PhD Career Exploration Fellow Spotlight: Nathan Frey (Hosted by Merck — Quantitative Biosciences)

In the spring of 2020, 36 PhD students from a range of academic disciplines at Penn participated in Career Services’ PhD Career Exploration Fellowship (CEF) program, where they were matched with a host organization in Philadelphia to learn about different careers beyond academia. Nathan Frey, a PhD candidate in Materials Science and Engineering, was placed as a Fellow with Merck – Quantitative Biosciences. Read about his experience in the CEF below!

What was your fellowship experience like working with your host? What activities did you engage in?

I had a great experience working with my host, Marla Watt, who is a Principal Scientist at Merck. During the fellowship, I had 12 informational interviews with senior scientists and postdocs across many different departments at Merck. As I learned more about drug discovery and the functions of each department, Marla connected me to colleagues who could give me a primer on their work, educational backgrounds, and what life is like at Merck. I’m hoping to be able to travel to the Merck campus before I graduate to have some in-person meetings and tour their facilities.

What did you learn from this opportunity (about yourself, about career fields, the job search, etc.)?

Merck is a huge multinational company with over 70,000 employees and almost $10 billion in annual R&D expenses, and from the outside looking in it is somewhat difficult to comprehend. I talked to experts in every part of the drug discovery process, from identifying treatment targets to clinical trials. Almost all the scientists I spoke with at Merck have PhDs, so they were able to give me their perspectives on the biggest differences between industry and academia, and how to successfully move from graduate research to an industry research environment.

How does your CEF experience benefit your future career plans?

Not only do I now have a much better understanding of career opportunities in the pharmaceutical industry, I also have specific roles that I know I am interested in pursuing.

What was the most valuable part of your CEF experience?

The network of contacts within Merck has definitely been the most valuable part of the fellowship experience. I am connected with scientists across the company who are incredibly helpful, friendly, and willing to answer career questions and put me in touch with their colleagues. The experience of building this professional network is great practice as well, since I had no prior experience networking outside of academia.

Top reason PhD students should apply to the CEF?

A PhD prepares you for so many things: you develop technical skills, domain expertise, and probably most importantly, you learn how to learn. However, most PhD programs do not prepare you directly for what comes next. The CEF is a great opportunity to put your skills to work and learn about the value your PhD has outside of academia.

For more information about Career Services’ PhD Career Exploration Fellowship, please visit our program webpage here.

By Helen Pho
Helen Pho Associate Director, Graduate Students & Postdocs