Over the last year, I have helped to organize numerous seminars and Q&A sessions with people from all different areas of science, from those working in the pharmaceutical industry to science editing to patent law. I truly love hearing each individual’s story about his/her career path, and almost all of them have said that they never expected to take the path that they did. Following that, they then offer this advice: keep an open mind about what you want to do with your PhD in the life sciences and seize every opportunity you get, even if it wasn’t what you planned on doing in the first place.
I had the distinct pleasure of learning from and working alongside Dr. Rong Wang for the first three years of my PhD program, and to say that I felt a bit lost when she graduated and moved on to her first “big kid” job is an understatement. Rong landed her first job after grad school working for a small biotech company in Santa Barbara, CA. Like many of the other stories I have heard before, if you had asked Rong even just a year prior what her career plans were, she never would have expected that to be the case.
Right before she left Penn State, Rong sat down with Dr. Melissa Rolls, Chair of the Molecular, Cellular, and Integrative Biosciences program, to discuss the process of how she went about applying for jobs in industry and to offer her personal advice for how to be successful in getting a job – you can find that article here.
I recently had a catch-up session with Rong to see how life after graduate school was going and got to learn a bit more about the industry life now that she has had close to a year of experience under her belt. Rong has since moved to another biotech company in San Francisco.
The “dream” wasn’t necessarily to get into biotech
When Rong first began applying for jobs, she didn’t necessarily focus her search to only biotech companies. She felt that after spending 20+ years in school, she wanted to experience a different life and working style outside of academia but was open to really anything new. However, she did know that she wanted to take her problem solving skills to a level where she could help with the development of specific products.
At both biotech companies she has worked for, Rong’s job title has been an R&D Scientist. As an R&D Scientist, she mainly develops diagnostic products. However, working for smaller companies means that she has had other random responsibilities, including market researching, patent writing, and literature writing.
Rong also has the experience of transitioning to a different company. She found that getting her foot in the door and having the previous experience helped her have a better sense of what kind of job fit her the best. It helped that she now had more connections and a stronger network when going through the process of applying for a job after already working in the industry. She also realized the importance of understanding the style and culture of the company you’re working for and how some companies may fit one’s personality better than others.
Industry vs. academia: personal perspective
Having only the experience of doing science in an academic setting, Rong’s mind was trained to assess her research projects by their potential to make good stories and publications. In industry, it’s much more than that. Even after almost a year in the industry world, Rong said she still finds it difficult to decide which direction to push her projects in order to balance product development vs. pure research.
Rong, like many graduate students, put in countless hours each week at the lab working evenings and most weekends. Knowing Rong so personally, I was interested to hear how her work-life balance had changed out in the “real world”. While she still puts in about fifty hours a week, those hours are spent during the week days. “Of course, I would like to spend some time during the weekend for my work so that I can do a little better,” said Rong, which was no surprise to me.
Final pieces of advice
What was pretty comforting to hear from Rong was that after spending a year in the biotech industry, she still finds that there is a lot to learn, and that’s okay, because no one expects you to know everything. The process of getting a PhD is what’s important. “It’s way more critical to obtain a growing mindset and a good habit of learning and applying new knowledge,” said Rong. “I personally think that all you need to learn while you’re in graduate school is what you’re already learning about and doing – understanding background knowledge, developing solid techniques, critically thinking, being eager to learn, and being a hard worker.”
When applying for and interviewing for jobs, Rong stressed the importance of being able to communicate your science to your potential future employers. As a fresh PhD, your studies as a PhD student are all that they have to evaluate you on, so it’s important that you can accurately and succinctly describe the work that you’ve done. The more closely your past experience is related to the job you are applying for, the more likely you are to stand out. Also, if you can show that you have some sort of industry experience, it’s a huge plus (though not a necessity!) – this can be something as simple as your lab having a collaboration with a scientific company or you having an internship experience. (Interested in doing an internship? Check out these resources!)
Finally, start applying for jobs as early as possible, and make sure each resume and cover letter you send out is customized for that specific job (resources for writing these can be found here!). Also, after you apply for a job, write a follow-up letter to catch up – this extra effort can really help you to stand out and increase your chances of getting an interview.