At 6:30 am on Saturday, October 21 a group of dedicated graduate students congregated at the cul-de-sac in front of the Huck Life Sciences building. The air was cold and clear; the sun still 45 minutes from rising. Groups of excited undergraduates passed the van, bedazzled in Penn State paraphernalia and loaded down with homemade signs, heading for ESPN’s College Game day by Old Main. As we headed out of State College and towards Penn State Hershey campus, we passed a never-ending stream of game-goers and tailgaters. I felt a tiny twinge of regret that the career day and the Michigan game had to coincide, but, having attended in the past, I knew the day was well worth it.
The graduate student and postdoctoral career day put on by Penn State Hershey is divided into four primary focus tracks: business, research, education, and alternative. Within each track the day was divided into four topic panels, for example, the alternative track had sessions on public health, science communication, international affairs, and science policy and law. Three to four panelists were brought in for each topic session- an enormous feat of organization, coordination, and planning!
I primarily attended the business career track, sitting in on the panels on consulting and finance, large pharmaceutical companies, and biotech firms. The speakers were diverse and the sessions engaging. Panels were moderated, but the discussion was primarily directed by audience questions and interest. Panelists shared their insights, based on their background and experience, and provided tips for students.
In industry, I learned, the turnaround time on job postings is quick (2-6 weeks). So unless you are applying for a fellowship or postdoctoral program which typically accept applications on the academic timescale, it’s best to apply to industry jobs only when you are ready to move into them, not with months of lead time. When you are reviewing the job posting, look at the desired skills for that position and write them into your cover letter. Your cover letter is used as a screening tool by human resources, so the closer your language matches the job posting, the more likely your application will be considered. Make sure to tailor your cover letter for each posting you apply to- do not use a generic cover letter- it will be overlooked and passed-over.
Industry job postings are skills-driven. The panelists explained that when they hire someone into a new role, they want someone who is ready to step into the responsibilities of that position immediately, or with minimal training, so making sure your skills are up-to-date is paramount. However, they encouraged students not to count themselves out if they are lacking a skill or two, instead, they recommended that students set up collaborations in order to learn new skills and expertise. As students reach their third and fourth years in graduate school, they should review job postings of positions they are interested in and use their remaining time in graduate school to develop the required skills. The skills in hot demand right now: systems biology, computation, data analytics.
Other options for honing your laboratory skills include joining a contract research organization (CRO) or applying for an internship/postdoctoral program in industry. These programs are very popular, however, and receive hundreds or thousands of applications for limited slots. Furthermore, companies typically do not hire from their internships and postdocs because they don’t want to create pipelines within the organization (i.e. each time a new position opens up, they want to hire the best applicant for that position, regardless of whether the application originated internally or externally). If you do land an industry postdoc position, you will enjoy a unique position. The research you will do will be pre-approved for publication, and publication and presentation at conferences will be strongly encouraged.
If you enjoy producing manuscripts and publishing, you should consider clinical trials work. Clinical data is more transparent and publication more frequent. That said, even though most industry positions will not afford you publication opportunities, your publication record during graduate school (or your academic career prior to transitioning to industry) is critical. The panelists stressed that your publication record in academia is the evidence of your productivity. They agreed that an applicant without publications would not be considered for a position at their companies.
My favorite part of the day was the opportunity to have lunch in small group format with the speakers. This part of the day was so popular last time, that the organizers created a double lunch session this year. Panelists were assigned a lunch room and students chose a room to eat in. After 45 minutes, students switched to another room of their choosing to meet another set of panelists. It’s a fantastic way to get more one-on-one time with the speakers. You get to ask more nuanced questions about their work responsibilities and make connections that could help you enter that field in the future.
I ate lunch with the panelists from the science communication session and then moved to science policy and law. In the science communication session, I learned about a career I had never heard about before: grant and manuscript editing. I think it’s a brilliant career option, and may be something I pursue myself in the future: the excitement of innovative ideas, the pride of creating a beautiful product, the satisfaction of successful publication or funding, but without the pressure of academia where your career and your lab personnel’s careers are at stake each time your funding needs to be renewed.
The panelists in the science policy and law lunch discussion had all been AAAS fellows in Washington, D.C. They were placed in fellowships at different branches of the government, the State Department, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, so they had very different experiences in their roles as AAAS fellows. If you apply for a fellowship, be ready to be flexible: your assignment and duties will vary greatly on a day to day basis, and remember the core mission of the organization to which you are assigned because it will inform all of goals and experiences. If you are interested in a fellowship post graduation, you could also consider an ORISE, PMF, or Christine Mirzayan fellowship.
For the final session of the day, I attended the panel on science administration. The panelists highlighted the career opportunities in project management, starting your own consulting firm, and acting as a program director at the National Institutes of Health. Students were encouraged to seek opportunities to practice management skills, for example, performing pro-bono consulting for Compass consulting and Taproot consulting. Transitioning to a government role is good for job stability and benefits, however, you need to be able to interface with people from diverse backgrounds and find common ground with people who have very different viewpoints than your own.
The day came to a close at a networking social and happy hour. A couple of the panelists made an appearance at the event, and were popular with students. We, the University Park crew, stayed for an hour and then piled into the van for the journey home. Luckily, all the football-goers had long since completed their journeys to State College, so the drive was traffic-free. As I returned the van to the rental lot near the cattle barn, the stadium erupted in pre-game fireworks. It seemed a fitting close to a day well-spent.