I am writing in response to an article published in the Winter 2015 issue of IMMpress Magazine entitled “The Many Paths Post-PhD: Preparing for non-academic careers during a PhD” by Jelena Borovac. This excellent article highlights the importance of skills development and networking and provides some points of action that students can undertake. I would like to add a few more drawn from my academic and industry experiences.

Since 2012, I have instructed 102 graduate students and PDFs through the Graduate Professional Development (GPD) course that Jelena mentioned. Of those 102 trainees, nine have entered straight into the workforce, one is travelling, and the rest are still in training. I have discovered that PhD candidates undervalue themselves and their potential. PhDs, you are less than 1% of the Canadian population! You represent our society’s scientific thought leaders. You are valuable in contributing to Canada’s knowledge and innovation economy.

Borovac’s article listed a few career options after the PhD. Some others include market analyst, venture capital associate, management consultant, medical science liaison, forensics, scientific translation, grant and research administration, outreach, and business administration. However, some of your future careers probably do not exist yet. Students are so used to performing within the set “program” of a curriculum that most find it unthinkable to think outside the box. “What do you mean I could create my career path? Don’t I just apply to what is available?” These are the comments I hear most often. Applying your intellect, professionalism, research-ability, network and drive will get you to where you want to go. You don’t have to wait for a set “program”. Just do it!

Your action plan should include a skills assessment in year 3, strengthening core competency skills through GPD and, if necessary, through additional workshops from Graduate Professional Skills or the School of Continuing Studies. Year 3 and above would be the effective networking years so these potential contacts can help you land the internship or job. Canada’s #1 biotech job site is Biotalent’s Petridish. They also offer up to $20,000 for a first-job wage subsidy through their Career Focus program. Potential sources of internship opportunities are those companies listed through Rx&D, LSO, and MaRS.

Real examples from my GPD class have looked somewhat like the following scenario. After taking GPD, networking, finding mentors and conducting informational interviews, a PhD candidate approached a company and interned 3-4 hours a week. After a few months, he set up a 3-4 month internship through MITACs during the time between thesis submission and convocation. Through the whole process, he expanded his network and was offered a full time job in the field of his choice before he defended. For those interested in a non-academic career, make this your story. Have a work contract in hand before you walk through Convocation Hall. Create your own path to your dream career.

Having said all this, your transitional career plans must be supported by your PI. If after your defence and convocation you are writing up that last high impact publication, your career calendar may be shifted and an internship as a student may not be possible. It is up to you to find that best transition from “backpack to briefcase” so that it is a win-win for everyone.

Acknowledgment: Thank you to Dr. Reinhart Reithmeier, who contributed input to this article.

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Nana Lee

Dr. Nana Lee holds a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Toronto, a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Michigan and was a Visiting Scholar at Whitehead (Broad) Institute, MIT. Her roles in the biotechnology industry include Senior Research Scientist for Ellipsis Biotherapeutics, and Senior Research Scientist, Product Manager and Director of Application Science for DNA Software. She brings her valuable expertise as an industry scientist and mother of three back into academia as Director and Lecturer of Graduate Professional Development (GPD) for the Departments of Immunology and Biochemistry. Her GPD course, which was mentioned in the recent June 3rd edition of the National Post, includes essential strategies to help PhDs prepare and create career trajectories.
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