Georgetown University Academy for Transferable Management Skills Provides Project Management Tools

In the pursuit of scientific knowledge, some skills essential to managing projects are overlooked by graduate students and postdoctoral fellows as they pursue academic success. However, these project management skills can be highly prized by future employers, either public or private institutions.

To address this sometimes lacking skillset, Georgetown University Biomedical Graduate Education launched a pilot program to teach these vital tools to postdoctoral fellows. Through the Office of Postdoctoral Development and Training Grant Support, the university launched the Academy for Transferable Management Skills (ATMS) with pilot funding from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. The ATMS curriculum was put together by experienced industry professionals in order to benefit future generations of biomedical trainees.

Dr. Caleb McKinney, an assistant professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, and assistant dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Training & Development for Biomedical Graduate Education, explained that the program is not mean to pull people from their academic track. Instead, McKinney said the program will teach and encourage the use of project management skills for ongoing and future research projects. McKinney said they are trying to augment the academic training that Ph.D. students and Postdocs receive with skills that are in demand in the workforce. Project management skills include communication, team and time management, technical writing, methodologies, risk management, budget management, research skills, and more.

Many of the skills in the program are already things that some of the trainees have been using without really knowing they are considered project management tools, McKinney said. They have often developed these skills through trial and error. ATMS provides the students and postdocs with better ways and strategies to remain organized and stay within the scope of a project. The coursework not only hones those skills but provides the participants with related vernacular that can be used when applying for jobs or grants.

“When they prepare applications for jobs and interviews, they need that vernacular to explain how that translates and it translates across industries,” McKinney said. “Our trainees are a pipeline to the industry workforce and this is setting a new paradigm in training to reinforce the pipeline for various kinds of careers.”

The ATMS coursework is online and self-guided across five different modules. Participants were able to discuss techniques through workshops, small group discussions, and Slack’s online communication platform.

Dr. Elizabeth Salm, Associate Director of Postdoctoral Development and Training Grant Support in the Biomedical Graduate Education program at Georgetown University, noted that the course does not turn the students into “full-blown” project managers, but does provide them with skills that will help them to better manage their projects.

Dr. Manasa Suresh, a microbiology postdoctoral researcher at Georgetown University, praised the skills learned from the program. In a recent roundtable conducted by the university, Suresh said those kinds of skills were something she never considered acquiring due to her focus on laboratory work and research. But, the skills were something she felt would be important for the future of her career.

“Whether I continue to stay in academia or move to industry or any other career option out there, I think I’ve started to include project management in my routine already and I want to keep that going. It helps me be more efficient and therefore able to handle more things at a time or in parallel,” Suresh said, “Even recently, we were finishing a grant application in the lab, and there was one document about if we get the grant, what are the milestones, what do we do in the first year, what in the second year, and so on. When I saw that document, the first thing that came to my mind was I have the project management training!”

With about half of Ph.D. students ending up in the private sector, McKinney said it was important for the university to establish this program in order to keep up with the workforce footprint. Current research suggests that despite the key academic knowledge the students learned in their programs, they were lacking some of the necessary skills that provide a pathway to a successful career in the private sector.

“This moves beyond training for canonical careers in academic settings, and prepares them to use their skills in a variety of contexts,” McKinney said.

Referencing the course’s risk management module, Amanda Schneeweis, a fifth-year Pharmacology and Physiology student in Georgetown’s Biomedical Graduate Education program, said she has been changed as the coursework has taught her to be more honest with herself regarding her research and the inherent risks.

“I’ve just realized it’s worth it to take a little more time to optimize something, to make sure a reagent works as it should, or something else because it can be such a disaster in the long run if you don’t take the time to do it in the beginning,” Schneeweis said.

McKinney said the university will follow the first cohort of trainees to see how the skills taught in the course have been used in professional settings. His hope is that the real-world data they can gain from following these trainees will be useful in improving the ATMS curriculum, as well as attracting the attention of potential industry partners who could provide professional mentorships, sponsorships, or hold a seminar for the students.

“Project management skills are applicable across a number of industries and we’re hoping this program will be helpful to the students and their future employers,” Salm said.

The following two tabs change content below.
Alex Keown is a freelance journalist who writes about a variety of subjects including the pharma, biotech, and life science industries. Prior to freelancing, Alex has served as a staff writer and editor for several publications.