Life beyond the story

I’ve been missing in action for  while, but I’m back now and excited to share my own story about transitioning out of academia. It was a bit of a stressful time, but I love where I ended up and hope to have a long career here.  I’m going to skip my background because I’ve already talked about myself.

I started my postdoc in September 2014 and finished in January 2017. I began my career as a Process Development Scientist for a contract development and manufacturing organization focused on viral and cellular therapy in February 2017.

1. How long was the process from application to job offer?

I applied for the position and interviewed at the end of 2016. I got an offer about 6 days after my interview. I actually applied for a position with the same company (the same group), early in 2016 but the offer went to someone else. However, the interview left such a good impression on both sides, that I was determined to keep trying when new positions opened up. After some negotiation (always negotiate), I accepted the offer and joined the company in February 2017. In all, I must have applied for about 100 jobs, I had 7 phone interviews, 4 onsite interviews and 3 job offers.

2. What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

I primarily work as part of the upstream and analytical groups in the process development team. When we receive new projects from clients, we are responsible for taking their processes , optimizing them for large scale manufacturing and ensuring that the confirmatory assays are validated in house. I would consider it a medium-pace as I am currently in training but also working on 2-3 projects. On average I work 8-9 hours/day. I’ve come in on the weekend a couple of times but compared to being a postdoc, I think the schedule is more flexible. Of course it depends heavily on how far along the project is. I’m excited to get busier!

3. What do you enjoy most about your job?

I enjoy being able to use my scientific knowledge and experience to guide the production of products that go directly into patients in clinical trials. While in academia, I was driven by trying to identify new drugs and new targets for cancer that may be used to treat patients 10 years down the line….if we’re lucky. Here, I’m working on projects that have gone beyond the preclinical stage and have a real chance of changing patients lives in the very near future.

4. What do you miss most about being in an academic setting?

I think it might be a little too soon to tell, but I miss mentoring junior scientists.

5. What do you miss the least about academia?

Everything else, including the publish or perish environment that entices scientists to focus only on the trendy subjects that are being funded by the NIH. The environment that puts pressure on scientists to publish work that may not be well thought out or reproducible.

6. If you had to do the PhD/Postdoc process all over, what would you do differently?

Honestly, I had a great experience, I wouldn’t change much. I worked for three years in industry before going back to get my PhD and that work experience was invaluable. I was able to network and make connections that have served me well in many cases. I may have made an attempt to publish more and collaborate better as a PhD, but I don’t think that would have made much of a difference in my current career.

7. Where do you see your career heading in the next 5 years

Again, it’s a bit too early to tell, however, I’m excited to learn about the entire breadth of process development. I am lucky that the company and my supervisor are open to growing their talent in house , so I’m confident that if I stay on with this company, the possibilities are endless.

8. What advice do you have for current job seekers regarding job search strategies?

Start your job search NOW! not after you submit the paper, or after you hit some imaginary milestone. If you have gotten to the point where you KNOW academia is not for you….leave! Sooner than later. In my opinion, a postdoctoral fellowship for scientists who don’t want to stay in academia should not last longer than 2 to 3 years. Four if you have a paper in revision from a high impact journal (read: Cell, Nature, Science et al).

Treat applying for jobs AS a job, not an afterthought. Stop wasting your time submitting generic resumes and cover letters en masse. Take the time to personalize them, highlighting where your experience and your skill match what the company is looking for.

LinkedIn is your friend! Update your profile, set up alerts using keywords for positions  and job titles you are interested in. Apply for 2 to 3 jobs a day. Have your resume edited by your postdoctoral office, senior postdocs etc. Keep your resume short and to the point. Anything over 3 pages is too long in my opinion.

Practice for your interview. Have mock interviews if possible. Do your homework about the job, the company and the people you will be meeting with. Come prepared to ask insightful questions.

9. What should job seekers consider during the the job application process?

Just because you have a PhD doesn’t entitle you to a job. This is something that our colleagues in other fields learned a long time ago. You still have to hustle, you still have to compete and you still have to bring your A game. It’s not fun, it is stressful but consider the alternative: 7-8 years as a postdoc, maybe you get promoted to an instructor and you dead end in that “career”. Look beyond the big pharma companies and into smaller biotechs, look at research-adjacent companies such as the ThermoFishers, Qiagen, etc that need scientists to help them develop products that drive science. There are a lot of positions that may not be in big pharma but still involve a lot of good and challenging science. Be patient and persistent. Don’t give up!

10. Do you have any interview tips to share? 

Be prepared to answer any questions on any skills you put on your resume. Be personable, show genuine interest in the company and the people you are meeting with. Consider it to be an interview on both sides. If you are prepared and personable, even if you don’t get that position, you will make an impression that could make them consider you for future positions. I still send out thank you emails after my interviews, some may consider it to be a bit much, but I don’t.

11. How much, if at all would you say networking played a role in you getting this position? 

NONE..none, absolutely none. Everyone’s situation is different of course, but all the jobs I’ve applied for and gotten, I didn’t know anyone at the company. I was very specific in my job search, focusing on my skills and expertise. I went into the interviews confident and prepared. I enjoy meeting and talking to people, so networking to me is not a chore, and I think I shine best during an interview because of this. So, if “networking” and meeting new people is not your strong suit, practice by networking. It’s a win-win situation in that you get the experience of talking to new people and in some cases, it might translate into a job.

13. Do you have any final words of advice and encouragement for current postdocs?

Being a postdoc might be comfortable (read: familiar), but it was never meant to be a career. That’s why it’s considered training. However, I’m convinced that the current process is not in the best interest of postdocs (and the future of science in the long run, but that’s a topic for another day). We have to be realistic about it. Your postdoctoral association, your mentor, your non-postdoc friends, your spouse and your parents can only do so much to encourage you to leave. At some point, you have to grab the bull by the horns and take control of your career. So, go do it.

PhD trained scientists are resilient and innovate and brilliant. We learned by failing as graduate students, but we persevered. This is no different…get out of your comfort zone and never look back!