadership positions and a varied job landscape, the Professional Development Office has been established to service the schools of Medicine, Nursing and Public Health.

The mission of the PDO, a joint initiative of the three schools, is to provide JHMI's more than 2,000 graduate students and fellows with the skills, knowledge and experiences necessary to pursue and excel in the career path of their choice.

James E. K. Hildreth, associate dean for graduate studies at the School of Medicine and the driving force in the PDO's creation, says the need for the office is a result of the growing imbalance nationwide between biomedical trainees and academic positions, and the demand at Hopkins for uniform access to basic "research survival skills," such as writing grants and giving oral presentations.

Wendy Sanders, director of PDO, and James Hildreth, associate dean for graduate studies at SOM.

Hildreth says recent studies show there is an increasing discrepancy between the number of graduates trained in the biomedical sciences and the number of available academic positions. Not only are more doctoral degrees being conferred while the number of academic positions remains constant, but those holding them are staying longer.

The result of this supply and demand issue has increased the interest in nontraditional fields, including business, journalism, government and secondary teaching.

"All of these national studies speak to the fact that we might be training too many biomedical Ph.D.'s in this country. This is exacerbated by the fact that increasing numbers of foreign nationals are coming to us for their training as well. I'm not saying that is a bad thing; it's just the reality we face on a national level," says Hildreth, who recently resigned his post as associate dean to accept a prominent position at the National Institutes of Health. "So one of the questions I asked myself was, Is there a value to both society and this institution to have our graduate students go off and do these nontraditional things. The answer, in my opinion, was yes, certainly there was."

In agreement were Edward Miller, dean of the School of Medicine and CEO of JHM; David Nichols, SOM vice dean for education; Martha Hill, professor, master's instruction, and director of the Center for Nursing Research, School of Nursing; and Sharon Krag, associate dean for graduate education and research, School of Public Health, who worked together to get this program under way.

Hildreth says the primary goal in creating the PDO was to achieve two things: prepare students and fellows to enter traditional and nontraditional careers, and foster an environment at Hopkins that would nurture innovative training programs beyond the established curriculum.

To achieve its goal, the Professional Development Office is currently designing a curriculum of workshops and formal courses in the areas of skill development, career planning and ethics. Specifically, the PDO will offer courses and tutorials in scientific communication, including grant writing, scientific writing, communicating science to nonscientists and oral presentations.

Wendy Sanders, director of the new office, says students who take these courses will learn such useful skills as how to identify an appropriate research problem, write a competitive grant application, develop a scientific manuscript for publication and give a poster session.

"We will also focus on offering basic career-enhancing skills, such as resume- and cover letter-writing and how to interview for a position," says Sanders, now in her 12th year at Hopkins, most recently with the Welch Library's scientific communications program.

Business management courses to be offered by the PDO include those in which students will learn how to manage a laboratory, develop a budget and hire a staff.

"In other words, we are focused on how someone makes the transition from being a postdoc or student, and responsible for an army of one, to a position elsewhere, where all of a sudden that person is forced to hit the ground running and take on a number of different tasks," Sanders says. "We want to help our graduates make that transition, so that they will not have to undergo that training once they have a job. Our students are already very well trained scientifically, and this will give them an additional advantage in terms of their skills preparation."

Hildreth says skills such as grant and scientific publication writing are invaluable and not emphasized enough.

"When you consider the importance of getting funding for research in one's career, especially in academics, it's vital that we instruct in these areas. What a lot of students don't realize is that even if they go to NIH or to private industry, they'll have to write a report to justify the funding they are getting and to keep it coming," says Hildreth, an associate professor in the departments of Pathology and Pharmacology & Molecular Sciences. "So being able to clearly and concisely write about one's work to get grants or support is extremely important regardless of whether you are going to be an academician, work in a drug company or go to NIH."

Sanders says students have been able to acquire some of these skill sets through existing JHMI programs, but the size, duration and/or fees associated with these courses and workshops were prohibitive to a sizable portion of the graduate and fellow population.

To cater to their customer base, the PDO will offer free courses and workshops year-round and in a condensed form--typically two to five sessions, each two hours in length.

Sanders says there is clearly a demand for these types of skill development courses. Case in point: the PDO's well-attended initial class, a five-part workshop on scientific communication held during the January intersession.

"I thought I would only have 15 or 20 people show up. I thought, Well, it's only our first workshop, and it is intersession," Sanders says. "But I had 112 people register for it, and additional people came in after registration. I had to move the workshop from the little room we were assigned to the Becton Dickinson Auditorium over at Public Health."

The PDO currently has a staff of three and is in the process of moving into a permanent location on the third floor of the 1830 Building. The director of the PDO reports to the School of Medicine's associate dean of graduate studies.

The courses and workshops developed by the PDO will be taught by Sanders, Hopkins faculty and visiting professionals who have utilized their training in various fields of biomedical science.

Sanders says her office will look to alumni both to instruct some of these courses and to offer internship opportunities to current students. She also anticipates a career workshop will be held once a month to inform students of the myriad opportunities available for those with a Ph.D., whether it be for an editor or writer at a science journal, or a government position dealing with patent law.

The PDO will promote these opportunities through its newsletter and Web site, both currently in development. These two resources also will provide information on fellowship, grant, travel award, internship and job opportunities. Sanders says the Web site will be linked to an alumni tracking database, to be used to tailor PDO services.

While the PDO is a "major addition to JHMI," Hildreth says the office's existence does not, however, constitute a fundamental change to the current methods of training and educating graduate students and fellows.

"We don't presume to do anything more than enhance and round out what is already an excellent education," Hildreth says. "I'm biased, of course, but the programs here at all three institutions are outstanding, and we get some of the best students in the country. But with the existence of this new office, those who come through here will now be, more than ever, able to do whatever they choose to do, whether it's pursuing opportunities in academics, industry, biotechnology, journalism, law, whatever it may be," he says. "These people are going to know what it takes to succeed and have the fundamental skill set to do it. We'll have modest beginnings, but I really do believe this will come to be thought of as one of the best things we have ever done as an institution."

For more information on the PDO, or to offer input on the development of its services, e-mail

Survey of JHMI postdocs is under way

The student-run Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association is currently conducting a survey of all JHMI postdoctoral fellows in order to identify the various issues that face their ranks personally, professionally and scientifically.

Pauline Wong, JHPDA's president, said the primary goal of the survey is to measure concerns so that the group can better represent Hopkins' postdoctoral population. Wong said this also represents an opportunity to obtain background information on fellows, assess their career goals and bring attention to the JHPDA's efforts.

The survey, launched on Jan. 26, is the third such endeavor the JHPDA has conducted since its founding in 1992. The mission of the JHPDA, the first official postdoctoral organization in the country, is to improve the daily life and morale of the more than 1,200 fellows at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

To participate in the anonymous survey, go to

The deadline for completion is Feb. 16. Wong says the results will be brought to the national post-doctoral meeting, to be held on March 3.

For more information on the JHPDA, or to get on its mailing list, e-mail