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Study finds that professional development opportunities do not delay doctorate training or publications

Doctoral students who participated in professional development opportunities during their degree programs did not experience differences in time to degree or manuscript output from their peers who did not participate in such opportunities, a new paper finds.

The study, “A cross-institutional analysis of the effects of broadening trainee professional development on research productivity,” published July 15 in PLOS Biology.

A team of researchers including Susi Varvayanis, executive director of Cornell Graduate School’s Careers Beyond Academia, compared doctoral students who participated in career and professional development programming to those who did not, using metrics from 10 institutions awarded National Institutes of Health (NIH) funds to establish Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) programs.

Initially a BEST program, Careers Beyond Academia expanded in 2019 to serve humanities and social sciences students as well as those in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines, as BEST had for the previous six years.

“It was our intention from the outset, when the Cornell BEST program was initially funded by the NIH, to eventually broaden university-wide,” said Varvayanis. “This cross-disciplinary participation has enriched community-building, networks and perspectives.”

As a BEST institution, many Cornell graduate students contributed data over the study’s five-year time period. Researchers used time to degree and publication records as measures of efficiency and productivity, tracking students in real-time rather than sending retrospective surveys post-graduation.

Now, as alumni, these participants are contributing to diverse employment sectors. Professional and career development programs help to prepare doctoral students and postdocs for careers in academia, industry, government and non-profit organizations, the authors conclude.

“By engaging—alongside their research—in complementary experiential training activities that help them test drive options and develop skills, participants become equipped to succeed and become more desirable as job candidates across career types with increased confidence, self-efficacy, deeper professional connections and ultimately more satisfaction in their career choices,” said Varvayanis. “We empower students and postdocs to realize their potential.”

At Cornell, Careers Beyond Academia offers individual and group consultations, experiential workshops, field-specific career panels and work site visits to help doctoral students and postdocs explore various career options outside of the academic track.

“The bottom line of the article is that Ph.D. students who engage in professional development activities do not take longer to graduate, do not publish less and do not have fewer first author publications,” said Varvayanis. “The multi-institutional study measured hourly participation by 1,700 graduate students over the course of five years and concludes that research productivity is unaffected.”

The paper’s other authors are Patrick Brandt, Rebekah Layton, Patrick Brennwald, Joshua Hall, Daniel Arneman, Chris Holmquist, Yvonne Golightly and Christopher Wisen from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; Tracey Baas from the University of Rochester; Amanda F. Bolgioni, Isabel Dominguez, Linda E. Hyman and Barbara M. Schreiber from Boston University; Janet Alder from Rutgers University; Kimberly A. Petrie, Abigail M. Brown, Kathleen L. Gould and Roger Chalkley from Vanderbilt University; Abigail Stayart from the University of Chicago; Harinder Singh and David A. Fruman from the University of California, Irvine; Audra Van Wart and Brent Bowden from Virginia Tech; and Ambika Mathur and Christine S. Chow from Wayne State.

Katya Hrichak is a communications assistant in the Graduate School.

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