Traveling the winding road, perspective from an early career PhD
Career Story Blog Post By Jennifer Head Wheeler, PhD, Research Investigator II at Bristol Myers Squibb
When I found out I had been accepted to the Toxicology PhD program at the University of Rochester, I had a vision of how my career would unfold: 4 years of research and a 2 year post-doc followed by a tenure track professorship. This path that I ended up taking was not what I initially imagined, but has ended up being much more than I had hoped for. Throughout my experiences in grad school, my post-doc and in my current position, I’ve learned that there’s so much more to training to be a successful scientist than just the work you do at the bench and the papers you publish. For this blog post, I want to share my experiences from graduate school and post-doc and how they have shaped my scientific career so far.
Even though I started graduate school with every intention of becoming a professor, I quickly started to question whether that was the correct path for me. I loved teaching and had always thought that being a professor was the only way I would be able to teach and mentor others. During my first Toxicology course at Rochester, I learned how wrong my thinking was. Some of the sections of the course were taught by scientists outside of academia, including forensic toxicologists and industry scientists. I found their lectures to be extremely engaging, largely because many of the examples they presented were from their own experiences as toxicologists outside academia. These were perspectives I had not had a chance to hear before and I began to wonder if perhaps a career outside academia could be a good fit for me. For the rest of my graduate career, I tried to keep my options open, and considered multiple paths for after graduate school. I worked to develop skills and gain experience in areas that would be beneficial to both academic and non-academic positions, in addition to working on my scientific development. I focused on leadership, mentorship, and communication, largely because those were the areas that were stressed by many of the toxicologists I had met that were important parts of their jobs. Throughout grad school, I continually looked for opportunities to develop these skills. This included mentoring high school students, both in the lab and in the classroom, taking courses on science education and presenting my work to more broad audiences outside of my department. I also volunteered to organize and lead student meetings, and work as a student representative for the Women in Toxicology specialty section of the Society of Toxicology. Although developing these skills was a considerable time commitment (during a period where you have little time for anything other than bench work!), I have found that the outcome is well worth the time put in! Through these activities, I gained confidence when presenting my work, expanded my network considerably, and learned a great deal about different careers outside of academia.
After graduate school, I started a post-doctoral fellowship at Duke University. I was drawn to the lab largely because of the project, which was in an area that I wanted to pursue. However, about 8 months into my post-doc, I realized that what I thought would be a great project, turned into something that I was not passionate about. I found myself losing interest in my research and the path I was headed in. Outside of the laboratory, I was trying to make the most of my time at Duke. I was able to teach some lectures in the Environmental Sciences Department and was working with some of the faculty to develop curriculum for a future course. However, in the lab, I still felt as if I was just going through the motions, and not getting inspired or excited by the science. I knew that if I didn’t make a change, I wouldn’t advance my career and would be stuck in a position that did not inspire me. It was at this time I made a tough choice. One year and 3 months into my post-doc, I began looking for jobs outside of academia. It was terrifying and I was full of doubt. How would I move forward? What if I couldn’t find anything? Did I even have enough experience to cut it outside academics? It’s easy to let fear and self doubt rule over you, but being bold and making tough choices is what life is about, so I jumped in and started the process of trying to transition from post-doc to a full time position.
Over the next few months, I applied to ALOT of jobs, and got rejected ALOT, which made me doubt my decision even more. What helped me get through was staying positive and being proactive about my career. I attended networking events, career fairs and set up informational interviews with people in the area that had jobs that I was interested in. I also got advice from established scientists in industry, government and consulting on how to best market my skills in my CV. After a few months, I was offered a post-doc position at the Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences, a small non-profit research institute. To my surprise, a month into my new post-doc I had a job offer from Bristol-Myers Squibb. Now, almost 2 years later, I could not be happier. In my job now, I get to interact with a wide variety of scientists in industry, government, and academia, mentor other scientists, present my work both at internal and external meetings and I’ve been encouraged to continue my professional development. There are even opportunities to teach at local universities and at national research meetings for continuing education courses. Looking back at the path I took from graduate school to where I am today, I owe a lot to actively looking for ways to improve and develop skills that I thought would be beneficial regardless of whether I was working in industry or academia. I also would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the overwhelming support and opportunities I received from colleagues, especially my graduate school PhD mentor, who encouraged me early on to follow my passions and continually pursue them. If I had just one piece of advice to give to students in graduate school, it would be to take nothing for granted and look for opportunities wherever you can; you never know where they might lead you!