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Domain Consultant positions as a career stepping-stone for graduate students

Former BRC domain consultant Deb McCaffrey

Research IT offers opportunities for students at all levels to develop skills applicable to both academic and non-academic careers. Research IT’s domain consultant program for graduate students has begun to have a visible impact as former domain consultants have moved on to full-time careers in research facilitation.

In the domain consultant program, graduate students receive training in the different computing environments offered by Berkeley Research Computing (BRC), and work part-time with BRC staff to provide free consultation around data and computation to researchers throughout campus. In the process, they develop skills including technical proficiency with various computing infrastructures, troubleshooting technical issues, consulting with researchers on their computing needs and helping to architect solutions, developing documentation and running workshops, and mentoring junior students.

Deb McCaffree, who completed her PhD in physical chemistry in December 2016, was the second person to hold the position of BRC domain consultant, beginning in January 2017. Last September, she was hired as a Research Computing Facilitator at the University of Michigan medical school. Research IT’s manager for consulting, Quinn Dombrowski, recently followed up with Deb to learn more about her new position, and how her work as a domain consultant prepared her for it.

Originally from Ohio, and with an undergraduate degree from Purdue, Deb wanted to “escape winter for a bit,” and so came to Berkeley for her PhD in physical chemistry. Her research explored how ions behave at the graphene/water interface compared to the air/water interface, concluding that there were different reasons for their similar behavior at both interfaces.

Deb’s development of proficiency with computational tools and methods included little formal coursework. Other than one computational chemistry course as part of her undergraduate degree, she was mostly self-taught, sometimes resorting to MOOCs out of necessity. By her fourth year in Berkeley’s PhD program, Deb started considering careers beyond faculty/researcher positions (but noted that it is prudent for graduate students to start exploring options even earlier, even if they think they do want to pursue tenure-track positions).

To work towards career options beyond traditional academia, Deb took advantage of a wide range of on- and off-campus opportunities, including talking to people at the Career Center, joining relevant professional organizations and attending events, using MeetUp to look for professional networking opportunities, and meeting individually with people whose jobs she found interesting. Deb also wrote a few pieces for the PLOS Early Career Researchers blog, took MOOCs, worked on some of her own small-scale data science projects, and began attending D-Lab working groups -- where she met the Research IT staff who ultimately introduced her to the domain consultant position

Deb originally pursued the domain consultant position with Research IT in order to develop technical skills for a career in data science. But as a domain consultant, Deb had the chance to learn about many different projects on campus and talk to many different researchers, and she discovered she enjoyed that kind of research facilitation. Her current position at the medical school at the University of Michigan allows her to continue that kind of work, with some additional wrinkles. Deb notes, “There’s a greater emphasis on data security in the med school that is different from Berkeley that has taken some getting used to.”

When asked about advice for current graduate students, Deb suggested branching out: “Try to do one thing outside of your dissertation research. Get an internship. Join an organization. Try to find a supplemental job.”

Research IT regularly has openings for its domain consultant positions, which are available to graduate students who can work 8-10 hours/wk. The position is paid hourly, and fee remission is not available for this job classification. Students who already hold GSI or GSR appointments may still be eligible with some additional paperwork. To learn more, visit the Research IT website. Graduate Professional Development supports training and career options for students throughout the graduate division. Visit the GPD website for upcoming events and contact info.