UChicago's myCHOICE program expands training, career exploration for PhD students

The University of Chicago’s myCHOICE (Chicago Options in Career Empowerment) program, which launched in 2014 to broaden experiences in scientific training and career exploration for PhD students, has taken off over the past 18 months.

“So far, myCHOICE is off to a strong and speedy start,” said program manager Abby Stayart. “We’re about a year and a half ahead of the estimated timeline to get things up and running.” She credits deep faculty involvement in program design and implementation for accelerating the work.

Erin Adams, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, said, “There are many, many opportunities for PhD scientists. It’s about matching scientists with those opportunities and building networks.”

Funded by a National Institutes of Health five-year, $1.25 million grant, for which UChicago competed, the University’s myCHOICE program already is offering an array of experiences, from one-hour seminars to 10-week internships. All of the program’s components are designed to help young science researchers build professional skills, explore careers and find mentors.

Currently, 60 percent of graduate students and 50 percent of postdoctoral fellows in the Biological Sciences Division have attended at least one seminar focused on exposing them to a range of diverse career directions, from startup entrepreneurship to policymaking. Seminars also help young scientists polish essential skills, like writing, which they will need in any setting. The word is reaching young scientists in fields beyond biomedicine, too: 14 percent of those served are coming from the Physical Sciences Division.

As more young researchers get involved in myCHOICE, the program is meeting its main goal of helping graduates get hired. 

“Networking is the key,” said neurobiologist Natasha Wadlington. “It stopped me from being unemployed.” Through myCHOICE, she connected with people who share her interest in science communication and outreach. Those contacts led to her current full-time position as a facilitator at the Museum of Science and Industry, plus a side job interpreting and explaining data to the marketing department of CSC Learning, an education technology company.

For John Leonard, a postdoctoral fellow in immunology who serves on the myCHOICE steering committee, taking part in the programming is a natural complement to his current research. “I haven’t completely shut the door [on academia], but I’m pretty sure I want to go more toward industry,” likely biotech or pharmaceuticals, he added. Leonard has attended as many as two to three seminars a month, “just to learn what else is out there.”

He also has dug in a little deeper on a few topics by attending mini-courses held in the evenings and on weekends. “The Business of Life Sciences course was really good,” he said. “It featured people who have started science companies and showed how they got an idea from a lab into a fully fleshed company or product or drug.” The course also introduced him to a job he didn’t know existed. “Larger companies have people whose role is to look at tech coming from small startups and determine whether the science is credible and the innovation is applicable to their company,” said Leonard.

The program’s internships are part-time and held on campus to make it easier for young scientists to meet the demands of their research and still explore career possibilities. Internships also focus on concrete projects that can enhance a person’s curriculum vita. Thanks to support from another principal investigator Alan Thomas, director of the Center for Technology Development & Ventures, four myCHOICE interns have served as fellows at UChicagoTech and received graduate credit for internships.

Stayart has engaged UChicago alumni who comprise about 50 percent of the myCHOICE program speakers. “I try to target earlier-career people so the audience can identify with them easily,” said Stayart. Members of the alumni community also host graduate students and postdoctoral fellows for one- to five-day externships and provide job shadowing. Stayart noted that three externs received job offers following their interactions with alumni and their employers.

Adams, one of four principal investigators for the NIH grant, expects myCHOICE to prepare individuals for their best job fit either inside or outside of academia, and for the new supports to persist beyond the NIH grant. “We see this as a long-term thing,” she said, and points to the development of UChicagoGRAD as a sign of the University’s commitment to supporting career development for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

Members of UChicagoGRAD—Mike Tessel, associate director of graduate career development, and Dan Spiess, assistant director of career development and postdoctoral affairs—serve as “myCHOICE navigators.” Their work with Stayart and other myCHOICE leaders strengthens UChicagoGRAD’s support of the program. As navigators, Tessel and Spiess are key contacts for myCHOICE trainees, helping them connect with a diverse pool of mentors who assist trainees with specific career development needs.

Joining Adams and Thomas as principal investigators, who oversee the University’s myCHOICE program, are faculty members Victoria Prince, professor of organismal biology and anatomy and dean of graduate affairs for the Biological Sciences Division, and Julian Solway, the Walter L. Palmer Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics, and director of the Institute for Translational Medicine.