By Paulina Krzyszczyk
Chris Lowe recently defended his Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering in July 2018. He was a founding member of the iJOBS blog and participated in many iJOBS events, including SciPhD and several industry site visits. He currently works at Shire as a Senior Upstream Development Engineer in Massachusetts.
1) First of all, congratulations Chris! You are an example for grad students in terms of securing a job offer before graduating. Can you tell us what your job search experience was like? What were some obstacles and how did you overcome them?
I had decided early on that I wanted to have a job lined up before I defended. When people say that finding a job is a full-time job itself, they’re absolutely right. It’s just as much work as finishing the Ph.D. and doing both at the same time requires you to start early and be very organized. I started looking at job descriptions for the types of positions I was interested in for 9-12 months before I planned to defend. I wasn’t ready to apply yet, but I wanted to get a feel for what I could expect those postings would look like when it came time to start submitting applications. This allowed me to do a lot of the work tailoring my resume lines ahead of time. This also gave me time to get organized to make the application process as quick and painless as possible. One of the things that I noticed was that some of the positions that seemed perfect for me were only open for a few days. By the time I got started on the application and adjusted my resume to fit the job description, sent them out for feedback, and made revisions, that position might be long gone. I didn’t want to get trapped in this situation, so I developed a large 4-5 page “resume bank” that included many detailed STAR statements for every possible piece of useful experience I could think of. When I would find a job description that I wanted to apply to, I would highlight the technical and non-technical skills they were looking for (like they taught us in SciPhD) and then build a fresh, one-page resume using only the pieces from my larger “resume bank” that would be attractive to the position. The goal here was to make it easy for my resume to make it through the automated resume filters, the HR screening, and quickly catch the eye of the hiring manager.
I started aggressively applying to positions six months before my intended defense date. Between January and May, I applied to ~30 jobs. Some of those applications went into black holes and I never heard back. This is going to happen no matter what, so keep your head up and always try to improve how you’re presenting yourself. For the job I eventually accepted, I applied online in January. I had two phone interviews with my company in March—one with an HR representative, and another with my eventual manager. I was then invited for a full-day, on site interview in late April where I was asked to present a 45-minute talk on my research and met with more than a dozen members of the team. After that I received an offer in late May, which I accepted. I defended my Ph.D. in early July and started my new job 6 days later. From application to offer, it took 4-5 months to go through the entire process.
2) What was your involvement with iJOBS, and is there anything specific that you were able to take away from the programmed events that helped you secure a job?
I was very fortunate to be at Rutgers when iJOBS was first getting started. The additional programming helped me solidify my career choice and better prepared me for the job search and to hit the ground running as a contributing engineer in my new role. The site visits, Phase 2 shadowing, and Sci-PhD course had the biggest impact on my development. Site-visits let me look inside some of the companies I was considering and talk with scientists and engineers who were doing the kind of work I was hoping to do. In fact, it was through connections I made during a site visit to Merck that eventually allowed me to set up my shadowing experience with the company’s upstream development and pilot plant teams. Ultimately these experiences confirmed for me that upstream process development was where I wanted to work after graduate school. Lastly, the Sci-PhD course was an invaluable set of trainings that provided a strong template on how to go about my job search and provided a practical outlet to exercise soft skills that are valued in the workplace.
3) What other activities were you involved in that helped you decide what you wanted to do after graduation?
Staying involved with the professional society, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), throughout graduate school provided additional opportunities to gain exposure to the pharmaceutical industry prior to graduating. Conference sessions, networking with my local section, online webinars, and other resources were valuable opportunities to make connections in my intended field. These events also helped me learn more of the basic entry-level knowledge ahead of time so I could speak competently about the technical aspects of process development during the hiring process.
4) How is work going so far? What are some differences and similarities between your work in industry versus your research at Rutgers?
Work is going great! The job is everything I had hoped it would be and more. Getting the extra exposure to biologics process development through iJOBS shadowing gave me a solid idea of what to expect and that’s been very helpful to me as I’ve gotten started. The biggest difference with the new job is the urgency. Things move fast in the new job and in the pharmaceutical industry as a whole, ultimately because there are patients in need who are waiting on life-altering or lifesaving drugs. In graduate school you can often take the extra time to run additional experiments to better characterize, or understand what you might be seeing from the data. In pharma, the timelines are aggressive and there are many different programs happening all at the same time using the same equipment and resources. Sometimes you might need to make a decision based on the data you have at the time, whether or not you might like additional data points to be more confident in your decision. You need to rely on your skills as a scientist, past experiences from yourself and the team, and good science to help the group make the best judgement to advance the project.
5) Any advice for current graduate students—whether they are finishing up and looking for jobs or are even earlier on in their studies?
Keep your head up! Your Ph.D. will end eventually. With the job search make sure you start early and do not get discouraged. If you’re not ready to start applying for jobs, seek out additional experiences and trainings to set you apart when the time comes. Make connections in your intended field and make use of them through informational interviews. People are usually happy to talk about what they do and you never know if additional opportunities might come from those relationships as they develop (shadowing, internships, job referrals). The more you learn and practice now, the more you can demonstrate in an interview. Lastly, trust in your training as research scientists. You have much more to offer to a potential employer than just expertise in your specific thesis. Don’t sell yourself short on your resume!
Chris, thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us and the practical tips you learned along the way. Best of luck in your career!
This post was edited by Fatu Badiane Markey.