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With doctorate in hand,
graduates find good jobs
November 16, 1998
When the eyes of the nation were focused on the recent voyage of the space shuttle Discovery, Aidan Browne's attention was elsewhere in time and space.
Browne, a senior design engineer at Hamilton Standard Space Systems International, is developing life support systems for the International Space Station. "There's a lot of design and building that happens behind the scenes a long time before the project comes into the public eye," says Browne, whose team is designing oxygen generation and water processing assemblies for the space station's Node 3, the habitat module, which will not be launched until 2002.
Browne graduated from UConn with a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering in May. His adviser was Robert Northrop, a professor of electrical engineering. At Hamilton Standard, Browne is working at the cutting edge of his field. "To me it's the ultimate in engineering," he says, "keeping somebody alive in space vacuum."
He says the job is everything he was looking for. Yet he did not find it as a result of an intensive job search. While he was a teaching assistant in the School of Engineering, working with Professor John Enderle on senior design projects involving Hamilton Standard, his mentors at the company were impressed with his skills and qualifications and invited him to join their team.
Not all Ph.D.s step straight into a permanent job, however. Many, especially in the sciences, must first hold one or more post-doctoral positions. Jonas Winchell, who earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1997, says he discovered that in order to be competitive for job openings in the pharmaceutical or biotechnology industry, he would need to do at least one post-doc.
Winchell now holds a post-doc at the prestigious Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, a joint appointment with Harvard Medical School. "My UConn education made me competitive for post-docs in academia," he says.
Although the job market for Ph.D.s may not be as rosy as it once was, the former graduate students interviewed for this story found not only that jobs were available but that they had some choice.
Luck also plays a part, not least because the area of expertise of a Ph.D. is so specialized.
Salvatore Frasca, who holds a doctorate in pathobiology from UConn, will take up a tenure-track faculty position at UConn in January.
"When you graduate you are dealt a certain hand by the economy and by the turnover of a limited number of spots," says Frasca. "I was fortunate that when the music stopped, there was a spot open here."
But many successful Ph.D.s agree that the most important factor in landing a good job is the quality of the education and the skills developed while obtaining a doctorate.
"Graduate education is very much a scholar's apprentice kind of relationship," says James Henkel, associate vice provost and associate dean of the graduate school. "The true education comes between the mentor and the student - that is the crux of graduate education, particularly of doctoral education."
Jeanette Whitton, an assistant professor of botany at the University of British Columbia, earned her Ph.D. from UConn in 1994. She credits the "really collegial atmosphere" in UConn's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. "Having access to faculty members really gave me training in how to be an academic," she says.
Felix Coe, who graduated with a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology in 1994 and is now an assistant professor at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, Tenn., also testifies to the close relationship graduate students have with faculty in the department. "All the students know faculty members on a one-to-one basis," he says. "You learn by interaction."
Coe, who grew up in Nicaragua, says that as an international student from a Third World country he initially felt a little intimidated. "The environment at UConn helps students be very assertive," he says.
In particular, Coe pays tribute to his adviser, department head Gregory Anderson. "Greg has been not just a mentor, a good scientist, but also like a father figure to me," he says. "He has been a source of inspiration throughout my career." After earning his Ph.D., Coe stayed on as a post-docoral fellow with Anderson for two years before moving to Tennessee.
In many cases, the adviser is critical in selecting and shaping a student's dissertation topic. Frasca, whose dissertation examined a parasite that causes encephalitis in aquacultured salmon, says he "didn't come to UConn with that on the docket. ... The topic was thrown in my lap by my adviser, Herb van Kruinigen. He did the initial work, found the organism, and then he needed someone to do the research."
Selection of the topic had a decisive impact when Frasca was looking for a job. His area of expertise nicely complemented those of other faculty members in the department.
The adviser also plays an important role in providing graduate students with opportunities to teach and attend professional conferences. "The department gave me a variety of courses to teach over the years," says Noah Barsky, who graduated with a Ph.D. in accounting in May and is now teaching at VillaNovember University. He also was involved with faculty members at UConn in helping redesign the accounting curriculum, experience that has proved valuable in his new job.
"Teaching goes beyond the simple act of standing in front of the classroom," he says. "It's really important to shape a curriculum."
Whether helping launch an academic career, or finding a job in industry or government, a graduate student's adviser can be pivotal.
It was a mix of solid academic training and some help from his adviser that helped land Carll Ladd his job. Ladd, who earned his Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology in 1990, "was looking to do something a little different rather than go into industry or an academic position" but wasn't too sure of the opportunities available. His adviser, Professor Linda Strausbaugh, happened to have a phone conversation with Dr. Henry Lee of the Connecticut Forensic Laboratory, and "It came up that Dr. Lee was looking for someone to head the DNA section in his lab. He asked if she knew anybody interested in the legal process who could assist in prosecution and defense in trial issues." Ladd interviewed for the job and now heads an 11-person team as supervisor of forensic biology for the state lab.
Ladd says his doctorate at UConn was excellent training for the post. "As a graduate student, I learned to critically evaluate scientific data. That's not unusual at a research university, but it's done very effectively at UConn," he says. "The stakes are obviously very high in anything that's criminal. You get one shot. UConn was just a very good training process."
And although his background is in science rather than law, Ladd says he learned a lot about presenting a case during his years as a doctoral student. "The graduate program was the first place a lot of us were forced to do significant public speaking - giving seminars, presenting a thesis proposal, teaching," he says. "That's really what court is all about, effectively communicating your findings to an audience, and UConn did an effective job of preparing us."
Associate Dean Henkel says "finding doctoral level jobs tends to be done very much through the professional networks that advisers are in." He sees it as part of the adviser's mentoring role. "Those students with the best positions, who are the most successful and have the best remembrances of the University, are those that had the best mentoring experience."
Ladd has repaid his adviser's role in kind. When vacancies came up, he alerted students in his former department at UConn. There are now three molecular and cell biology Ph.D.s working at the lab.