Throughout September, Career Services is hosting a series of online chats with graduate alumni working in STEM fields. On September 16th, we heard from a cell & molecular biology PhD graduate who is working at Incyte as a research investigator. Below is a summary of her experiences and advice for current Penn graduate students.
How she began to think about a career in industry/how she explored the interest
- She attended college in the UK, where undergrad is only 3 years and had limited opportunities for elective coursework. She spent a year doing research at Oxford on cystic fibrosis, which would have led to a dissertation in neuroscience. She was more interested in cancer biology, and so decided to purse a PhD at Penn
- She knew she was interested in a career in industry – specifically pharma – as she liked the practical applications of science to human medicine. She recognized that many people working in pharma hit a ceiling without a PhD
- Her dissertation was very collaborative but the team hit a lot of roadblocks in their research – they had to pivot their focus which led to work in immunotherapy. In the end, it took longer to finish the dissertation but she gained valuable skills along the way – sometimes snafus in research can pay off!
- Consulting was a bit of an interest during her PhD – she looked into the field through student organizations at Penn, but ultimately knew that she wanted her day to day work to be rooted in science, so pharma made more sense
- Her lab allowed her to spend a summer doing an internship at Pfizer – she worked on gene sequencing for a vaccine program. A former Penn faculty member ran the program and provided the connection – she did a lot of this work in her thesis, so it was a good fit. Her PI let her go for the summer but there was some pushback – this is to be expected! It is important to emphasize what the benefit is to both you and the PI – a good lesson in advocating for yourself and in managing expectations
- During her last two years of her PhD, a lot of time was spent networking. Lots of informational interviews with bench scientists as she explored whether she wanted or needed to do a postdoc first
- She explored wet bench work opportunities as well as data science – felt data science would have been a steeper learning curve initially – bench work allowed her to hit the ground running
- As a part of her informational interviews, she became acquainted with a Penn alum who worked for Incyte after they connected on LinkedIn. She was earlier in her PhD and not looking for opportunities, so she offered to help publicize job listings to Penn students – when a job came through that fit her skills, she already had an internal connection
How she applied/the structure of the application and interview process
- “Cannot emphasize enough the power of networking” – when she saw the position posted, her networking contact was able to make an internal referral for her to the position
- Being proactive really helped – her internal contact later got a referral bonus once she was hired
- Job was posted in December – graduation scheduled for May – she spoke to her PI in December about timing of applications and interviews
- In January, she interviewed initially with HR – this was less about science and looking at “soft skills” – this is when HR narrows down the candidates to bring in
- Next had a phone interview with the hiring manager (scientist) – this is to see if science skills were a good fit for the role and was a 30 minute conversation
- She was one of 3-5 finalists considered – would have been an entire day in-person, but timing was when COVID hit so was changed to virtual day
- Day started with HR, then a 45 minute talk about her research with questions. Then 10 individual interviews of 30 minutes each – very science focused. Her advice – practice the talk many times ahead of time with colleagues!
- Offer came soon after the final interview day – she was able to negotiate a 10% bump in salary – do not be shy about negotiating!
Advice for informational interviews
- Look for people everywhere – she met a lot of people through her church. She shared with people at church what she was looking for, and they in turn put her in touch with connections they had
- Prepare 2-3 questions for each informational interview – research who you are talking to BEFORE you speak with them so you can ask informative questions – LinkedIn is a great place to do this
- If you have a good conversation with someone, ask them if they know other people for you to chat with
- Keep an excel spreadsheet of who you have talked to and when – very helpful as you amass contacts over time
- Lots of articles and training on LinkedIn – she also joined the Cheeky Scientist to get resume help
Did she need specific skills?
- Showcase the skills that you DO have
- It is difficult to market yourself as a generalist in cell/molecular – everyone has a specialty – you do need to look for jobs in which you have specific skills
- Industry postdocs have less specific skill requirements
- Don’t underestimate “soft skills” – communication, teamwork, leadership – school extracurriculars can be a great place to build and demonstrate these – she helped to organize a career fair for cancer biology – learned a lot by participating
How and when to apply
- Start early – far, far in advance – even before you are ready to be applying – it will help you to know what is out there
- Update your resume/CV constantly – also LinkedIn – will save lots of time later
- Most pharma firms are looking to fill positions soon – so applying with more than 6 months to go isn’t helpful
- She used a 2 page resume style document to apply – not her full CV – you need to highlight your skills as opposed to your educational background – change your application documents according to what you are applying to – this cannot be overstated!
- Some pharma roles (but not all) want a postdoc first – this was her plan B – this is more important in drug discovery roles. There are many conflicting opinions on whether a postdoc is necessary…generally you will see:
- Research investigator – entry level and no postdoc needed
- Senior research investigator – need postdoc if entry level and no previous industry experience
- Principal – industry experience important, not postdoc
What she does now as a research investigator
- This is an entry level position and most people do not have postdocs
- She spends 80-90% of her day on wet bench research; other 10% on presentations – over time this will shift to more like 50/50
- She does not have direct reports right now – she reports to the lab director
Transitioning from academia to industry
- Very team driven – everyone has an assigned role – she needs to understand what others roles are about and to know how things work
- She has enough freedom that she does not need a lot of help to accomplish what she needs to – she is learning a lot about the matrix organization
- Her work is done in person – due to COVID they are working in shifts – challenging because sometimes the person she needs to ask a question of is not in the office and she needs to track them down
- Be ready for change – after she accepted her offer, Incyte went through a restructuring and so she is working for someone who did not participate in her interviews
Future plans and hiring in the next few months
- Her goal is to stay on the management trajectory
- There has been a lot of turnover – pharma is hiring and COVID has not really negatively impacted the industry
- Good luck!