PhD Career Exploration Fellow Spotlight: Varun Bahl (Hosted by Merck – Quantitative Biosciences)

In the spring of 2022, 34 PhD students from a range of academic disciplines at Penn participated virtually in Career Services’ PhD Career Exploration Fellowship (CEF) program, where they were matched with a host organization to learn about different careers beyond the professoriate. Varun Bahl, a PhD candidate in Neuroscience, was placed as a Fellow with Merck’s Quantitative Biosciences department. Read about Varun’s experience in the CEF below!

Headshot of Varun Bahl

Describe your experience working with your host:

My host, Dr. Marla Watt, was a fantastic mentor during the CEF program. We set up an initial meet-and-greet for us to acquaint ourselves: Marla was eager to learn more about my interest and goals for the program, and I was excited to learn more about her background, career trajectory, and current role as Principal Scientist in the Quantitative Biosciences department at Merck. Throughout the fellowship, she connected me with several members of her extensive network at Merck – spanning several functional groups – to conduct informational interviews. To complement the insights from these interviews, Marla hosted additional informational sessions to outline the drug discovery process and how the Quantitative Biosciences department supports programs across their pre-clinical lifetime at Merck.

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

I have a much greater appreciation for the similarities and differences between working in academic and industry research, and how my PhD would be valuable in pursuing a career in either environment. Additionally, I have learned that pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship would serve as a valuable opportunity to demonstrate tangible subject matter expertise and broaden research opportunities in the industry.

How does your CEF experience benefit your future career plans?

The CEF program was an excellent opportunity to engage with industry professionals who could share their expertise and insights as to how they themselves navigated their transition between academic and industry research.

What was the most valuable part of your CEF experience?

(1) Building meaningful relationships with extremely knowledgeable and insightful industry professionals at Merck. As a result, I feel significantly more confident in exploring career paths outside of academia. (2) Workshops facilitated by Penn Career Services throughout the fellowship – including strategies for informational interviews, leveraging your strengths, and crafting a strong resume and Linkedin profile. Following these workshops, I better understand how to best position myself for the job application and interview process.

Top reason PhD students should apply to the CEF:

The CEF program helps facilitate non-academic career exploration, which may help PhD students make informed decisions about prospective career paths following graduation.

By Jacob Myers
Jacob Myers 2021-2022 PhD Professional Development Fellow, Career Exploration Fellowship Program