Bridging the Leadership Gap: Internships As Catalysts for Post-graduate Success

Gennifer Meldrum, BRITE intern placed at Bioversity International in Rome

“My experience as a BRITE intern at Bioversity International was a pivotal moment in my career.” — Gennifer Meldrum

In my last post I wrote about a major gap in graduate education: the lack of training to equip PhD graduates in the sciences for success in careers outside academia. This is a major failing, since only about 20% of graduates land tenure-track positions at universities.

A partial solution is to provide graduate students with short internships in corporations, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations. This is what we have been doing through UBC’s Biodiversity Internship program, or BRITE. Such internships provide students with real-world experience solving problems in “partner” organizations, offering them an invaluable leadership opportunity. Here’s a short reflection on my experience creating and running BRITE.

How We Did It

Great experiences don’t just happen, of course. They must be carefully crafted. This dawned on me when our funding came in, and I suddenly had the responsibility of delivering on my promise. Where to start? What procedures to put in place?

I started by consulting an existing internship program at UBC (the Bridge program), and thinking through how our process ought to differ from that, given our context. Then we set forth, with procedures to continually revisit guidance and policies. After the first year, we identified four essential criteria for picking successful pairings (none of which will come as a surprise), and we still use them now:

  1. Anticipated contribution of the opportunity to the student’s career
  2. (Our perceived) importance of the project, to the partners and in general
  3. Fit of student with project; ability of the student to do as hoped
  4. Expected quality of internship experience based on the arrangement (e.g., work from office vs. telecommute) and partner agency/supervisor (here drawing upon past intern reports to judge partners)
  5. Financial considerations (including matching funds from partners, but high scores also if a project depends critically on BRITE funding; low scores if no matching funds or if BRITE funding is only helpful and not necessary).

To find good matches, we ask the students and internship hosts to prepare an application that speaks explicitly to all these criteria, and we engage them in a back-and-forth to help them through the process.

What We Learned

Was it working? Reports from both interns and host organizations documented that it was (see quotes below), buoying our commitment to the program. Sally Otto, director of the Biodiversity Research Centre and PI of the NSERC training grant, was a key champion. Key additions and revisions included a clear explanation of the selection process, and a list of past interns, their host organizations and projects.

Future Directions

Alas, all good things come to an end. The grant was a one-time opportunity, and the end is nigh. Would the internship program dry up, with all our learning and social capital seeping away?

No. Sally Otto won the MacArthur “Genius Grant”, and in a huge vote of confidence and inspiring generosity, she contributed $100,000 to jump-start a $1 million endowment effort to keep BRITE running in perpetuity. We need a lot more help to make this dream a reality, but at least we’re on our way. If you want to contribute to this effort, please visit ‘Biodiversity Internship Fund: Help our students help the Earth’.

Sally Otto, director of the Biodiversity Research Centre at UBC and champion of the BRITE internship program
Sally Otto, director of the Biodiversity Research Centre at UBC and champion of the BRITE internship program

So, how do you simultaneously train young scientists for a diverse set of non-academic careers, and insert much-needed science into policy and practice? We don’t have all the answers, but we feel like now we have one. Here are a few reflections shared by interns and partner organizations:

  • “The BRITE internship was extremely successful for me…I got a job with the organization I interned with! For many non-profits, especially in a poor economy, they don’t have the money to hire interns. And as a student I certainly couldn’t afford to work there for free. This internship showed them the value of having an academic work with them (I was the only person with a PhD working there), and supported me while doing that.” — Kerrie O’Donnell, placed at Ecotrust Canada.
  • “The interns that CPAWS-BC had the opportunity to work with through the BRITE program added immeasurable capacity and insights to our conservation work. Having access to innovative thinkers who could tackle complex policy and research issues is invaluable to a non-profit conservation organization and we look forward to working with BRITE scholars in the years to come.” – Nicola Hill, Executive Director, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, BC Chapter
  • “My BRITE internships have been a wonderful bridge between where I am as a student and where I want to be as a professional.” — Manon Picard, placed at CPAWS-BC and the Secretariat of the CBD.
  • “We were extremely happy with the way this internship turned out…. Having Jenn be part of our team for 6 weeks was a huge benefit to our organization, in the work she did, in the connections she helped us forge with scientists and other organizations and in the support she provided other staff. It was also a real pleasure to work with her. Our only regret is that she wasn’t with us longer.”– Georgia Strait Alliance

Kai Chan, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a Canada Research Chair (tier 2) and associate professor in the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at University of British Columbia. Read more at his lab’s blogs and follow him on Twitter.


Bridging the Leadership Gap: Investing in Graduate Training

As a BRITE intern, Jenn Burt  helped the Georgia Strait Alliance build relationships with scientists

As a BRITE intern, Jenn Burt helped the Georgia Strait Alliance build relationships with scientists

At the center of graduate education is a dirty little secret, that’s actually no secret: Most graduate education in science (natural and social) leaves graduates woefully unequipped to thrive in the careers they pursue.

I’m not writing to opine why, but rather to tell you a bit about what I’ve learned about fostering post-graduate leadership while initiating a program at University of British Columbia (UBC). This Biodiversity internship program, or BRITE fills a major gap in graduate education, while also inserting crucial science into policy and practice. Of all that I’ve done at UBC, it’s probably my most important contribution.

Pressing issues in environment and sustainability require the expertise of leaders well trained in science. Climate change, biodiversity loss, land-use change, food security, ecosystem-service degradation, marine pollution, and over-harvesting are just a few of the challenges that humanity faces in the 21st century. There are, of course, plenty of graduate students in science, but current programs inevitably lack the real-world and leadership training and experiences that would enable them to succeed and lead in non-academic organizations.

But only a small fraction of PhDs — perhaps 20%, based on recent statistics — will land tenure-track positions at universities. The others — the 80% — go elsewhere. In so doing, they are not failing us, rather we are failing them by insufficiently equipping them for success outside academia.

Without appropriate training and experience, science graduate students are hampered from identifying and realizing appropriate opportunities. They also miss critical experiences that would enhance their future and current work — even if that future work would be in a different organization or sector. Similarly, the science needs of partner organizations go unfilled, increasing the gap between science and practice/policy, to the detriment of both.

In my next post, I’ll write about how I developed the BRITE internship program as a partial solution to bridging this gap. What’s been your experience working on this challenge? What approaches do you find most promising? Leave a comment.

Kai Chan, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a Canada Research Chair (tier 2) and associate professor in the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at University of British Columbia. Read more at his lab’s blogs and follow him on Twitter.

Skirting the “valley of death”: 2 new initiatives


Ever since I started the life-altering Leopold Leadership training with twenty over-achieving new friends, I’ve been keenly aware of one thing: the vast majority of science for sustainability is doomed to be relegated to the dusty virtual shelves of the primary literature and—for a select few—short-lived local applications.

It’s not because the researchers aren’t smart, or the ideas aren’t good. Even brilliant people with super ideas fall into the same traps.

The arcane fate prevails because the vast majority of this sustainability-oriented research is rooted in inspirations from the academic literature and/or a deeply naïve theory of change. If I had a nickel for every student or colleague’s idea for revolutionizing the use of science that began with a peer-reviewed journal article and ended with a well-crafted press release, I’d be rich. The sad truth is, the press release is not only the end of the theory of change, it’s usually also effectively the end of the engagement effort and any ripples of change it causes.

The Leopold Leadership Program is an effort to inoculate a handful of folks against these dusty fates. But of course we’re not immune: I’ve caught myself and other Leopold fellows falling into the same habits. I’ve tried to introduce such thinking much earlier in scientists’ careers, forcing my students to state their theory of change and their strategy for achieving it, and building bridges to appropriate folks in NGOs, government agencies, and the private sector who can help them along the way.

This is a hard nut to break, because societal change is hard. Several forces must align, and often the key actors are spread across multiple institutions. If only there were a program to help align these forces, where powerful organizations work with academics to identify areas of needed science and pave the way to ensuring that this science gets used by the folks who can use it effectively.

By chance, the past year has brought two emerging programs to meet this need: Science for Nature and People (SNAP), a joint initiative of The Nature Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis; and the Luc Hoffman Institute (LHI), an initiative of WWF International (directed by another member of my Leopold cohort, Joshua Tewksbury). In a new blog postPeter Kareiva eloquently describes the need for SNAP, and how SNAP will deliver what’s needed.

Nothing will make societal change easy. But SNAP and LHI are exciting new initiatives that promise to make it much easier.

Kai Chan, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a Canada Research Chair (tier 2) and associate professor in the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at University of British Columbia. Read more at his lab’s blogs and follow him on Twitter.

Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse: Establishing the Rules of the Game

Hello everyone,

On Sept. 27th Andy Hoffman shared on the Leopold listserv an article that he wrote stemming from ideas generated at the Leopold Fellows workshop in Palo Alto several years ago.
Michigan Journal of Sustainability: Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse: Establishing the Rules of the Game
I think this article strikes at the very core of what we are hopefully “about” as science communicators, having gone through the Leopold training. As such, I hope this article sparks some discussion among us, and I thought I would try to get the balling roll with one observation.

I very much appreciate the 12 Rules of Engagement cited in the article, and Rule #2 caught my eye in particular: “Recognize the rules of academia. An academic scientist can best enter the public debate from the security of tenure. Junior faculty members must remain aware that the academic model is an apprenticeship model, and young scientists must earn their place within the academic community through tenure before engaging in public discourse. The route to tenure is still based on academic scholarship, not public engagement. While one may choose to make brief forays into the public debate before tenure, public engagement should increase as one’s career advances.”

I think this is closely related to a special session that Leopold fellows put together for the 2012 AAAS on The Beauty of Benefits of Escaping the Ivory Tower (see this Leopold 3.0 post). In that session we talked about confronting and removing institutional barriers to public engagement within academe…..

Can we in fact engender change within our universities? Can we in fact reinvent how beans are counted? Is it possible for institutions to recognize outreach (including public and political discourse) as a form of scholarship, scholarship which for junior faculty can use in a small way toward tenure? What are appropriate levels of engagement activity for junior faculty (recognizing of course that not one size fits all and that institutional cultures are different)?

Scholarly organizations are at least beginning to recognize such discourse (e.g., the American Geophysical Union, the Association of American Geographers, etc.).

Balancing publishing and mentorship

As reviewers, we sometimes get papers that don’t seem up to the standard of a particular colleague. We wonder how such a poorly written or incompletely thought-out paper could come from such a strong group.

Why do these papers get submitted? Our first assumption is usually that the advisor was skirting their responsibility of ensuring that submitted work is ready. We usually have harsh words in those cases. But we must remember that as Professors, we have two responsibilities: one is to produce science; the second is to produce scientists. The latter may be the more important—our highest responsibility is as mentor and trainer and while single papers easily disappear into the morass, the scientists we train create a living legacy.

I’m sure almost all of us have had to deal with manuscripts where we knew it would be much easier to take the data and just write the paper ourselves, rather than try to coax a student’s work into a polished form. But doing that would undermine them; they need to learn how to write good papers, how to manage the process, and how to gauge when a paper is ready to submit.

Oxford University Press

In Writing Science, I pointed out that “doing science is inherently an act of both confidence and humility” and that getting the balance between them “is one of the greatest challenges all developing scientists face.” Learning that balance involves both over-shoots and under-shoots. For a student to become a fully fledged professional and peer (as they should), they need to establish ability and confidence, and to develop an independent identity. They need room to grow and to become a peer.

Jay Gulledge, a former student and good friend, told me that one of the most important events in his graduate career came while we were driving up the “Haul Road” from Fairbanks, Alaska to our field site in the arctic tundra at Toolik Lake. We spent hours discussing and arguing his experimental design. Finally I said, “OK, do it your way.” I didn’t relent because I was worn out or trying to make Jay feel good, but because he had finally swayed me with his arguments—and he knew it. He described that moment as more important than passing his qualifying exam—it was the real acknowledgement that he had become a peer and a colleague, no longer just a student.

But for many students (including me) making that transition from student to colleague can be challenging. Most students go through the phase I call “academic adolescence” where we struggle intellectually and often emotionally with the challenges of becoming a professional, adult scientist. As with real adolescence, this phase sometimes involves a measure of rebelliousness and overreach: “I’m sure this is good enough!”

At that point, it may become impossible for an advisor to push further—you may know that the paper isn’t ready, but the student may be unwilling to make the suggested changes. A good first step to addressing this conflict is to get someone in-house to review the paper—someone experienced that they respect (a postdoc, committee member, or a colleague). But some situations cannot be easily finessed, leaving two imperfect options. Option 1 would be to say “go ahead—submit it, but I won’t be a co-author.” But that is a blow to the student, essentially disowning them and saying you care more about your reputation with reviewers than about your student. That’s harsh.

Option 2 is to say, “I don’t think it’s ready, but if you are so sure, see what someone else thinks—submit it.” Reviewers may be annoyed at you for letting the paper go out, but given a choice between annoying a reviewer and damaging a student, support your student, every time.

Sometimes we need to recognize that the message a student needs is one they can’t hear from us now, but they may be able to hear from someone else. Hopefully, external review would open their mind to being able to hear what you had been saying. Even if it doesn’t though, it changes your relationship with them; where you may have been the “obstacle” in getting this wonderful work published, you are now the ally in helping solve the external problem—how to address the reviews and the editor.

As reviewers and editors, we need to remember and be sensitive to these dynamics as well. It’s possible that someone submitted that poorly written paper without final approval from the professor, although that is becoming more difficult as journals require all authors to approve submission. It’s possible that the advisor was negligent in letting an unready paper go out. But it’s also possible that the advisor was being fully responsible in their role as mentor, but had reached the end of their rope.

Originally posted to SchimelWritingScience as “Why strong labs sometimes submit weak papers”

Josh Schimel, a Leopold Leadership Fellow, is Chair of the Environmental Studies Program and a Professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.