I became active in student issues early on in my Ph.D. student days when I volunteered to be one of the two student representatives at departmental faculty meetings. Seeing the faculty in a businesslike and debate-ridden setting was an eye-opening experience. As the department truly values student input (I know this concept may seem foreign to many of you), we were often asked our opinions on various issues related to the Ph.D. program. I became comfortable speaking my mind in front of the male-dominated department faculty, even though I was often the only woman in the room.
After attending several career seminars and symposia, including several sessions at the 1996 AAAS meeting in Baltimore, my interest in career issues for young scientists grew. Some of the "alternative" career paths, such as science policy, consulting, and regulatory affairs, seemed particularly enticing, and I wanted to learn more. Through the tireless efforts of Catharine Johnson, a past Graduate Student Association president, the GSA was established and had secured a significant budget. This seemed to be the place to get involved.
I started off as the parking and transportation representative for the GSA--not career-related, but the position was available. I joined the planning committee for a career day organized jointly by the GSA and the Postdoctoral Association in October 1996. I also started writing opinion pieces for the GSA Newsletter and found that I had an opinion on absolutely everything related to graduate student issues and interests!
Several months and one successfully averted parking crisis later, I was elected GSA vice president. I had a heart-to-heart with my faculty adviser about running for this position. It would almost definitely slow my research progress, but I felt that the experience I would gain would be critical to my future career--which by this point I was fairly sure would not be in the academic arena. Fortunately, even though he might not have agreed with my decision, he did not hold any of this against me.
My position focused on career programming for graduate students. As there is no career office available to the student of the School of Medicine, this was a tremendous need. I decided to organize a series of seminars focusing on specific careers and career issues, including scientific writing/editing, dressing for interviews, teaching careers, patent and intellectual property careers, and getting a postdoc position. I also started a resource library containing books on topics such as surviving graduate school, careers in science, scientific writing and presentation, interviewing, and résumé writing. In addition, I became heavily involved in the campaign to defeat the 1997 tax bill that would have taxed graduate student tuition waivers.
I will be finishing my degree late this summer, 6 years after starting graduate school. I have accepted a position with a management consulting firm in Boston. I believe that I received this job offer in part because of my conscious choice to take charge of my own "professional development" by becoming involved in projects outside of the lab. This was partly selfish--I bought the books I wanted to read and planned the seminars I wanted to attend--but these projects were (I hope!) helpful to the entire graduate student population.