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Exploring Innovative Careers for PhDs

With the majority of PhD holders now going into non-academic positions, it’s increasingly important for PhD students to explore their career options, learn about avenues to pursue, position themselves to be competitive, and negotiate for what they’re worth given their unique skillsets.

In a recent virtual forum, PhD students and postdoctoral researchers from a wide range of disciplines at Duke gathered for workshops and breakout sessions designed to support them in potentially pursuing innovative careers. The event was hosted by the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative (I&E), The Graduate School, the Office of Postdoctoral Services, CTSI, the Duke Office of Biomedical Graduate Education, the Career Center, and BioCoRE. Videos of the sessions are embedded below, and you can view the full playlist on I&E’s YouTube channel.

Following a welcome by Sharlini Sankaran, PhD, Adjunct Associate Professor at Duke I&E and Managing Director at Duke’s Office of External Partnerships, students participated in a workshop led by Melissa Bostrom, PhD, Assistant Dean for Graduate and Professional Development, about identifying their marketable innovative skills.

Bostrom led participants in exploring how skills they’d gained in their programs could be applied to employer needs—including problem-solving skills, the ability to work on a team, a strong work ethic, project management capabilities, skills to discuss technical issues with nontechnical audiences, and skills gained in writing grant proposals, such as budgeting, data visualization, and graphic design. “Twenty skills go into writing a successful grant proposal, yet on your CV, which is the currency of academia, all you get is that one line,” Bostrom said.

Bostrom also encouraged participants to consider how involvement in other Duke programs (e.g., Bass Connections, Story+, interdisciplinary projects, community nonprofit work) had informed their skill development. “Think creatively about leadership,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a title; it can be an activity or a way of engaging with the world. Sometimes we don’t think of teaching as leadership.”

After a salary negotiation keynote (not recorded) by Dara Wilson-Grant, Associate Director at the UNC Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, participants broke into small groups by discipline to hear from distinguished alumni guests and follow up with questions. Throughout the sessions, speakers emphasized the importance of networking, taking advantage of Duke resources such as The Graduate School’s subscription to Versatile PhD, being diligent about seeking out opportunities in newsletters and other communications, and proactively attending events such as Career Center fairs.

In a closing conversation, Sankaran and Maria LaMonaca Wisdom, PhD, Director of Interdisciplinary Advising and Engagement at Duke University, discussed the day’s takeaways and the importance of self-confidence in generating and pursuing opportunities.

“We’re constantly having to be innovative to think about where our skills can best be applied,” Sankaran said. “For the role I’m playing with the Office of External Partnerships, I drafted my own scope of work, and I said, here’s where I think I can be helpful to Duke University and the larger community.”

“For me the most critical thing was to confront the fear of change,” Wisdom shared. “I think that is something that holds so many people back.”

Highlights from the Sessions

Physical Sciences and Engineering Breakout

Yaying Feng, PhD, Management Consulting/Engineer
Moderated by Yining Liu, PhD student, BME

“If you’re earlier in your career and exploring [a career in consulting], I would stress to people to really get to talk to people in the consulting industry and get to know what they do every day. What are they working for? What is the value of this job? Once you’re determined to come into the consulting world, get prepared for your application interviews. Think about how to build up your leadership skills and ways of thinking to solve problems. Think about why through your previous experiences you’re interested in this job and why you think you’re a good candidate for this job, and also talk to people in those firms and make connections. Practice case interviews and how to introduce yourself. Some basic accounting financial skills are also very helpful.”

Humanities and Social Sciences Breakout

Jennifer Gilbert, PhD, Head of Marketing for Private Banking, Brown Brothers Harriman
Moderated by Nikki Locklear, PhD student, History

“The first thing [for someone considering a transition like mine] is to think about networking. It sounds like kind of an old trope, but it’s all about networking and it’s all about your network and getting as many people to know you and what you do as possible. Cast a very wide net. There are a lot of organizations out there that do really interesting work. For example, let’s take biopharmaceutical companies, of which there are many here in Boston. You’re not going to be a scientist for them, but they have tremendous communication requirements, they have regulatory requirements, they have compliance requirements. There are a lot of different ways to find entry points into those organizations.”

“I once managed a project from Boston to consolidate trading desks all over Asia to Hong Kong. What do I know about trading? Nothing, I’m not a trader. But somebody explained to me what we needed to happen, I set up a lot of meetings with people, asked a lot of questions, and was able to get that done. It sounds intimidating, but remember, you are trained to go deeply into any given subject matter that may be in front of you, so you’ve got it. You can do it.”

Life Sciences and Biomedical Breakout

Jonah Cool, PhD, Science Program Officer, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative
Moderated by Lyla Stanland, PhD student, MGM

Shweta Krishnan, PhD, Assistant Director, Life Sciences at Duke OTC
Moderated by Taylor Chavez, PhD student, BME

Cool: “The program officer role is very much a blend of science, strategy, and some aspects of operations. So both within large national funders like NIH, as well as philanthropic organizations […], there are folks like yourselves who have expertise in various domains that help set the strategy of how those organizations fund and support different areas of research.”

Cool: “What convinced the organization to hire me [was that] I’ve always been very curious about science—someone once described me as being a very omnivorous scientist—so I really appreciated breadth and depth in questions, and they didn’t have to be my own. [My advice for students interested in this type of position is to] try to get a sense for the macro trends in science. Read as many papers and journal articles in your field, but also outside of your field, as possible, and develop that sense of love and appreciation.”

Krishnan: “I love that the job lets me stay very close to science, but it does not obligate me to do bench research, which is something I wanted to move away from. […] I’m still passionate about science, so this job helps me meet with star researchers—it could be the next Nobel Prize winner or the maker of the next wonderful drug on the market.”

Physical Sciences and Engineering Breakout

Avery Paxton, PhD, Research Associate, NOAA
Moderated by Michael Valerino, PhD student, CEE

“One of the things I didn’t realize when I was looking for jobs is that there are two ways to work within the federal government in an agency like NOAA. One of those is to get a federal position so you’re a federal employee; another option is to be a contractor. Some people are contractors for a short amount of time for a particular project, but I have colleagues who’ve been contractors for 20 years in some cases. That was a flavor of job that I didn’t know existed.”

“I was fortunate that during my PhD program I was able to collaborate with folks at the NOAA lab here in Beaufort, and that was really valuable because I was able to meet those folks and understand what they do, what their mission is, and what sorts of skills they need for people who work with them. So I think if there are internship or fellowship opportunities available, or opportunities for collaboration with someone within an organization you’re interested in, that’s a beneficial thing to pursue.”

Humanities and Social Sciences Breakout

Jason Heilman, PhD, host of radio show “Classical Tulsa” for Tulsa Public Radio
Moderated by Misty Choi, PhD student, Music

“You have to sort of forget what you’re taught to do in grad school and forget how to write papers, basically, when you talk to normal people. But there are a lot of public radio opportunities for people in the humanities, in part because national NPR is getting on to the affiliates about expanding their podcast offerings. If that interests you, maybe bring your research or the research of other people to a wider audience. Do a podcast right now—you don’t have to post it, but practice recording a podcast of some kind that would interest you, maybe interview somebody else it, and see what it sounds like. Play it for some friends and see if they connect with it. You can essentially build a portfolio that you can take to a local NPR affiliate and say here look, I’d like to develop this podcast, and here’s what I sound like.”

 “Essentially my advice is to look around, if you’re in the arts, and see what’s missing in your community and what could be added to your community and what no one is doing. A lot of these opportunities will be in the community and not national.”

Conclusions & Call to Action

Maria LaMonaca Wisdom, PhD, Director of Interdisciplinary Advising and Engagement at Duke University
In conversation with Sharlini Sankaran, PhD, Adjunct Associate Professor at Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship and Managing Director at Duke’s Office of External Partnerships

“When I think of someone innovating, I tend to think of a mover and shaker and somebody who had it done yesterday. But when I look at my own trajectory over the past nine years, the foundation of my innovation has been reflection. You really cannot innovate well or effectively unless you first know yourself—what strengths you can offer, your liabilities, how you’re perceived in the organization. Secondly, you have to know your organization. You just need to read it like a textbook [to] understand who’s in the organization, what the organization stands for, what its values are, where it hopes to go in five years.”

“I think for good reasons, we [academics] get emotionally invested in our work, and it’s fraught with meaning and purpose and value. I’m not dismissing any of those things, you need to have those things, but sometimes putting a little bit of distance between yourself and the opportunities in front of you can be really productive, because suddenly every decision isn’t so fraught. At the end of the day, sometimes a job is just a job, and then you can go hike and hang out with your dog or your kids or do whatever else excites you. […] Sometimes it can be very freeing and very fulfilling to have this flexibility to invent or reinvent yourself or to carve new opportunities right within the same institution, if you’re lucky enough to be at a large institution like Duke, every few years or so.”

“If anyone is thinking, gosh, I really do want something that’s not a faculty position or is a little out of the box, but I don’t know how to start, for me the most critical thing was to confront the fear of change. I think that is something that holds so many people back. From hundreds of coaching interactions, I’ve seen the lengths some people will go to in order to avoid the discomfort of change. Often [change management lies] at the heart or beginning of a successful career search and trajectory.”

Resources for Further Support

Career Center hub for PhD students

Professional development opportunities from The Graduate School

Office of Postdoctoral Services’ resources for professional development

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