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Meet the new associate dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies

Daniel Tranel, PhD, professor of neurology and psychology, assumed the position of associate dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies in the Carver College of Medicine in April. The new position, created to offer a greater focus on graduate and postdoctoral students, collaborates with the University of Iowa Graduate College to develop and maintain a vibrant environment for the education, training, and career development of predoctoral and postdoctoral biomedical trainees.

Tranel initially came to the University of Iowa in 1979 in pursuit of a PhD in clinical psychology, and has stayed through the last 35 years. After completing his postdoctoral training and accepting a faculty position in neurology, he helped establish the heralded Patient Registry in Neurology and began researching the neurological substrates of complex human behavior. Tranel’s research has received continuous funding for nearly as long as he’s been at the university.

Question: What do you see as strengths of CCOM graduate education?

Answer: We have a lot of top tier scientists and facilities, a fantastic hospital and college of medicine, and all of that in a small town environment where you basically have zero problems like traffic and safety and high cost of living. That is a pretty unusual combination, even for Big Ten towns. And the quality of life here is a big strength. Iowa is a place that wears well over time; it is a place where the longer you’re here, the better it gets. It’s a place you can be for a long time because it doesn’t come with a huge cost in terms of stress.

Q: You performed your doctoral training here at the UI, and now lead an interdisciplinary training program, as well as serve as the associate dean for graduate programs and postdoctoral studies in the CCOM. What would you consider to be some of the most important changes you’ve seen in graduate training at the UI?

A: There are a couple of changes over the years that I would cite as being some of the most important.

One is that postdoctoral training has become almost mandatory in many fields – for example, almost every trainee in the biomedical sciences completes a postdoctoral training period now. That wasn’t always the case. People used to go straight from their PhD into a career. Now they go from a PhD into a postdoctoral position. Postdocs can be from two to eight years long. It’s not trivial. It has introduced a large additional piece of training period because if it’s six to eight years, that’s a long time of additional training on top of the PhD.

The other big change that has happened, and especially recently, is a major tightening of the job market. Getting a PhD in a field is not any guarantee of a job. The typical idea would be if you got a PhD in neuroscience or genetics or psychology, you would go be a professor in that discipline at some university. Currently, in fact, a very small minority of PhDs actually end up in those types of positions. Getting a job at all has gotten tougher and getting a job in a tenure track-type of position has gotten very difficult, due to factors like: tightening of budgets, underfunding of science, and possibly an oversupply of PhDs. If you produce too many, you have too much supply for the demand.

Q: CCOM Dean Debra Schwinn has noted your vision for training of the biomedical workforce, could you expand on what goals you have in regards to this?

A: One major goal is to broaden our definition of successful outcomes. There are two parts to that. We need to do a better job of acknowledging the opportunities present at smaller liberal arts colleges like Grinnell, St. Olaf, and St. Ambrose, to name a few local examples. In the past we’ve had a narrower view of career paths for Iowa PhDs. Jobs in industry, jobs in government, jobs in research and development, jobs in media, I think all of those can be successful outcomes and can be situations where people are using their PhD training.

There’s the traditional plan of going from a PhD to a position in a tenure track at a top tier institution, and that’s certainly a great outcome. But a PhD from Iowa can do so much more than just that, so we have to train students to be successful in varied kinds of jobs. To be a professor, you’ve got to teach. We have to teach students how to teach. Students need to be armed with communication skills and professional development skills that allow them to compete successfully for jobs in a wide array of roles, in addition to or even besides being a scientist.

I would also like to continue our efforts to keep Iowa on the radar screen as a top research institution. There’s a lot of great science here. It’s a place that I want to have on people’s radar screens when they think of top places to matriculate, rather than just the coasts.

Q: Previously, graduate studies was the domain of the Office of Scientific Affairs. How can students and postdocs benefit from the change to the organization? What plans do you have to work with leadership in the Office of Scientific Affairs?

A: The decision to create an associate dean for graduate and postdoctoral information is very wise and was driven by the fact that a great deal of graduate and post-doctoral education is happening within the College of Medicine. It is beneficial to have an individual with oversight who understands and appreciates the subtlety, the nuances, and all the issues that tend to be fairly specific to this particular endeavor. The challenges in training scientists are not necessarily always things that translate over from training medical students. They’re not things that come out of running a hospital or other things that the central administration and the College of Medicine do.

Supplementing an already-strong graduate studies program with even more attention and resources should be an advantage and represents a big shift. These changes should be overwhelmingly positive for both graduate and postdoctoral students.

Story Source: UI Carver College of Medicine, 200 College of Medicine Administration Building, Iowa City, Iowa 52242

Media Contact: Benji McElroy, UI Carver College of Medicine, benjamin-mcelroy@uiowa.edu