Winding roads: Exploring a variety of non-academic career paths.

 In career exploration, for grad students, for postdocs, PhD/Postdoc Blog

In my last post, I mentioned I would talk about exploring available career paths that may interest you based on your personal skills and values. An important thing to mention up front is that I believe there isn’t one ideal, career fit for each of us. I think people can find many, relatively different careers interesting and fulfilling. I think this is a good thing as it puts less pressure on us to find that perfect career. You should rather, I believe, explore several career options and then narrow them down to the two or three that you think would fit your interests and preferences in terms of salary, work-life balance, location, etc…and then aggressively pursue them.

Over the past several months I have thought a lot about my career. I have considered roles in life science consulting, as a medical science liaison, in medical writing, and, most recently, in career & professional development services. In this blog post, I will focus on what I learned about these particular careers and my personal evaluation of their fit for my life. Hopefully walking through this process lets you learn a bit about these careers (which may be useful in your own exploration) as well as how I have weighed the pros and cons of each career path to narrow my options to my final two.

Life Science Consulting

Life science consulting is a growing field that includes companies such as Clearview Healthcare Partners, Putnam Associates, L.E.K., Clarion, and Triangle Insights Group (read more about consulting as a career for Ph.D.s and about one Ph.D.’s journey to life science consulting). Many of these companies hire MBA graduates, but they will often hire Ph.D.s with domain expertise. While the compensation for Ph.D. trained consultants in these companies is normally quite good ($80,000+, according to Glassdoor), that comes with expectations of long hours and, often, a lot of traveling. Many Ph.D.s transition from consulting to work in the biotech or pharmaceutical industry as the hard life of a consultant is difficult to maintain for more than a few years. I think this type of career can be particularly straining on someone with a family and often is more appealing to single individuals. These impressions are my own and while the consulting life certainly can work for some people, I realized pretty early on that it wouldn’t for me. If you are interested in trying out the field, both Clearview & Putnam offer summer programs for Ph.D. students and postdocs to learn more about the consulting role and visit their offices.

Medical Science Liaison

The medical science liaison (MSL) role is also a growing one for Ph.D.-trained scientists. The career involves establishing relationships with key opinion leaders (KOLs), typically clinicians, to learn more about their therapeutic needs. MSLs most often work for pharmaceutical companies and are tasked with educating KOLs on the advantages of their company’s products. While the position is not directly in “sales,” it is hard for me to disentangle the MSL role from selling a product (if only selling via education). MSLs often travel to meet with KOLs in their designated geographic area/territory and spend considerable time on the road, and the compensation is typically excellent ($100,000-150,000). MSL experience is highly desirable for potential employers, which brings up the Catch 22 problem of breaking into the MSL role if someone doesn’t have experience as an MSL. I think one’s first MSL job is often about therapeutic area fit. For example, if your Ph.D. and postdoctoral research have focused extensively on glioblastoma and Company X is about to launch a new drug to treat that particular type of cancer, they are more likely to hire you to be an MSL for that product. There are programs that will help train you in the language of the MSL field that may help you secure a position, but I can’t personally speak to their value. In the end, I found it difficult to find MSL positions that fit my research expertise in neuroscience (many pharmaceutical companies have moved out of this therapeutic area) and also was a bit uncomfortable with the “selling” that went with the role. I know many MSLs, though, and they all seem very satisfied with the role. Check out the MSL Society’s website for more resources.

Medical Writing

Medical writing is a diverse career field encompassing individuals focused on regulatory writing, manuscript services, and broad-based science communication. Regulatory writing for the Federal Drug Administration and other government bodies is a niche area in high demand. The medical writing occupation is nice due to its flexibility—many writers work from home or remotely. If you are interested in this career path, consider joining the American Medical Writers Association, which offers a very reasonably-priced student membership and has local chapters across the country. The key to finding a medical writing career that fits your interest is to be sure you understand how a company you are interested in views that role. So, be sure to talk to medical writers who work at the company you are interested in about the duties associated with their role. A great way to show competency as a medical writer is to get experience writing more than scientific papers. I have personally blogged for a local organization focused on advances in the healthcare industry. In addition, writing for a local newsletter on your campus or via an organization like The National Postdoctoral Association (The POSTDOCket) can give you experience preparing pieces for broader audiences and under a timeline. If you can’t work with an existing media outlet, you can publish your own articles on LinkedIn (see an example here), which is a great way to build a portfolio of expertise not just in writing but also in whatever scientific/medical area you focus on. You could write about particular therapeutic areas that you want to work in as an MSL (dual-purpose activity!). After speaking with several people in the field, I have continued to pursue the medical writing career path. It sounds like a great mix of scientific rigor and work-life balance.

Ph.D. Student & Postdoctoral Fellow Support & Professional Development

Ph.D. Student & Postdoctoral Fellow Support & Professional Development is a career area that I have been pursuing of late. Individuals in this field work for universities (often in the Graduate School or Office of Postdoctoral Affairs) and assist trainees in their professional development and career exploration. A person in this role can be seen as a type of career coach and often leads workshops on using LinkedIn, resume writing, networking, and job negotiating. These roles are often multifaceted and can include liaising with faculty who have questions about the appointment process and trainee benefits as well as building connections outside the university for potential trainee internships or shadowing opportunities.

The story of pursuing the graduate student/postdoc career & professional development career path was born out of an email I received from someone in Vanderbilt’s BRET Office who thought a job like this would be a good fit for me. I have been very active in the Vanderbilt Postdoctoral Association and the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) but didn’t consider working in graduate student & postdoc affairs as a reasonable career path due to what I assumed to be a small number of available jobs. While the number of jobs is small, it is a growing career field. Having a network of individuals in this area (whom I met at the NPA annual meetings and often post on LinkedIn) also helped me learn about job openings as they become available. Check out the Graduate Career Consortium for info on jobs in this area (you must be a member to see the job board).

This is a career area that I am definitely passionate about and could see as a good fit for me in terms of being a rewarding career with excellent work-life balance.

I will talk more about the challenges of navigating a multi-prong career search next time (it can be tricky to know when to start seriously applying and when to take an offer). What I will say in closing is that the keys to performing a comprehensive career exploration search are to 1) start early, 2) talk with people in the role you want via informational interviews (use LinkedIn to find these people—I love the alumni tool as you have an instant connection with alumni from your current or former school), 3) make use of national organizations that are focused on a career area of interest to you and go to their social events, 4) network by staying in touch with people who may be able to let you know of job openings as they become available, and 5) keep an open mind. You can be surprised to discover what career path you ultimately take.

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