Build Career Preparation Into Your Ph.D. Experience
News Article By Dr. Michael Baranello, Ph.D., Industry Postdoctoral Affiliate
The final 6 months of your Ph.D. are incredibly hectic: meeting with your advisor(s) and committee members, taking advice from colleagues and mentors, writing chapters, reading your work and the work of others, and submitting papers and chapters for review. You make edits, attempting to maintain the standards you had when you began writing your dissertation, plan and execute your self-promised final experiments, make final edits, write final chapters, feel minimal satisfaction, and finally click submit. It’s time for a quick breath, then on to prepare a defense presentation that determines what most people will actually take away from your graduate experience. While putting your final touches on your presentation, the endless volumes of literature become a source of comfort, making you feel like you are doing everything possible to prepare for any question, discrepancy, flaw, or related comment. Depending on your level of preparedness and comfort, defense day arrives at the speed of glacial recession or of two tachyons racing. Amazingly, the measures you took to become an expert in your field actually pay off, your thesis committee offers their congratulations, and you can finally celebrate your achievements in a manner of your deserved choosing. Cheers.
After the dust from your successful defense settles, future becomes the present. For those that have long decided to pursue a career in academia, postdoctoral positions await, along with the process of relocation, and perhaps a vacation that has been put off for the last 4+ years. Because this is a URBEST blog, aimed at broadening scientific career opportunities beyond academia, you may not be one of these individuals. Amidst the chaos of the final year of your Ph.D., you may have had the incredible foresight to connect with reputable industrial, government, regulatory, or clinical entities, and convinced their hiring representatives that your skills and early career aspirations are well matched with the goals of their team. I wish I was speaking of my own foresight and professional acumen (unfortunately, I am not), but my hope is that readers will recognize their own graduation timeline and map out available resources to better approach post-graduate endeavors. If you are 1-2 years away from completing your Ph.D., it is a good time to critically assess the individual search filters that will determine the types of positions, teams, and organizations you pursue. Finding opportunities is somewhat straightforward (the internet is full of options), but building yourself into a strong candidate and fostering the best connections to successfully attain your first post-grad role can be more difficult. All of this takes time, but if addressed early (and seriously) enough, the process can be built in to your Ph.D. experience.
Identifying and addressing individual weaknesses can enrich your graduate experience and ease your transition from academia to industry, government, regulatory, consulting, etc. I will explain my own self-examination and how resources available at the University of Rochester helped me address gaps in my resume in preparation for early career opportunities. There are challenges in offering a personal story that benefits many (especially because Ph.D. experience and career aspirations can differ so greatly between individuals), but hopefully you can go through a similar exercise of self-assessment and identify activities and programs that can make you more capable as a scientist and job applicant.
To spark my mental exercise, I examined desired/required qualifications and descriptions of early Ph.D.-level careers. After exploring a wide range of opportunities (including science policy and regulatory research, so yes, I do mean a WIDE range of opportunities), I determined that I was most interested in pursuing a technical, hands-on research role at a biotech/pharmaceutical company, so I compiled qualifications and descriptions of industrial scientist and postdoctoral positions. I ranked positions by my interest in the everyday science and tasks I would be asked to perform and put less emphasis on filters like company size and location. Importantly, I recognized that I valued positions that allowed me to learn new techniques and gain experience in areas that I had little expertise, which allowed me to broaden my search to technology and therapeutic areas outside my Ph.D. research topic. This brought additional challenges of how to effectively market myself for these positions (I will discuss this in greater detail later).
From relevant job postings, it was clear that some qualifications were non-negotiable. That is, all Ph.D. level employees should be able to lead independent research, identify relevant literature, perform meaningful and reproducible experiments, and effectively communicate research aims and results through both written documents and oral presentations. These competencies are assumed and must be made evident in your CV/resume and cover letters. Ph.D. advisors should be the best source for criticism in these areas, but trusted colleagues and mentors can also offer constructive feedback, especially with respect to communication skills.
Outside of these core competencies, the remaining skills are heavily dependent on individual experience and desired position. I sought to design and perform in vitro and in vivo experiments for therapeutic discovery/development. Common requirements for these positions include extensive knowledge of a wide range of cell culture and molecular biology techniques, experience in assay performance and development, and an understanding of designing long-term in vivo therapeutic studies. This is where my personal assessment began. With respect to scientific/technical skills, what was I an expert in? What type of experiments could I design and perform immediately? What could I likely do without help? What would I need to be taught? At the time of my thesis defense, I felt very comfortable with chemical synthesis and characterization, cell-based performance assays, and basic molecular biology. I was an expert in handling materials (e.g. polymers, drug molecules, antibodies, peptides, purification columns, etc.) and cell types (adherent and suspension human/mouse cell lines) directly from my Ph.D. work, and could likely figure out how to adapt this knowledge to other related materials/cells. I felt less comfortable with designing and performing statistically-relevant preclinical animal studies, but recognized my general interest and curiosity in this realm and willingness to learn these skills/techniques. Finally, I had limited insight and no experience in designing or executing clinical therapeutic studies.
Addressing these self-defined insufficiencies took time, which highlights the importance of performing this exercise early. I began small - I met with research and medical personnel at UR to gain insight towards preclinical and clinical development of therapies. These meetings were also valuable for gaining a theoretical appreciation for therapeutic development, which was very useful in my thesis defense and industry interviews. Organizing these meetings was pretty simple; the University of Rochester has many experts interested in translational research (including clinicians), and often an e-mail was all that was necessary to schedule a conversation, sometimes over coffee or lunch. I was surprised at the measures taken by extremely busy individuals to meet with a Ph.D. student and discuss some hypothetical preclinical/clinical therapeutic development plan. I was also surprised at how much I was able to take away from these relatively short meetings. I suppose that is why their time is so valuable. As long as I showed up prepared (with purpose, background knowledge of the topic, and a couple of essential questions) it was easy to leave a 30 minute meeting with valuable insight, suggested reading, and perhaps more contacts to learn from. It is actually through these meetings that I first found out about the URBEST program. Anecdotal knowledge is useful for thesis defenses and peripheral scientific conversations at conferences and luncheons, but there are obvious limitations in having purely theoretical subject appreciation. Potential employers cannot trust an interviewee with designing a costly research endeavor simply because they have discussed or read about this topic. Hands-on experience goes much further to win their confidence.
Because it was so late in my Ph.D. experience when I performed this assessment, I had little time to gain hands-on experience before my defense. However, because of my advisor’s willingness to keep me around as a postdoc, I was able to get involved in the URBEST program and was even able to work out an internship opportunity. I could not have been put in a better situation to address some of my weaknesses with meaningful hands-on experience. As a postdoc in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, I took on tasks that would help me develop skills as a mentor and grant writer. In the lab, I developed new assays, designed in vivo studies, and addressed some lingering questions from my thesis defense. My internship with the URBEST program in the Department of Pathology gave me an opportunity to understand and contribute to clinically relevant research with greater depth. If you are interested in gaining experience through an internship, self-evaluation at this step becomes critical because your time and energy is so valuable during your Ph.D. Therefore, you want to make sure you are addressing an essential insufficiency that cannot be gained through extension of your Ph.D. work, and that your goal(s) can be achieved in a relatively short period of time.
For better or worse, your degree title can make a difference in your success as an applicant. For chemical engineers, employers may assume you have some skills in synthetic and analytical chemistry and an appreciation for scaling reaction processes, but common concerns (whether justified or not) include a lack of depth and experience in cell biology and general skills surrounding life sciences (e.g. cell/tissue culture, molecular biology and related assays). Personally, my Ph.D. research gave me much experience with cell culture, but I believed if I expanded my skills to a very different type of cell/tissue culture (perhaps more challenging cell types) and used different modes of interrogation, it would go a long way towards addressing any potential concerns in this area. In addition, it was my personal interest to work on a research project that had direct clinical impact. Thanks to the coordination of the URBEST program and the support of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, I was able to work on a project that allowed me to do just that. Particularly, I harvested and expanded primary human cells, and worked with doctors of very different perspectives and expertise on a project that was designed to improve clinical practice. Working as a part of this team greatly prepared me for starting fresh in a new lab setting and testing the boundaries of my comfort zone, including bench work and presenting to/working with a diverse team. It also gave me real perspective and depth in an area that is not often associated with chemical engineering. Finally, this experience allowed me to interface directly with a medical team on clinical research - something that would have been difficult to justify with my Ph.D. project.
Was it worth it? For me, absolutely! As someone who sought to design and execute impactful therapeutic research in the pharmaceutical industry, my Ph.D. experience taught me to appropriately design meaningful experiments and effectively communicate results. As a postdoctoral affiliate, I was given more responsibility to mentor students and prepare grant proposals, and the URBEST internship expanded my skills and gave me confidence that I could effectively execute clinically relevant projects using a wide range of platforms. On a more personal note, I found the internship project to be very interesting and impactful. I was allowed freedom to explore different lines of questioning and experimentation, and had effective guidance and feedback when needed. For applications and interviews, it was important to effectively portray the most recent work experience on my resume to show personal and scientific growth. The additional responsibility and accountability I assumed as a postdoc and URBEST intern was something I tried to highlight.
I was often asked about this internship opportunity, and it only fortified my application with tangible experience related to my career goals. While attempting to secure a training-focused position, I was able to draw on this experience and instill confidence that I would be able to plan, learn, and execute new experiments (even in a somewhat foreign field) and achieve results in a short amount of time. After successful interviews, some hiring representatives referenced my postdoctoral role and internship experience as evidence of my interest in mentoring and my passion for designing clinically relevant therapeutic research. Their feedback verified that I was able to successfully portray the intended output from my recent experiences. In doing so, I was offered my current industry postdoctoral position at Alexion Pharmaceuticals, which is focused on designing, executing, and publishing high impact therapeutic research, while learning as much as I can from experts within all divisions of the company.
Now it is your turn. Be critical of yourself and determine whether you could be more successful in achieving your career goals by expanding your role in your current lab, attending a training seminar or conference, joining a new club or organization, meeting with individuals that can broaden your perspectives, shadowing an expert, volunteering, or perhaps making a substantial investment of your time and energy in an internship.
Many thanks to Dr. Joan Adamo for directing me towards Dr. Tracey Baas and the URBEST program. I am grateful to Drs. Neil Blumberg, Majed Refaai, and Amy Schmidt for meeting with me to discuss potential internship projects, and special thanks to Dr. Refaai for allowing me to join, learn from, and contribute to his lab. If you’d like to learn more, consider an informational interview and contact Dr. Michael Baranello at firstname.lastname@example.org.