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Cynthia Fuhrmann dedicated to helping other scientists chart their own careers

GSBS assistant dean is preparing the next generation of PhD scientists for myriad career opportunities

By Megan Bard and Sandra Gray

UMass Medical School Communications

April 16, 2019

The Women in Science video series on UMassMedNow highlights the many areas of research conducted by women at UMass Medical School.

Cynthia Fuhrmann, PhD, associate professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology, and assistant dean of career and professional development in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, is dedicated to helping PhD students and postdocs chart their careers.

“I’m passionate about PhD career development because when I was in training myself, it was at a time when science was moving and shifting, and a number of different roles were starting to emerge for PhDs,” said Dr. Fuhrmann. “But we, as students, didn’t know very much about those roles.”

Trained as a biochemist, Fuhrmann leveraged her interest in science and education to address that gap by focusing on strategies to better prepare PhDs for a wide variety of careers. This includes, but is not limited to, establishing their own labs in academia—an option with fewer opportunities than the number of biomedical scientists in the job market.

While students and postdocs look up to faculty who followed a traditional pathway to academic research, many of them will need to pursue different careers in today’s job market, where less than 25 percent of new science PhDs can secure tenure-track faculty jobs.

“While PhDs do develop a number of transferrable skills, some of my early research recognized that students have a fair amount of confusion about what their career interests are, and they aren’t very well informed about what the career options might be,” said Fuhrmann. “My research now focuses on how we can better help PhD students and postdocs think ahead to their career options, recognize that there is a wealth of ways that they can contribute to the scientific enterprise, and take small, efficient steps while they’re training to prepare for their future careers.”

Fuhrmann began working on PhD career development while still a graduate student herself at the University of California San Francisco. There she and colleagues developed myIDP, an online career planning tool specifically tailored to biomedical sciences, in collaboration with the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and the journal Science. Since coming to UMMS in 2012, Fuhrmann has advanced the field of PhD career development on many fronts.

She has garnered a five-year, $2 million Broadening Experience in Scientific Training (BEST) grant from the National Institutes of Health; developed a required career development curriculum for the GSBS; established the school’s Biomedical Career Development Center; and crisscrossed the country sharing her expertise as a national leader in the burgeoning field. She is leading an initiative of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology to create a national center for advancing the career development of scientists and is co-principal investigator on a National Science Foundation grant to develop a toolkit to help diverse institutions test and enhance their own career planning programs and curricula.

“I came into the fields of graduate education and PhD career development when the field was just starting to gain national attention and momentum,” Fuhrmann reflected. “Now I tell our own students and postdocs that they are a new generation that can be thinking about their training in different ways, that they’re not only developing as researchers and scientists here, but they’re also developing as professionals who can go out into the scientific enterprise and society at large to contribute in new ways that people haven’t even thought about in the past.”

Related stories on UMassMedNow:
GSBS, American Chemical Society collaborate to measure impact of individual development plans
Fuhrmann in Human Gene Therapy: Progress being made in biomedical career training
GSBS Class of 2016 reap benefits of NIH-funded novel career development program
Nature editorial recognizes novel GSBS career development program
Fuhrmann discusses career development for PhDs in May issue of The Scientist
Matthews and Fuhrmann working to reform biomedical research training, career paths