PhD Career Exploration Fellow Spotlight: Theresa Patten (Hosted by The Franklin Institute)

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. Theresa Patten, a PhD candidate in Pharmacology, was placed as a Fellow with the Franklin Institute. Read about her experience in the CEF below!

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

As a CEF fellow, I had the privilege to work with Dr. Jayatri Das, the Chief Bioscientist at the Franklin Institute. Dr. Das’s leadership skills were immediately evident. She welcomed my participation in meetings, provided honest feedback, and entrusted me with meaningful tasks from day one. I started my fellowship by helping to organize an event focused on diversity and inclusion in clinical trials. Unfortunately, the event had to be cancelled due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. The COVID-19 pandemic led to stay-at-home orders, which led to considerable changes not just for my fellowship, but for the Franklin Institute at large. Science museums typically generate 60-70% of their revenue through ticket sales, so the advent of COVID-19 and social distancing led to budget cuts, layoffs, and generally stressful times for Dr. Das. Even in these unpredictable and upsetting times, I felt prioritized and helpful. Dr. Das reached out fairly early on in the stay-at-home order and asked if I could help the Franklin Institute with their shift towards an increased social media presence. I researched the reasoning behind “6 feet” as the rule of thumb for social distancing, which was translated into social media posts by graphic artists, and I was able to write a blog post about the effect of stress on the immune system which was featured on the Franklin Institute’s website. I learned so much about science museums, my own abilities, (and even how far spit can travel!) as a Career Exploration Fellow. I owe a great deal of gratitude to both UPenn Career Services and Dr. Das at the Franklin Institute for this wonderful experience.

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

As I approached the end of my doctoral studies, I began to question two things: (1) what skills could I possibly transfer to a workplace and (2) how do I choose a career that will make me happy. I can gently place a mouse into a series of behavioral apparatuses and I can even perform miniature brain surgery, but I had little confidence that these skills would be useful if I left academia. My experiences working with Dr. Das at the Franklin Institute challenged these fears and misconceptions. When Dr. Das asked me to write an event summary, I found that I could pull skills from years of writing abstracts. Then, when I was asked to research why “socially distant” is defined as 6 feet, I was able to quickly read through and summarize unfamiliar literature thanks to hundreds of hours spent on PubMed skimming scientific articles. Being challenged by, but fairly easily overcoming these tasks made me realize that I will be prepared for a career outside of academia, if that is what I choose. I entered the Career Exploration Fellowship (CEF) still interested in pursuing my dream: a career at a teaching-focused institution. However, I have always feared that if this “plan A” didn’t pan out that I would settle for an alternative career and be unhappy. By being placed at the Franklin Institute, the CEF allowed me to explore a non-formal educational space and helped me to see that this fear was invalid. I felt that even my small contributions at the Franklin Institute were important. I was invigorated by the ability to contribute to science education in a new way, and I was learning and being challenged by every assignment. Ultimately, I left the CEF feeling more confident in my abilities as a professional and more open to multiple career paths.

How does your CEF experience benefit your future career plans?

The CEF experience benefited my future career plans in a unique way. Although one might perceive that the fellowship would only benefit those looking exclusively to transition out of academia, for me the CEF encouraged me to pursue my dream of being a professor at a teaching-focused institution. However, it also alleviated some of the intense fear that I felt as I embark upon this extremely competitive career path. I thought that if I couldn’t be a professor, I would work for industry, try out consulting, or end up in another job that didn’t excite me. The CEF allowed me to see that there are other options and other careers that I can be passionate about. While I worked with Dr. Jayatri Das at the Franklin Institute, I was able to explore a more informal type of science education that occurs outside of the classroom. I learned how challenging and fun this type of teaching, communication, and outreach can be, especially given that much of the fellowship occurred during the lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the close of my time as a Career Exploration Fellow, I am finding that I’m putting a lot less pressure on myself that there is only one path towards a fulfilling career.

What was the most valuable part of your CEF experience?

The most valuable part of the CEF experience for me was my interactions with my mentor, Dr. Jayatri Das, and the increased contact with the Career Services Office. In particular, having one-on-one career advising sessions is something I might not have blocked out the time to do otherwise, but I found it immensely helpful as I prepare for my upcoming graduation.

Top reason PhD students should apply to the CEF?

To achieve greater clarity around your career options, goals, and the path forward to achieve them.

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