Virtual networking program expands career opportunities for biomedical talent at UT health institutions

Nearly 4,000 biomedical doctoral students and postdoctoral scientists at the six University of Texas health institutions have a wide range of interests, expertise and experience, but they all share a common concern: how to identify and prepare for the next step in their professional journeys.

To assist these talented scientists, the institutions collaborated with one another and the UT System Office of Talent and Innovation to create the UT System Career Exploration Network (CEN), a multi-week virtual program that pairs students and postdocs seeking career guidance with experienced professionals willing to share their knowledge about various employment options.

“Given the pandemic and the economic downturn, today’s graduates are facing a more difficult job market, yet their skills are needed now more than ever,” said UT System Chancellor James B. Milliken.  “The UT System can leverage its size and reach to bring together multiple institutions to create opportunities that support UT graduates and the evolving workplace.”

The CEN pilot program debuted in July 2020 with 63 PhD students and postdocs (Seekers) and 71 professionals (Guides), who provide advice and guidance during short virtual networking meetings.  From academic and industry research, to management consulting and science communication, the Guides represent a wide range of career options for PhD-trained biomedical talent. All the Guides hold PhDs and at least 96% of them are UT alumni or UT employees.

Learning how to network virtually was an important benefit of the program, noted Raquel Ybanez Salinas, PhD, assistant director of career development at UT MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

“We hope this experience not only helps Seekers learn about their career options, but also empowers them to continue building their personal professional network,” she said.

Using virtual meeting technology, CEN facilitated 365 one-on-one introductory meetings between Seekers and Guides from across multiple UT institutions. The majority – 80% – involved Seekers and Guides from different UT institutions.

“This is a unique opportunity for students and alumni from different institutions to meet each other, share experiences and knowledge, and contribute to the future career success of our biomedical graduates,” said Dan Jupiter, assistant dean for recruitment at UT Medical Branch.

“It was extremely helpful to meet with professionals who graduated from different institutions since it gave us a more diverse group of guides from different backgrounds and with different career paths,” agreed Melodi Bowman, a neuroscience PhD candidate at UT Health San Antonio. “Without this, we may not have been exposed to people in different careers.”

After participating in the program, 89% of Seekers indicated they felt more confident in their ability to effectively explore career options, compared to 61% before the program. And 91% said they have a more positive outlook, compared to only 62% before the program. Perhaps most importantly, the percentage of Seekers who claimed to be very knowledgeable about their career path options doubled during the program.

“Candid chats with Guides in a wide variety of careers gave me a better understanding of which careers are not for me, while opening my eyes to other areas that I knew little of before,” said Amrita Gokhale, a cell and molecular biology PhD candidate at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Nilsa Rivera Del Valle, a toxicologist at Procter & Gamble and an alum of UT MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, found professional benefits to serving as a Guide. “Participating in the UT System Career Exploration Network allows me to identify potential candidates for my company,” she said. “Engaging with new PhD students and postdocs help us communicate the company’s values, what we do and the opportunities we have within different science fields.”

“I would absolutely recommend the program to other professionals,” said Lauren Tyra, an investment analyst at Dallas-based venture capital firm GP&G Ventures and UT Southwestern Medical Center alum who also served as a Guide. “It is a good way to meet people and keep your networking skills sharp, but it is also an excellent way to give back to your graduate institution in a way that really matters to trainees.”

Given the success of the pilot, CEN program staff are developing plans for the next series of events and to address the unique and changing needs of UT graduates and potential employers.

For more information, please contact the UT System Office of Talent and Innovation.

About The University of Texas System

For more than 130 years, The University of Texas System has been committed to improving the lives of Texans and people all over the world through education, research and health care. With 14 institutions, an enrollment of nearly 240,000 students and an operating budget of $21.7 billion (FY 2021), the UT System is one of the largest public university systems in the United States. UT institutions produce more than 64,000 graduates annually and award more than one-third of the state’s undergraduate degrees and more than half of its health professional degrees. Collectively, UT-owned and affiliated hospitals and clinics accounted for more than 9.2 million outpatient visits and 1.8 million hospital days last year. UT institutions also are among the most innovative in the world, collectively ranking No. 3 for most U.S. patents granted in 2019, and the UT System is No. 1 in Texas and No. 2 in the nation in federal research expenditures. The UT System also is one of the largest employers in Texas, with more than 21,000 faculty – including Nobel laureates and members of the National Academies – and more than 85,000 health care professionals, researchers and support staff.

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