BME Grads Navigating Uncharted Territory
Under typical circumstances, the transition from college to career can be stressful, fraught with anxiety and uncertainty. For students undergoing that rite of passage now, in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, it can particularly daunting. The same goes for the people charged with shepherding these graduates through the transition from school to career, because there is no guidebook, no established protocol to follow, because nothing like this has ever happened.
“My greatest concern right now is placing graduating seniors,” says Brenda Morris, corporate relations manager in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) at Georgia Tech and Emory University. “Because this is unlike anything that we’ve experienced before. There isn’t really an institutional kind of plan for something like this. We thought it would take a grassroots effort.”
So Morris, whose focus is on promoting opportunities for undergraduates, and her fellow BME corporate relations manager, Ashley James, whose focus is on graduate students, have partnered to try and create a sense of normalcy for students thinking about the next steps in their lives, whether that means beginning a career, or in the case of undergrads, pursuing an advanced degree.
“Given our situation, in which students had to leave campus abruptly and move to distance learning, we’re trying to figure out how to keep students motivated for their job search, or generate excitement over what their next wave of training might be after Georgia Tech,” says James.
The student populations Morris and James work with are, in some ways, very different. Generally, graduating Ph.D. students have reached the end of the line in their education, and their primary goal is finding work, whereas graduating seniors are considering whether or not to continue their education, or to enter the workforce. However, both groups can benefit from the mentorship of others, who have already earned their degrees and begun their careers, so that has been a central theme in the services Morris and James are providing in an age of social distancing.
But they had to act fast. The week before spring break, when students were learning that they wouldn’t be coming back to campus, but taking courses online after the break, Morris sent an email to BME seniors. “I asked them who would like an alumni mentor,” she says. “And I put a similar request out on LinkedIn, a blanket request asking BME alumni to volunteer to mentor. As it turned out, we had 17 students respond, and 17 mentors. What are the odds?”
Amazingly, each student was matched with a mentor from a similar area of interest. James was doing the same thing with graduating Ph.D. students, linking them with volunteer mentors. Equally amazing was how eager some alumni were to pitch in, like Walt Baxter, who was one of the first to volunteer, something he’s grown used to.
“I’ve enjoyed being a mentor through Georgia Tech for years,” said Baxter, senior principal scientist at Medtronic, who earned his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech and his Ph.D. at the University of California-San Diego. “Since COVID-19 is altering lives in so many ways, the call to action through social media seemed like a great way to ramp up support for those students who are graduating and looking for opportunities after they get out.”
Baxter, a former member of the BME Advisory Board, adds, “I benefited from so many fantastic mentors when I was a student at Tech and hope to help out during these uniquely difficult times for graduating seniors.” Like his mentee, BME grad Disha Viswani.
She acknowledges the difficult times but adds that Baxter has introduced her to his industry network, “and he has given me great advice, which has helped me grow my confidence, expand my connections, and explore more opportunities. Participating in this program has been an even better experience than I was hoping for, and I hope that someday I'll be in a position to help someone out in a similar manner.”
Rick Barnett, founder and president of Rep-Lite (a staffing agency for medical device manufacturers) isn’t a BME alumni, either. But he stepped up to serve as a mentor, he says, “because it is my belief that its critically important to help less tenured people. Investing in people is something that all of us should carry as a responsibility.”
Barnett takes the responsibility seriously as he mentors BME grad Sam Youngblood, who says, “Rick is able to give me encouragement that, even in uncertain times, there is plenty of hope to start a bright and prosperous career.” Youngblood adds that the mentorship opportunity at this stage gives him a practical and mental advantage during a unique point in time.
His fellow BME grad, Kate Genty, was looking for the same kind of thing, and found it in her mentor, Brad Miller, who sits on the BME Board of Advisors. She was thrilled to be advised by someone who’d gone to medical school, but who has taken a non-traditional career route. Following his graduation, Miller went straight to medical school (Weill Cornell Medicine), but advised Genty to think about a different route.
“[Graduating students] should be asking whether they’ve had the right experiences to know that medicine is the choice they want to make,” says Miller, who has gravitated toward industry, and now advises precision medicine companies, and has spent 12 years consulting large vendors, payers, CMS, and health systems, also holding executive roles in early stage start-ups. “It helps to get that perspective from someone who’s been there and done that, and chosen an alternative career in medicine and healthcare as well.”
Even now, he says; especially now. And Genty says she’s gained a lot from Miller in the process. She plans to take two years between graduation and entering med school.
“I’m surrounded by so many driven, motivated people who know what they want, which is awesome, but makes this process a little more stressful and sometimes it’s hard to keep a bigger perspective on things,” she says. “But because I have two years between undergrad and med school, I’ve been thinking that I want to pursue something unrelated to medicine or my degree. Brad has helped me see a different perspective. He encouraged me to do something out of the box that I enjoy first. Overall, very helpful and reassuring.”
Part of the mentoring process, James points out, is helping prepare students – and this works for grad students and undergrads – for finding work in a world now relying more than ever on virtual communication, face to face over long distances.
“Helping them with virtual interview skills, learning how to dress professionally, easing the anxiety of being interviewed on screen, knowing the background of their interviewers, making sure who ahead of time is going to be on the call – these are all important in the current climate,” says James, who provides professional development for grad students through a course called BMED 7005.
She plans to provide summer workshops for the Master of Biomedical Innovation and Development (MBID) program, which holds its graduation in August. And she stresses the importance of keeping students motivated to keep doing research, and utilizes the BMED course to illustrate, “a new way to communicate to lay audiences about their research, to push research through new virtual streams. Students are creating videos they can post on social media, learning how to break down their research so that the average person can understand it.”
And when James refers to the “new normal,” she isn’t just referencing the global pandemic. Students already were learning the importance of communicating online – the virtual age preceded the quarantine age, so these are communication skills that will last beyond today and be useful in whatever comes next. “Of course, the current situation has pushed us even more in that direction,” she says.
For the students Morris has been working with, just making a connection with experienced people has provided a welcome sense of stability.
“The experience has been really valuable, especially during unprecedented times, because it was such a positive learning opportunity,” says BME grad Zoe Stover. “It was nice to speak with someone who understands what it’s like to be in my place.”
That would be her mentor, Isha Bhatia, an incoming associate at EY-Parthenon (strategy consultancy) and a 2019 BME graduate, whose own transition experience is still pretty fresh, but says, “the job search is more stressful for the current graduating class. Offers are being rescinded, companies are putting hiring freezes in place, and internship programs are being canceled. I think now it’s extremely important for alumni to support Georgia Tech students. We need to connect them with the right opportunities and suggest how to better position themselves for the future by sharing our experiences.”
Also, and perhaps equally important, a mentor with a steady guiding hand can make all the difference in a new graduate’s ability to navigate uncharted territory. A good mentor can provide an all-important sense of perspective. Miller, the BME advisory board member, is taking this part of the gig very seriously right now.
“The current situation creates a lot of stress, uncertainty and anxiety,” he says. “Opportunities dry up, schools are closing, and so forth. I think that having mentors or advisors can help bring that stress down. If you’re in your early 20s, you’ve got a long career ahead of you, and global pandemics have a way of narrowing your vision and line of sight.”
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- Created By:Jerry Grillo
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