Zheni Shen, Ph.D.
Bachelor of Medicine in Basic Medical Sciences, West China Medical Center, Sichuan University
M.S. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, West China Medical Center, Sichuan University
Ph.D. in Biology, Wayne State University, 2015
Dr. Shen participated in the BEST program during 2014-15 in order to learn about options outside of academia. While she did not conduct an internship, she believes that the information she learned from attending the various panels and workshops helped her to realize she wanted to work in industry. Upon completion of her doctorate, Dr. Shen was hired by Total Toxicology in Southfield, Michigan. Today, she works there as a supervisor and scientist.
Interviewed by Lauren Tanabe on May 16, 2017.
Q. When did you decide that you didn’t want to pursue the academic track and how did BEST help you in your decision?
With academia, there are uncontrollable research results and an uncertain career path. This wasn’t for me.
Through BEST, I attended different panels and got exposed to different fields. I found that science Ph.D.s were not only in demand in academia, but also in industry, law, business, and other fields.
I attended both the Phase II industry/business and law workshops. The specialists discussed the inner workings of these fields to us. I got interested in the work that a Ph.D can do in life science and healthcare industry as opposed to pursuing the academic track. BEST played a major role in helping me to make this decision.
Q. What did you learn about the skills you had (and those you needed to work on) during your BEST experience?
The most useful skill I’ve learned through BEST was how to network over social media.
I learned Web-searching skills. For example, how to connect with alumni on LinkedIn, how to check out the companies that have employed lots of Wayne State alumni with similar backgrounds to my own, how to follow companies on LinkedIn, how to learn about the networking hosted by my connections, and so on.
Also, I practiced my spoken English and prepared my introduction ahead of time. It was surprising to me to discover that I already had the necessary networking skills. But at the same time, I realized that I needed to hone my interviewing skills.
Q. Why didn’t you participate in an internship?
Because there were more BEST participants than actual available internships. I applied to several internships, got interviewed by several companies, but was not offered an internship in the end.
Q. How did you go about finding your current position?
Through my connections. I registered for a LinkedIn account, sent out my CV to my connections/friends in the life sciences field, and let them know that I would appreciate if they could inform me of any openings in their companies/institutions.
I also applied to job postings I found on LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and the websites of the companies that I was interested in.
Q. Can you talk about your day-to-day activities in your new career?
I am currently a general supervisor and scientist in a clinical laboratory, Total Toxicology. My work is to research, develop, and validate novel methods to analyze drugs, chemical compounds, toxicants, bio-metabolites, hormones, and elements and alloys for medical, pharmaceutical, and toxicological evaluation.
I also generate and interpret final reports for the analyzed samples, daily, and consult with the clients on chemical, pharmaceutical, pharmacokinetic and toxicological interpretation of the reports.
Besides a whole set of clinical standard operating procedures, I’ve learned how to interact with clients (physicians) and how to coordinate with coworkers, which sharpens my teamwork skills.
I’m not doing bench work, currently. Mostly, I analyze data and do consulting and reporting work. There is nothing that I don’t like about my current position.
Q. It seems like you interact with a lot of clients. How do you use your networking and communication skills?
Most of our clients are clinical physicians. As a scientist, my responsibility is to provide toxicology knowledge support to them. However, performing high quality work in order to gain the trust of clients is a way of “networking,” because if they are satisfied with the services you provide, they will introduce other doctors who also need the same service. I talk with the physicians with a very supportive and patient attitude, trying to answer professional questions in a way that they can understand.
I also use everyday language. Most of the time, the physicians don’t expect to dig into scientific details, they just want to know generally about what could possibly influence the test results.
Q. Where do you see yourself in the future?
I see myself as a certified director or some kind of authorized specialist in the clinical laboratory field. My short-term goal is to be fulfilled with further practice, training, and certification in the clinical chemistry and clinical genetics field. My long-term goal is to use my knowledge to contribute to the clinical field as a biochemistry and genetic specialist.
Q. What advice do you have for graduate students who are struggling with what direction to take with their careers?
Just participate in the BEST program. It will help you make the decision of what direction to take.
Traditionally, doctoral and postdoctoral training has focused on preparing individuals to continue the hallowed traditions of academia. Most faculty consider it their job to prepare students to become university faculty like themselves, focused on research and teaching, who will in turn guide their own graduate students to do the same.
Unfortunately, more than half of doctoral and postdoctoral trainees now leave academia, and due to the bleak outlook in external funding, that percentage is rising steadily. Forward-looking faculty and administrators, who are starting to rethink graduate and postdoctoral training methods, initiated the first Future of Biomedical Graduate and Postdoctoral Training (FOBGAPT) meeting, held in 2015 in Ann Arbor. The second meeting, known as “FOBGAPT2,” was held at the University of Colorado-Denver from June 8-10. Dr. Ambika Mathur, the Dean of the Graduate School at Wayne State, was a member of the Organizing Committee for this event. She is also the PI of the NIH-funded BEST [Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training] grant, which puts Wayne at the forefront of the effort to modernize graduate training in the biomedical and life sciences. Also participating in this meeting was BEST grant co-PI Dr. Christine Chow and Associate Dean in the Graduate School Dr. Andrew Feig, both tenured faculty in the Dept. of Chemistry.
Through travel support awarded by FOBGAPT2 and the Graduate School, the three authors of this blog entry were able to attend the meeting in Denver and help mold the recommendations that will be published as a white paper. Tonya Whitehead is a Ph.D. candidate in Biomedical Engineering who will graduate this year. She participated in the BEST program’s pilot program in 2014. She has a strong interest in undergraduate education and curriculum development, and works in the Office for Teaching & Learning. Nisansala Muthunayake is a Ph.D. candidate in Biochemistry who will graduate this fall. She attended BEST Phase I and II events in each of the last three years and currently serves as the graduate student assistant for the BEST program. As a biochemist, she is very interested in science education. Dr. John Anneken is a 4th-year postdoctoral research associate in neuropharmacology, with an appointment in the Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences Department in the School of Medicine. He also recently completed Phase I and II of BEST, which has helped widen his view of his employment opportunities and career development.
The first evening of the FOBGAPT2 meeting provided valuable networking opportunities over food and drinks in the warm summer air of Denver, where participants became familiar with the expertise held by their fellow attendees as well as the breadth of institutions represented. The next morning, all meeting attendees gathered for a plenary panel discussion by three speakers, who established the general themes of the meeting.
The first speaker was Dr. Alison Gammie of NIH, who defined the most pressing issues facing research today, including the disturbing failure of reproducibility in published studies and the loss in gender and ethnic diversity as researchers progress up the career ladder. She also acknowledged the disconnect between the employment opportunities currently available to doctoral trainees and postdocs and the academia-only focus of most training programs, something that is well known to BEST participants. As part of the solution, Dr. Gammie discussed the incorporation of more explicit mentoring and career development criteria into T32 training grants and holding institutions accountable for meeting these revised requirements.
The next speaker on the panel was Dr. Julia Kent of the Council of Graduate Schools. She spoke to the current neglect of career development and non-academic career paths in the majority of training programs. In order to correct this, Dr. Kent discussed the need for actionable data on the career paths of Ph.D.s, particularly focusing on alumni of individual institutions who can demonstrate the value of career development programs. This approach could be used to identify common deficiencies typically noted by nonacademic employers, such as presentation skills and project management, so often marginalized in the current models of training programs.
The final speaker on the panel was an economist from Georgia State University, Dr. Paula Stephan, who spoke on why postdocs are overused in the current academic laborforce. Though there were several factors identified, the most important was their low cost, which is estimated to be as little as $16 per hour! The most common justification given for this level of compensation is the supposedly “portable” training component of a typical postdoc, but Dr. Stephan showed data questioning this view. She then proposed a multi-faceted approach to reducing the backlog of postdocs, the most gratifying of which was call for a revision in NIH guidelines to increase postdoc pay! Whether this is likely to be implemented is a different story, as she acknowledged.
Over the subsequent two days, FOBGAPT2 was divided into five workshops on these broad topics: (1) How to increase the diversity of scientists in senior and leadership roles; (2) How to increase engagement and skills of faculty in mentorship; (3) How to modernize (and keep updating) curricula and training while maintaining research and scholarship tenets; (4) How to increase the engagement of the private sector and other potential employers in training paradigms and opportunities; and (5) What data on Master’s, PhDs, and postdocs can be collected nationally, and how can it be used to inform trainees and training?
What follows is a brief summary of the most important takeaways from each workshop.
The first workshop focused on how to better increase the diversity of scientists in senior and leadership roles. The workshop had five papers with interesting discussions related to the main topic: an overview of the academic scientist workforce; gaps in the pipeline with an emphasis on postdoctoral training; institutional responsibility in diversification of senior scientist and leadership positions; funding agencies and professional society’s responsibility in diversification of senior scientist and leadership positions; and a lightning round on best practices for diversification of academic scientists and leaders. There were very engaging discussions about challenges faced by members of underrepresented groups in obtaining senior and leadership roles. The potential impact of fewer funding opportunities on the success of the underrepresented groups and how institutions can recognize and address these challenges, at all levels of training, from graduate student to postdoc to junior faculty, was a recurring topic in this workshop. Some of the proposals that may be helpful in increasing the diversity of scientists in senior and leadership roles included establishing (a) a major funding mechanism to prepare underrepresented postdocs for transitioning into successful academic and nonacademic careers, (b) inclusivity training for all senior administrators, faculty, staff, postdocs and graduate students, and (c) beginning leadership training early for graduate students and postdocs.
The next workshop focused on efforts to improve the frequently uneven mentorship skills of faculty. The ultimate goal of the workshop was to generate a list of recommendations and concrete action plans for increasing engagement and skills of faculty mentorship. As we all know, faculty mentorship plays a crucial role in the success of graduate students and postdocs, and many of you may have experienced both the benefits of a great mentor and the anguish and disappointment of an unproductive mentoring relationship. It should be noted, both in our own experience and as a common theme in these discussions, that the “mentor” and “mentee” alike have a role to play in the success of mentoring. A major recommendation to improve this two-way interaction was to formalize and continually revise expectations between the trainee and mentor. Further, institutional recognition for effective mentoring emerged as an important theme. Faculty are under constant pressure to publish and obtain funding, but since there is no performance metric that factors mentoring into productivity, this crucial activity is often marginalized and neglected. In fact, this was a point of vigorous contention for some of the faculty during the discussions, i.e., the expectations being proposed put too much burden on already overworked faculty members. By incorporating development of and recognition for mentoring into institutional performance evaluation, alongside publishing and funding, faculty will be more engaged in promoting the career development of their trainees, to the benefit of all concerned.
This workshop focused on four areas of discussion: understanding the knowledge needs of students; identifying what the career paths graduate students and postdocs are pursing in the current job environment; specifying those competencies trainees need to pursue these paths; and determining ways to fund training. The group felt that many of the competencies were already included in contemporary curricula, but that programs are not doing a good job of articulating to students what they are learning and how they might use those skills. For instance, most Ph.D.s must plan experiments, allocate resources to their project (materials, human resources and equipment), and plan for adverse results. These experiences are aspects of project management, a skill that is highly sought after by all types of employers. Being more explicit with trainees about these transferrable skills is essential to encouraging successful professional development. The recommendations resulting from this workshop included creating a repository for faculty to share their best practices for incorporating competency into curricula. This would allow universities to identify strengths and address gaps in their current programs. Another recommendation was that universities strive to create a culture of transparent learning assessment, evaluation, and constructive communication. This will help trainees understand where they currently stand in relation to the expectation for someone at their level. Finally, they encouraged a shift in the incentive models of national funding agencies to support a modernized training structure.
As many of you in the BEST program are interested in careers outside of the academic environment, this workshop was of great interest. One caveat, which was raised by several discussants, is that no representatives of the private sector were present for these discussions. Still, it was encouraging to see faculty who were willing to discuss these career options constructively. The discussion was framed around four questions. First, why should universities engage the private sector in graduate and postdoctoral training? The reasons seemed obvious (likely to those in the BEST program as well) and included providing more information about multiple career paths in light of decreasing funding and through internships, to produce trainees who can make better informed career choices. The second question was how do private sector entities benefit from taking on and/or funding trainees? The strongest benefit to the company would be the opportunity to generate a strong talent pipeline, which would be better tailored to their workplace culture. This is also a way to obtain relatively low-cost, highly skilled workers for their projects. The third question sought to understand the obstacles to this type of engagement. Most of the responses in the discussion were on practical matters of time and cost, as well as intellectual property issues that arise within companies. The final question concerned how to get faculty support for these private sector training opportunities. The major concern expressed by the faculty attendees was the potential impact on degree completion rates for doctoral trainees and loss of productivity on their primary research projects. There were suggestions on how to overcome this, including leaves of absence or timing the training opportunity to following graduation, prior to officially leaving the program. Further, it was suggested the faculty would benefit from the training as well, seeing improvements in employee time management and the potential for bi-directional learning of novel techniques to be applied in their own labs. Recommendations from this workshop included actionable, institution-specific data on the career outcomes of graduate and postdoctoral participants in private sector training in order to concretely demonstrate the value of such programs. In addition, increases in private sector training engagement should be encouraged and supported by faculty as integral components of career development for all trainees, graduate and postdoc. Finally, a clearinghouse for best practices should be created to overcome potential roadblocks, such as nondisclosure agreements and work authorization problems for international students.
The theme of the final workshop was what data on Master’s, Ph.D.s, and postdocs can be collected nationally and how can they be used to inform trainees and training. Junior scientists, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers alike are interested in data about career outcomes, salaries, benefits and other aspects of academic training to make better informed decisions about their future careers. Before attending this workshop, we thought that data about many of these aspects would be extremely hard to find. But after this workshop, it became clear that there is already a great interest in gathering this type of data. Each discussion section focused on a different level of trainees (Master’s, Ph.D., postdoctoral) and the types of data that would be useful to obtain. Across all levels, demographic data was deemed important, to better characterize who is being trained. For Master’s students, discussants were interested in finding out the reasons for enrolling in a Master’s program, reasons for exiting a Ph.D. program with a Master’s degree, and the salary of the first job after receiving the Master’s degree. Concerning Ph.D. trainees, the main areas of interest were focused on time to degree, number of publications, and participation in career development or internships. Data that might be collected from postdoctoral trainees included employment-based questions about institutional support and compensation, as well as the quality of mentoring and general career outcomes following completion of postdoctoral training. Overall, discussants suggested that individual institutions collect these data, and then aggregate nationally so comparisons and improvements can be undertaken. Collating data from a variety of academic programs will enable institutions to more realistically describe available opportunities and enable junior scientists to make informed decisions about their future careers.
At this stage, the results from FOBGAPT2 are only recommendations. To make them a reality, students, postdocs, and faculty (current and future) need to engage in the national discussion and fight for these changes. We recommend that readers look at the FOBGAPT2 website to learn more about the meeting and read the white paper that is scheduled to be published in July of this year. Talk with your program directors and ask them to consider the recommendations for implementation. Without grassroots support, the training structure that has become increasingly obsolete in today’s workplace environment will continue unchanged.
Targeting, Take One: Your Resume
There were many useful take-home messages from the SciPhD bootcamp at Wayne State this past May, but perhaps the most important was that job seekers must create a targeted resume for each job posting.
Randall Ribaudo, co-founder of SciPhD and bootcamp leader, recommended that attendees dissect a posting into its technical, business, and social requirements, making sure that they address these in the resume and cover letter. Another key point: Where possible, use the same phrasing as the job posting. This will help create a specific resume that has a better chance of actually being read. But the reason is actually twofold: lots of companies run resumes through software that looks for specific keywords and then assigns a score. Applicants have a better chance of making it through the software filter if they use the same language the company uses.
Ribaudo suggested including a “Summary of Qualifications” section that highlights an applicant’s most important competencies and encouraged the use of accomplishments, which support the claims made in the summary statement with results.
Networking: The Quickest Way to Get Your Resume into the Hands of HR
For Ribaudo, every outing (business or social) is a ripe opportunity for networking. (Read more about networking in my previous post on the blog.) He noted that in addition to virtual networking, job seekers should take face-to-face meetings more seriously (and always be prepared with a business card). When a connection with someone is made, make a note of pertinent info (such as where you met, what you have in common, why meeting them is valuable). A follow-up email should include an extra personalized line at the end that lets them know you view them as a person and not just a resource. As Randy noted, always look to add value to your new contact’s life whenever possible.
Stop Avoiding Potentially Fruitful Connections
Ribaudo encouraged attendees to start networking with anyone, such as vendors who come to the lab or who commonly attend conferences. They have contacts all over the place, and a conversation with them may provide access to those contacts in industry, business (and beyond).
These rich pools of connections don’t just apply to vendors. Every single person has a vast social network, whether or not she realizes it. We’re social animals. But this can be a challenge for introverts or less ongoing individuals.
For Ribaudo, breaking the ice can be quite simple indeed, since what you and the potential new contact share is: Location. Walk up to anyone and say, “Hi there. What do you think of this seminar/meeting/talk/city?” Next, listen carefully to the response as you think about what to say next. After a few questions, you’ll be in the middle of a conversation that doesn’t require much effort. The hard part is getting started.
Any advance preparation that might be needed? Have a 10-second answer prepared about what you do (technical), how you do it (business savvy) and how you engage with others (social). Then tweak your answer to match the audience. Talking to someone from HR? Explain your science in broad strokes: “I work to develop new drugs to treat Alzheimer’s.”
Targeting, Take Two: The Interview
The SciPhD experts emphasized that when job seekers land an interview, their work is not ending, it is just beginning.
One of the primary objectives of the bootcamp was to jolt trainees out of “expert mode” and into “learner mode” – something the cofounders believe is a big obstacle for those trying to get into the job market. This means that you are always deferring to the interviewer, trying to learn exactly what information they are after.
So, when an interviewer asks about the prior industry experience you don’t have, say something like, “Yes, I saw that in the posting. But, I think I can do this. Please help me to understand what it is about industry experience that you are looking for. I’d be happy to address it; I can talk about my technical skills, or how my time in academia helped me to develop specific business and social skills.” Then convince them that you have the equivalent experience.
What Should You Know Before Going into Your Interview?
The experts at SciPhD urged job seekers to explore the company, its mission and its products as well as its organizational structure and scope of its business ventures. Be sure to consider what you promised in your resume. As mentioned before, think of situations that illustrate each social and business skill you listed on your resume (consistency is key!).
If the interviewers are scientists, pull some of their most recent papers on Pubmed and ask questions about their research during the interview. They’ll be impressed that you went the extra mile.
Finally, work on your handshake, dress appropriately, maintain eye contact, and never, ever interrupt. Remember, you must shift from “expert” to “learner” mode. You are catering to the interviewer.
The student attendees I spoke with were impressed by the breadth of information the SciPhD bootcamp covered.
Ethan Brock (the cancer biology student I mentioned in Part I) thought the information was incredibly useful. He tells me that he now feels more secure in his ability to market himself: “Their lecture completely changed how I viewed these processes [interviews and negotiations] and the tips I learned will be invaluable to me once I begin searching for my career.”
Ben Kuiper, a 4th year biochemistry graduate student at Wayne State, will be defending this July. He says that he was surprised to discover that he was, indeed, more likely to be an “expert” as opposed to a “learner” – “As a scientist, I tend to take a question at face value and blurt out my answer right away. To me, it was helpful to recognize this tendency, so that during an interview, I might better [understand] the purpose of a question (which might be to find out what the person is like) rather than just answer the question.” He is currently applying for jobs and says he will start using the targeted resume approach: “I hope it works!”
The BEST Program is happy to announce that in the spring of 2018, it will host Part II of the SciPhD careers bootcamp, on “Excelling and Advancing at Your Job,” on the Wayne campus. More details to come!
On May 22-23, Wayne State hosted an intensive bootcamp for nearly 75 doctoral trainees and postdocs aspiring to careers in industry. Conducted by SciPhD, the comprehensive training event strives to teach attendees how to weave scientific skills together with business and social skills in order to stand out from the rest of the applicant pool.
One attendee, Ethan Brock, a graduate student in cancer biology, was eager to learn how to do this. “Wayne State … show[s] proficiency in training their graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to do good science, but few establishments focus on training us how to market ourselves,” he says.
Over two days, SciPhD founders Randall Ribaudo, PhD, and Larry Petcovic walked participants through several scenarios that ran the gamut from strategically dissecting job postings and tailoring resumes to how to prepare for the interview and negotiate the total compensation package.
Last fall at the NIH-BEST conference in Bethesda, Maryland, a graduate student expressed to me her exasperation in trying to leave academia. She summed it up in one sentence: “You don’t know what you don’t know!” Ribaudo and Petcovic made it abundantly clear at the bootcamp that there is a lot academics don’t know (or take for granted), to their own detriment. “People very much self-limit their capability … [But] with your degrees, you can go out and do anything you want,” Ribaudo told students at the start of the program.
Ribaudo completed a PhD in immunology and went on to run a lab at the NIH. He decided to transition out of academia and worked as a scientific application specialist, but he was laid off when the biotech bubble burst. Through his experiences, he quickly realized that industry scientists communicate and interact differently with each other than academic scientists do. He and the co-founders of SciPhD thought that some of their observations about these differences could help academics struggling to find employment.
Ribaudo and Petcovic’s overarching message in the bootcamp was this: Those looking to leave academia soon need to learn how to reframe experiences to make them appealing to the industry sector. Those who have a longer time frame have the opportunity to learn what industry wants and can begin to integrate those desired experiences into their academic routine.
The Myth of the Over-Qualified and the Under-Experienced
You may have heard about this problem PhDs face: They are simultaneously “over-qualified,” meaning that a PhD degree isn’t necessary for the task, or they are “under-experienced,” meaning that they don’t have the requisite experience necessary. Ribaudo says this is a myth.
As you read through job listings, you may notice something of a conundrum. Nearly all require prior experience in industry. But how do you get into industry when you need to have already spent time in industry?
According to the experts at SciPhD, the onus is on you to show that although you have not spent time in industry, you have skills and expertise that are the equivalent of what would be gained by spending time in industry. That means you need to demonstrate not only technical skills (every qualified applicant has those) but also business and social skills. In other words, you need to effectively define your brand.
The “What” & the “How” Parts of Your Brand
As Randy Ribaudo explained, your brand is made up of three components – the technical, business, and social. Your scientific or technical identity is what you do; it is your education, training, publications, etc. Your business identity is how you do it. These are some of transferable skills jobs require and relate to how you lead a group, work independently with minimal supervision, develop creative solutions, and engage in problem-solving.
The third component that you may be less familiar with is your social identity, which concerns how you interact with others. Just like when you were graded in elementary school for how well you played with others, this is one of the most important aspects of your brand that companies want to know about.
Phrases in job descriptions often allude to social identity skills, such as passion, ability to communicate well, team participation. You need to be able to read other people’s backgrounds (e.g., scientist, human resources, project manager) and interact appropriately, highlighting what they might feel is important.
You may be tempted to gloss over this because you have an impressive scientific record — Don’t. A study reported in Forbes tracking 20,000 new hires across a variety of industries found that 46% were fired or let go in the first 18 months. A whopping 89% of those failed due to “attitudinal reasons,” such as lack of “coachability,” low levels of motivation, or low levels of “appropriate temperament.”
Those numbers are why companies want someone who has already succeeded in industry. It costs a lot of money to hire someone new who doesn’t last more than two years. It’s a bad investment. But Ribaudo and Petcovic say that you can convince them that you already have the equivalent experience, even if you are straight out of academia. They urged jobseekers to develop a resume that targets the job they want, the most important tactic for convincing recruiters and HR managers that an applicant has the skills they want (the subject of my next post).
B.Sc. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from University of Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2010
Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Wayne State University, 2016
Dulmini participated in the BEST program as a Phase III intern during 2014-15, exploring the business and industry career track. She completed an internship with Cayman Chemical, a biotech company in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She is now the Program Coordinator of Med-Direct at Wayne State.
Dulmini says the BEST program gave her the confidence to follow her instincts that pursuing a tenure-track academic position was not the right fit for her. It also gave her insight into skills she didn’t even know she had, such as her ability to connect with a wide range of personalities. Although she initially thought she wanted to be in industry, her hands-on experience with BEST helped her to realize that she was interested in a different career path.
Interviewed by Lauren Tanabe on May 11, 2017
Q. Why did you decide to apply to the BEST program?
I was considering a career outside academia and was participating in various career development sessions throughout the campus to get information. I heard about BEST and thought it was a great opportunity to explore different career paths that a STEM Ph.D. could take.
Q. When did you decide that you didn’t want to pursue the academic track and how did BEST help you in your decision?
It was before participating in BEST. I had the feeling that a tenure-track position [was] not for me and that my strengths and skills [were in other areas]. BEST cleared away the last bit of skepticism I had [about wondering] if I was doing the right thing. BEST brought out the best in me and helped me build confidence in myself. It gave me a lot of courage to choose another track by letting me meet with people who have done the same and been successful.
Q. Can you describe what you did during your internship?
I worked at Cayman Chemical, in Ann Arbor, as an intern for two months. I worked in the structural biology department on a protein structural biology project. What is amusing is that I applied for internships in biotech industry wanting to explore that environment. The internship confirmed that biotech research wasn’t for me.
Maybe it was because the project I was involved with was more troubleshooting than actual inventing, which I did not like. Also, the short time-span of the internship didn’t allow me to try other approaches. I really didn’t feel like my work was important.
I also disliked the routine nature of jobs in industry (for example, purifying protein every single day with a protocol). What I did like was the flexibility I saw at Cayman – employees had work-life balance.
Q. What skills did you learn during your BEST experience?
A lot – how to build a resume/CV, how to present and market myself, how to network, etc. I strengthened my communication skills the most.
Q. Did BEST help you to identify any skills you didn’t know you had?
People skills. I always thought I was an introvert. But I do work with a lot of students, faculty, and staff from various backgrounds, and I find it surprising that I get along with them very well. I think I realized that I should come out of my shell during the BEST experience.
Q. Can you talk about your day-to-day activities in your new career?
I hold an administrative position at Wayne State University. My title is program coordinator of Wayne Med-Direct, which is an innovative program that offers ten students admission to the Honors College and then automatic acceptance to the School of Medicine each year, both tuition-free. My duties include managing all aspects of students’ life (housing, dining, monitoring academic progress). [I also] organize events pertaining to the program.
Q. What do you like about this position?
I enjoy the dynamic nature of this job. There’s a new task every day and I enjoy completing them, one-by-one.
I also enjoy organizing. I get to use that skill for organizing events and seminars for students.
I am a “people person” so I love that I get the chance to interact with students, faculty, and staff. I frequently draw on my diplomacy skills to deal with many parties. Satisfaction is key for me and I am happy that, at the end of the day, I feel that I helped students to pursue their dreams. I also love the flexibility of my current job.
Q. What do you find most challenging?
Sometimes, I have to wait on colleagues to finish their part of the work so that I can complete my task. I am trying to train myself to consider this an opportunity to develop patience and accept the world as it is.
Q. Is there any advice you have for graduate students who are struggling with what direction to take with their careers?
Start early. Do not wait until the final year of your graduate studies to think about what you will do next. Explore various options. Resources are plentiful, including the BEST program and the graduate professional development opportunities offered by the Graduate School. At the end of the day, figure out which path would bring you the most satisfaction. Believe in yourself.
Honestly, I never thought the day would come – as I write this, I am no longer an academic. That’s right, I’ve managed to exit the perpetual postdoc holding pattern. My new title? Freelance writer and editor. For those of you curious about how I made it to the other side and lived to tell about it, keep reading.
First, a bit of background. As some of you probably already know from my past posts, the last year was a bumpy ride, filled with consternation, second-guessing, rebranding, and self-educating. A little over a year and a half ago, exasperated with the directionless nature of my professional life, I sent an email to Dr. Heidi Kenaga, Program Manager of the BEST at Wayne State. I only knew her name from BEST flyers I’d seen posted on the walls in my building. “I’m starting to regret ever getting a Ph.D.,” I wrote to her. I was already 6 years out from graduating with my Ph.D. and while the postdoc started out as a genuine interest and step in the pursuit of an academic career, in recent years my priorities had changed. I had a young child and I was not able to leave Detroit. What’s more, I suspected that my love of practicing science was waning. I no longer felt the same urgency to go into the lab on the weekends. While my curiosity remained intact, going through the motions of experiments grew stale.
At Heidi’s urging, I applied to the BEST program. The opening line of my application essay, “In the time it has taken me to complete one doctorate degree and two postdocs, I have come to the realization that I do not wish to remain in academia,” was one of the hardest sentences I ever wrote. Many agonize over the decision of whether or not to stay in academia. Leaving feels like a betrayal. The stigma attached to pursuing what some call an “alternative” path persists. For women, this can be an especially jarring blow to the ego, since we have to work harder and sacrifice much to be as competitive as men. After much introspection, however, I realized that staying in academia and feigning interest was the true betrayal (to myself). For the first time, I was vocalizing my doubts, writing about them. Doing this made them real. Making them real gave them power.
The Detroit job market is not the best in the country for science communication, if that is your professional interest. There are even fewer opportunities for a mom with a two-year-old who can’t leave Detroit because of childcare restrictions. The solution? To write for the WSU BEST blog, which I could do from anywhere. At the time, I still wasn’t sure of exactly what I wanted to do with communication, but I figured that any published writing other than my scientific manuscripts to add to my portfolio would be a plus.
Over the following months, I wrote. A lot. I rewrote. I agonized over stringing words together. The self-doubt was palpable, painful, and there were days when I woke up wondering if I should just forget about the whole endeavor and resign myself to being a postdoc forever. On these days, I thought back to my early days at the bench. If science taught me anything, it was perseverance. Science has taught you that, too. All of those experiments that failed? All of those studies where you disproved your own hypothesis? All of those times when protocols stopped working for mysterious reasons? All of it created a tougher version of our previous selves. That’s what kept me going. I turned in posts that I was proud of (and posts that I wasn’t so proud of). But every single day, I kept showing up – even when there were days when only a few sentences eked out. Opportunities slowly started to appear – a call for submissions for the Atlanta BEST magazine, a request for editing, an email asking if I could write an article about advances in cell culture – each experience led to new connections and the potential for more work.
If you want to succeed on a new career path, you need to take action. Stop mulling it over and do something to make it real. The worst that might happen is that you discover it’s not for you. Not sure where to start? Begin with the search function on Google. Information abounds!
Build Yourself a (Virtual) Village
As I wrote for the blog, I also worked on my virtual identity. How did I want to represent myself? How could I make social media work for me? The first thing I did was to make sure that my LinkedIn profile was up-to-date, had a professional photograph, and a headline. If you’re having trouble getting started, read this article I wrote all about leveraging LinkedIn for your job search.
As you build your network and make connections, you will start to learn where the people in your aspiring field hang out. Certain groups tend to gravitate towards specific sites. For example, if you’re a writer, you need to be on Twitter; it’s ripe with opportunity. Believe it or not, Facebook can be used for more than sharing pictures of your children or your cats. There are countless Facebook groups for writers that are specific to certain genres (such as science writing). I joined a few of these groups. I reached out to seasoned writers and asked questions. These questions led to further correspondence over email or phone with people who had experience writing for Science, Nature, The New Yorker, or NPR. These conversations led to more resources, more ways to educate myself (including online courses that received glowing endorsements). I also built a website, a feat that is less impressive than it sounds given the current array of user-friendly platforms available. Don’t have the time to build something fancy? Make a free landing page on WordPress that includes your contact information, your skillset, your publications, and whatever else you want potential employers or clients to know. One day I received an email asking if I was interested in writing for a particular publication. One of the people I had met over Facebook had recommended me for the job, and they contacted me through my new website.
Let Everyone Know Your Plan
Once my intentions became real to me, I made them known to others. And by “others,” I mean everyone. I’ve written about this before but it bears repeating: you never know who somebody else knows or what they know. My neighbor turned out to be a successful freelance writer with a degree in writing. She told me about a writing group in the neighborhood, which I joined. Through this, I met other writers and editors with different backgrounds, different perspectives, and valuable areas of expertise. Not only did I talk more about my goals, but just as important, I started listening more. Each person has a story about how they got to where they are now. Most people enjoy talking about themselves. Most are flattered that you want to listen. I started to write in a nearby coffee shop and I started to meet other regulars. Through casual conversation, I learned more about how to set up my freelance business. I registered as a Limited Liability Company online. I got advice about small business bank accounts and about taxes. I became familiar with the BUILD Institute (an invaluable resource for anyone launching a business). When I had questions, I knew who I could email or call. Slowly, but surely, I built up a reliable network of associates who also became friends.
Don’t Forget About the Network You’ve Had all Along
As my final day in the lab drew closer, I sent an email to people who were familiar with my work and asked if they would be so kind as to write testimonials for my new site. I contacted nearly 25 people; only 5 responded. But that was all I needed. People from my lab life wrote about my ability to clearly convey information. People familiar with my writing wrote about my prose style. No matter what field you are planning to go into next, you will need others willing to speak on your behalf about those skills you are trying to showcase. You don’t need a website (although it would certainly help, especially if you’re interested in a career in communication). Ask for testimonials and have people post them on LinkedIn. Be prepared to write your own and send to others for approval. People are busy and may not have the time to write something for you. However you go about doing it, be gracious and don’t forget to thank them.
Further, I sent emails asking people for advice. Again, not many responded – I didn’t take it personally (you shouldn’t either). However, one correspondence led to another job. My postdoc was funded by a grant from the American Cancer Society (ACS). Not only did I do research, but I went to many ACS events where I spoke about our lab’s research, and people seemed to like the way I did that. I was put in touch with a communication manager at ACS for an informational interview. She asked about my experience and mentioned that they are always looking for freelance writers. Once she reviewed the articles on my website, I received my first assignment.
Leaving academia is stressful. There are a lot of emotions and a lot of uncertainty. This past year ranks as one of the most challenging I’ve encountered; yet, it is also one of the most exciting. Part of what drew me to a Ph.D. program in the first place was my insatiable desire for learning and uncovering truths. But years at the bench spent focusing on one incredibly small aspect of one problem squelched these desires. I wanted to reacquaint myself with the grandeur, poetry, and beauty of science. For me, that means pursuing science writing. I may not be making a lot of money and I may be anxious most days about what steps to take next, but I am happier and more fulfilled. Figure out what fulfillment means to you. Exploring other venues may help you to realize that you do, indeed, belong on the academic path. But it may also help you to discover latent parts of yourself that have been ignored or forgotten during the graduate school/postdoc process. Do your research (you surely know how), talk to others, build a community, and be proactive. Know that it will take time, but that it will be worth it (even the Ph.D.).
In 2014, Science reported that only about 15% of biomedical PhD researchers secured a tenure-track position, leaving 85% to figure out how to best apply their skills and training to “alternative” career paths. The NIH’s Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training [BEST] grants are designed to help universities expose graduate students and postdocs to non-academic research-related positions in domains such as policy, biotech, teaching, or science communications.
This past October, 17 awardees of the BEST grant came together in Bethesda, Maryland for their fourth annual conference to discuss how to successfully inform a burgeoning population of biomedical and life science graduate students and postdocs about careers beyond the traditional scope of tenure-track research.
The NIH created the BEST grant in 2012 to help recipient institutions train scientists for “nontraditional” career paths. In the subsequent year, Wayne State secured the $1.8 million, 5-year grant. “The funding is set up to provide faculty time to build a program, so after the 5 years of NIH support, hopefully the university will be committed to running this,” said Dr. Patricia Labosky, Program Leader at NIH’s Office of Strategic Coordination. These sentiments were echoed by the grant’s PI and Dean of the Graduate School, Dr. Ambika Mathur, in a 2014 press release: “The long-range goal is to institutionalize these practices so that our students become the next generation of innovators and leaders in science. The extended outcome of our program is to place students in diverse careers in addition to academia, and to educate the biomedical community that such diverse careers are viewed as desirable and successful outcomes of doctoral research training.”
Each awardee tailors their BEST program to suit their doctoral population. In the Midwest, in addition to Wayne State University, the University of Chicago and Michigan State University (MSU), also received the grant. At MSU, the program is a multi-year co-curricular experience, which takes into account its location in an area that is not heavily industrialized. Similar to Wayne State’s BEST program, which has a three-phase training plan that culminates in a career exploration or internship, the University of Chicago’s myChoice program is a multi-step curriculum designed to expose participants to a variety of career paths, such as entrepreneurship, teaching, policy, industry, communication, among other areas. Another feature of MyChoice is that programming is open to participants from other institutions in the Chicago area. (A full description of each BEST awardee’s program can be found on the NIH-BEST site.)
While the mission of the BEST grant seems straightforward enough, it poses a serious challenge to scientific training culture in academic institutions which has tended to view nonacademic careers as a lesser choice and failed to provide students and postdocs with information about other viable options. As a result, many doctoral students are often confused about their possible career trajectories once they make decisions to depart from the tenure-track route.
Where did this scientific training culture come from, and how can we help transform it to benefit the academic labor force while serving the scientific research enterprise?
An Academic Pyramid Scheme?
Over 50 years ago, Clark Kerr, president of the University of California, in a speech entitled The Uses of the University (1963), explained how historical forces have shaped the role of the university in society. The university was no longer cloistered, but now “a prime instrument of national purpose,” with its job to produce “new knowledge,” which was “the most important factor in economic and social growth.” He noted the deficiencies of sprawling universities, which included large classes that made researchers too busy to teach. He also warned of the possible negative impact of federal influence.
Paula Stephan, professor of economics at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University and Science Magazine’s 2012 Person of the Year, referred to the current graduate and postdoctoral training system as a “pyramid scheme” that uses young aspiring scientists as sources of cheap labor for grant-funded research, yet fails to reciprocate in the form of career opportunities. In How Economics Shapes Science, Stephan argues that federally funded academic research squashes innovation by probing “safe” questions. According to Science, “She shows why the demand for low-cost graduate students and even lower-cost postdocs is perpetual, insatiable, and out of proportion with subsequent career opportunities.”
Stephan’s work is an assessment of the culmination of those circumstances – historical, economical, and otherwise – that have brought us to this point. Despite her rather grim observations, however, there is an optimism inherent in the growing acknowledgement of the situation. As was clear at the NIH-BEST meeting this October, not only policy change but cultural change will be required to prevent the current system’s implosion, as well as to produce innovative research and to recultivate an atmosphere of reciprocity, as opposed to the lopsided relationship that most labs rely on to produce data cheaply and quickly. As Stephan notes in the Science article, now is the perfect time to discuss “the need to provide students with good information and help them explore alternatives early in their graduate career.”
The discussion is occurring and it can be quite vehement. Strategizing is underway whether or not academia is ready for it. At the NIH-BEST meeting, PhD students and postdoc delegates from BEST awardee institutions discussed their impressions of this culture and the “countercultural” influence of the BEST program in an open and frank conversation. Many praised the program for being a lifeline in an atmosphere where expressing interest in anything beyond the academic career track is still disparaged.
The NIH already acknowledges that federally funded students and postdocs should be actively engaging in career development. A clarification published in 2014 by the NIH’s Office of Management and Budget states that “this dual role is critical in order to provide Post-Docs [and graduate students] with sufficient experience and mentoring for them to successfully pursue independent careers in research and related fields.” This is a stipulation of all those supported by NIH grants. The problem is that in most training settings, little mentorship or direction outside of the traditional career trajectory that assumes a future academic position is provided.
Waiting for the “switch to flip”
At the NIH-BEST conference, a panel comprising graduate students and postdocs from the BEST awardee institutions discussed their impressions of academia, their experience with the BEST program, and what they perceived to be the biggest obstacles in eradicating the taboo associated with considering careers outside of academia. The discussion was enlightening, frank, and oscillated between palpable frustration and burgeoning hope.
One graduate student from a Midwest institution, who had previously worked in industry and who wanted a PhD to advance her career, discussed how swiftly and forcefully her perception changed when she got into graduate school: “I was blindsided … I really couldn’t understand why people weren’t giving me the information I was seeking. In some cases, the [principal investigators (PIs)] couldn’t help me. They’re trained to help people who want to go into academia.” She continued, “Our mentors, throughout our training, are PIs. Even if they want to help, they don’t think they can teach us anything more than academic careers. This is what makes us think that it’s either an academic career or not. Our mentors are paving the path for us down that one way.”
Natalie Cain, a postdoc from UC Davis, spoke of her experience as a graduate student and the hope that she would one day acquire the desire to pursue an academic career. Cain noted that, “The people above you are telling you that this is what you’re supposed to do and you’re just hoping that at some point the switch will flip and you’ll say, ‘Yes, I do want to work in a university.’ You might wait a long time for that switch to go and then when it doesn’t, you’re playing catch up.”
Waiting for the switch to flip often times leads to procrastination. Students, believing that eventually they’ll want to follow in the footsteps of their mentor, delay considering other options and pursuing career development opportunities. Ada Weinstock, a postdoc from NYU, suggested that high achievers who may be unsure of their options in the sciences go on to graduate school and postdoc positions in order to put off making a life decision for fear that it will be the wrong one. She noted that “We are so afraid of failing that we don’t want to make a decision … Give people tools to help them make a decision.” Heather Clancy, a graduate student from University of Colorado, summed up the problem perfectly: “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
Yet resistance to programs such as BEST is perplexing. Scientists are taught to evaluate all reasonable possibilities when designing and interpreting experiments, but they seem to possess blind spots for applying the same rationale to their own lives. Maybe herein lies the psychological crux of the problem: PhD programs attract dynamic overachievers who are both open-minded and perfectionists, searching for validation from mentors that may never come. Couple this with the natural propensity for scientists to evaluate all information before making a decision. The paucity of said information, as well as the robust disparagement of searching for it, creates a perpetual procrastination loop and a plume of postdocs unsure of where to funnel their energies.
Although a topic for another article, it is worth mentioning that the panel of BEST delegates at the conference was entirely female. Perhaps this was coincidental, but it may reflect the general frustration, unrest, and urgency that many women in STEM fields experience, who not only carry the burden of the under-funded and under-mentored academic system, but also the additional obstacles of unconscious bias and multitasking in the face of other life choices, such as motherhood. In fact, mothers are likely the most in need of choices outside of the traditional trajectory. Much like the persistent discouragement of pursuing careers outside of academia, women who are considering families must also guard this potentially stigmatized desire.
The Postdoc Holding Pattern
Oddly enough, the so-called “alternative path” is actually the dominant route taken by most. This is not due to a failure to “cut it,” but in most cases, a realization that one’s desired life path may be incompatible with what an academic career entails, as well as wanting to avoid the overwhelming uncertainty of securing sufficient funding and tenure in the future.
The numbers overwhelmingly corroborate the emergence of students deliberately veering away from academia. Melanie Sinche, director of education at The Jackson Laboratory and author of Next Gen PhD: A Guide to Career Paths in Science, surveyed just over 8,000 PhDs who graduated between 2004 and 2014: 22% were in tenure-track faculty positions and 13% in non-tenure track positions, leaving a whopping 65% in so-called “alternative” careers. Nearly 68% completed one postdoc and 27% two distinct postdocs (4% engaged in three or more). Maybe even more disconcerting, only 28% of the sample employed outside of the tenure-track felt the postdoc was required or preferred for employment in their current position (80% believed the PhD was necessary). These figures, presented at the NIH-BEST conference in October, led Ms. Sinche to conclude that a primary goal of the BEST program must be to discourage PhDs from using a postdoc position as a “holding pattern,” and to encourage them instead to engage in career decision-making earlier in their training.
Programs like BEST offer students and postdocs additional insight into other viable career options and help them to identify and cultivate transferable skills, the significance of which is often overlooked. It also turns the abstract “someday” into something real. It forces busy scientists to take the amorphous “future plans” off of the back burner (in a lab environment where it is often difficult to plan beyond the next experiment, committee meeting, or grant deadline) and thrusts it into the forefront.
Not everyone who enters the BEST program decides against academia. One postdoc from UCSF on the conference panel had her desire to become a tenure-track faculty member confirmed while participating. She may be a member of the most important contingent of BEST, because those who decide to stay in academia will be at the forefront of the cultural change. These future professors and lab directors will not foist their own career template on future generations of young scientists, but hopefully guide them to resources to help them make their own fulfilling life decisions.
In the meantime, current and future PhDs may find solace in Ms. Sinche’s survey, which found that the majority of PhDs are quite happy in their present positions (academic or otherwise). As I listened to the panel of inspiring and determined women at the conference, I knew that each would eventually find her own route even if she has to blaze through stagnant convention to get there.
As the program wound down, one student said, “This has been a long time coming. It is going to take a huge overhaul. The mindset will still be there in years to come, but we need programs like BEST to change the culture.” Indeed, it will have no choice but to change, fueled by programs like BEST, and inspiring people like the ones I met at this enlightening conference.
By: Lauren Tanabe
Dr. Seema Shah was a participant in the BEST program this past year and did an internship at Life Magnetics, Inc., in Detroit, Michigan. She will be working for Life Magnetics as a staff scientist after she is awarded her PhD in cancer biology in December 2016. Dr. Shah lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan.
I sat down with Seema Shah to discuss her experience as a graduate student, BEST participant, and about-to-be PhD from the cancer biology program at Wayne State University.
Seema first became aware of her love of science back in India in grade school, but it was as an undergraduate at Oakland University that it burgeoned into a strong desire to practice medicine. To improve her chances of getting into medical school, she applied for and received a grant for undergraduates to gain exposure to research. Working in the lab of Dr. Virinder Moudgil and studying the effects of hormones on cancer cells, she soon found herself questioning whether she wanted to go to medical school after all. Dr. Moudgil saw a scientist in Seema. Likewise, she was captivated by the research and sold on a new career path: “I liked studying cancer and the origin of disease – how normal cells become aberrant.” She also says, “after that I only wanted to study breast cancer. I loved the research and studying a disease that affects so many women.”
In the PhD program in cancer biology at Wayne State University, she worked with Dr. Raymond Mattingly, now chair of the department of pharmacology, to elucidate pathways underlying the transition from normal breast tissue to cancer.
Seema heard about the BEST program through fliers and emails. Before starting her PhD, she knew that she did not want to remain in academia – “I always knew I wanted work/life balance. My view of academia gradually changed over the years as I saw good scientists struggling to get funding. The unspoken rule of academia is that success requires giving up who you are and pushing yourself to the point of burnout, without rewards. And I saw the difficult funding situation many faced.”
Although she explored all of the alternative career possibilities, in the end she chose the industry track – “I chose this path because it is what most resonated with me. I wanted to do something more clinically applicable, for example, trying to find biomarkers for breast cancer. Also I like discovering things. I like saying, ‘I did this.’ ”
Seema started the BEST program with enthusiasm, but she became disheartened when she couldn’t find an internship. According to Seema, “One fine day, I received an email from Carmen Gamlin [then Career Services Director in the Graduate School] asking if I was still searching for internships. Serendipitously, she had just received information about an internship opportunity with Life Magnetics in Detroit to isolate biomarkers for cancer.” Life Magnetics was so impressed by Seema’s CV that she was awarded the position without having a formal interview. About the process Seema says, “It is a very unique situation.”
Life Magnetics is a small biotech startup with three employees (including Seema). It was founded in Detroit in 2013 by Dr. Kevin Hagedorn; the company strives to develop high-throughput assays that can detect biomarkers of various diseases, including cancer.
Seema conducted experiments in the Mattingly lab with reagents that were provided by Life Magnetics, in a mostly independent manner. As she notes, “This was the best way for me to work and I preferred to do it this way. I was very proactive and motivated to get results.” And all of her effort paid off – as the internship went so well that Life Magnetics made her an offer of employment as a staff scientist upon the completion of her degree.
Seema will begin as a scientist at the company in January 2017, after graduation, continuing the research she started during her internship. When asked about her impending exit from academia, she is mostly excited about being part of research that could yield valuable tools for disease diagnosis.
When she thinks back to a little over a year ago when she was faced with uncertainty and what seemed like little opportunity, Seema says that she is happy that things worked out the way they did. She thinks her qualities are more aligned with the goals of Life Magnetics.
So, after all the years of schooling, does she regret getting the PhD? “I’ll make it work,” she says, laughing. “It’s something I always wanted to do.” To those who may be wondering if the PhD is worth it, she says, “It is not in vain. Don’t ever regret it. Never doubt your life path.”
Seema Shah, PhD
BA: Spanish, Oakland University
BS: Biology, Oakland University
MS: Biology, Oakland University
PhD: Cancer Biology, Wayne State, 2016