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  • An Experiential Learning Alternative for Ph.D.s: Business Concepts for Life Scientists

    February 01, 2019 | By Thi Nguyen and Natalie Lundsteen

    A close up view of a microscope.

    TAGS: program development, journal

    NACE Journal, February 2019

    Ph.D. science students increasingly seek non-faculty positions, but often lack knowledge of how to transition into non-academic, graduate-level science careers. Although Ph.D. graduates from all disciplines are employed in diverse markets—including for-profit, government, and nonprofit sectors—we know that some employers may view Ph.D. students as overqualified but under-experienced, primarily because Ph.D. students often lack experiential learning opportunities and professional workplace exposure.

    It is especially difficult for science Ph.D. students to gain experience through typical internship models because their unique career concerns include completing time-intensive dissertation research, most often in a laboratory setting, and federal funding restrictions on non-research activities. Unique solutions are being developed by career professionals serving Ph.D .science students to help this population gain understanding of various occupational paths while meeting the challenge of creating programs tailored for graduate students that are both experiential and time sensitive.

    At University of California San Francisco (UCSF), an institution whose student population comprises only graduate students, the career development team in the Office of Career and Professional Development designed the “Business Concepts for Life Scientists” course in 2015 that used video, podcast, and team-based problem solving cases to tackle this challenge.

    The Course: Science + Business

    Informed by graduate students who expressed concerns during career advising sessions about developing research plans and budgets, the team at UCSF set out to tackle the challenge of accessibility and affordability for graduate students and post-docs interested in gaining basic business knowledge.

    Whether a graduate student is targeting a career in academia, looking to industry research, or considering other career paths, business concepts such as project management or budget creation are widely applicable and can help researchers develop a set of broad professional skills. For example, gaining insight into business strategy can help scientists develop a more effective research plan, while applying financial concepts can help with designing and managing research budgets more effectively. With this goal in mind, the UCSF team developed a free course focused on business fundamentals to teach all levels of scientists the skills they need to succeed in either an academic or industry setting.

    Science Ph.D.s in business roles, along with M.B.A.s employed in biopharma companies, were recruited to create the course content. Deborah Dauber, a competitive analysis consultant, co-developed several of the modules, facilitated multiple in-class sessions, and was instrumental in recruiting other professionals for this project. Dauber noted, “I got a lot of interest from colleagues who were excited about the opportunity to educate and help graduate students make the jump from bench to business. Every Ph.D. in the business world made that transition at some point and most of us are interested in helping the younger generation of scientist-business people.”

    The course comprises modules covering business strategy, finance, and business development. For each module, graduate students watched videos and listened to podcasts before class, then came to an in-person workshop lasting about two hours, led by industry professionals and/or student leaders in graduate business or consulting clubs. The peer learning activities were designed to help the graduate students apply the concepts and included using online company information to determine a company’s strategy, financial health, and business partnerships.

    Moreover, the course format, including the in-person workshop, addresses the needs of graduate students who prioritize research and working in the laboratory. The total time commitment for the course is approximately three to four hours per module, including video and podcast pre-work (one to two hours) and time in the workshop (1.5 to two hours).

    After the pilot was delivered at UCSF, the efficacy of the course format was assessed and participants’ achievement of the learning objectives was evaluated in order to iteratively improve the course materials. With permission, group discussions were also recorded and reviewed, which allowed for the development of tailored facilitator guides that addressed concepts that were more difficult for graduate students to grasp.

    In follow-up surveys between six and 12 months after the workshops at UCSF and other participating institutions (noted below), participants were asked to comment on what they recalled from the course and how it may have influenced their career decision making. Evaluation data showed that the group-based, in-class activity and the immediate application of lecture material with professionals were perceived to be the most valuable aspects of the workshops. Participants were also asked to indicate whether their career goals or career development changed as a result from taking this workshop or watching the videos, and again responses were positive.

    Extending the Course to Other Institutions

    From 2015 through 2017, the program was successfully implemented at five other graduate schools in diverse regions across the country: the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern Medical Center, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Harvard University, Stanford University, and Yale University. This collaborative effort was enabled through the Graduate Career Consortium (GCC), a professional society and community of practice for career development professionals serving graduate students.

    The opportunity for GCC colleagues to test the course at different types of institutions in multiple regions, and the joint effort in creating and refining train-the-trainer materials, helped ensure that the course could be easily replicated in varied academic environments. It also provided “ready-to-implement” programming for graduate career professionals in offices with limited resources and staffing.

    The course lesson plans and videos were made available online following the pilot course at UCSF, so course delivery was straightforward to undertake, and efforts by career development staff were focused on inviting alumni or local professionals to facilitate the in-class discussion.

    “If you have experience facilitating career development workshops and events, you are fully capable of organizing this short course,” said Thomas Magaldi, assistant dean at Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. “You do, however, need access to alumni or professionals who have expertise in these areas and are willing to volunteer to help with the event.”

    Stephanie Eberle, assistant dean for graduate education and postdoctoral affairs at Stanford University, piloted the business concepts course because of the unique hands-on opportunity the course gave her trainees. "Stanford is home to some of some of the most talented scientists in the world," said Eberle. “Still, our graduate students and postdocs struggle to translate this expertise into the myriad careers of choice available to them. Even transitioning into academic research now requires the management skills of supervision, budget management, and strategic planning to build sustainable labs.”

    Alternatives for Course Support

    For academic institutions in regions with limited life science business activity, there is a challenge in finding relevant biopharma business professionals to support the course. Such was the case in Dallas; to fill the gap, one of the authors recruited alumni from the UT Southwestern Medical Center as well as volunteers with business backgrounds from BioNorthTX, a regional life sciences trade association, and from a local healthcare venture accelerator. Not all of the volunteers had Ph.D.s in the life sciences, but their business-related backgrounds provided professional perspectives to students taking part in the course.

    If finding even a few scientific business professionals is a challenge, students can also peer-lead the in-person workshop, as was the case at Harvard University. Graduate students from the Harvard Graduate Business Club recruited an industry professional and researched relevant companies. “The student leaders chose five companies ahead of time, and each small group facilitator took the lead on one company, allowing them to do some in-depth research the day before the program. As a result, each of the five groups was able to develop a concise presentation with targeted recommendations for their chosen company,” said Laura Stark, director of career advising and programming for master’s and Ph.D. students at Harvard.

    Positive Response Replicated

    Response from participants at all institutions was positive. Evaluation data show that using this course in a “flipped classroom” learning model allowed participants the opportunity to efficiently gain business acumen, learn about a new career field, get hands-on experience, and network with professionals and alumni in the career field.


    The course materials are hosted at iBiology, an online educational platform, as a free, self-paced, certificate-granting course. This fully online format offers an option to complete web-based activities and assessments with the option to earn a certificate of completion. The train-the-trainer packets are hosted on the UCSF OCPD website. The course was funded by a Career Guidance Training Grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and NIH.

    Thi NguyenThi Nguyen serves as associate dean for graduate career and professional development at Washington University in St. Louis, where she develops and implements programs that promote career readiness. She previously served as a program director for the UCSF Office of Career and Professional Development. Nguyen is passionate about creating a supportive and inclusive environment for Ph.D. students with diverse identities; has experience providing career advice for graduate students at a national level; and has been featured on the Science Careers online career forum, VersatilePhD Ask Me Anything, and Reddit Ask Me Anything as part of the UCSF Office of Career and Professional Development team. She has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the UT Southwestern Medical Center. Nguyen can be reached at

    Natalie LundsteenNatalie Lundsteen is assistant dean for career and professional development at the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, where she oversees career resources and programs for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. Lundsteen’s research interests are in workplace learning and the development of professional expertise. She is a regular Ph.D. career advice contributor to Inside Higher Ed’s “Carpe Careers” blog, president-elect of the Graduate Career Consortium, and co-author of ReSearch: A Career Guide for Scientists, published by Academic Press. Lundsteen has a Ph.D. in education from Oxford University. She can be reached at