Beyond Academia: What I’ve learned coordinating Penn’s PhD Career Exploration Fellowship 2020

 Let me briefly walk you through a ubiquitous experience for PhD graduate students. It’s the holiday season, you’re home from break visiting your extended family, and as you’re scarfing down your 6th peanut butter cookie, you strike up a seemingly innocent conversation with your aunt. The conversation might go something like this; you both exchange a cordial “Hi, how are you?” and then -WHAM, before you know it- “so when are you going to be done school?,” proceeded quickly by “wow, I thought you’d already been there for 3 years” and then promptly followed with  “well, what are you going to do after?” Her question is well-meaning but you sigh, almost audibly, before answering politely. And after it’s over, all you can do is reach for your 7th cookie, refill your glass of wine, and hope that, by some miracle you get sat at the kids table for dinner, where the conversation will likely revolve around the most popular TikTok videos.

  Over winter break, I personally engaged in this dialogue no less than a dozen times. I’m Kate, and I am now halfway through my 3rd year in the Biomedical Sciences- Pharmacology program at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. I work in the lab of Mariella De Biasi, studying the neuropharmacology of nicotine and opioid addiction. To this end, I utilize a really awesome, but really hard to explain technique called fiber photometry, which essentially allows me to examine real-time changes in the brains of mice in response to drugs. Even in my 3rd year, trying to explaining fiber photometry and the brain, without sounding convoluted, is a constant challenge.

    However this year, instead of trying to delve deeper into the complexities of the brain with an uncle who works in marketing, I got to pivot the conversation. And that’s thanks to my new position, and the reason I’m writing this blog post. In September, as I scrolled through my emails one Monday morning, I came across an email calling for applications for “Penn’s PhD Professionalism Fellow”. The word fellow immediately caught my eye (I was in desperate need of a resume update) as did the job description, which called for someone who had skills in writing for a broad audience, enjoyed learning and relationship building, and would be able to coordinate a semester long program aimed at allowing graduate students to explore non-faculty career paths.  

   Not only did this description encapsulate my personality and strengths, but I was excited by the opportunity to help Penn promote non-tenure track career exploration. I have always appreciated Penn’s openness when it comes to graduate students pursuing diverse, and sometimes non-typical, careers. When I first came to Penn for my interview weekend nearly 3 years ago, I was nervous to field questions about my career goals. Even before I had submitted my applications, I felt strongly that, while I loved learning about science and doing research, I did not want to become a professor or run my own lab. But my nervousness was quickly relieved when, sitting in the introductory information session prior to my interviews, the chair of the Pharmacology graduate group proudly displayed a “where are the alumni now?” pie-chart, with significant portions comprised of non-faculty jobs, ranging from medical writing to patent law to pharmaceutical industry.

  I reasoned that this fellowship position would allow me to simultaneously support other graduate students career exploration as well as improve my own professional skill-set and networking, a task for which mice can unfortunately provide little to no help.  Within the week I had applied, was interviewed and hired. I promptly added “Penn’s PhD Professionalism Fellow” to my email signature, confused my entire family when I announced I “had a new job” and walked into the McNeil Building to meet the Career Services graduate student team.

   I cannot overstate how satisfying this experience has been thus far and how much I have enjoyed the various aspects of this role. I’ve discovered jobs I didn’t know existed and been excited by the prospect of pursuing these jobs post-graduate school. I’ve improved upon my communication and writing skills. I’ve come to appreciate the art of a follow-up-email (or three, or four), because, contrary to my previous beliefs, unresponsiveness can often be remedied with persistence. I’ve learned about the variety of resources that Career Services offers graduate students, from 1:1 advising meeting to Strengths Quest Diagnostics and mock interviews. I’ve been both comforted and inspired meeting with, and listening to, PhD’s explain their, often non-linear, career histories. And finally, I’ve had the privilege of working with a team at career services that is enthusiastic, encouraging, and supportive. 

  I am eager to kick off the new year opening the application for the Career Exploration Fellowship and look forward to the opportunity to engage with and guide graduate students through this program. I encourage all PhD graduate students, no matter what year or stage in your graduate work you may be, to apply. If nothing else, I can promise that by applying you too will be able to successfully pivot the “what are you going to do after” conversation at your next family gathering. And that, in itself, should be motivating.  

By Katherine Webb
Katherine Webb