This installment of One Branch Ahead comes courtesy of Alycia Mosley Austin, the Director of Graduate Recruitment and Diversity Initiatives and Executive Coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program at the University of Rhode Island. Here, Alycia shares the story of her path from the neuroscience PhD program at UCSD to her current role in university administration, and shares advice for others looking to make a similar transition. Alycia was particularly active in activities outside of the lab and serves as an excellent model for grad students looking to get involved in their communities.
What did you study in your PhD program?
My research was in developmental neurobiology of the mammalian cortex. I started out studying the effects of genes that regulate arealization of the cortex on interneuron migration, but then I switched labs and advisors after my fourth year (more on that later). My dissertation focused on genomic variations in neural progenitor cells of embryonic cortex.
When you first started the program, did you know what you wanted to do after grad school?
From the beginning I was skeptical that the lifestyle of a tenure-track professor would be something that I would enjoy, but I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do. After finishing an undergraduate degree in neuroscience, I spent two years as a research assistant in a genetics lab, which was a great experience. Since I knew that I enjoyed doing research I thought about a career in biotech, but I tried to read as much as I could about non-traditional careers to get a sense of what other options were out there.
How did your career plans or goals change by the time you were finishing your PhD?
During my second year of graduate school I started volunteering on a few committees, both for my program and the university as a whole. Once I got a better sense of how universities function I started to realize that I was interested in a career in university administration. Most professors that I knew complained about university service commitments because they are a distraction from research, but I found that I actually enjoyed that type of work. The next several years were spent trying to figure out how to turn my interests in science, diversity, and graduate education into a career.
Were you involved in any organizations or activities while in grad school that helped lead you to where you are now?
I was perhaps a little too involved with campus organizations during graduate school, which is related to the fact that my original advisor and I did not make a good match. I didn’t feel supported and my research was not progressing, so I sought opportunities away from research where I could feel competent, that my contributions were valuable, and that were enjoyable. Many of these activities were similar to the types of service that I did as an undergraduate, such as Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) and Brain Awareness Week, so in a way I continued on the path I’d started before starting graduate school.
This list doesn’t include everything I did, but this it will give you an idea of the ways in which I was involved as a graduate student outside of the lab. I served on committees related to recruiting a diverse pool of graduate students. I was a founding member, vice president, and then president of Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (GradWiSE). For two summers I was a mentor in a program that provided underrepresented, undergraduate science students with an intensive summer research experience in preparation for graduate school. I participated in both neuroscience and genetics science outreach programs in public schools and at the local science museum.
All of these experiences helped me to develop a unique set of skills, including the ability to work on collaborative projects with every possible campus constituent from students and faculty in other departments to senior staff and administrators.
I should also note that once I switched labs I had two years to finish a PhD with a brand new project. At that point I put most, if not all, of the extracurricular stuff on hold.
What do you do now?
Since finishing my PhD in 2010, I have been the Director of Graduate Recruitment and Diversity Initiatives at a public university in New England. Starting in 2011 I took on the additional role of Executive Coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program. I have an Adjunct Assistant Professor appointment in Biological Sciences, and I am a member of the Graduate Faculty. This means I can serve on master’s and doctoral committees, but I don’t have any teaching or research responsibilities.
Of the skills you developed as a grad student, which are most useful to you in your current position? Which are you happy to leave behind?
The most important skill is one that should be common among all graduate students, which is analytical thinking. What I do now bears little outside resemblance to what I did at the bench, but my process then and now involves identifying a problem, doing background research, proposing solutions, and then evaluating them. As a PhD student you are often tasked with becoming an instant expert, so the ability to quickly immerse yourself in a topic and then explain it in someone else has been extremely helpful. I have presented my dissertation research to both senior researchers in the field and a class of middle school children, and that experience in knowing how to communicate with a variety of audiences gets put to use almost daily.
The only skills I am happy to leave behind are those directly involved with transgenic mice. I really do not miss the vivarium.
Are there any skills/tools/habits that you need in your field but didn’t develop during your grad school training?
How to manage employees. The working life of a graduate student can be very solitary. Even though you are part of a research group, ultimately you are the only one responsible and accountable for your project. In my current position I have a couple of graduate student assistants that work for me, and as someone used to working autonomously it has not been easy to learn how to delegate tasks. I also had to learn how to recognize and develop skills in others, how to give feedback, and how to keep others on a deadline.
What’s a typical day for you like now?
Unless I am traveling for a conference or attending the rare evening event, my hours are from 8:30am to 4:30pm. As I mentioned earlier, the faculty lifestyle didn’t appeal to me because it seemed like all of my mentors had a work-life balance that required more sacrifice than I was willing to put up with. In my current position I get home at 5pm, leaving me time to play with my one-year-old son until he goes to bed, when my husband and I get to just hang out. This ability to have clear boundaries between my work time and my family time was a significant factor in deciding not to do the tenure-track, research university career path.
One of the things about my job that I enjoy is that every day is different. I manage all aspects of a brand new neuroscience graduate program (our second cohort will start in the fall), so that involves planning, curriculum development, recruitment, admissions, advising, event planning, and managing the budget. I even teach a few lectures in the introductory neuroscience course. There are many meetings with faculty, as well as constant communication with current and prospective students.
The diversity recruitment side of my job also involves a lot of meetings, including a variety of university committees where I represent the Graduate School. I travel to conferences and other universities to recruit students, and I speak to groups of undergraduates on my own campus to encourage them to consider graduate school.
What’s the best thing about your job? Do you miss anything about bench work?
The absolute best thing about my job is when I get feedback from students that I helped them in their education or their career. Sometimes it was because they came to me for advice or mentoring, or I helped them to find funding for graduate school, or I simply made an impact by being visible on campus. Many students have never seen a young, African American woman who has a PhD in a STEM field, so to have students from underrepresented groups tell me that seeing someone like me give a talk gave them the confidence to pursue science is the best gift in the world.
I also love that I get to remain engaged in the field of neuroscience, but on my terms. One of the reasons why I was not enthusiastic about the typical academic career track is that there is a tendency to get more and more entrenched in your sub-discipline, with minimal interaction with people doing research that is unrelated to your own. With this job, through developing a diverse curriculum and advising students with a variety of interests, I always have the chance to take a broad view of the field.
Where do you see yourself going from here?
For the first time in my life I do not have a plan for what is next, but I know that I am passionate about science education in general and graduate education specifically, so I am sure that I will stay in academia on the non-faculty side of the house.
Any words of wisdom for current grad students who might be interested in making a transition like yours?
Most graduate students don’t have a good sense of what the non-professors in academia actually do; it wasn’t until I was on a university-wide committee that I knew what a provost does, for example. Any grad student interested in university administration should get to know these people, either through informational interviews, or by volunteering. This should be an easy task since they are already on your campus! One way to get started is to be a senator for your Graduate Student Association, but there are always committees looking for student representation that don’t require you hold such a position. It is also important to develop soft skills, since politics and diplomacy are facts of life when it comes to academic administration. You must know how to listen, how to negotiate, and how to say no without making enemies. Effective communication is key.