So You Want to Be a… Publishing Editor

By Sally Burn, PhD

Scizzle’s post-PhD career series is back this week with an interview with Cathy Sorbara about her career as a Publishing Editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry. Dr Sorbara also acts as a consultant for the Cheeky Scientist Association (check out their great PhD industry transition articles here) and can be contacted via her LinkedIn page.

 

Hi Cathy! So, what exactly does a publishing editor do?

As a publishing editor, I assess submitted articles and guide them through the peer review process including reviewer selection, review evaluation and making the final decision to accept, reject or transfer the manuscript with our portfolio.  I also carry out production of accepted manuscripts including editing, proof reading and issue make up.  Other responsibilities include coordinating themed issues, commissioning cover art work and acting as a point of contact for associate editors (an international team of experts in various chemical sciences who handle submissions for various journals).

 

How did you get to where you are now?

I am Canadian and received my undergraduate degree at the University of Western Ontario in Medical Science and my Master of Science at the University of Ottawa.  I then moved to Munich, Germany where I did my PhD in Medical Life Science and Technology.  At that point I decided I was better suited for a communication-based role and wanted to move away from bench research.  I move to Cambridge, UK and came across this opening and thought it would be a great opportunity for me to further develop these communication skills.

 

What are the key skills needed for this job, and did you develop any of them during your PhD?

PhDs gain a wealth of transferable skills that I feel they often underestimate.  I too suffered from imposter syndrome through graduate school and left feeling I had little skills to offer beyond my technical expertise.  I soon realized however, that I had developed effective communication skills, time and project management, ability to work independently as well as in a collaborative environment, to name a few.  All of these skills were beneficial in my current role.

 

What would be your advice to a PhD wanting a job similar to yours?

A job advertisement is a wish list.  Even if your skills do not match 100% the job description, do not let that intimate you.  If you are interested in a job in editing or other communication-based roles, reach out to employees in the company and have a chat with them.  See if the company and the role is something that would be of interest to you and learn how to translate your skills into professional business experience.

 

What are the top three things on your To Do list right now?

Assess the latest manuscripts that have been submitted to the journal, check up on previous manuscripts that are under peer review (can a decision be made, do I need to invite more reviewers, etc.) and tackle the production to-do list to ensure everything is completed as quickly/accurately as possible to maintain low times to publication.

 

What are your favorite – and least favorite – parts of the job?

As I assess each manuscript that is submitted to the journal, it gives me the opportunity to read a lot of fascinating science and stay up-to-date with the latest breakthroughs in the field.  As a science nerd, this is a dream come true.  Sometimes we have to make decisions on manuscripts that are difficult and not well-received by authors.  It is never easy to tell someone who has worked for years on a manuscript that it has been rejected.  I definitely empathize with them as I have been on the receiving end of these rejection emails before. I am sure this has made me an enemy of some but I hope they understand that this is all part of the peer-review process which we strive to maintain as fair and unbiased as possible.

 

Is there anything you miss about academia?

I do miss bench work from time-to-time.  There was a sense of pride and honor associated with doing research, especially disease-related as I had done.  Now, however, I have time to pursue other passions and have more time for travelling and spending time with family. My life is not defined by the number of hours I am chained to the bench and this was important to me.

 

How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?

As many academics are aware, publish or perish is a theme to their success and accordingly the peer review/publication process has received a lot of flak about how it contributes to the plight of academic research labs.  I think we will see a lot of changes in the future as publishing houses adapt and deal with this growing concern of how research should be disseminated, evaluated and rewarded.  Already we see more journals becoming open access, changing their peer review process (double or triple blinded) or allowing for raw data to be published.  There is also the argument of why negative data or repeated experiments should not be equally as rewarded.  It will be fascinating to see how things evolve.

 

What kind of positions does someone in your position move on to?

Publishing editors can move into managerial roles or higher executive roles where they deal more with commissioning of articles, competitor intelligence, attending conferences and the overall management of the journal and its goals.  Many people who move out of publishing move on to other communication based roles such as medical writing, policy, marketing and more.  It is a good stepping stone for many other roles.

 

And finally, the big question: In the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would a publishing editor bring to the table?

A publishing editor would draft a well-written article to the zombies, detailed how we can work together to live in harmony.  Of course this article would be reviewed by experts in the field of zombie apocalypses before it was sent.

 

So You Want to Be a… Freelance Medical Writer

By Elizabeth Ohneck, PhD

In the first post of our So You Want to Be a… series we talked to Elizabeth Ohneck about her career as a medical writer. This week Elizabeth interviewed Ginny Vachon who runs her own medical writing company, Principal Medvantage, to find out what it takes to go it alone and become a freelance medical writer.

 

What does a freelance medical/science writer do?

Medical writers can do many different types of writing, but in general, medical writing is centered on taking information and making it accessible and informative for the correct audience. For example, taking raw data and writing a manuscript for other physicians is really different than summarizing recent findings for the general public. Freelance medical writers are contractors, and can be called in by pharmaceutical companies, communications agencies, medical associations, or other groups to help with specific projects that can’t be handled ‘in house,’ for whatever reason. There’s a ton of variety and opportunity to learn about different diseases. Some freelancers specialize, and write mostly about certain medical areas, or for certain audiences.

 

How did you get where you are now?

I have a BA in Biology from Agnes Scott College and my PhD is from Emory University. As I was nearing the end of my PhD I realized I had no clue what I wanted to do next. I totally froze because I knew I had choices, but I didn’t know how to make the next step. I realized that before I could pick a direction, I needed to learn about all of the different things I could do and how the people who were doing those things spent their days. So, I joined Women in Bio Atlanta and started going to events held by Emory and by WIB. I went to a WIB event on women in business and I heard Emma Nichols, who owns Nascent Medical Communications (formerly Hitt Medical Writing), talk about her experiences as a freelance medical writer and entrepreneur. I spoke with her after the event, and ended up doing a number of projects for her. After getting some experience, I started my own company! She has a great podcast, medical writers speak, that is full of great information about both medical writing and the business side of freelancing. The American Medical Writer’s Association also has a great website, training course, and chapter meetings where you can meet other medical writers and take short courses.

 

What are the key skills needed to be successful at this job, and did you develop any of them during grad school?

I think that the most important thing is a willingness to tackle any subject and learn about it. I think that as a Ph.D. student, I learned that discomfort and anxiety are totally normal when learning something new, and usually happen right before you understand something! I also had my daughter during my third year of graduate school, and developing the level of organization that I needed to ‘do it all’ has been awesome.
Medical writing is really great in that you can get a little bit of experience as a contractor before you graduate. Even if you end up not being wild about medical writing, you have a new skill to set you apart. Who on earth doesn’t want to hire someone who is skilled in communicating complex ideas?

 

What would be your advice to a PhD wanting a similar job as yours?

I would say to listen to the Medical Writers Speak podcast, go to the AMWA website, and start developing samples, writing for a blog or university paper are great starts (the manuscript you wrote with your PI isn’t the best sample) I think a lot of people who are trying to break into medical writing have a hard time with the transition from being a scientist or physician who can write to being a writer who understands science. I think that it’s important to recognize that while obtaining an MD or PhD is really hard, it is only a piece of the puzzle. The thought of sharpening your writing skills should be an exciting one! I know I heard this said at a lot of ‘alternate career events,’ but what you do next should not be a ‘back-up plan,’ it should be an exciting new set of goals! Also, after doing a ton of lab work, I really had a hard time sitting all day. Now I have to be a lot more deliberate about exercise and working with my hands in other ways.

 

What are the top three things on your To Do list right now?

A typical day usually starts with assessing deadlines. I usually have a few projects going on at once, so organization is really important. Today I have to check in with a client who owes me a transcript of an interview, look over a manuscript I finished two days ago with ‘fresh eyes’ before sending it off, and do some bookkeeping (scanning receipts from a recent work trip out of town).

 

What are your favorite parts of the job? What are your least favorite or most challenging parts?

My favorite part is that I get to solve problems for clients. Usually I get called in when people are stretched thin. It’s nice to be able to help companies when they are growing. My least favorite thing is the sitting. I have a standing desk now, which helps, but I miss the constant motion of lab work.

 

Is there anything you miss about academia? What was the biggest adjustment in moving from the bench to your current position?

Yes, of course! I miss being an ‘expert’ in a scientific area. As a writer, I learn just enough about a subject to write well about it. I have totally lost money on jobs before because I get sucked into a topic and next thing I know I am well-versed in how a specific trial recorded adverse events, but it doesn’t matter because that wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing. Especially as a freelancer, it’s all about doing what needs to be done to complete a project. I miss the freedom of diving into a single sentence in a paper to figure out the nature of a problem. The hardest part about making the mental switch was understanding that my role is to produce clear and meaningful content, not to assist in guiding the direction of research or marketing, or whatever the problem is I am writing about. Again, the switch from being a scientist to a writer.

 

How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?

I think that the ways in which medical writers develop content over the next few years will change to include more interactive platforms. I expect that soon doctors and patients will be unsatisfied with brochures, which will not only seem old-fashioned, but be insufficient for the increasingly complex decision-making that accompanies personalized medicine. Probably medical writing will soon include more content for apps. I don’t know that the clinicians of tomorrow will put up with PowerPoint-based CME, or posters will remain paper-based and non-interactive. It is hard to predict how communication will change in ten years time, but I think the most flexible and willing to learn medical writers will be the most successful.

 

What kind of positions to people in your position move on to?

One of the coolest things about freelance medical writing is that it can serve as a grand tour of many different types of biomedical businesses. You get to work with many types of companies (big, small, growing, pharma, CROs, communications firms, medical associations – you name it). You also get to work with the people in a company and see what they are like and see many different styles of working (fast, slow, organized, totally insane – you name it!). You can really observe and learn about what suits you. Many companies who need freelancers also need an on-staff medical writer, or someone smart in medical affairs, or marketing, or communications. Showing up and being organized and pleasant can prompt a job offer.

 

And finally: In the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would a freelance medical writer bring to the table?

I could be sure that every conceivable population of clinicians is well aware of how to identify, appropriately treat, and report zombie-related medical events. In addition, all potential patient populations will be well aware of how to seek out specialists, should they experience symptoms. Because I’m a freelancer, I am available to handle any writing needs that crop up as various new anti-zombie therapies emerge.

So You Want to Be in… Scientific Public Relations

By Sally Burn, PhD

Scizzle was recently fortunate enough to chat with the infectiously upbeat, super accomplished Cherise Bernard, PhD. Cherise is Senior Manager for Elsevier’s U.S. Engagement Program, as part of their Global Academic Relations team. She acts as a conduit between the publisher and academic institutions and performs scientific public relations duties (in addition to being a “technology midwife”… more on that later). We got the lowdown on the publishing world, what her job entails, and how you too can move into this exciting sphere of work.

 

Hi Cherise! So, what does someone in Scientific Public Relations do?

Basically, my responsibilities align around being a thought leader. When I say a thought leader, one of the primary responsibilities that I have is to build relationships, programs, and initiatives with different US universities. One topic that my company is very passionate about right now is precision medicine. We identify universities in the country that are also passionate about precision medicine and we network with them to understand their challenges. When I say I need to be a thought leader, I need to be having very up-to-date conversations about precision medicine to recognize what the field is lacking and what steps need to be made to propel the field forward. The execution aspect of my job is to make sure that I build relevant programs in order to do those things. For example, let’s say Stanford University is known for its work in precision medicine. What I would do is to go meet with, let’s say the vice president of research at Stanford and then build some program around precision medicine where Elsevier and Stanford are both contributing data or resources, jointly resulting in a better understanding of precision medicine at Stanford and as a whole.

 

What kind of data do you contribute, specifically?

Elsevier is a scientific information solutions company. We publish over 2,500 scientific journals, both online and in print. Not only that, we also provide other digital web-based solutions for the scientific community such as Scopus, Mendeley, and Science Direct. Scientists all over the world use these resources in order to disseminate their research. For example, using our SciVal platform, universities can actually create custom reports indicating what their top research areas are.  How would that be helpful for an institution? This can assist them in making targeted investment decisions for areas that they dominate in. My job is not black and white; there are no two days that are the same. It differs with every single engagement that I’m involved in. But it’s always going to be a mutual exchange of information to promote an extensive learning opportunity or to promote advancement in a particular field or initiative. This should be a really interesting blog post because, honestly, my job is not one that biomedical life scientists have traditionally considered and said, “I want to do that with my PhD.” It’s something that I just fell into. It allows me to use creativity every day. And so far it’s awesome.

 

How did you get this job? What is your background?

I always tell people I’m a recovering scientist because that’s exactly what I am. When I was younger, I knew that I wanted to go into research. That interest led me to major in chemistry as an undergrad. Then I pursued my PhD in Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, focused on cancer research. Then… I don’t know when there was a shift but somewhere during graduate school I realized that I wanted to see how the research applied more to the patient. I’m at the bench, I’m doing my research but – what happens to the research after it leaves the bench? What is the impact on society once the paper is published? Does it have an effect on the actual patient? It was then that I decided to do a little bit of research myself into the process of taking research findings and bringing it to market. I learned about the field of technology transfer (or scientific commercialization) and began to understand that this is how inventions are translated from the academic bench to industry, then to the bedside. So, with this knowledge, I decided to pursue a mini-MBA certification at Rutgers while in the thesis phase of my PhD program, just to get more of an understanding of what the business aspect of science looked like. Everything that a full MBA would cover, we touched on it in a span of twelve weeks. It was a very intensive program. But I was able to do that at night while still working in the lab during the day. It was extremely difficult but I felt like I needed to get some framework behind what I was interested in doing.

That mini-MBA helped me land an internship with the Rutgers Office of Business Development and Technology Transfer. The internship allowed me to not only learn about the intellectual property process, but also taught me how to evaluate, market, and license new technologies coming out of the university to commercial partners. The commercial partner used the licensed technology in coordination with their own technology portfolio while the university received licensing fees and profit shares from any resulting products. Prior to the internship, this whole concept was foreign to me. As a scientific researcher, no one talks about this really, unless you are in a lab that already has a relationship with a commercial company. I learned that there were technology transfer offices at the majority of universities, commercializing the research taking place at the bench. I was completely intrigued and I knew that I wanted to pursue it further.

My Rutgers internship allowed me to get a paid position at Rockefeller University’s technology transfer office, where I stayed for two years. From Rockefeller, I moved on to Mount Sinai Innovation Partners at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. That’s where the creativity started for me. I was able to align my commercialization experience with my passion for education. The director at Mount Sinai Innovation Partners gave me the creative freedom to build a commercialization internship program. From that opportunity, I was also able to build other programs, educating the Mount Sinai community about entrepreneurship and scientific communication. Mount Sinai was the place where I learned that I could think like a scientist but I could also be creative. That whole concept was foreign to me because as a scientist you follow protocols. You read papers. You see what other people have done. The whole concept of creativity, of building things right from scratch not knowing what the process will be at all was something that I hadn’t experienced before and now I was. I started realizing that this is exactly what I wanted to do. That experience led me to my position now at Elsevier – so you can see the transition, right? I was able to build programs, initiatives, and learning opportunities at Mount Sinai and now I’m at Elsevier with the amazing opportunity to create on a national level with a portfolio universities and organizations!

 

Do you feel like the mini-MBA was essential for getting to where you are now?

This might seem like a strange answer, but in terms of the content, it was not essential. The content helped. I became familiarized with a lot of business terms. But it was essential in terms of me proving my commitment to learning about this field. I tell PhDs and postdocs this all the time: sometimes you need to make certain moves to push your career forward… and it’s not really so much about what you’re doing, but more about you proving your commitment to identifying your skill sets, learning your personality, understanding what you like, what you don’t like. Everything will not always work. Everything will not always be a home-run. Trust me, I did things that I’m not even discussing here that I was just like okay, no, I don’t want to do that. But I made a decision for myself to always follow my instincts. That’s another concept that I’m actually going to be trying to write a short book about – following your instincts as a scientist and not always staying “within that box” of the norm.

 

You’re outgoing with great communication skills. Would you say those are essential skills in your job?

Yes. Outgoing, being a great networker. But I wouldn’t just say “go network”. I would say do targeted networking. Find the people who you can actually have a great conversation with. Find the people who it’s strategic for you to talk to and it’s strategic for them to talk to you. To do that, you have to do your research. That’s another thing that my PhD taught me, which may be underutilized by other PhDs – you know how to do research. You know how to find stuff out. It doesn’t have to be about a protein. You can also find things out about people. If you make your networking more strategic and have more of a purpose, then follow your instincts, your networking will turn into relationships and that’s the crux of what I do right now – relationship building.

 

Do you think LinkedIn is important for somebody who wants to get into your industry?

Definitely. I think LinkedIn is just important for getting into any industry at this point. I think it’s a great way to initiate cold meetings. If you don’t know someone and have never met them but you would feel they would be beneficial to know, LinkedIn is a great way to introduce yourself. If you are able to then send them a little note, or do your research, find out their e-mail address, find out their phone number, do a cold call. These are the kinds of things that people really need to take initiative on nowadays – really just put yourself out there and don’t necessarily care about how you look all the time. Just put yourself out there.

 

In addition to taking the initiative and networking, do you have any other advice that you would give to someone who wants to get into your field?

The first thing I would advise is to understand who you are. I know it sounds a little bit cliché, but when you are going into a field that’s not very heavily populated, especially by scientists and by PhDs, you have to be extremely sure of yourself and confident (even though the confidence may not be an everyday occurrence!) Know what your interests and passions are. Know what your personality is like. If you don’t like to talk to people, this is probably not the best job for you! My second piece of advice is to read. Read what’s on the cutting edge (this is important for scientists who are interested in technology commercialization as well). What are the hot topics right now? Last year, President Obama did his State of the Union Address and he talked about advancing the fight against cancer. When I listen to that, I’m not just listening to it as Cherise in my living room. I’m also listening to it for work because when I meet with the NSF and the NIH, they are taking their cues and forming their priorities directly from The Office of the President. I need to be well versed so that if I have a meeting at NIH and the NSF, I know what I need to talk to them about. The only way to do that and to be confident in those types of conversations is to be really aware and be on the cutting edge of what’s going on in the country and even globally in terms of scientific research, technology, and data.

 

How do you remain on the cutting edge? Are there any sources of information that you particularly rely on?

I read reputable blogs by thought leaders in the fields that interest me.  I try to stay up to date on articles in Cell, Science, and Nature. They are pretty much always on the cutting edge. And of course, reading the journals that Elsevier produces. It’s also cool because I come from a commercialization background so I am still on top of those kinds of literature too. When you read about startups, they are usually a couple of years ahead of where the rest of the industry is currently. I also read venture capital blogs because their investment decisions contribute a great deal to the technology commercial landscape.

 

What are the top three things on your to-do list for today?

I have a portfolio of programs and initiatives that I’m working on. One of the things constantly on my to-do list would just be e-mailing and phone conversations with colleagues and partners to find out where we are on certain things and to ensure that the plans are moving forward. I spend a lot of time as well reading and understanding the strategic goals of the universities that I’m working with, identifying openings and gaps in their capabilities, and assessing if there’s an opportunity for us to partner with them. I need to constantly track updates and relevant public relations topics happening with our partners and distribute that information to my team. Another item on my to-do list is focused around more logistical efforts. If I have meetings next week on the West Coast, I need to be churning out the agendas for these meetings to everyone on the team. I’m on the thought leadership side but I’m also on the program management side.

 

What are your favorite and least favorite parts of the job?

I guess my favorite part would be the travel because obviously I get to see places that I’ve never seen. Another great thing about this position is that it’s a great work-life balance. I get into the office about 8:00 a.m. every day and I pretty much leave around 5:00, 5:30. Since we’re a global company, it’s also pretty feasible to work from home. My first day here I was given a work cell phone and laptop. So I take work everywhere I can work, especially since I have colleagues that are in Asia – sometimes I have to wake up for 7:00 a.m. calls with them because of the time difference. But I can just work from home if needed. That’s another really cool part that I really love. It’s the flexibility to do that. I also really enjoy the fact that my role is a brand new one, but that’s also my least favorite part! It’s my least favorite only because everything is from scratch. Sometimes that’s a little bit scary because I don’t know if I’m doing something in the right way. Nothing is set in stone and it’s just difficult to measure my success. But that’s also the really intriguing part of my job, too: that I don’t know. I have to figure everything out and that actually motivates me to get up and try new things every day. It’s my least favorite and most favorite part of what I do.

 

Do you miss academia at all?

No, I don’t. Honestly, I get a healthy dose of academia without actually being in it, so I feel like I get the best of both worlds. I still work with academia on a very regular basis so I can’t really miss it. But I’m far enough away from it that I’m not dealing with the politics of it. I have other politics now but it’s not academia politics, which is great. Obviously, there are other benefits to not working in academia like a higher pay range, bonuses… those types of things that academia historically does not offer.

 

How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?

The way that we disseminate research is changing rapidly because of technology, because of social media. I think that in order to make that change amenable to universities, you need some liaisons, the kind that know both the old way and the new way to be there to push that change forward, and I think that’s what I am. In all of the topics that I’m working on [at Elsevier], we are trying to change the face of them, be thought leaders in them because we are trying to go from what’s old to what’s new. I’m like a midwife to push technology forward! All aspects of science will change rapidly within the next ten years, including how we educate and train our professionals and disseminate our findings.  We’re going to have to switch from the bench mentality to what the bigger, more global impact will be. We’re going to have to start changing the way that we educate our scientists, the way that we produce scientists. We’re going to have to change the graduate curriculum to account for the surges in technology that’s currently happening. We’re going have to change the way that we educate medical students to account for artificial intelligence and digital health in medicine. All of these things won’t happen overnight. The field requires these champions that are right in the middle of it to say, “Come on. Let’s go. We know you don’t want to leave this old way but we’ve got to go. We’ve got to move forward.”

 

What kind of positions does someone like you move on to?

I haven’t started thinking about it yet but now that you’re asking me there are a lot of things I can do. I think that I can probably transition from here into leadership roles in academia. I think that vice presidents of research and deans, they really need forward thinking people. They need people who are inventive, creative, and willing to take some risks. That’s possibly something that I could do if I wanted to return to academia. I also see myself being a motivator and public speaker in terms of scientific education, making sure that US universities in particular stay on the cutting edge of educating our scientists. Maybe an education consultant – helping universities switch gears to move their curriculum forward. Then, in terms of publishing, what I’m doing right now has its own ladder as well, because right now I’m a senior manager but I could become a vice president in our Global Academic Relations team.

 

Final, most important question: In the event of a zombie apocalypse what skills would someone in scientific public relations bring to the table?

I would probably be the one trying to befriend the zombies and saying: listen, that zombie right there, he might be able to help us. I’d say I know you guys are afraid of the zombies, but I don’t think all of them are bad. We can’t talk to all of them, but let’s look for one of them that can give us some inside information. I will be the one in the zombie apocalypse to bring all the inside information to the table. You have to be like an advocate for at least one of them because that’s the only way we’ll know what their plan is. I’m all about building strategy and you have to be able to view people as a resource in order build strategy.

 


Cherise can be contacted by email at c.bernard@elsevier.com or via LinkedIn.

 

So You Want to Be an… Equity Research Associate

By Sally Burn, PhD

In this week’s edition of “So You Want to Be a…”, we turn to the financial side of science and find out about a career in biotechnology equity research from Raluca Pancratov. Raluca completed her PhD in pharmacology at NYU School of Medicine, before transferring her analytical skills to the fast-paced world of equity research. Read on to find out if this is the post-PhD career for you!

 

Hi Raluca! So, what exactly does an Equity Research Associate do?

An equity (stock) research associate analyst typically works for large Wall Street investment banks or boutique investment research firms. The associate’s role is to support the senior analyst’s stock recommendations (buy, sell, hold) for investor clients. These can include pension and mutual fund managers, as well as hedge fund managers. Research analysts forecast whether a stock will go up or down and by how much, based on the commercial outlook of the analyzed companies. For biopharma companies, stock performance is often linked to the success of drugs in the clinic and on the market. Given the complexities of the drug development process, advanced degree holders such as science PhDs and MDs are well-positioned to understand clinical data and predict the likelihood of clinical success. A good portion of the work is keeping up to date with the newsflow (scientific, clinical, regulatory, or commercial), which influences day-to-day (and sometimes minute-by-minute) stock value. Estimating the value of a stock entails analyses of financial statements and forecasting the company’s sales and expenses.

 

How did you get to where you are now?

I have always been fascinated by drug development and my PhD mentor cultivated a “bench-to-bedside” mentality in the lab. I also enjoyed working on a translational project. I learned about investment research at one of the many “What can you be with a PhD?” career fairs that I attended (organized by the great team at NYU School of Medicine), where alumni from my graduate program described this type of niche position within finance. I remember thinking “Ah, I could do that!” and proceeded to read as much as possible about the biopharma sector and enroll in finance classes at the NYU School of Continuing and Professional studies. In addition, I conducted numerous informational interviews with professionals in equity research and educated myself on financial modelling. I got my first job through alumni referral, and was fortunate to encounter terrific mentors that trained me how to think about strategy and market “sentiment” driving stocks up and down.

 

What are the key skills needed for this job, and did you develop any of them during your PhD?

First, equity research requires analytical abilities, which I honed during my PhD, designing and troubleshooting experiments. Second, the finished product of an equity analyst is a written note or report, distributed to investor clients. Therefore, written communication skills are of utmost importance. While I wrote papers, reports, proposals, and a thesis during my PhD, their style is very different from the succinct and to-the-point communications required for the equity analyst job, so I had to adapt my writing style. Lastly, I am grateful to my PhD advisor for extensive training on the ins and outs of PowerPoint and delivering presentations, which came in handy in equity research.

 

What would be your advice to a PhD wanting a job similar to yours?

For scientists interested in a career in finance, I would advise reading as much as possible about the current therapeutic landscape and the biopharma industry players, and keeping up to date with translational and medical newsflow. I remember my undergrad colleagues majoring in social sciences spending a lot of time taking classes on designing effective surveys. In retrospect, I wish I had taken some of those courses and I recommend STEM scientists focus on this type of research method. I also advise trying to learn as much as possible about finance and accounting, perhaps by taking advantage of local course offerings in these fields. Some universities have access to published equity research through the local library – I would strongly suggest reading as many reports as possible, in order to become familiar with the writing style and structure of the different investment communications.

 

What are three things you do on a typical day?

On a typical day, equity analysts wake up to news from the European markets and U.S. market press releases begin to trickle in at 7.00am ET, so they need to digest a large volume of information, assess impact to covered stocks, and evaluate if financial estimates will be adjusted. News of a drug succeeding in a Phase III clinical trial may translate into adjustments of the drug’s probability of success. Second, equity analysts spend a lot of time on the phone, pitching and discussing investment ideas to investor clients. Third, equity analysts also coordinate multiple diligence projects, pertaining to products/clinical trials of covered companies or to companies considered for future coverage.

 

What are your favorite – and least favorite – parts of the job?

I enjoy reading and analyzing novel drugs and therapeutic modalities, and learning about the forefront of medicine. There is a great feeling of satisfaction when a prediction or forecast is accurate, when value creating events such as successful drug development are in line with the analyst’s expectations. I also enjoy attending medical conferences in fields as varied as oncology or rare disorders, and getting to know where the field is headed and what the upcoming research directions are. My least favorite part is the constant “on call” feeling, as key news can be announced any minute (including late at night), and the work required to react to major announcements can derail a day’s schedule.

 

Is there anything you miss about academia? What was the most challenging aspect of moving from the bench to equity research?”

Sometimes, the answer to a molecular question can only be found by experimental means (e.g. which strategy is most effective, targeting PD-1, PD-L1, or both in cancer?) and I miss not having the means to answer it directly. I was told before I started that equity research is an effort-intensive job, and believed it would be comparable to lab research (especially paper resubmission season). However, the pace of work is more comparable to the feeling during preparation for an important lab meeting or department presentation. Except for that is the feeling every day on the job.

 

How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?

Biotech and pharma equity research remain niche areas within finance, and the need for freshly-minted PhDs fluctuates greatly. During the recent biotech boom (2012-2015), hundreds of new companies became public, prompting multiple financial institutions to hire more biotech analysts as coverage universes became too big for a single team to manage. However, with more and more analysts covering the same stocks, client revenue is gradually directed at the minority who conduct the highest quality and most differentiated analyses. Over the next ten years I predict a lingering need for specialized professionals to analyze drug data, thereby predicting stock moves. However, in the social media/digital era, many analysts may have to reinvent themselves and the methods they use to reach clients and deliver the results of their analyses.

 

What kind of jobs does someone in your position move on to?

The most straightforward transition is promotion from the associate to the analyst position. To employ an academic analogy, analysts are similar to PIs, deciding on which companies to cover and what the course of the franchise should be, while associates are similar to postdocs, executing most of the analytical work to support such recommendations. Alternatively, associates may go on to work for the so-called “buy side”, investment managers such as hedge funds, pension funds, or mutual funds. This type of due diligence work is highly similar to that done by research analysts working for the “sell side” (i.e. banks “selling” stocks and “buy side” investors “buying” them). In addition, the diligence, market research, and valuation skills are amenable to other positions in corporate/business development and strategy in biopharma, investor relations, and consulting.

 

And finally: In the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would an equity research analyst bring to the table?

Man, since we survive the pressure of having to do multiple things on a  deadline – immediately, we can rapidly seize a situation and make a recommendation: Sell! Buy! Erm, I mean Run! Take cover! We may only be correct 50% of the time, but you can be darn sure that our attention to detail (honed from those endless days of Excel modeling) is so great that we’ll avoid those zombies lurking in the shadows.

 

So You Want to Be a… Medical Science Liaison (MSL)

By Sally Burn, PhD

I recently had the pleasure of talking to Alexandria Wise, PhD about her job as a Medical Science Liaison (MSL). It should be noted that she deserves special recognition for being so understanding in the face of an epic technological mess-up on my end. But then this personable nature is one of the traits, along with excellent communication skills, that make her a successful MSL. If you too are as good with people as you are with proteins, a career as an MSL could be the post-PhD path for you. Here’s the lowdown on this exciting career:

 

Hi Alexandria, so what does a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) do?

At its core, an MSL provides medical data to Health Care Professionals (HCPs) about a specific pharmaceutical drug product. An MSL is basically a library of knowledge for all groups who might be interested in a specific disease state or drug. I work for Sanofi-Genzyme in their Multiple Sclerosis (MS) division. My job is to know everything about our MS drugs, from clinical data to disease state information. When you’re in grad school you have four years to learn everything; here it’s much more intense, you have six months for training before you are put into the field. Following your training, you basically give what equates to a defense on the product. At this presentation, you are questioned by upper management to see how well you do under pressure and, more importantly, how well you know your stuff. We’ve got two MS drugs at the moment, and both are just amazing. Patients on our products are able to have a better overall quality of life, their MS is controlled and they can do things they couldn’t before. That’s a wonderful feeling.

 

In grad school you can work on a protein for four years, finally find out it tethers to the membrane… and then everyone outside your niche is like: so what? What you just described is a very different level of outcome.

Absolutely! I mean I used to work on ubiquitination and I thought everyone should be interested in it, but I talk to MDs and they’ve never heard of it. You spend so much time on a problem but then is anyone going to read your paper? Maybe some people but unless you are doing translational research then it’s probably only people in your very specific field of research. This is a problematic outcome of scientific research. I talk to doctors, nurses, physician assistants and answer their questions. And I love the variety because everyone’s perspective on the field of MS is different.

 

Can you tell us about three things you’re currently working on?

Right now I’m driving to have a quick discussion with an MD on some research that was carried out in like the late ‘90s, early 2000s that’s still relevant today. One thing about being an MSL is that we are on the road often or spend many hours traveling and you can’t always pick up a journal article to read. So, with the support of Sanofi-Genzyme, I’ve produced a podcast for MSLs, so we can learn about cutting edge research while we are traveling and reading isn’t convenient. I also work with doctors who carry out scientific research. Right now I’m working with one MD who’s working on functional MRI and neuronal metabolism in patients who are on one of our drugs.

 

You mentioned the amount of travel, so leading on from that, what are your favorite – and least favorite – parts of the job?

Understatement of the year, there is a lot of traveling! I cover New York and Long Island and I drive a lot. But also there are a lot of meetings that take place internally and externally (i.e. annual conferences) so I fly a lot too. My least favorite thing would be the scheduling and how it gets disrupted easily. I may be in Albany in the morning and then have to drive at a moment’s notice to Long Island. But often it’s because a HCP needs the information to give the best possible care to their patient and that’s fine, that’s what I’m here for, and I’m willing to drop everything to address that. My favorite – I’m very independent and so being an MSL works great with that. I talk to my boss, maybe once a week and I see him even less, maybe every quarter. Other than that I make my own schedule and decide what I do. And I know I’ll get it done. Some people aren’t suited to that – they need hand-holding for each step, and that doesn’t work out so well. But of course being a PhD you’re already suited to this because you know how to work alone, decide what needs doing, and manage your time.

 

Other than the needs to be independent, willing to travel, and outgoing – are there any other key skills required for this job?

A lot of the soft skills you’ll already have from your PhD. You are constantly working with people you’ve never met before but your goal is to develop a relationship with these HCPs. Being able to read body cues or other non-verbal cues are highly necessary for this job. It may not sound like a huge deal but when you are in a business meeting, being able to recognize and adjust your message, so that the audience receives your message better is the difference between being asked back for another meeting or never seeing that person again.

 

How did you get to where you are now? What is your educational and science background?

For my undergraduate I double majored in neuroscience and psychology. I did my undergrad at Ohio Wesleyan University; it’s a small liberal arts college. Then for grad school I went to Northwestern but transferred to City University in New York to complete my PhD in neuroscience. I then did my postdoc at Columbia, working in the pathology department on the ubiquitination pathway in neurons. I also represented postdocs on a Columbia committee and helped set up a New York wide postdoc society. But you know what it’s like, it’s expensive being a postdoc in New York and so I started exploring jobs outside of academia. All I kept hearing was “consulting, consulting” so I thought I’d give that a try. It took nine months from starting to look for a job to leaving the lab. I started working as a consultant for a small company and… yeah, I wasn’t that happy. Some projects were great, like this one diabetes project where we took one aspect of the drug – that it stayed in the system longer than competitors’ – and spun it to be the positive selling point. So if you forget to take it one day, it’s not the end of the world, your blood sugar isn’t going to plummet. That was how we sold it. A lot of it is about branding. But then there were other projects which had nothing to do with science and it just wasn’t for me.

I started reaching out to friends to see if anyone knew of any jobs going. I will say right now – LinkedIn is your friend! It is so useful, I cannot emphasize that enough. I messaged one of my friends on LinkedIn to ask if he knew of any jobs at Sannofi-Genzyme, where he worked. He was like “this is amazing, yes, we have two positions we’re looking to fill right now”. So I did an over-the-phone interview with my now boss, then a month later I was in Boston for an interview with the whole team from the Northeast, and a month after that I learned I got the job.

 

I was going to ask what your advice would be to a PhD wanting to become an MSL, but it sounds like the advice is LinkedIn!

Yes, absolutely, LinkedIn and networking! What I did was to email people at companies I was interested in. There’s the route of submitting your resume via an online application but honestly if you want someone to notice you, email the person who’ll be your co-worker or an HR person personally. Also, you have all these connections currently at grad school but they’re going to move on and make new connections and then you will have a whole new set of people you can reach out to. It’s such a useful resource. Even now I still get maybe three or four messages every week asking if I want to go transfer to their company. It’s crazy. But I’m happy where I am right now.

 

That brings me to the next question: what kind of positions do MSLs move on to?

There are various levels you can move up through. My friend who I messaged about the job initially, he is now medical director. Another option is moving into medical communications. They prepare scientific data for presentation on posters or in brochures for a pharmaceutical company about the products. And some people move across to consulting. There are lots of options and, like I said, I get offers every day to move companies. It’s a big field right now and the number of MSLs in the US is increasing.

 

So is the field expanding? What major changes do you see happening to the MSL field in the next ten years?

It’s going to continue to expand, very much so. At Sannofi-Genzyme the US territory used to be just carved up into four large areas, having one MSL for each region but now we have grown to 38 MSLs for the US. I cover New York and Long Island, and there’s another MSL just for Manhattan and Brooklyn. The job opportunities are only increasing. And I think now PhDs are beginning to become aware of it as a career. Previously it was just PharmDs who knew what an MSL was.

So I think as a whole the field is growing. But you should be aware of the lifecycle of the product you’re dealing with because if you work on a drug that’s been out for a while, soon it’ll be off patent and then go generic. In the US, most drugs go off patent in 10-15 years. At that point your company may downsize because other companies are also making your drug and data on the drug is more readily available. But there will be other MSL jobs you can fill elsewhere. And it’s a great job, the benefits are excellent. I don’t mind saying my salary, I earn around $130k and a brand new car but that’s not including the other benefits like an annual bonus. All my travel is covered, I have an Amex. At the consulting job, I started at $70k but that was at a small firm.

 

Is there anything you miss about academia?

Mmmm… yeah. I miss going to an interesting talk and having conversations about research. If I talk about ubiquitination to one of my MDs, they’re not going to know what it is, whereas I think everyone should be working on it – it’s the trash can of the cell! And I miss seeing cool stuff down the microscope. I used to work on neurons, so that was cool. But other than that… no, I’m good with where I am now!

 

OK, the final, most important question: in the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would an MSL bring to the table?

There are definitely two types of zombies: fast-moving ones from 28 Days Later or the slower mob-like ones from Walking Dead. If you’re talking about full-on 28 Days Later type zombie apocalypse, MSLs would be useful as we know all about density, of where people are located because of all the travel we do. So we would know where it’s safer to be (i.e. less dense areas of people). And we know where all the remote clinics are, hidden away in woods. If these were like Walking Dead type slow zombies… I mean, come on, you can walk faster than them! Just walk fast! But I guess in that situation where you have a group of survivors coming together, MSLs would be really good at working with all different types of people and managing the balance/harmony within a group of survivors to build something constructive (i.e. a wall). I still can’t believe no one ever met a construction worker as a survivor on one of these shows! I live in NYC, there are millions of them!

 

So You Want to Be a… Tech Founder

By Sally Burn, PhD

Do you spend as much time thinking about the amazing idea you have for a startup company as you do about your experiments? If so a post-PhD career as a startup founder may be in your future. We chatted to Rudy Bellani, founder of tech startup Oystir, a company which matches PhDs to suitable jobs based on their skills, about his career transition from neuroscientist to CEO and asked how our readers can also make the jump.

 

Hi Rudy! So what exactly does a Tech Founder do?

What my function is at the company is completely dependent on the skills I have and the challenges I want to take on. For me, usually, it’s working with developers, recruiters and marketers to achieve a specific end. I function some days as a marketer, some days as a UX (User Experience) designer, some days as a recruiter, some days as a manager, some days as a grunt; it’s just totally dependent on the day. You do everything – you can’t be above doing something. What a founder does is also totally dependent on the company you start, so there’s a very big difference between a technology startup and a biotech startup from the standpoint that in one you might be really focused on say procuring a CRO (Contract Research Organization) and working with scientists in a wet lab setting.

 

How did you get to where you are now?

I did my neuroscience PhD at Rockefeller University in New York City and then went right after to McKinsey & Company to be a consultant. I spent two and a half years there and then jumped from McKinsey to start my own company, convinced one of my best friends at McKinsey to join me, and then we found some technical friends to join. The thing is that looking at that journey you might think that I got here because I learned business at McKinsey. The truth is I didn’t learn a lot at McKinsey that’s directly applicable to what I’m doing, even though that’s what I thought I was doing. I knew I wanted to start a company back in my grad school days but I frankly just needed money. I was so broke and I just needed to have a real job for a little while. So how I got here was I just wanted to do it and then just got brave enough to do it.

 

What are the key skills needed for this job? Did you develop any of them during your PhD?

It’s a lot of soft skills: perseverance, grit, and a lot of hustle. For my particular role as the CEO and the guy who cobbled together the team, there’s a lot of salesmanship. You just have to sell people on what you’re doing. You have to sell them to quit their jobs; you have to sell investors to invest in you when they shouldn’t. You’re just constantly selling. In terms of where I got those skills, I think half of it was my childhood. The other half are all of the foundational traits that led me, like most, to grad school – i.e. being someone who is willing to take on a high risk, high reward project, who is willing to be alone at the forefront of something and believe in it, when everybody else thinks it’s a crappy idea. Somebody who is able to persevere for a long time bashing their head against the wall with no seeming positive results. Somebody who loves ideas and is able to create their own path to an idea. People that like to work alone or in very small teams on things they are very passionate about… those feel like the sort of very foundational traits to doing this job. People who tend to go to grad school tend to have a lot of those traits.

 

What would be your advice to a PhD wanting a job similar to yours?

A startup is such a high risk endeavor that wherever you can derisk it you should and there are some easy places for people to do derisk ventures. Taking advantage of our time in grad school or in our postdoc to start working on ventures makes a ton of sense because even if we leave the lab at 8pm every day, that still gives you a handful of hours. Many of us aren’t married, don’t have kids; so you have spare time and you can use that to work on a venture to see if it takes off. Even if you do have a family, as I did, there is space within the day to daydream, go on Facebook or read Reddit – time that can be appropriated for bigger adventures. I know many grad students who have already followed that model, many that eventually quit MD/PhDs, PhDs, postdocs, even professorships once their business took off. Doing it in parallel makes a ton of sense. Or, again in parallel, apply to accelerator programs. They effectively give you a chunk of cash and they help you.

 

What are the top three things on your To Do list right now?

My top three tasks to do right now are: firstly, check in with candidates. We have a bunch of PhDs who are in the interview process at various companies, so I need to check in with them to see how things are going and if they need help preparing. Another task is setting up a bunch of school visits, between two and six schools each month. And another task is that we are right now in the process of launching our resume service. We’ve rolled it out to maybe a third of our users to test, and it’s gone really well so now we’re rolling it out to the rest.

 

What are your favorite – and least favorite – parts of the job?

My favorite parts about the job are feeling that your work really matters – if I don’t show up the company dies – feeling like you’re working on something you really care about and having a tremendous amount of flexibility. Throughout the process I had a kid, moved cities, and that made me change my schedule; sometimes I started later, sometimes I worked from home – and that flexibility has been really helpful for my own personal life. My least favorite aspect is that there’s no stability. Your company could die every week. If key people quit, your company is dead. If investors back out, you’re dead. If you fall out of love with the company, you’re dead. You are just so vulnerable because it’s this tiny group of humans doing this very focused thing. It’s hard work. The other is just how many administrative things there are… I’m not a detail oriented person, and thank god that I have Zach Marks, one of my co-founders, he’s this tremendously talented guy I met a Mckinsey who joined the company. But there are just a billion things that you need to do as a real company. Like have workers compensation, payroll, taxes… there’s a thousand minor things and they just suck. With great power comes great responsibility!

 

Is there anything you miss about academia?

I LOVED doing science. I even started grad school early in order to get started right away. Since Rockefeller didn’t have housing for me yet I slept underneath my lab bench, on the tile floor, for three months. When I eventually got a job at McKinsey I felt like a quitter, a failure, and was embarrassed. Eight months into that job, I was on a post-academia panel for neuroscientists as the consultant representative and this same question was asked and I answered, to my amazement, “no, I don’t miss anything about academia.” I love the business side of things. We forget sometimes that what drew us into science was that we are intensely curious human beings who love to build and create things. Building organizations has a lot of that too.

 

How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?

I think that we’re going to see more and more people jumping from academia to start their companies, because it’s just getting easier and easier to do. Already we’re seeing there is a really rapidly developing pipeline for grad students and postdocs to jump from academia to a biotech startup. There’s already a ton of programs for that and I think that will only grow, especially because right now a lot of that growth is based in Boston and San Francisco, and it’s just starting to catch up in New York. And certainly other schools all over the country have started to pick this up. It’s so useful having well worn track records where students can look and say five or six grad students from my department have done this, one of them has become really successful, three of them ended up getting a job… you need pioneers. But what there isn’t a lot of energy for right now is people leaving academia to start non-science based companies. And I would be part of that group to some degree. But I think that as more people become aware that they can do all kinds of different companies, I think that that will grow. And again that will be shaped by there being examples of people who can mentor and help individuals, because it’s really scary to go from something that is very structured to jump into something that isn’t. You can work out of a box under a bridge, no one cares, no one’s thinking about you.

 

What kind of positions does someone in your position move on to?

PhDs who start their own companies, where they tend to go is to be a manager in a bigger company of their type. So, people that start their own biotech companies and fail – which almost everybody does – pretty rapidly join manager level positions in larger biotechs. That’s almost overwhelmingly what happens. You have a biotech startup of three or four people, you do that for two or three years, it fails, then you go join a fifty person biotech company; you go in as manager. You’ve already worked with CROs and done x-y-and-z, and a lot of those accomplishments are very much rewarded. Then for non-science startup founders, they tend to do the exact same thing. The point is you build expertise in an area and that expertise is valued, and the traits that leads someone to start their own venture are very valued – the risk taking, the chasing your dreams, the go out there and do it yourself mentality – which leads to people being snapped up very quickly.

 

Finally, the all-important question: In the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would a Tech Founder bring to the table?

The startup founder is more likely to be the raider, they will get together a small group of weirdos who will go off into the wasteland and come back with treasure… or will die. Just like a startup.


For some expert advice on the post-PhD job hunt, check out Rudy’s guest posts on penning a winning resume and why the executive summary is the most important item on your resume.

So You Want to Be a… Medical Writer

By Sally Burn, PhD

What can you be with a PhD? So many things! In our new series on post-PhD careers we explore the options out there, providing tips on how to break into different industries and helping you identify jobs your skill set is ideally matched to. Check back every two weeks for the lowdown on becoming, to name but a few, a Publisher, Tech Startup Founder, Medical Science Liaison, Editor, Industry Scientist, Consultant, and Space Pirate (OK, so perhaps not the last one).

Today, in our first post, we chat with Elizabeth Ohneck about her career as a Medical Writer and find out how you can become one too. Elizabeth works for Health Interactions, a medical education and communications agency; she’s also one of our regular Scizzle blog contributors.

 

Hi Elizabeth! So, what exactly does a Medical Writer do?

Medical writers work with research teams in pharmaceutical, nonprofit, and other institutions to develop manuscripts, abstracts, posters, and presentations. In general, our clients send us reports outlining the methods, results, and analysis parameters of their studies, which we use to develop the desired publications or presentations. We also attend conferences and prepare conference summary reports, as well as write literature reviews over current publications in a particular disease or therapeutic area. In addition, we provide support for administrative tasks such as manuscript and abstract submission and the preparation of biosketches for physicians and researchers.

 

How did you get to where you are now?

I have a BS in Biology from the University of Dayton, where I first experienced working in a lab for my honors thesis in microbiology. I enjoyed research at the time, so I decided to go to grad school. I got my PhD from Emory University in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. I knew I didn’t want to stay in academia, but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I took a postdoc position at NYU while I looked into other career options. I’ve always liked writing and am often frustrated by how poor the communication of science is among researchers and between researchers and the public, so I started looking for opportunities in science communication. My husband is a postdoc at Princeton, and a former postdoc from his department emailed the department saying his company was hiring medical writers and any interested candidates should contact him. My husband sent me his information and I emailed him to set up an informational interview. After our conversation, he sent my CV to the HR department at his company and from there I went through the standard hiring process – phone interview, writing test, in person interview, job offer.

 

What are the key skills needed for this job? Did you develop any of them during your PhD/postdoc?

You really have to love learning and be an effective self-educator. I work in rheumatology and veterinary medicine right now, not areas at all related to my background in microbiology. So I had to learn a lot about new subjects very quickly, and it’s really important to stay up-to-date with the research and developments in the field. And you obviously need to enjoy writing and have strong communication skills. Time management and the ability to meet deadlines and prioritize work are also critical. A PhD and postdoc should help you develop all of these skills through planning your research, preparing publications and presenting your work. The ability to professionally and effectively communicate with clients has probably been the skill I needed to work on the most, since it requires much more formal communication than we usually use in academia.

 

What would be your advice to a PhD wanting a job similar to yours?

Take every opportunity you can to write and present. In addition to your own manuscripts, take advantage of any offers to contribute to book chapters, reviews, commentaries, etc. Write for a research blog (like Scizzle!) or a department or program newsletter. Attend conferences or participate in symposiums or presentation opportunities at your institution to become comfortable and efficient with poster and oral presentations. For entry-level medical writing positions, effective scientific communication skills will really be the key to demonstrate that you are a strongly qualified candidate. And network. I know everyone says that for every position, but it’s true. Create a professional social media presence and look for opportunities to meet people in the field.

 

What are the top three things on your To Do list right now?

Right now, I need to finish editing the monthly rheumatology literature review we prepare for our rheumatology clients, submit a manuscript, and prepare an outline for a new manuscript that we will be kicking off next week.

 

What are your favorite – and least favorite – parts of the job?

My favorite part of the job is writing manuscripts. It’s the most writing-intensive task, and writing is really my passion. I love the feeling of accomplishment that comes with turning a collection of data into an intelligible story. My least favorite part is making slide presentations, but that’s only because I’ve never been particularly fond of the software used to make said presentations. The most challenging part for me is conference coverage. Travel to and from the conference, long days of taking detailed notes during conference sessions and meeting with clients, and tight deadlines for creating conference summary documents afterward can be exhausting. But getting to travel to new places is fun.

 

Is there anything you miss about academia? What was the biggest adjustment or most challenging aspect of moving from academia to your current job?

I don’t miss anything about being at the bench or the academic environment. The experience helped get me where I am today, but it just wasn’t the right fit for me long term. The biggest adjustment was getting used to not being on my feet all day – I have to remember to get up to walk around and stretch every once in awhile! The biggest challenges were learning the writing style preferred by our clients and adapting to the more formal style of communication required for interaction with clients.

 

How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?

From what I understand, there is a huge demand for people in the medical communications industry, so it seems that it’s a growing field. I imagine this growth will continue, since there is increasing demand for more transparency in scientific research, and medical communications companies can help increase the clarity of publications and the efficiency of the publication process.

 

What kind of positions does someone in your position move on to?

The next step after entry-level Medical Writer is Senior Medical Writer, which involves more projects, more independence and leadership in your projects, and opportunities to mentor newer medical writers. In my company, the next step would then be Associate Scientific Director, which involves more management responsibilities.

 

Finally, the all-important question: In the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would a Medical Writer bring to the table?

I imagine we’d be responsible for informing the public about the virus or genetic mutation (it’s always one of those) that’s causing the zombie condition and communicating information about the cure. Although, as far as how we would distribute that information – that might be outside of our job description. If you figure out what career that would be, let me know. It’s never too early to start networking…

Uprooting my Research From the Bench and Planting it in an Office

By Heather D Marshall, PhD

My mind would often wander while dissecting mice, smashing spleens, and filtering cell suspensions from one tube to another.  Occasionally, I would set the centrifuge and grab a notebook to jot down an idea.  Over the course of more than a dozen years in a lab, I had notebooks full of pages with “young parents aren’t scared of measles” and “No GMO – I don’t want DNA in my food! (haha)” scratched about them. After many long days in the lab, I would often come home and write.  I wasn’t working on a grant proposal, nor a manuscript, protocol, or presentation—though there was a never-ending supply of that to do.  Instead, I would transcribe my notes and create pitches for my as of yet nonexistent, hypothetical science blog.

I enjoy communicating science with the public and have participated in science literacy outreach in my community.  I also designed and taught a course for non-science majors at Yale, dissecting science in the media ranging from Crichton’s Jurassic Park to Soderbergh’s Contagion.  And I’ve taken workshops on science communication with notable voices including Bob Bazell and Carl Zimmer.  As I reflect, the one thing preventing me from starting my blog back then was time.  As a postdoc with these various extra-curricular activities, I had very little of the so-called “free” kind.  Although I tried my hardest to find the holy grail of work-life balance, it was impossible for me to stop thinking about research—a paper that almost scooped my project, a fellowship needing revision, the next experiment to set up, data to analyze, or how my work fit into the grand scheme of life.  I quite literally didn’t have the mental bandwidth to deal with much else.  So time and again I would scribble notes about interesting story ideas that went seemingly nowhere.

After a number of years as a postdoc at Yale, I started applying for faculty positions.  It was the career I had always envisioned for myself, leading a lab of young scientists to investigate how immune cells respond to viral infections and immunizations.  I submitted what seemed like an endless number of applications, and although I had a couple interviews, no offers came in.  I had many friends and colleagues doing the same and getting similarly disappointing results.  At one point, I was shocked to discover that I personally knew every single applicant interviewing for one of those faculty positions (a friend nabbed that one—nice work B!).  Over the course of about a year, I was tired and stressed.  I needed a change.  I needed to do something that I enjoyed.  I needed to start my blog.  So I did.

That was the pivotal moment that changed the entire trajectory of my career.  It was evident from the start that I loved writing about science, and I wanted, nay—needed, to foster that professionally.  I stopped applying for faculty positions and started applying for science writing and editing jobs.  To get one wasn’t any easier.  I didn’t have a lot of experience as a writer and apparently failed grant proposals didn’t count.  I finally landed a medical writer position at DynaMed, a part of EBSCO Health at EBSCO Information Services.

DynaMed is a point-of-care medical reference for clinicians.  At DynaMed, we create a living database that is continuously being updated and adjusted to reflect the most current, useful, and rigorous evidence in medical research.  Like myself, the majority of medical writers at DynaMed have life science PhDs and backgrounds in research, which is excellent training for the objective appraisal and reporting of evidence in the medical literature.  My immunology expertise allowed me to immediately contribute to the infectious disease publishing group. In this role, I research pathogenic microbes, evaluate study design and rigor, and write about signs and symptoms, diagnostic assays, and treatment regimens for diseases caused by pathogens.  In collaboration with clinicians, we synergize my research analysis with their clinical perspective to craft this living, working database to be used by doctors in the clinic. For an inside peek at DynaMed, check out our Ebola virus disease page, which was made open-access during the 2014 outbreak.

Truly the best aspect of this career transition has been the ability to take a step back from the basic science to consider how all of research from mice to men comes together to help patients.  I recently researched a viral pathogen called BK virus.  Most of us have BK just hanging out, virtually asleep in our kidneys and bladder, not causing any problems at all.  However, if you’re unlucky enough to need a kidney transplant, you may well be wary of some tiny hitchhikers coming along with that life-saving gift.  One issue that arises is that the surgery can cause inflammation that awakens BK virus in the donor kidney.  Secondly, the very powerful drugs needed to suppress your immune system’s attack on your new kidney also make it possible for BK virus to make lots of viral babies.  Finally, all those viruses that have grown in the donor kidney may be able to hide from your immune cells, unless the donor just happened to be your identical twin.  Alas, in up to 10% of kidney transplant recipients, a perfect storm brews allowing BK virus reign over that new organ.   As I wrote about BK virus in DynaMed, it was evident that my background in immunology and virology coupled with my interests in science communication had perfectly merged to provide me the opportunity to actively contribute to the medical community as a writer at DynaMed.

As I look back on my trajectory though, I’m surprised by how close I was to becoming a PI (principal investigator) and I ponder how many others may be in a similar situation.  We’re all in the same boat when we start this journey.  We begin our research careers with lofty aspirations of curing cancer or discovering something that changes medicine.  In reality, the observations we make in the lab extend our knowledge in tiny increments and in all sorts of directions (sometimes even backwards).  But we put our heads down and continue to do it because we’re a curious bunch.  I’m still just as curious as I always was, and although my job no longer requires me to gown up to inject mice with viruses in a biosafety level 3 containment lab, it still affords me the ability to satisfy these curiosities from my cubicle.

Given the variety of nonacademic careers available to life science PhDs today, it’s bizarre to me that the training process continues to be an apprenticeship—grooming us for our own labs.  No doubt a major reason for this is that as students and postdocs, we look up to our mentors.  We want to have a similar impact on science, medicine, and life as they’ve had on us.  But the reality is that there are far too many PhDs and far too few academic jobs.  And yet, this needn’t be disheartening as there are so many ways for a scientist to contribute to society.  I challenge you all to think outside the proverbial academic box when considering your future careers in science and medicine.  As a postdoc, I was strategically aware of how my extracurricular activities in teaching and communication would contribute to aspects of being a PI.  However, it wasn’t until I started blogging that I realized that my particular combination of attributes and interests aligned more closely with a career outside of academic research.

Think about your strengths and weaknesses early and often.  Be open to new opportunities (like blogging!) that may alter your skill sets.  And don’t be afraid to trail blaze your own path by doing whatever inspires you.  For me—someone with a comprehension of the immune system, a thirst for knowledge, a motivation to communicate science, and a passion for writing—a Medical Writer position at DynaMed should have been an obvious choice much sooner.  And yet, it’s never too late to do what you love.

——————————————————————————————————————————————

Please feel free to contact me for any additional information on medical writing, DynaMed, or even my lowly Red Sox (there’s always next year!).  You can reach me at Cloudy Media Blog, hmarshall@ebsco.com or on Twitter @cloudymediablog.

Self Appreciation for Postdocs: You ARE Employable!

By Sally Burn

This week was NPAW2015 – no, not National Prosthodontics Awareness Week (which shares the same acronym), but National Postdoc Appreciation Week 2015. The organizers, the National Postdoc Association, champion our rights year round but use this week to focus wider attention on our 90,000 strong ranks and make us feel appreciated. They have their work cut out. If we take salary, job security, academic job prospects, mental health, and work/life balance (particularly for female scientists) as metrics of institutional gratitude, it rapidly becomes clear that postdocs are not poster children for appreciation.

A postdoc, according to Wikipedia, is “a person conducting research after the completion of their doctoral studies (typically a PhD) as part of a temporary appointment, usually in preparation for an academic faculty position.” The problem for modern postdocs, particularly in the life sciences, is that “temporary” is starting to last much longer and the coveted faculty position is becoming harder to attain than twenty years ago. Moving on then to “appreciation” – what does that mean? The first definition I found was “the recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something.” It suddenly struck me that instead of waiting for a pat on the head from our employers or the NIH, we should instead be focusing on self appreciation of the qualities that make us good postdocs… and recognizing how valuable these qualities are in the non-academic job market.

Transferable skills are something I’ve been thinking about a lot this year, as I prepare to leave the familiar yet cruel bosom of Mother Academia. When I first started thinking about what I could do next I came up with… nothing. Zilch. Nada. I know how to do embryonic dissections and make various chemical solutions. What possible good would those skills serve in the “real” world? I was, I concluded, likely unemployable as anything other than a postdoc. But I didn’t want to be a PI. And so I reached the internal conflict that so many postdocs encounter: we are single-mindedly trained for a mythical beast of a position and when we don’t attain that position, be it through choice or otherwise, we have no idea what else we can do.

Rather than fall into a pit of despair I’ve spent much of the last year educating myself about what else is out there and, more importantly, how utterly, awesomely qualified I am for it. Turns out, postdocs are super-employable. Not convinced? Here are Scizzle’s top skills that postdocs can bring to the table:

 

1) Research skills

There is a whole world of research outside of academia. And it usually pays way better. Whether your skills are clustered at the forefront of molecular biology, all in silico, or more about standing in rivers collecting insects, they will be highly prized by some employer out there. If you want to stay in research, there are many options: biotech, pharmaceutical, medical devices, government, the list goes on. You are very unlikely to be able to continue your exact current project (possibly a relief to some of us), so think laterally about how your skill set is applicable. You currently culture lung epithelium? Great, you are an expert on epithelial cell biology – cosmetic companies would love to have you in their skin lab. Your postdoc was all about the mouse immune system? Pharmaceutical companies would welcome your expertise in developing human monoclonal antibodies.

 

2) Project management

Postdocs know A LOT about project management; it’s something we do every day. We identify a question and then design a series of experiments to answer it. In planning our experiments we must take into account time, budget, and resources. As the project progresses we must react to failures or unexpected results by designing alternate strategies, again asking do these new plans answer the original question. Once we have data we analyze it and ask whether it answers the question and/or suggests new paths to follow. We often have a set deadline to achieve all this by (paper submission, lab meeting, conference). All in all, postdocs are project management bad asses. In the real world, this translates to being an attractive candidate for jobs as project managers in the pharmaceutical industry and also in many non-research environments.

 

3) Writing and communication

A common stereotype is that scientists are socially inept bad communicators. On the contrary, postdocs are communication polymaths. When you write a paper or grant you are taking your vast background knowledge and several years’ worth of data, and distilling it down into a concise summary of why the question is important, what you found, and what that means, usually for a reader outside of your niche. If you enjoy this process you may be ideal for employment at a medical communications agency. Perhaps what floats your boat is peer reviewing manuscripts, trying to decide whether a new finding adds to the field, and whether the authors really have shown what they say. If so, an editorial career could be in your future. Or maybe the biggest kick you get is presenting your work at conferences and then talking about it to anyone who’ll listen at the networking session. If you are adept at verbally communicating your science, particularly to a non-expert audience, you could thrive as a Medical Science Liaison (MSL). MSLs are experts in a field who interact with medical and academic professionals on behalf of a pharmaceutical company, conveying knowledge about a product to those involved with it.

 

4) Broad knowledge of science and the scientific process

If you are interested in science outside of your field – and are a good communicator – you may want to consider a career in science advocacy, policy, or diplomacy. Science advocacy entails relaying what scientists need, often to the government; science policy involves working on both policies that affect science and on how science shapes policies. On a more international scale, science diplomacy involves scientific collaboration between countries to solve a common problem (we’ve already discussed science diplomacy in depth – see here).

 

5) Ability to quickly assimilate new knowledge

One path taken by ex-postdocs is consultancy. A consultant may one week be asked to provide a solution to dwindling sales of a car, while the next advising a pharmaceutical company on why they should be switching gears to invest in biosimilars. Your postdoc wasn’t on cars or big pharma? Doesn’t matter. The key skill that you have is your ability to research a topic, assimilate the knowledge, critically evaluate it, and come up with new ideas relating to it. This is what consultants do. And they often get paid very handsomely for it.

 

6) Data analysis

All those hours spent processing and looking for patterns in your data have real-world value. Data scientists are in hot demand across a range of industries. And if you have coding skills to throw into the mix (particularly Python and R) then you’re even more attractive. If not, it’s never too late to learn – pick up Python online at Codecademy and R at DataCamp.

 

7) A sterling work ethic

NIH salary for a first year postdoc is $42,840, or $823.85 a week. I am not unique in having worked 12 hour days, seven days a week; a first year postdoc doing this will earn $9.81 an hour, a figure above the federal minimum wage ($7.25) but below the median wage at Costco ($13.14). While earning their $9.81 they will push themselves to get a seemingly hopeless experiment to work, all the while eschewing food, sleep, and normal human contact. Then, once the experiment finally fails they will go home to rest, perhaps cry, definitely eat some ice cream, and then come back again the next day to try something new. The capacity of the postdoc to work hard to achieve results on low pay, with little job security, and with no scope for promotion or financial reward is tremendous. Any employer would be lucky to have a postdoc join their ranks – don’t you forget it!

 

Want to know more about your next move? Do what you know best – research. Attend career panels at your institution, talk to ex-postdocs who’ve moved outside of academia, and set up job searches (for example on LinkedIn or Oystir) based on your skills – just to get an idea of what is out there. Then identify which skills need working on and gain experiences to improve these. An excellent use of your time would be to scoot over to the Independent Development Plan (IDP) website, where you can generate a list of science occupations you are most suited to, based on your answers to an extensive survey of your skills, interests, and values. Your personalized IDP then sets goals for the year, to help you on the way to your ideal career.

The Non-academic Job Hunt: Questions TO Interviewers

 

By Elizabeth Ohneck

Congratulations! You’ve made it to the end of your non-academic job interview! Well, except for that inevitable last question: “Do you have any questions for us?” After an intense period of answering tough questions from the interviewer, it’s your turn to drive the conversation, and for some of us, it’s the scariest part. It’s very important to ask questions, to show you are as interested in learning about the position and the company as they are in learning about you. Not asking questions cuts the conversation short and can be viewed negatively by the interviewer. But your first interview isn’t the time to ask about salary, benefits, dress code, etc. – these questions will be answered when an actual offer is discussed. Instead, you want to ask questions that continue to demonstrate your qualifications for, interest in, and commitment to the position, while providing you with crucial information about the job. So what kind of questions should you ask? Here are a few examples of general questions to get you started:

 

  • What do you enjoy most about working with this company? Initiating this conversation will connect you to the interviewer on a more personal level. The answer can also give you insight into company values, as well as an idea about how satisfied employees are with their jobs – if the interviewer struggles to come up with an answer, it could be a red flag about the working conditions.

 

  • Can you tell me about the team I will be working with? By asking this question, you are demonstrating your readiness to be a team player. The answer will tell you about the people you will work with on a daily basis and give you an idea about how individuals contribute to accomplishing team goals.

 

  • What constitutes success in this position and at this company? This question shows your desire to be successful in the job, and the answer can provide useful information about whether the position is a good fit for you, as well as how to succeed and get ahead in the company.

 

  • What skills and experiences would make an ideal candidate? The answer to this question will reveal exactly what the employer is looking for, and can give you the chance to affirm how your background meets those criteria or to discuss how you plan to gain or develop the desired skills.

 

  • What is one of the most important challenges currently facing your team, and would I be in a position to help resolve this problem? This question shows you are already thinking about how you can help the company. It also encourages the employer to envision you actually working in the position.

 

  • Do you offer continuing education or professional training? This question shows your interest in expanding your knowledge, developing skills beneficial to the job, and growing with the company. The answer may give you an idea as to how new employees are trained, and the value the company places on supporting the professional development of its employees.

 

  • What is the next step in this process? This is an essential last question. It shows you are interested in moving the process along. You may also gain insight into how many other candidates are being interviewed, and will get an idea about the timeline, giving you a chance to prepare for the next step.

 

If possible, it’s a good idea to talk to contacts that have interviewed for or currently hold similar positions to identify questions you can ask that are specific to the job for which you are interviewing. Also, be sure to thoroughly research the company, as it may stimulate relevant questions. Type out a list of your questions and have it easily accessible when the time comes. Having a physical document shows you have put thought and effort into preparing for your interview. It’s also beneficial to practice asking your questions out loud, to ensure you can readily and clearly ask them.

 

Don’t be afraid of the unavoidable last question! With a little preparation, you can confidently guide the end of the interview to provide useful information about the position, the people, and the company, while simultaneously shining a last bit of light on your stellar qualifications.