Life After STEM: Career Landscapes and Opportunities Following your PhD

By: Shawn Rumrill

So you’re a STEM graduate student now, congratulations! But what does that mean for your future? On September 15th, the Rutgers iJOBS program hosted a special seminar – RU Life Sciences Leadership Paths to the Future – focused on answering that very question. Academia is often thought to be the default career for a PhD student, but according to SmartScienceCareer it turns out that only 10% of PhD graduates stay in academia and about 3% become professors. For many PhD students, the stress of applying and being accepted into a graduate program is only the beginning. The first few years are dominated by juggling coursework, choosing a lab, preparing for qualifiers, and laying out dissertation plans. Afterward, the anxiety only temporarily subsides before roaring back with increasing ferocity, and many start to wonder: “How will I leave my mark as a graduate student and define my path for the future?” To provide some insight into this, students heard from a man who has been there and done it all, Dr. James Cappola. 

Just as many of you reading this blog, Dr. Cappola began his illustrious career with a foundation built at Rutgers University. His journey started at the Waksman Institute in 1967 where he studied the interdisciplinary subjects of Immunochemistry and Microbiology. For his dissertation, Dr. Cappola sought to uncover the cellular basis for acquired immunological tolerance (i.e AIDS). Remarkably, he published this work 10 years before the discovery of AIDS during the early years of the emerging HIV pandemic, essentially predicting what was to come. During his hiatus from academia, Dr. Cappola earned his MD, propelling himself into the field of drug development through pre-clinical and non-clinical pharmacology. 

After discussing his academic and early professional experience, Dr. Cappola continued his presentation by introducing his experience in supervising clinical trials and explaining their general process. He related this work to the COVID-19 pandemic and explained that while the COVID-19 pandemic and government-funded “project warp-speed” may make vaccine and drug development seem quick and easy, this isn’t typically the case. Traditionally, Dr. Cappola said it can take upwards of 10 years for a drug product to pass through phase I – IV clinical trials with thoroughly designed studies having been carried out to determine the safety and efficacy of drug candidates. Fast forward to today, with the immense government funding provided and the health as well as normalcy of everyday life at stake across the world, COVID-19 vaccine development has passed through these various sequential phases without following the tradition drug product approval paradigm. Though not compromising the overall safety of drug candidates, this upends the typical clinical trial process.

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Credit CERN Foundation clinical trial phases https://www.cern-foundation.org/education/clinical-trials/clinical-trial-phases

Dr. Cappola has had a diverse career journey and spent much of his life working on a complicated pipeline of clinical trial studies. Continuing his journey, he worked as a Safety Officer and Medical Director at The Harvard Clinical Research Institute, where he was responsible for the cardiology clinical safety monitoring of a dual antiplatelet therapy (DAPT) study intended to limit the major adverse cardiac or cerebrovascular events from drug-eluting coronary stents. Drawing on his immunological foundation, Dr. Cappola’s task was daunting: to determine the myriad of causalities for hospital readmissions in this trial. This resulted in the development of a Risk Calculator App that clinicians could use to determine the risk/benefit ratio of DAPT. In addition to cardiology, he also studied neurology and helped bring Methylphenidate (Ritalin) to market in 2001 with FDA approval to treat ADHD in children. But his work didn’t stop there.

Finally, Dr. Cappola spent a great deal of time investigating Parkinson’s disease and it’s predictability through the gut microbiome. As Medical Director at Boehringer-Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals in 2008, he ran a Phase IIIB study comparing GI and CNS symptoms with neurological imaging to measure the progression of Parkinson’s disease in the presence of a dopamine agonist, Mirapex. He also studied Alpha-synuclein, a protein abundant in the brain and known to form Lewy bodies, which are insoluble fibril aggregates known to contribute to pathologies such as Parkinson’s disease or dementia. Dr. Coppola also found that enteric, or gastrointestinal alpha-synuclein pathology resulting from decreased GI motility may be a predictor of Parkinson’s disease. Beyond this work, he has also contributed to Hepatitis B vaccine development, and device/biologic product studies for orthopedics.  

“…graduating with a PhD in a specific field does not relegate one to that field and, in fact, actually allows for many different ways to pivot one’s professional direction.”

Dr. Cappola has demonstrated several things through his long list of accomplishments. The first is that, through his many experiences and the foundation he built at Rutgers, hard work opens the door to a plethora of opportunities. Secondly, graduating with a PhD in a specific field does not relegate one to that field and, in fact, actually allows for many different ways to pivot one’s professional direction. With that in mind, this begs the question, what career opportunities are available to Rutgers students now? Dr. Cappola mentioned the following:

  • PharmD: Clinical trial management
  • PhD: Clinical research, drug development, FDA careers
  • Biomedical Engineering (BME): medical devices, prosthetics
  • Medicine (MD): MD/PhD researcher
  • Public Health (MPH): Government jobs in the FDA or homeland security, academia
  • Law Degree (JD): Patent law, big pharma

With so many opportunities available after graduate school, it seems that we can rest assured in our potential for success as graduate students. But how is it that we can stay competitive as grad students, both before and after earning our degrees? Moreover, how can we forge pathways to successful careers, especially if that involves changing fields?

Dr. Cappola ended his presentation helping students to answer the aforementioned questions with some words of wisdom:

Firstly, he stated that we must be flexible. A big help in this regard is to always go back to our core training. In his case, this was Immunology and through examples of his work, we can see how this has proven a pervasive theme throughout his career. Dr. Janet Alder, iJOBS co-director, provided her opinion in this regard as well, reminding students that a PhD or professional degree gives us the tools to approach problems logically, and therein lies its true value. As Dr. Cappola mentioned, science changes daily and we must change with it as well. 

Secondly, he stated that we must have an open mind. In many cases, PhD students are already doing work in fields in which they never thought they would work (i.e inorganic chemists becoming champion cancer fighters, and biochemists becoming warriors for renewable energy).

Moreover, The National Academic Press reports that STEM graduate students, more than ever, hold jobs in a variety of different fields and furthermore, these students are increasingly sought after to pursue careers in government, law, and policy. This is exemplified in Dr. Cappola’s work as he shifted from immunology in his PhD, to neurology, cardiology, the microbiome and drug development in his career. While these fields are superficially very different, they are all rooted in understanding the biological response of the human body (immunology) when homeostatic mechanisms are perturbed and the resulting pathological consequences. 

To these points Kathy Scotto, Rutgers Vice Chancellor for Research at RBHS, followed up by asking how students could make these career changes and stand out from other applicants during the transition. Dr. Cappola’s advice: do an externship, learn new skills, be open to new opportunities, put yourself out there, and network! These are valuable pieces of advice that  have been demonstrated through Dr. Capolla’s work. 

“You are at the best place you could possibly be right now– Rutgers getting your PhD!”

Dr. Jim Cappola

As the panel came to a close, I had one final question for Dr. Cappola: “It seems like there are so many options in front of graduate students and a real fear is choosing the ‘right’ path or finding one’s passion, what advice do you have?” To this he replied that “as we mature our passions may change or our environment may pressure this change as a sort of natural selection. We can’t be afraid to adapt and follow where those changes lead us. There is no perfect path or guarantee and our decisions now don’t necessarily determine our futures. There will be technologies that we haven’t even conceived in just a few years, so be adaptable – the scientific method doesn’t change, it’s how you apply it.” Left with one parting word, Dr. Cappola reminded us all “You are at the best place you could possibly be right now– Rutgers getting your PhD!” Take it from the man who has been there and done it all. 

This Article was edited by Keyaara Robinson and Brianna Alexander

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