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Overview of our curricular approach, innovated via our NIH BEST award

In 2013, UMass Chan Medical School was one of ten institutions nationwide awarded an inaugural Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) grant, a special project funded by the NIH Office of the Director's Common Fund. Each site in the 17-site NIH BEST Consortium took a unique approach to enhancing graduate and postdoctoral education, and all participated in a cross-site evaluative effort directed by NIH. 

Our goal

Empower Ph.D. students and postdoctoral trainees to take action toward career development throughout their training, in order to build the knowledge, skills, professional network, and experience needed to reach their career objectives. Through our NIH BEST grant, we focused on currciular enhancements for the Morningside Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences' broad umbrella program in Basic Biomedical Sciences. We have since adapted this approach in collaboration with the Morningside Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences' other graduate programs (see "what we offer"). 

About our approach

Universities are increasingly offering opt-in workshops, courses, experiential opportunities, resources, and other services to prepare trainees for the broad set of scientific careers that PhDs pursue. However, the demands of PhD training or other influences often dissuade graduate students from participating in such activities until close to graduation or even until they enter presumed postdoctoral training. To encourage early and ongoing career development actions by all trainees, we have taken a fundamentally different approach: to integrate career and professional development into and across the core required PhD curriculum, spanning all years of PhD training. We have done so in a way designed to benefit research training, rather than detract from it.  

Defining characteristics of our approach 

Our approach is informed by Lent, Brown, and Hackett’s Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT), a well-established model focused on factors (including self-efficacy, goals and likely outcomes, and contextual support) that influence career interests and decision-making. 

  • Reach all trainees by requiring professional development as a critical component of doctoral and postdoctoral training. We hypothesize that incorporating professional development into the standard training experience will empower trainees to take earlier action and more efficiently move into their desired career. 
  • Teach professional skills in the context of what trainees need to succeed at each stage of their training. We hypothesize that a time efficient, just-in-time strategy will increase trainee and faculty receptivity, and further maximize learning outcomes by supporting opportunities to practice skills in the context of thesis research.
  • Encourage openness to and informed investigation of multiple career optionsWe hypothesize that this will enhance self-efficacy and encourage identity formation in a way that will enable trainees to adapt in future career transitions.
  • Value all career outcomes equally. We aim to model appreciation for all career options, with a focus on allowing trainees to determine their own best fit.
  • Measure outcomes of interventions with rigorous educational evaluation and research methodologies.

Ph.D. students

  • Develop professional skills via lessons/workshops integrated across the core required curriculum, spanning the first few years of graduate training (launched in 2014)
    • Short, periodic workshops or mini-series timed to complement standard training and research; these started as add-ons to the curriculum in 2014, and have been progressively more integrated over time.
    • Strengthens professional skills needed for success both in thesis research, and in future careers
    • Skills include: interpersonal communication & working styles, leadership & team science, presentation, writing, career planning, and communicating with mentors
    • Includes discussion of career planning at various stages, beginning in Year 1 and culminating with a mini-course in which third-year students create their first Individual Development Plan (IDP)
  • Create an Individual Development Plan (IDP) annually (required for all students beginning in their third year, which is post-qualifying exam; launched in 2014)
    • Our IDP process is designed to complement the annual thesis research advisory cycle 
  • Join two Career Pathways Communities, learning communities themed around career pathways of students' interests  (required for students in third and fourth year; launched in Spring 2017)
    • Each Community meets three times, facilitated by a cBCD staff member and two Ph.D. scientists employed in that career path
    • Discussion-based activities help students evaluate and articulate their own fit within the pathway, explore role identity formation, and identify next steps for their career preparation
    • Completion of a #MicroSim Job Simulation, allows trainees the chance to "try-on" a job role by completing a task relevant to careers within that pathway
    • Students are required to participate in two communities (one in Spring of the third year, one in the Fall of the fourth year), each with a different career focus, to encourage career adaptability
  • Opt to enhance their own training based on priorities that students set in their annual IDPs, through deeper workshops and experiential opportunities offered on- and off-campus 

Postdoctoral scholars

  • Learn career planning skills and get started creating an IDP via a lesson in the Responsible Conduct of Research course (required for onboarding postdocs)
  • Create an IDP annually (encouraged)
  • Opt to participate in Career Pathways Communities, intermixed with students 
  • Enhance their own training through deeper workshops and experiential opportunities offered on- and off-campus


Building career development into the required curriculum can be challenging. This summary compares the advantages and challenges of a required versus voluntary approach. We are preparing a manuscript describing implementation of our approach. Universities interested in applying this approach are encouraged to contact us.


Our team & advisors


This work is supported by the Office of the Director, National Institutes of Health of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number DP7OD018421. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.