Already set for post-PhD life, Dr. Elisa Porfilio defended her PhD in December 2016. As a graduate student in Dr. Jennifer Gommerman’s lab, she explored the possibility of plas ma cell migration and investigated their contribution to pathology in IgA nephropathy. Now, she is a Senior Consultant at KPMG, a job she had long set her sights on even prior to graduating. In fact, as an active contributor in the early days of IMMpress, Elisa penned one of the magazine’s still most-read articles on how to go into consulting as a PhD graduate. We caught up with Elisa where she, once again, shares her wealth of knowledge with us.
Elisa found her passion for consulting quite some time before the end of her PhD. Channeling her prowess to take initiative, she reached out to her existing network through which she attained her first consulting project improving the healthcare provider and supplier relationship. Realizing her interest for it, she directed her career development along the consulting path by taking on many roles that would make her a more competitive candidate for the job while completing her graduate studies. Leadership positions, both as Immunology Graduate Student Association (IGSA) co-president and two years as an executive member of the Graduate Management Consulting Association (GMCA), not only added to a well-rounded resume, but also provided for valuable experience in directing teams and managing results. She also participated in a volunteer consulting group, took a Healthcare Consulting course at Rotman School of Business, and completed an internship at Deloitte – all the while still at the
bench and dedicated to her lab work. Elisa was most definitely right on track for a career in consulting. Looking back, she acknowledges that she had done everything she could to get the job that she wanted: “There’s nothing else that I wish I had done. I had a pretty full plate as it was!” She credits Dr. Jennifer Gommerman for being a supportive mentor throughout her career development process.
Being accustomed to working long hours and managing multiple projects, under the scrutiny of scientific rigour, smoothed the transition from PhD to consulting. Having a background in science was definitely an asset when working on a consulting project. Analogous to hypothesis-driven experimentation, consulting projects require identification of the problem at hand, formulation of hypotheses that can address them, and determining methods to test them. Then, having tested potential solutions, one needs to define and present the solution(s) to the client with clear next steps of action. Still, business processes and language aren’t taught in a PhD, and presented themselves as a learning curve for Elisa. On top of that, she had to learn to become “more comfortable with uncertainty”. Elisa always felt confident when discussing her areas of expertise, particularly when it came to her PhD thesis, while reserved when she was aware she lacked knowledge. In consulting, you have to lose your reservations around speaking on something you don’t know as well. You’re considered to be the expert on your team only after a week of research. It’s a steep and rapid incline to acquire the knowledge and confidence required to thoroughly discuss a client’s body of work in the context of an entire industry.
CONSULTING FOR THE PUBLIC SECTOR
Elisa landed her position at KPMG while finishing up her graduate degree. Her desire to work for healthcare and public sector clients drew her to the company. KPMG has worked with clients such as SickKids on their digital marketing campaign, and the Bahamas government on developing their National Health Insurance. In her role, she collects and analyzes data, interviews stakeholders, and presents discoveries to the client. Tasks change depending on the stage of a project. In the beginning, meeting with the client and understanding their needs is crucial to formulating a hypothesis on the solution. After determining what knowledge is necessary to find the best recommendations, she moves to the grind of data collection and analysis, crunching numbers, performing interviews, and conducting research. Based on the acquired data, recommendations are created and communicated to the client through presentations and written reports. In her time at KPMG, Elisa has had opportunities to present to director level executives and the assistant deputy minister of her public sector client. She has worked on projects related to clinical services planning in geriatrics for a hospital, and delivery of specific services in the child welfare space. “KPMG very much has an approachable culture,” she says. “Senior Managers and Partners often ask my hypothesis to solving a client’s challenge and for my input on what the best recommendations are to help them achieve their goals.” Despite the work load, there is no “typical day” in her job. This past year, she has travelled outside of Toronto to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities across Ontario to better understand their needs as part of the work for a public sector client. Every day is different in this business, often taking Elisa to unexpected places.
However, Elisa doesn’t see herself in consulting forever. She feels strongly about the need for scientists to better inform the public and counteract pseudoscience – an issue she initially helped address during her PhD days as part of SciChat UofT, the department’s science outreach initiative. She hopes to use the business experience she is gaining to move into market analysis and public education in pharmaceuticals, particularly to work on probiotics or vaccine portfolios. Not stopping there, she could eventually even see herself in politics.
WORDS OF ADVICE
It is clear that Elisa took charge of her own career development during graduate school. She recommends looking beyond the graduate program to find other opportunities that will prepare you for the “real world”. Dr. Nana Lee’s Graduate Professional Development course is a start, but she feels strongly that more time and space should be allocated to similar programs. PhD students should be allowed the chance early on to think about how to apply their PhDs on something other than as a postdoctoral fellow. “Graduate programs need to accept the fact that the majority of us will not be academics forever and think about how to support students who might want to intern in industry.” Elisa elaborates, recounting her own experience interning at Deloitte which was crucial to gaining business experience during her PhD.
Finally, she says: “Don’t wait until the last minute to think about what you want to do with your career. A PhD is valuable, but you have to learn how to sell your skills. Go out and experiment with different types of jobs to figure out what is best for you but don’t neglect the PhD so you can finish in a reasonable amount of time. Finding a career that you can be passionate about takes a lot of hard work but if you have the drive and ambition, there’s no reason you can’t do your PhD and also gain valuable experience in other fields.
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