STEM Alumni Spotlight – Merck

Throughout September, Career Services is hosting a series of online chats with graduate alumni working in STEM fields.  On September 22nd, we heard from a chemical sciences master’s graduate who is working as a specialist in the Global Vaccine Technical Operations at Merck.  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

  • Longstanding interests in science and in medicine; but unsure whether she wanted to pursue clinical or research work
  • Chose chemical sciences program as it allowed her to take the same coursework as PhD students and to explore interests; this helped her to decide not to pursue a PhD but left her unsure if she was more interested in research or medical school
  • During her final year of graduate school, she applied to roles both in pharma and in consulting, and the interview process helped solidify an interest in pharma

How she applied/the structure of the application and interview process

  • Found her initial role at Merck on Penn’s Handshake system – this was a contract scientist research & development role in manufacturing which did not require a PhD
  • Starting as a contractor is a very common pathway into Merck – she enjoyed this path as it allowed her to explore her interests very easily – everyone knew it was a temporary role and she was able to freely explore other roles
  • She applied through Handshake, as the contractor had been specifically been looking for someone from Penn
  • 1 month after she applied, she had a phone screen with a recruiter, which was focused on behavioral questions
  • This led to a day long on site interview at the Merck site in Virginia – this day was very intense and included several interviews with 2-3 senior scientists at a time and lunch with peers. Very technically-oriented questions
  • Offer came a few weeks later – paid by the hour and with no benefits – she enjoyed being paid by the hour as the team was very busy and she was able to earn a lot of overtime
  • After a few months as a contractor, she realized that she wanted to work for Merck full time and she was able to make a lot of connections through her supervisors and peers, who assisted her. She was technically treated as an external candidate but her applications moved quickly
  • Eventually received 3 offers from 3 different groups in different cities – she was able to negotiate easily and accepted her top choice

Advice for interviewing/how and when to apply

  • She started applying 9 months before graduation – this was likely too early and 6 months would have been better timing – the entire process takes longer than you think so be patient!
  • She applied to 120 jobs total (Career Services note – this is A LOT!) – these led to 20 1st round interviews, 5-6 final round interviews, and 2 offers
  • For consulting interviews, she did some practice cases with peers from PBG
  • Reviewed her orgo and biochemistry textbooks to make sure she knew what kind of language to use
  • Spend time reviewing your resume again, and to be able to talk about everything that you have on your resume
  • She did not negotiate the contractor role – this was a mistake and she recommends all students negotiate – she was much more confident when she applied for full time job
  • All interviewing is remote right now – this lacks personal contact and visual feedback
  • You should ALWAYS turn your camera on, even if interviewers do not
  • Dress professionally for virtual interviews – for one she needed to get up and move something, and was glad she was not wearing sweatpants

How she was involved as a student at Penn, and how this helped her

  • Active member of Women in Chemistry – participated in their career sessions
  • Joined the Penn Biotech Group Healthcare Consulting (, where she worked on a semester-long project; this solidified that she did not want to do consulting
  • Volunteered at HUP – great experience overall
  • Took opportunities to present her work whenever possible – this is invaluable in the interviewing process; really helped her to be able to talk about her research

Did she need specific skills?

  • Her work is very bench based, so for this role, she did need specific skills

Transitioning from academia to industry

  • Thought she needed the “perfect” role out of school – she learned through her contracting role that everyone comes from different backgrounds and lots of people make career changes – whatever you end up doing after graduation does not have to dictate the rest of your career

Future plans and hiring in the next few months

  • She is starting a new role now, which will take her away from the bench somewhat – the new role is 100% remote, which is not typical for this type of work, so she will go back in person (maybe in 2021?) – but depending on the nature of the work, some people may work from home indefinitely
  • She works in vaccines, and this is VERY busy right now – lots of hiring
  • Had thought she might go on to medical school, but she is enjoying her work and shelved that plan for now
  • She wants to be able to continue to “ride the line” between research and development

See the notes from our alumni chat with Incyte here!

See the notes from our alumni chat with Pfizer here!

By Dianne Hull
Dianne Hull Senior Associate Director, Graduate Students & Postdocs