Students participate in a mini-internship at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute TBMH Program. (David Hungate for VTC)

Students participate in a mini-internship at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute TBMH Program. (David Hungate for VTC)

Katie Degen
Doctoral Candidate in Biomedical Engineering at Virginia Tech

To my mind I had three options upon graduation with an undergraduate degree in Biomedical Engineering: either medical school, a PhD and academic career, or industry. Sure, I had heard of a few other careers like regulatory affairs or intellectual property, but those were for people with a “lawyer-like” disposition- not quite for me. While academic research sounded interesting, the path toward the ivory tower also appeared to be a long, all-consuming road, and medical practice simply wasn’t my passion. So, industry it was!

Prevailing advice from advisors and career panelists at the South East Biomedical Engineering Career Conference, was that I would need a graduate degree to continue doing research in industry. So I applied to graduate schools, found an advisor at Virginia Tech that had a good record of translational research, and got to work. I was on my way through the next hurdle.

In a case of pure serendipity, my institution received a BEST award from the NIH. While my mind was pretty set on industry, I figured that more information is never a bad thing, so I began attending their events. I did not anticipate just how much these activities would open my eyes to the diversity of career opportunities that exist for PhDs with training in the biomedical sciences.

One type of activity I found particularly beneficial was the Virginia Tech BEST Mini-Internship series, where a visiting PhD-level speaker presents information about their profession, and holds a full afternoon workshop at our institute, including hands-on activities that helped us better understand some key responsibilities of the job. I was particularly impressed when one speaker talked to us about her role in creating museum content and training a large museum staff in communicating the science behind the exhibits. I had never considered that I could use my PhD to help communicate science to the public. This area is an unmet need that I find very compelling.

Perhaps the most impactful experience for me so far was our Biotech Mini-internship Excursion, where I was included among a group of about 20 doctoral students and postdocs that visited a number of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies across Virginia and Maryland. This trip allowed me to see a range of companies, both in size and maturity. I knew that start-ups were fundamentally different from pharmaceutical companies, in a “textbook sense” of knowing, but how the business models and structures varied, and how that influenced the lives of employees was made real. Moreover, we were able to meet with PhDs that served various roles within the companies, and hear about their diverse career trajectories. In addition to learning about their decision trees and receiving advice on the skills required to be competitive and successful in their roles, this was also a great networking experience. To continue running with the momentum of this experience, I have since corresponded with professionals in industrial postdoc positions and solicited advice on how to make myself into the best candidate for different types of industry positions, should I ultimately pursue a career in industry once I graduate.

I can’t say that I have firmly decided what I want to be when I grow up, but I can say I am now knowledgeable of a wider range of career options that would fit me, and I have a clearer idea of how to achieve them, thanks to Virginia Tech’s BEST program.