Yale provides career advice

Amidst the current uncertainty of the job market, you may be wondering how you can utilize your skillset to broaden your career landscape.  

On April 8th I “attended” the 37th career panel hosted by Yale University. The goal of the career panel series is to provide a candid view of the various careers that Yale alumni have pursued following completion of their doctoral degrees. 

The Panelists:

  1. Linshu Li, Associate, McKinsey (Yale Ph.D. – Applied Physics)
  2. Jorge Pedraza, Operating Partner, Melody Infrastructure Advisors (Yale Ph.D. Comparative Literature)
  3. Levi M. Smith, Pharm.D., PhD, Senior Research Scientist, Halda Therapeutics (Yale Ph.D. Cell Biology)

Moderator and Organizer: Peter Young, CEO and President, Young & Partners (Yale College, 1974)


Below I have compiled some of the key points that arose from the discussion as well as some advice provided by the panelists. 

What possible careers may students consider after completing their PhD’s?

Some careers are more similar to the academic life such as reviewing grant proposals, journalism, editing peer-reviewed scientific articles or writing scientific articles etc. With regards to training within the Life Sciences, some of you may be inclined to pursue translational research and therapeutic approaches for healthcare management. This may include becoming a medical science liaison (see our previous article “Medical Science Liaison”) or working for a start-up company. Start-ups are great spaces to exercise your rigorous technical and experimental skills as well as to learn new skills in a fast paced and exciting environment. Levi Smith obtained his PhD from the Department of Cell Biology at Yale and is now a Senior Research Scientist at Halda Therapeutics in New Haven, CT. As a PhD at a start-up you may be tasked with leadership opportunities, such as planning experiments, which can ultimately direct the course of the program. 

Another option is to pursue the law sector. For instance, you could help scientists explain their scientific inventions (biological drugs, diagnostic assays, medical devices etc.) by drafting patent applications. Check out our previous article “what-is-intellectual-property” for more information about patents in the life sciences. 

Depending on your toolkit you may be qualified for positions that are a little more dissociated from the pillars of academia. To name a few, public policy, investment banking, sales and marketing, consulting, business development, regulatory affairs, or investment advising. I recommend getting a copy of the book “Alternative Careers in Science: Leaving the Ivory Tower” edited by Cynthia Robbins-Roth. The book costs less than $30 on Amazon.com and includes 23 chapters of alternative careers.

Although some of these positions may seem unfamiliar compared to what you are used to reading, they are worth considering. For example, Linshu Li received his doctoral degree in applied physics with a focus on quantum computing. After graduation he joined McKinsey & Co, an American management consulting firm. In comparison, Jorge Pedraza received his doctoral degree in Comparative Literature. After obtaining his degree he taught several courses at Williams College but eventually left to pursue business development and later, sales within the start-up realm. He also co-wrote The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan published by Wiley This book is for anyone taking on a new leadership position and how to be effective at managing your new team and career as a whole. 

Skills you’ve spent years learning and fine-tuning are transferable if you can understand the root of their value and how they can be applied to different industries. 

Wait! Before you get overwhelmed by this task let’s take a step back. Or rather, a step in. 

Reflect, Recognize, Redirect – the homework

After you have spent years conducting a thorough examination of your field, how are you planning to use your expertise? One of the biggest things you should consider when planning your future is you. 

Why did you choose to attend to graduate school in the first place? Majority of students probably mention that they have a love or fascination for a particular sect of science and although college provided a foundation of knowledge about this subject, they wanted to pursue deeper understanding of the material and contribute to the field. Or, maybe you had a mentor or professor that fostered your love to learn and supported your decision to pursue additional education. 

Over the past several years, what strengths have you learned about yourself?  What are your weaknesses? Or instead, because weaknesses sound negative, what areas you are actively trying to improve? As difficult as it may be, it’s important to identify the boundaries to which you work the most effectively and with the most satisfaction. 

What do you love about your job currently? What do you not love about it? Identify these traits and write them down.

By doing this exercise you will be able to reflect on what you have to offer. Your brand, if you will. By identifying your brand, you will be able to find the niche where you can best excel. The effort will also better prepare for interviews and for your job search as a whole.

However, taking an objective lens to our qualities and skills as a member of the workforce can be challenging. For most of us, we are analytical when it comes to science but not necessarily when it comes to ourselves. I encourage you to ask your friends and family to comment on your strengths (and areas of improvement if you are bold enough to ask for constructive criticism). 

In choosing to embark on a career path outside of academia, how should I prepare?

Use your network and talk to as many people as you can. Use these “informational interviews”  to obtain information about their journey as whole in order to understand the daily grind, particular qualities of the position, as well as other insights you cannot gain without first-hand experience. 

Consider the lifestyle you have as a graduate student. PhDs are very independent thinkers and like to work at their own pace to accomplish their goals. However, most positions in the real-world are not as flexible. For instance, you most likely will need to juggle multiple projects and facilitate collaborative efforts in order to complete important tasks. Amidst the chaos of answering emails and phone calls, make sure you include protected time within your schedule to allow you to work independently without interruptions.

Internships are a great way to test the waters of a new work environment. There are formal internships, but internships can also be what you make of them. You can initiate your own program by writing a project proposal or offering a service to a company. By being willing to volunteer your time and putting yourself out there you’ve shown great initiative. 

Not just for you, but your next employer may be interested to know what activities you’ve undertaken during your thesis. By taking a leadership position in a student-led organization, teaching basketball, or whatever you enjoy doing outside of lab demonstrates your ability to multi-task and provides evidence that you can make the transition from graduate life to corporate life. 

To get you started: 

For one, obtaining a PhD requires effective communication skills that are valued by most anyone. Publications may not seem useful outside of academia, but they do demonstrate your ability to execute a project and bring it to fruition. Other important skills are analytical and critical thinking. You have been trained to identify unknowns within your field and to design experiments to determine solutions to a problem. You might take these “soft” skills for granted but they are not easily acquired through other training programs. As a result of your perseverance, you have become an independent thinker and acquired a level of adaptability that enables you to accomplish your goals regardless of possible set-backs. 

Identifying your abilities apart from the technique-driven lab work may take some time but they are there. By obtaining doctoral training you’ve been equipped with several transferable skills that are highly valued by many professions. This is how PhDs have infiltrated a variety of fields including finance, business, and law. It’s not a mistake. The reality is that times have changed and you should use it to your advantage. 

Oh and, do your homework.

Published by Britt Knight PhD, Director

I received my PhD in Biomedical Sciences from the University of Connecticut. My doctoral research focused on basic mechanisms in peripheral inflammatory pain biology. After, I completed about two years of postdoctoral research understanding how biomaterials can be used to deliver analgesics for treating musculoskeletal pain I transitioned to the Program Coordinator position for the United States Association for the Study of Pain (USASP). I am also the regional Director of CT Junior Science and Humanities Symposium.

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