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

iJOBS Career Panel: Data Science

By Janaina Pereira and Tomas Kasza

“There is a sea of data and it might be useful to learn how to sail on it.”

In the past few years, we have generated a gigantic amount of data. Technologies such as next-generation sequencing, digitalization, cloud computing, and even smartphones have provided a massive amount of data. This data has become more and more accessible. If you stop and think about what you did today, you may find that you have contributed many drops into this sea of data. The picture you have posted on social media about your lunch, the review that you have written about a new favorite restaurant, your opinion about that new trending cosmetic on a survey or even the digital form that you filled out in a doctor’s appointment. All of these data points can be very useful to answer different questions, you just have to learn how to use them. For instance, the picture you posted on your social media account can be used to help identify faces or food. Data science is a field that uses specific strategies to find meaningful information in big data.  As data generation has increased over the years, the need for a professional to extract meaning from data has arisen in companies across diverse industries. Therefore, data scientists have become experts with in-demand skills. To learn more about this growing field, iJOBS recently promoted a panel about this subject, where data scientists with different backgrounds discussed their career paths.

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Image source: https://resources.whitesourcesoftware.com/blog-whitesource/bigger-data-bigger-problems-three-major-challenges-in-big-data-security

The event started with a quick talk from each one of the speakers about their respective career paths and backgrounds. The first speaker was Dr. Ariella Sasson, a Senior Research Investigator at Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS). She has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a Ph.D. in computational biology from Rutgers University. Her Ph.D. work was focused on the technical and analytical aspects of Next Generation Sequencing. At BMS, Dr. Sasson often develops pipelines and storage solutions for genomics, transcriptomics, and proteomics from preclinical and clinical datasets, work that allowed her to develop expertise in how to extract information from big data.

Next was Dr. Yodit Seifu, a Senior Principal Scientist at Merck, who holds a Ph.D. in statistics from the University of Toronto. She started working on oncology in the pharmaceutical industry and over the following 19 years has built up an impressive background in data analysis for Phase I-IV clinical trials and registries. Currently, in her role at Merck, she is responsible for providing statistical support to the Safety and Risk Management group.

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Image source: https://bvijtech.com/big-data-future-of-big-data/

Then we heard from Dr. Matthew Koh who works at Bloomberg as a Machine Learning Engineer.  He holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Before changing careers, Dr. Koh participated in the Insight Data Science Program in 2017, which helped him to achieve his position at Bloomberg.

Finally, we heard from Dr. Alexander Izaguirre, a Chief Data Officer and Sr. Assistant Vice President at New York City Health and Hospital. Dr. Izaguirre holds a Ph.D. in viral immunology from Rutgers University and started his career in academia as an assistant professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Later on, he transitioned to an IT leadership position at New Jersey Medical School and Executive Director of the Office of Information Technology at Rutgers University. In 2013, Dr. Izaguirre founded his own start-up called “Aprenda Systems,” which is focused on solving data challenges between payers, providers, and hospitals through the use of big data. Throughout his career, Dr. Izaguirre has received many awards on technology and innovation.

Data, the next Frontier

In the second part of the event, we listened to how a diverse set of panelists had found themselves at the forefront of the data frontier. Several of the panelists had obtained their Ph.D. before the data revolution had been kicked off. Now they find themselves leading teams to try and extract meaning from the seemingly endless and vast data sets that are being generated. Most of the panelists had graduated a decade or more before this panel occurred, so they described their current management and hiring problems. Shockingly, the panelists reiterated how coding experience, while appreciated, was not required on an application. Employers are in search of passionate employees who have a desire to seek out training themselves.

There was a noticeable sigh of relief from the audience when the panelists said how programming experience was not required. Many of the audience members were afraid that coding would be a prerequisite to applying for a job as a data scientist. The panelists explained that while employees could be taught the necessary programming skills, those same employees could not be taught how to be passionate about data and data analysis. The panelists did mention, however, that there is a coding interview for some jobs, but the test can easily be passed with basic programming training. The panelists also mentioned a website called HackerRank, which posts several common coding interview questions to help interviewees get practice for the coding interview.

Potential Training resources

I have found, as the panelists described, that there are many online resources available to help train and familiarize anyone who would like to learn to code. For those that would like to get started in data science before applying, the panelists suggested visiting several different online teaching websites including coursera, EdX, and datacamp. In addition, they also suggested completing projects, basically taking a data set and extracting meaning from it. The panelists said that completing practice projects works best when you experiment around and challenge the practice data set with insightful questions. The main two programming languages discussed were python and R. Dr. Matthew Koh described how he uses python almost exclusively at Bloomberg, whereas the other panelists used R. The software environment R has useful libraries with complex built-in functions, so you do not have to be an expert code writer to solve data science tasks!

Specific questions:

After the panel discussion, we broke into small groups where we had the opportunity to ask questions to each of the panelists individually. These are questions that were asked to Dr. Koh and Dr. Izaguirre.

Q (Audience): Is there any computational model-building in industry data science jobs?

A (Dr. Matthew Koh): There is very little in biomedical sciences, but there is some in the finance industry. Computational models are less common within biomedical sciences because they are not applicable yet to any model systems whereas building computational models is applicable to financial markets.

Q (Audience): What are the hours of a typical data scientist?

A (Dr. Alexander Izaguirre): That depends on the boss or who you work for. For some bosses as long as you get the work done on time you can show up whenever. For others, it seemed like 9-5 was mandatory. There also seemed to be a lot of meetings to go to but that’s typical for any job.

Are you a potential data scientist?

From the panelist’s comments, data science careers are plentiful, and employers are hiring inquisitive minds to work on extracting meaning from large data sets. The panelists were handing out business cards and clearly looking for potential employees. There is no denying that a fresh Ph.D. who enters data science will make much more than other potential industry jobs. Our panelists came from a diverse set of backgrounds that did not necessarily include computational training; this suggests that there are diverse paths leading to a career in data science. Read some of our other blog posts about data science to find out if it is the right field for you!

Junior Editor: Brianna Alexander

Senior Editor: Monal Mehta and Tomas Kasza

 




FDA’s role in expediting the development of novel medical products

By Huri Mücahit

 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as the name suggests, is the primary regulatory organization for food and drug safety, including biologics and medical devices. However, surprisingly, the FDA regulates much more in the name of protecting public health, such as cosmetics, veterinary products, and tobacco products. The range in regulatory jurisdiction speaks to the long history of food and drug regulation that came about in response to the highly unregulated nature of medicine production in the early 1900’s, resulting in the death of 22 children due to contaminated vaccines. Since then, several laws have been passed requiring the licensing and inspection of food and drug manufacturers, as well as mandating the demonstration of not only safety, but also efficacy of a drug. Peter Marks, M.D., Ph.D., Director for Biologics and Research Evaluation, discussed the FDA’s history and approval process in this iJOBS seminar.

 

Of particular interest to Ph.D. students in the health sciences, is the FDA’s role in promoting the development of products that address the public’s unmet medical needs. The agency addresses these needs through several factors, such as extracting user fees for each application examined, so that performance metrics can be placed on the FDA to ensure timely review. In addition, to further facilitate drug and biologics development, sponsors of the applications, which are typically pharmaceutical companies, can ask for OrphanDesignation, apply for Priority Review vouchers, or apply through any of the expedited development programs. As the first category suggests, the Orphan Designation covers treatments for rare diseases affecting less than 200,000 people, and it features tax credits, 7 years of market exclusivity, and user fee exemption. Priority Review vouchers can be applied for neglected diseases of the tropics, rare pediatric diseases, and for medical countermeasures. This option ensures the review process will be completed within 6 months rather than the standard 10, however, the sponsors must demonstrate significant improvement in safety or effectiveness. Additional programs targeting treatments for serious conditions, like Fast Track, Accelerated Approval, or Breakthrough Therapy, may offer advantages such asrolling reviews in which the committee will review components of the application as they are prepared, approval based on surrogate endpoints, or extensive guidance from the review committee. Finally, sponsors can also be granted the Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy Designation (RMAT), if they provide cell therapies, tissue engineering products, or human cell and tissue products.

 

While the FDA has many paths to approval for new treatment applications, the agency naturally follows a standard process to ensure safety and efficacy of the treatment. This might include an initial information meeting between the FDA and the sponsor to go over the application procedure and provide guidance on the types of studies required prior to clinical trials. If the results look promising once the necessary pre-clinical trials are conducted, a manufacturing process will be developed, keeping with Good Manufacturing Practices. A second meeting might then be scheduled to propose Phase I trials and protocols, which, if approved, will be used to generate data for further review. Upon proving that the treatment has the potential to address an unmet need, the FDA will assign a specific designation, such as RMAT or Fast Track, and review the additional data produced from Phase II and III trials, as well, as manufacturing protocols. Finally, after a series of informal, mid-cycle, and late-cycle meetings, an advisory committee consisting of experts within the field will meet to grant or deny approval. This committee may also require post-marketing studies to be conducted to further test the safety of the treatment. If the sponsor fails to complete these studies, the FDA has the authority to rescind approval.

 

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For Ph.D. students interested in working with the FDA, those within epidemiology or biostatistics fields have the highest chance for employment immediately following their defense. However, to be a hired as a regulatory reviewer or research reviewer, post-doctoral research associates are preferred. Additionally, since the laboratories and the majority of offices are housed in the main facility in Silver Spring, Maryland, these positions are only available at this site. If the applicant wishes to remain local, there are inspector positions available throughout the country. The FDA also provides internship opportunities for interested students from a variety of backgrounds, including undergraduates and post-docs.

 

Overall, the FDA is a crucial agency in aiding the development of drugs and biologics and ensuring safety and efficacy of these treatments. Given the sheer number of drug applications received, Ph.Ds. have a wealth of opportunities for employment in reviewing these applications or conducting lab work within the FDA. Ultimately, these opportunities provide a medium to enact significant change and guide the path for new treatments.

 

Edited by: Jennifer Casiano-Matos and Monal Mehta

This blog post was written after attending the iJOBS Career Seminar: Jobs at the FDA on June 13th, 2019.

 




Where Are They Now — Myka Ababon

 

Myka Ababon graduated from Rutgers University with a PhD in Cell and Developmental Biology in 2017. Her PhD thesis focused on neural stem cells and their response to traumatic brain injury. Outside of the lab, she was a founding member of the iJOBS Blog and a staff writer for Bitesize Bio. She currently works in New York City as a Medical Writer at Caudex, a medical communications agency that’s part of the larger McCann Health network.

Myka1

1) Tell us a bit about your career path in medical communications. What have you been doing since graduating with your PhD?

I started working as a Trainee Medical Writer at Caudex a month and a half after my thesis dissertation, and I’ve been working there since 2017, almost two years now.

2) What are the types of tasks, projects, and responsibilities that fall under your position?

As a medical writer, my primary role is to develop scientific content for a wide array of scientific communication materials. I am currently aligned to several different accounts with different therapeutic areas, some more focused on medical affairs, some on publications. Projects in my publication-focused accounts typically involve writing abstracts, posters, and manuscripts, and this is the type of writing that’s closest to what I was exposed to in grad school. Examples of med affairs projects include MSL training materials, advisory boards, and congress booth materials, to name a few.

3) How did you first hear about this career path and what got you interested in it?

In grad school, I worked in the lab of Dr. James Millonig. Jim was one of the directors of iJOBS, which was a blessing for his grad students, because he was extremely supportive of us participating in iJOBS. He wanted to ensure we had access to as much information as we could about all the different career options after grad school so we could make informed decisions about our career paths. I attended a lot of iJOBS events, and that’s where I first heard about medical writing. As mentioned above, a bunch of us trainees decided to start the iJOBS blog because we wanted to have a platform to share our learnings and experiences.

4) What do you like most about this career path?

I have always been interested in both science and writing, and this career is a great combination of the two! Looking back, I realized I have always struggled a bit about choosing one over the other, and with my current career, I don’t have to choose, I get to do both.

5) Which skills that you acquired during tMyka Ababon_PhinisheDhe PhD process are most valuable to you today?

Well, certainly not pipetting, although I must admit I miss that sometimes! Definitely the ability to acquire a high level of scientific understanding. As a medical writer, you will be thrown into different accounts, and will be expected to quickly learn and understand multiple therapeutic areas. It’s a fast-paced job, and you’re constantly learning and studying and keeping abreast of the current researches. It’s a lot like what you do in grad school outside of performing experiments. And it goes without saying: writing skills. I was fortunate enough to have had a lot of opportunities during my PhD to improve my writing, from writing grants, abstracts, papers, talks, blogs, etc.

6) Do you have any advice to current PhD students and post docs who are interested in working in this field?

If you’re interested in medical writing, definitely try to do as much writing/editing as you can while still in grad school. Is your labmate writing a paper? Offer to help them with their draft! Reach out to your advisor to find out if you can help him with his grant. Or, join the iJOBS blog! Another option is to seek out internship opportunities in medical communications to try it out. However you go about it, the bottom line is to get as much writing experience as you can. This will help you to not only improve your writing, but also to show that you are truly interested in medical writing as a career.

Other advice that I have is to take full advantage of your network! Attend iJOBS events. Reach out to graduates who are in the field, and do informational interviews. In my experience, people are always happy to tell you about their career paths and give advice.

 

Thank you, Myka, for sharing your experiences as a Medical Writer! iJOBS participants recently had the opportunity to visit Myka at McCann Health in New York City for a site visit. Look out for a future post covering the event!

This interview was led by Paulina Krzyszczyk. Additional edits were made by Emily Kelly Castro.




Introduction to Pharmacokinetics and Pharmacodynamics

By Huri Mücahit

The following blog post was written after attending the iJOBS workshop: Primer in PK/PD held on February 20th, 2019

How exactly do pharmaceutical companies choose which medication to pursue for the treatment or prevention of an illness? The answer is through the study of pharmacology (the analysis of interactions between drugs and the human body),  pharmacokinetics (the study of drug movement throughout the body (PK)), and pharmacodynamics (the body’s biological response to the drug (PD)). During the iJOBS PK/PD workshop, Dr. Anson Abraham, Principal Scientist at Merck and Co., provided a deeper look at the science behind these interactions.

Understanding the relationship between medications and the body is fundamental for any treatment, thus, the bulk of the data collected during clinical trials is related to PK/PD analysis. In fact, roughly half of a drug label is informed by these analyses, including the sections covering dosage and administration, dosage forms and strengths, drug interactions, and clinical pharmacology.

Dr. Anson Abraham, Merck and Co., 2019
Dr. Anson Abraham, Merck and Co., 2019

In order to collect PK information, researchers look at the processes after drug administration, which are collectively called “ADME” – absorption, distribution, metabolism and elimination of the drug. To start off, a drug can only have an effect if it has been absorbed within the body; therefore, factors such as molecule size and structure, permeability across the gastrointestinal membrane, and the extent and rate of absorption are carefully considered. Following this,  it must be determined if the drug reaches its intended site.  It is important to identify known binding targets of the drug, or if it is absorbed within specific tissues, as this will impact drug dosage and forms. Researchers then analyze the metabolism of the drug, although this is a greater consideration for small molecules rather than large molecules. The four common types of reactions are: oxidation, hydrolysis, reduction, and conjugation; drug-drug interactions are predicted based on this metabolic profile. Finally, whether the drug can be eliminated must be taken into account, as accumulation within the blood stream can lead to toxicity. Due to the in-depth analyses required, as the image below outlines, this entire process is completed within 10-12 years. As such, PK/PD analysts must not only be patient, but efficient, with extracting the relevant information from large amounts of data.

Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics  Volume 93, Issue 6, pages 502-514, 14 MAR 2013 DOI: 10.1038/clpt.2013.54
Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics
Volume 93, Issue 6, pages 502-514, 14 MAR 2013 DOI: 10.1038/clpt.2013.54

If this career sounds appealing to you, Dr. Abraham has several tips. First, as this profession requires an understanding of both the biology and the math behind the analyses, a PhD student in the biological sciences should consider strengthening their mathematical skills. Courses offered at Rutgers, such as Statistics in Clinical Research and Fundamentals in Analysis, and through other specialized programs can help with this endeavor. Additionally, pharmaceutical companies such as Merck often provide internships that include PK/PD work experience.  If you cannot commit to a full summer internship during your PhD studies, the iJOBS program aids Phase 2 students in finding externships, which are less time-consuming, but still provide experience within the field. Additionally, these externships provide an opportunity for students to determine whether they would like to work in the lab to collect the relevant data or analyze the data once it has been generated.

If you’re looking for further information on the PK/PD workshop, feel free to visit the iJOBS page for the complete slide deck.

Edited by: Emily Kelly Castro, Monal Mehta, and Paulina Krzyszczyk




iJOBS Workshop — The Many Hats of Consulting

Written by: Paulina Krzyszczyk

Edited by: Huri Mücahit and Tomas Kasza

On February 1st, I attended the iJOBS-sponsored consulting workshop led by Sidnee Pinho, the U.S. Chief Operating Officer of Prescient Healthcare Group. The workshop opened up my eyes to a field that I had previously poorly understood, and therefore not seriously considered as a potential career path. I am very glad that I attended, as I learned a lot about this exciting field. It also may be of particular interest to our readers that the consulting world is generally open to hiring fresh PhDs!

Sidnee Pinho began the workshop by defining what a consultant does, and all the hats that they must wear. A consultant is, “a person who facilitates change and provides subject matter expertise; someone who provides advice”. In this workshop, the scope of consulting was limited to agencies that work with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, their clients, to help them make key business decisions. This simple definition was then expanded to include the many different hats that a consultant must wear. They must act as a:

1) Problem Definer – Define the scope of the project. What is the specific question that the client is expecting the consultant to answer?

2) Project Manager – Develop a work plan for the project. How long will the project take? What tasks will be completed, and when?

3) Data Searcher/Creator – Obtain primary and secondary research from key opinion leaders and published sources. Schedule interviews and check the credibility of any data that is acquired from other sources.

4) Thought Process Organizer – Develop a framework or methodology for using the data to lead the team to an answer. Define key criteria that the client is looking for, turn those into questions that can be answered by key personnel, and quantify all data obtained using a scoring system that assigns weights to the client’s priorities.

5) Quality Controller – Identify accurate data to maintain credibility of the consultant agency’s work. Is the data current and relevant to the demographic at hand? Are the statistics specific and do they come from a reputable source?

6) Storyteller – Present ideas in a way that suits your audience (top-down vs bottom-up approaches). Is your audience interested in all of the details that led to your answer, or do they prefer to hear the main conclusions with key reasoning and supporting evidence?

7) Relationship Manager – Clearly and efficiently communicate with the client to update them on the project. At meetings, remind them of previous work, the purpose of the current meeting, and key project goals. Tie this into the next steps of the project moving forward.

 

Roles of A Consultant

Once we understood the broad set of responsibilities that a consultant must fulfill, we were given the task of taking on a consultant’s role in the following simulation:

Company X is considering releasing Product X, a long-acting steroid, for rheumatoid arthritis (RA), however they only want to proceed if the revenue can reach at least $200 million.

We were given a packet of information with data and statistics, such as RA prevalence, the difference between acute and chronic RA, treatment options and regimens, etc.

As I began sifting through the slides, one of the first things that came to my mind was, “Too much data!” This proved to be a major challenge – determining which data was important, extraneous, or reliable, especially as we were trying to simultaneously learn the background information about the disease. For example, we had to determine if we should focus on statistics regarding chronic or acute cases of RA, or both, and also read over physician opinions on their likelihood to adopt Product X over other treatment options. To complicate things even further, many of the statistics were given as ranges (e.g. 30-40% of RA patients are on steroids at a given time). As we began discussing the data within my group, I also realized that each person had slightly different interpretations about the exact meaning of each statistic, as well as its credibility or relative importance. This led to some interesting discussions at our table, as we wanted to determine the best data to use for our final revenue calculation.

Data

At the end of the day, our task was seemingly simple: “Is the product a “go” or a “no go”, based on whether or not it is likely to yield a revenue of over $200 million”. With this seemingly simple question, we got opposing answers. Some groups said “Go”; however others said “No Go”, and the range of revenue estimates that we came up with was vast, from approximately $100 to 400 million. This was due to the fact that each group had a different interpretation of the data and the consequence was a more or less conservative final revenue estimate.

After debriefing the exercise with Sidnee Pinho, we realized our experiences reflected the common obstacles that consultants must tackle, such as which data to use and why. Furthermore, the final answer is rarely a, “YES – go for it!” or a, “Definitely No!, but more so falls within a spectrum based on a, “Yes, if…” or a, “No, unless…”, phrasing.

Overall, I would highly recommend this workshop to anyone who is even slightly curious about consulting. The dynamic hands-on activity gave participants a taste of the challenging tasks that consultants must perform daily. I most enjoyed the complex thought processes required to complete these tasks. I also recognized that the PhD degree provides graduates with the invaluable skill of breaking down a large question into smaller parts. Throughout the workshop, we were able to use this skill in a completely different scenario outside of the lab.

Who would have known that a single iJOBS workshop could open my eyes and allow me to consider an entirely new career path? Only time will tell whether or not it is in my future, but it is definitely one that I will further consider.




Career Advice for the Bewildered Soul

By: Shekerah Primus

In life and career-planning, there is no shortage of advice. There are the motivational one-liners we’ve all heard since childhood, such as, “Reach for the stars!”, and, “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” There are also the chant-worthy slogans of, “Be all you can be,” “Just do it,” and, “Yes we can!” This has given rise to the rapidly self-replicating genre of self-help books with provocative titles such as “Girl, Wash your Face”—you obviously have to read it to get it. Honestly, I do appreciate that all this advice-giving is an endeavor to aid in our journey of self-discovery and the pursuit of happiness. But I wonder how much of the advice we hear actually leaves a lasting impact, and how much of it just leaves us bewildered and asking, “Am I doing this life thing right at all?” I admit it, I’ve definitely felt bewildered at times, but I would like to share a few pieces of career-centric advice that gave me some clarity.

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  • To have a fulfilling career, determine where you would provide the most value.

This advice is not new; it basically means the same thing as “find something you love and do it well.” This particular phrasing resonated with me because of the component of adding value. In fact, much of our endeavor to “find where we belong” is fueled by the desire to be valuable. Don’t misunderstand, this does not mean to find the thing you do better than anyone else, instead, it’s a recommendation to choose a career path based on a thorough evaluation of your strengths and interests. As PhDs, we focus so much on our scientific training that we often don’t know how to describe the value we bring outside of our scientific expertise. Evaluate yourself (see here and here for ideas), and don’t sell yourself short. You are very valuable! Once you’ve evaluated yourself, navigate your career path until you find something that you care about. The perfect career for you does not have to be your first job—let your experiences guide you. Imagine the value you would add when you apply your strongest skills and qualities to doing something that really matters to you. That is a powerful combination!

  • Clarity of purpose and values will provide you with a renewable source of energy.

This piece of advice resonated with me particularly because I remember often saying the words “I feel re-energized” after attending an iJOBS or another career event. I make the most progress in achieving my goals when I feel energized. Clarity of purpose and values is essential for good leadership, as explained in “Too many bosses, too few leaders,” a book that I highly recommend, by Rajeev Peshawaria.  In this book, the author tells stories about remarkable leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Howard Schultz, and others who achieved extraordinary results despite the odds, in large part because they had clarity of purpose and stayed true to their values. Of course, defining one’s purpose is no easy task. It requires unfettered soul-searching and that you be brutally honest with yourself, but the rewards are boundless. The author proposes the following 6 questions—the first 3 to define your purpose and last 3 to define values.

Questions effective in gaining clarity:

  1. What few things are most important to me?

For example money, hard work, leisure, fun, adventure, travel, learning, being liked, being a good spouse or parent, being a good manager, making a difference to others, service, integrity etc.

  1. Do I want to:
    1. Lead a simple life rich with everyday small pleasures?
    2. Achieve great success in an individual endeavor?
    3. Lead others toward a better future?
    4. Do something entirely different with my life?
  2. What results do I want to bring about?
  3. How do I want people to experience me?
  4. What values will guide my behavior?
  5. What situations cause me to feel strong emotions?

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According to Peshawaria, a large paycheck or a prestigious position can also be energizing, but these sources are finite. He suggests that a clearly defined purpose and associated set of values is the best way to get an unlimited source of emotional energy to fuel yourself.

And finally:

  • Your journey is your own.

Okay, I admit that this one isn’t typical career advice, but it definitely helps me keep things in perspective. We all have the tendency to compare ourselves to others, judge ourselves, and either find ourselves lacking or pat ourselves on the back. This tendency is a reflection of our society; we are trained from a young age to compete and compare. When walking your path, instead of comparing yourself to someone else, let your own experiences empower you. Compare yourself today to yourself from a year ago or even 5 years ago.  How have you grown since then, personally and professionally? What do you appreciate about the present you that you had not noticed before? What accomplishments are you proud of, and what steps have you taken that have helped you clarify or get closer to achieving your goals?

Remember, take inspiration from the paths that others have walked, but always take time to celebrate and enjoy your own journey.

Please share your favorite pieces of advice.

 

This article was edited by Monal Mehta, Maryam Alapa & Paulina Krzyszczyk




Choose Your Adventure: Non-Traditional Careers in the Pharma Agency Space

Written by Vinam Puri

Are you studying for (or already are) a Ph.D. in Life Science/Pharma/Biotech? Are you of a creative mind interested in the communication space but not sure if there is a career for you in it? Are you interested in going on an adventure and exploring an area you may not have known? Read right ahead and be just as amazed as I was when I learned about this.

Alli Aber, Ph.D. and, with the help of a workshop introduced me to a world of opportunities that immediately felt like my niche. Let me introduce this world to you. Not only is this going to expose you to some non-traditional careers in the pharma agency space but it will also enable you to analyze yourself and help you identify the career that fits you best.

Dr. Aber is the founder, Strategist and CMO at PRN Experts, a consulting firm. She manages a team of medical experts for pharmaceutical advertising. She has almost 10 years of experience in the Pharma Agency and Educational space. She guides and educated PhDs and Postdocs about non-traditional career options in the pharma agency space.

Let me explain all that I have learned about the Pharma Agency Space in the rest of the article. First, let us identify the factors one should consider when trying to find their career path in this space? It is really important to understand this about yourself before you start seeking your direction. The first and most obvious factor is your interests. What is it that you like to do, can you see yourself doing it in the next few years? Some of us like to write and are also really good at it, while others may not be like starting a project, but may be really good at editing the work of others. Some of us like to only stick to the facts and can effectively be communicated in a scientific language, whereas others may be great at explaining science to laymen. The next factor to consider is your access to the industry and your experience. Lack of experience is a huge job deterrent for many grad students, especially in the communication space. Therefore, it is important to build connections and gain relevant experience while in school. This can be done by participating in extra activities that are communication specific as well. Salary is also a very big factor that comes into consideration when people make decisions about their career paths. A personal piece of advice from Alli was to give more weight to what you enjoy doing over the salary, but this factor will vary depending on individual situations. Another factor is the work environment that enriches you the most. Do you like working from home or do you like working in an office? Do you like more of a cubicle or open workspace? Depending on that, you may feel more comfortable in a bigger agency vs smaller or perhaps freelancing. Finally, personality is something you should consider because regardless of your education, your personality forms the core of who you are. The way you like to interact with people will determine the kind of role that might be right for you in the pharma space.

 

“With a multitude of options available, it is best to make an educated guess by learning as much as possible about the options available and as much as you can about yourself.” – Alli Aber, PhD

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Let us now focus on all the possible routes one can take to find a suitable role in the pharma agency. Pharma agencies work a lot with Big Pharma to produce content and are broken down into two main spaces – SciCom/MedCom and Advertising/Marketing Agencies. Within these branches, there are four main roles that you can do as a Ph.D. – Medical Editing, Medical Writing, Medical Direction, and Medical Strategy.

The difference in SciCom and Advertising Agency are identifiable from the names. Scientific Communication (SciCom) involves a lot of high science writing and can come naturally to a fresh Ph.D. A SciCom agency could be an in-house pharma SciCom or a stand-alone agency. They perform functions such as writing abstracts, writing peer-reviewed articles, making conference slides, etc. Since it is something that most science PhDs have experienced it is fairly easy to get hired into such positions, with the right industrial connections. Your coworkers in this space are going to be your peers with a lot of them coming from PhDs and the culture is mostly academic. Advertising Agencies can be a little bit tricky for PhDs with a slightly different lingo in this space. Content created at such agencies is more focused on the story and the message that is being delivered rather than the science. Roles might include writing content for a website or for a TV commercial. The kind of slide decks you may be making would be more broad overviews or teaching decks rather than scientific decks. Co-workers in such a role may include people who are not from a pure science background and the work culture tends to be more open. This requires you to blend the science and accuracy with creativity and marketing. Both are great areas and there are opportunities in both areas, however, one needs to decide where they best fit.

Coming now to the details about each of the roles in the agency space. Editing is a research role and responsibilities include fact-finding and ensuring that the science is accurate, ensuring the accuracy of references or even finding proper references for some specific information. This position also entails knowing what the Medical Legal Review team may be looking for to be compliant with the FDA. Editors may work on websites, brochures, graphics, outlines, and even metadata to ensure efficient search engine optimization. Work hours are comfortable in such a role and you can get home at a reasonable hour. Writing involves actually writing the content as compared to ensuring accuracy on someone else’s work. Writing could be high science writing that could be aimed at health care professionals or it could be patient writing and one could take their pick on which one they like more. Branded messaging, which is focused on the product or unbranded messaging, which is focused on a disease state, could be a part of the responsibilities. Writers partner with the creative team to assist with the high science content. Medical Direction and Strategy are roles that you can typically migrate into as you gain more experience. Directors guide writers and train teams and may involve teaching decks. Directors are the expert and they teach the rest of the group. They also interact with the client and are expected to know all about the science of your product. Directors may also work with the writers to give them guidance or outlines. You take in a lot of information, process it and deliver clean ideas to different outlets. Strategy takes the highest level of experience since you are not only needed to understand the science but also lingo of pharma. Not only are you looking at your product when in such a role, but you are also looking at the entire landscape. This includes knowing about the industry, competitor recognition and their products, pros and cons of your drug, the way the message about that should be delivered to the doctors and why your product would be prescribed over others. You are bringing the medical voice to the strategy and work with the business and accounts teams. This role also includes conducting KOL interviews or patient interviews and combine the primary research with the secondary research.

The work environment in the agency depends on the type of role you select for yourself and you could do that based on your personality. Would you want to work in a large agency with more room to grow or a small one with more personal attention? Getting into a larger agency would generally require some experience and would entail a higher stability with a relatively lower flexibility. You may have a bigger commitment and more expectations in a larger agency whereas in a small agency the format could be cubicle type and because there is lesser experience needed, may be the place to start out. Medical writing and editing areas could also be a great place for freelancing and there is always a requirement for this. It is easier to get freelancer work, however, if you have some experience and have developed a network in the space. Flexibility when freelancing is really high, but the role is not stable. Consulting groups are middle grounds with more stability along with flexibility. These are a network of people working together on things like contracts and more and dividing work amongst the team based on the expertise of members. The environment you are comfortable in depends on your work ethics and personality. Another thing to help decide is look at the Amplitude vs Attitude profile you are capable of achieving, which is the amount of effort you can put in over time. Can you consistently work on a high intensity or do you like to have periods of lesser intensity or breaks to be productive? There are personality tests that you can take, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and more to identify what kind of roles you are most suited for. Based on my personal personality assessment, I found out I am a more expressive person with a focus on the big picture. With some additional skills like learning the pharma lingo and about FDA rules and regulation, I could be great in a Strategy kind of role.

The one-year paradox

You like these roles and may be interested in pharma agency but see that most openings require a year or so of experience. As a fresh graduate, you may not have that. Here are some of the plentiful resources available for you to use. Resources like BadAd Course offered by the FDA that teaches about promotional and regulatory topics. American Medical Writers (AMWA) is another resource that you can utilize and get internships in writing roles so that you can put that on your resume. Networking is definitely important, and you can explore resources like Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association, BioPharma Networking Group (BPNG), Medical Marketing and Media (MM&M) website, etc. Make sure to put any such experiences on your resume so that you can get the required attention.

A role in the Pharma Agency may not be for all but if you feel like you are the kind of person who would enjoy utilizing your science background and combining it with your creative side and form a perfect amalgam, this non-traditional career may be the right direction for you!

 

This article was edited by Andrew Petryna and Maryam Alapa




The need for staff scientists

By: Huri Mücahit

Edited by: Manjula Mummadisetti and Aminat Saliu Musah

 

The following blog post is a summary of “Biology needs more staff scientists” by Steven Hyman, “Staff scientists find satisfaction in playing the support role” by Maggie Kuo, and “Wanted: staff-scientist positions for postdocs” by Kendall Powell.

 

To remain a research scientist, graduate students are expected to advance from graduate school, work as a post-doctoral student, and eventually, become an academic principal investigator (PI) running our own labs. Unfortunately, the likelihood of becoming a PI is becoming increasingly rarer, as less than 10% of PhD students will become tenure-track faculty. In addition, many students fantasize about freely leading innovative projects that interest them, however, they soon face the reality that projects requiring extensive collaboration must be avoided due to the lack of funding, resources, and time. The alternative is to become a “perpetual postdoc” in which PhDs sacrifice high salaries for the sake of remaining in science. To solve this problem, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University have launched the Broad Institute, employing “staff scientists” to circumvent the limitations posed by academic labs.

 

Although seen by some as a “perma-postdoc”, staff scientists fill a crucial niche between faculty members and graduate students in that they have the experience students may not, but lack the obligations of faculty members to train students. As such, these scientists can lead projects, collaborate with faculty members and other scientists, and provide creative and innovative solutions that a faculty member may not be able to due to administrative and funding limitations. In addition, staff scientists can have the freedom to work at the bench without worrying about the administrative and grant funding requirements that PIs must focus on; essentially, staff scientists form a hybrid role between lab manager and research scientist for their PI.

 

Powell, 2015
Powell, 2015

 

While it may appear that there is no room to grow and succeed as a staff scientist, the opposite is true. Staff scientists have won 36% of federal grants as of May 2017, are invited to give keynote lectures, and can publish high impact papers on their own and through collaborations. In addition, working in a collaborative environment, such as the Broad Institute, which employs Harvard and MIT faculty members, as well as staff scientists, allows for mentoring opportunities. Staff scientists can educate laboratories about cutting-edge techniques and become a valuable resource due to their expertise. Such interactions provide a means for personal development.

 

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Staff scientists employed within academia, 2015

 

Why is there a resistance to the role of staff scientists? Many faculty members fear the potential competition for tight resources and funding, the perceived infringement on ideas, and the inability to keep up with staff scientists who do not have teaching responsibilities. In addition, staff scientists are seen as expensive when compared to postdocs. However, the truth is that although staff scientists earn double the pay of postdocs, they increase productivity due to their extensive training, and provide a means for education and support for their colleagues. To make the transition easier for faculty, institutions can provide opportunities for faculty members to play a key role during the hiring process, such as interviewing their future colleagues to better understand the potential for collaboration.

 

Ultimately, while staff scientists may not follow the traditional path in research, their expertise, ability to train colleagues, and room for creativity provide key advantages to the scientific community. More importantly, such a position enables many scientists to earn a reasonable salary while remaining in science. When science advances, we all benefit.




iJOBS Career Fair: What you Can Do with a Ph.D.

Job SearchThe annual iJOBS/BioNJ career fair is the epitome of what you can do with a Ph.D. The iJOBS program stresses that Ph.D.’s can do much more than practice science in the traditional sense. The opportunities are essentially boundless. There is demand for Ph.D.’s in medical writing and communication, consulting, project management, manufacturing, and of course, research and development. The companies present at the career fair ascertained that this is, in fact, true. Companies from each of these different fields were represented and looking to hire fresh talent.

PTC Therapeutics, which was started by a professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, and is located in South Plainfield, was a very popular booth at the fair. This company uses technologies that identify novel small molecule therapeutics that can modulate protein expression and treat disease. The company currently collaborates with Roche and the SMA Foundation for the development of a small molecule to treat spinal muscular atrophy. There are currently several openings for Ph.D.-level research scientists across the RNA Biology/Chemistry/Pharmacology fields. Teligent, a generic drug company, also has several open chemist, microbiologist and quality positions. Amicus Therapeutics, an orphan drug company, has some scientist andclinical scientist opportunities at their headquarters in Cranbury, NJ, and a lot of other open positions across the country. Celgene was also present, with openings in manufacturing.

In the medical communications/writing field, there was The Lynx Group and PRN Experts; contract research organizations (CROs) present were BioTrial and Biotech Support Group; and for project management/consulting—The FlexPro Group. Although these areas may not necessarily be the immediate next step in my career, I had meaningful conversations at each booth. Gaining more information about possible career paths is always important–you never know where life may take you! Your dream job when you were single and in your 20s may not fit your lifestyle if you have children, or find yourself wanting to work from home one day. Luckily, the Ph.D. process teaches us transferable skills, which can help transition from one field to another.

Not everyone might have the same experience finding a job. If you are having trouble, there are several options available to help you in the search. One option is working with a recruiting company. There were two of these present at the fair—Aerotek and Adecco Medical & Science. Recruiters interact with hiring companies and help immensely with the job search. By working with a recruiter, you can find a position and company that is a right fit for you! If you think your resume or interview skills are the problem, then you should consider reaching out to a career coach. During my conversation with Juliet Hart, from Hart & Chin Associates, LLC, she gave me suggestions for framing the skills that I have gained during my Ph.D. studies in a way that is meaningful to companies and will make them more likely to consider me as a candidate. Lastly, if you feel that you are lacking practical, hands-on skills for the job that you desire, you can enroll in short-term training programs at Sollers College in Edison. They offer 3- or 5-month programs in several tracks, including clinical research, drug safety and data science. Their website boasts that, “Sollers bridges the gap between the theory and the applied skills required in the workplace.” The training can include an internship, and the first payment is due only after you secure a job.

The iJOBS/BioNJ Career Fair was a good opportunity to network with not only potential employers, but also with some of my peers who are also on the job search. These conversations, and my overall experience at the event, reminded me about a few important things:

1) Be patient with the job search. Although it may be lInterview Girlong and frustrating at times, don’t forget that you are highly qualified. Do not lose confidence that your Ph.D. provided you with many valuable and transferable skills that will bring you success.

2) Explore opportunities. Even though you may have pictured a career in research, perhaps another field may also be well-suited for you!

3) Use your network. Reach out to students who graduated before you and ask how they like their jobs. They may even know about some potential job openings!

4) Consider additional training, certification, or involvement in a professional society. Not only will these activities add to your resume, but they can also widen your network and aid in the job search.

5) Start the search early! Finding a job takes time, so, it is best to start looking and applying before you graduate, in order to secure your next position and make a smooth transition.

The career fair broadened my perspective on what life/work will be like after the Ph.D. It was nice to see firsthand, all of the different tracks that Ph.D.’s are recruited for, and to interact with potential employers. Here’s to the goal that, one day, it will be me on the other side of the booth!

 

This post was edited by fellow blogger, Sangeena Salam.