Clinical Career Tracks for PhDs

man doing a sample test in the laboratory

Beyond the PhD recently hosted Ria Fyfffe-Freil who came to talk about non-traditional clinical careers for those with science PhDs. Ria is a Clinical Chemistry Fellow at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota. She talked about her career trajectory and options for people interested in non-academic tracks. Ria took the time to discuss how to become a clinical chemist, a day in the life in her current job, and career prospects for those interested in clinical chemistry.   

Ria started her talk by explaining how she navigated career exploration while pursuing a PhD in Molecular Physiology and Genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University. Although she had a supportive advisor, he did not know much about career advice for non-academic tracks. Ria started by filling out an individual development plan (IDP) which is a concept that is commonly used in industry to help employees define and pursue their career goals. The IDP contains exercises to help you examine you skills, interests, and values. It contains a list of career paths with a prediction of which ones best fit your skills and interests. It also has tools for setting strategic goals as well as other resources to help you with career exploration. You can find out more about the IPD at https://myidp.sciencecareers.org/. After completing the IDP each year during her PhD, Ria came across a job suggestion of scientific and medical testing. Clincal chemistry is a large part of scientific and medical testing, and Ria read up more on this option. After learning about this role, Ria chose to pursue it after her PhD.

Ria continued her talk by explaining more about clinical chemistry and the training programs that are available in this field. Clinical chemistry is the study of bodily fluids for therapeutic and diagnostic purposes. It allows you to apply your biomedical and science knowledge to patients in the clinic to help diagnose and monitor disease. Those with PhDs and training in clinical chemistry can works as laboratory directors in a variety of clinical settings. There are also bachelors and masters degree options for clinical lab scientists who perform similar job functions and work in clinical labs.

Ria is currently a clinical chemistry fellow at the Mayo Clinic. The Mayo Clinic Laboratories offers over 3500 tests to internal and external patients with 1600 of those being lab developed tests (LDTs). These are tests that are not FDA approved, but were pioneered, developed, and validated at the Mayo Clinic. Being a clinical chemist allows you to have a diverse knowledge base about a variety of analytes, test methodologies, pathophysiologies, and disease processes. One skill that is important to have and that you develop during your PhD is clinical thinking. Since clinical chemistry is a field where you must have a diverse knowledge base and deal with many diseases and analyses, critical thinking is a skill that is essential for someone who wants to be a clinical chemist.

Next, the structure of a clinical chemistry fellowship was discussed. A typical fellowship is two years. The first year consists of rotating through the various labs in the program and learning about clinical chemistry. At the Mayo Clinic there are 16 labs to rotate in, but most of the time is spent in the core lab or the hospital lab which see the most tests by volume. Students may also conduct projects and have research weeks. There are also courses on leadership and management available at the Mayo Clinic program. Another thing to consider is that trainees are required to be on call and take clinical calls from physicians of providers. Physicians may call to discuss specimen integrity, critical values, erratic results, interpretation, and other miscellaneous things.

The second year of the fellowship is more focused on preparing trainees to act as a lab director. During the second year, trainees may also support fist year fellows and perform other clinical duties. If you are interested in clinical chemistry there are a number of programs you can apply to. Currently there are 34 accredited programs on the Commission on Accreditation in Clinical Chemistry (COMACC) website which can be found at https://comacc.org/. Most of these programs are at large academic medical centers and many only take 1 student annually or bi-annually. They programs can vary and there may be differences in the learning and rotation structure, responsibilities, publication expectation, board prep time, and desired skill sets. The end goal of most programs is to prepare fellows to take boards at become certified by the American Board of Clinical Chemistry (ABCC) or National Registry of Certified Chemists (NRCC). There are also a variety of societies for clinical chemistry and clinical laboratory sciences such as The American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLA) where you can learn more about the field.

Ria also covered what a day in the life is like for clinical chemists. She typically has an 8 am – 5 pm work day and is allowed to work from home one day per week. She has a relatively flexible but busy schedule. Her day is filled with things such as attending lectures, working in the lab, learning new techniques, seminars, afternoon didactics, grand rounds, leadership and development meetings, taking clinical calls, writing, and study time.

Ria concluded her talk by talking about career prospects in clinical chemistry as what you can do as a clinical chemist. In this field you have the ability to work in a variety settings such as academic medical centers, hospitals and health systems, private practices, industry labs such as Quest, reference labs, or as a consultant. The number of jobs in this field is growing and there is a demand for those working in laboratory medicine. Although you can look for jobs through online job boards such as https://careercenter.aacc.org/, Ria had good success tapping her network to find job opportunities. The median salary for someone starting as a clinical chemist is $140,000 to $149,000 per year. Additional salary information can be found at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34427677/

If you want to watch the full recording of Ria’s career seminar about becoming a clinical chemist, you can find it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bX9SaWvCJQ8&t=2392s.

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