Looking back before leaping forward
The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the course of six months, Edward van Opstal, Ruchi Masand, Corina White, and Darcie Cook will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every Wednesday for new blog posts!
Current position: 5th year PhD candidate in Biomedical Engineering
Program start date: 2012
Institution: Rutgers University
Attaining a doctorate takes you on a journey that is often times hard to put into words. There are many successes and equally as many failures, periods of productivity and times when no matter what you do, nothing works. Through this journey, I’ve learned valuable lessons that I hope to share through future blog posts. Today, I’ll start with who I am and what brought me here to Rutgers University for my PhD in biomedical engineering.
My journey started with my undergraduate studies in chemical engineering at Penn State. While the course work was very challenging and the emphasis on independent learning due to the large class sizes were just two of the many reasons I enjoyed the experience, none of the subjects or applications ever felt exciting. Even when I received the opportunity to work as an undergraduate researcher or the time I spent as an engineering intern at a chemical company, I was never fully invested in the work. It was disappointing and scary and shook my belief that I was in the right field. I knew I loved engineering but I wanted something more tangible. Every time I thought hard about what I wanted to do, it came back to the medical field. But what did I really want to do? Be a doctor, a nurse, or a physician’s assistant? Work as a process engineer for a pharmaceutical company? Conduct research? When graduating from college, I had no idea. So I took 2 years off while working as a chemical process engineer to figure it out.
During my time in the chemicals industry, I realized that simply trying to find an equivalent process design job for a pharmaceutical company was not enough. I spoke to classmates who had those positions and knew the work would be very similar, just with a different end product. I wanted my career to have a balance between creative and intellectual challenges. After much research and networking, I set my sights on doctorate programs in biomedical engineering. The challenge of using engineering principles to solve medical issues required technical and creative approaches. This was very appealing to me, as it seemed like the perfect mix of creativity and intellectual rigor. Another attractive aspect was that teaching and mentoring undergraduates in this field would require a creative approach to properly engage and effectively educate them. While at the time, I was convinced a professorship would be in my future, I knew that if I did change my mind, a doctorate would open the door to many other jobs that presented the challenges I was seeking.
Starting my PhD at Rutgers in biomedical engineering was refreshing after my brief hiatus from academics. Learning in classes and beginning my dissertation research was challenging and exciting. My advisor was brand new at Rutgers; her first faculty position. This gave me the freedom to develop my own project within her expertise of tissue engineering. After several iterations, my research now focuses on developing design parameters for polymer scaffolds for retinal tissue engineering. Specifically, I look at how scaffold mechanical properties affect retinal pigment epithelial cells (RPE) and how functionalization of the scaffold with peptides can enhance RPE attachment and the formation of a monolayer. This research has allowed me to grow and develop as a scientist, as well as as a teacher, mentor, and scientific communicator.
Now, I’m in my fifth year and diving headfirst into a job search. Over the past few years my career choices have changed more times than I can count. For a majority of my time at Rutgers, becoming a tenure track professor was my goal. My experiences in academia, seeing the reality of that career path, and my personal life have led me to explore other careers for PhDs. Luckily, I’ve been able to hear about many of these positions through the Rutgers iJOBS BEST Program and have researched and networked with PhDs in industry, as well as those who have roles in the non-profit sector and public policy arena.
The past year or two has been full of soul searching, figuring out my personal priorities, and taking a hard look at what my true strengths are in order to determine the best career path for me. This has been one of the hardest parts of looking forward, beyond my defense to what is next. Over the coming months, I will share experiences and lessons I’ve learned through the mental chaos of balancing graduate school and finding the right career path. For today, I will finish with a quote from the late Steve Jobs emphasizing the importance of following your own path.
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”