By Ashley Bohn, PhD, MSc, RVT
Life as a graduate student in the Life Sciences is unique. It’s a strange dynamic between learning to be an independent scientist, while becoming an expert in a very particular area, and preparing to have a successful career after you leave academia. There’s certainly time to do all of these things since most PhDs average 5-6 years in their programs; however, it’s often frowned upon for students to do anything except be in the lab. As I said, it’s unique, but I can dive deeper into that in a separate blog.
I knew from my very first day in graduate school that I wanted a career outside of academia. I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do, but I was certain life at the lab bench was not for me. Luckily, my PhD mentor allowed me to be involved in extracurricular activities, such as networking and our state trade association, Georgia Bio. Those extracurricular activities slowed my progress as a researcher, but they were essential to my success post-grad school, as I’ll explain.
While completing my PhD work and helping to manage the lab, I was heavily involved in the university’s Biology Graduate Student Association. I taught as a lab teaching assistant and as an instructor to undergraduate students. I also took public health classes and earned a graduate certificate in Public Health Policy. Networking events were my forte, and I attended them routinely. I also completed an internship with Georgia Bio, which focused on legislative initiatives to encourage growth of life science businesses within the state. All of this experience, plus my PhD, was surely going to land me a good job straight out of school, right?
I hit the ground running after graduation. I was determined to break into pharmaceuticals, either as a medical writer, sales rep, or my dream job of being a Medical Science Liaison (MSL). Here’s something they don’t tell you in grad school: you can’t get a job without experience, and anything you did before or while in grad school doesn’t count. Pharma especially won’t talk to you unless you’ve worked in pharmaceuticals previously. It’s like some secret society you have to be invited to join only after you sacrifice your first-born child. I couldn’t get an interview to save my life. So, I had to step up my game! I reached out to all my previous networking contacts, had my resume professionally written (twice!) and kept numerous versions saved, ready to tailor and send to potential employers, and I applied to literally hundreds of jobs. Almost immediately after submitting an application, which is a time-consuming process, I’d receive the dreaded rejection email. I wasn’t making it past the resume screening software most companies use, and if I did make it through the initial screening, I didn’t have enough experience to really be considered for the position.
Determined not to be defeated, I reached out to the hiring managers I knew from the industry. Most were kind enough to pass my resume along and tell me it looked good, but nothing much ever came of it. I did get an interview for what I thought was a medical writing position, but it turned out the company just wanted to see if I’d work on their help desk answering phones. I mean, I knew I’d have to start at the bottom and work my way up, but I had worked way too hard to accept that. I respectfully declined the offer. Month after month went by without a job utilizing the PhD for which I had worked so very hard. This story does have a happy ending, but it took 8 months for me to get a full-time job in my field after completing my PhD.
As I mentioned previously, I routinely networked while in grad school, and one of the contacts I made was Dr. Karen Ventii, owner of Gold Star Communications, and all-around Rockstar who believes in helping the next generation of scientists succeed. I knew Karen took on interns for her medical writing business, so I reached out to her and asked for a spot. She didn’t have an opening at the time, but she called me a few weeks later and said something opened up. I jumped at the opportunity to gain experience and learn from Karen. At this point, I had returned to my previous career (before grad school) as a veterinary nurse in an emergency and critical care hospital. I was working swing shifts and overnight shifts to make ends meet, which allowed enough down time when things weren’t busy to work on the projects Karen assigned to me. I like to think this is what’s meant when they say a person has grit. Here I was, 34 years old with a PhD, working crazy, odd, hours getting covered in every bodily fluid you don’t want to imagine, and being beaten up by large dogs each and every night all while continuing the hustle of trying to gain experience to start my career post-graduate school.
My first projects with Gold Star were helping to build and fact-check two scientific slide decks for one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. Specifically, the slide decks would be used in the field to educate sales reps, MSLs, and prescribing doctors about cancer therapies to treat advanced disease. I felt like I was in freshman biology class again, but in a good way! The work reminded me why I loved science and of a time in my life when I found science to be exciting and life changing- you know, before grad school crushed all my hopes and dreams (I’m kidding – only partially crushed). Then, it got even better. With my internship with Gold Star completed, I took on another part-time job to gain experience in human medicine and continued my job hunt for something full-time. A couple of months went by when Karen reached back out to me in need of a writing team to go with her to… wait for it… GERMANY. Gold Star Communications was hired to write the scientific platform and executive summary and provide support for an advisory board meeting conducted by another very large pharmaceutical company. I’m not even sure I let Karen finish her spiel before all the “yeses” came out of my mouth. “You’ll have to tell me what to do, but I will go and present myself and Gold Star the best I possibly can. Thank you, thank you, thank you!” This was the break I needed and deserved.
To prepare for the meeting, I obviously got up to speed on recent clinical trial data and treatment options in the disease state on which we were working, but this was also my first business trip – and it was an international one, too. The medical writing team Gold Star put together was fantastic and had more experience attending advisory boards than I did. I asked for advice on everything from the appropriate dress to purchasing the correct electrical adapter to making sure I recorded all the information we needed to put together a stellar executive summary.
First, business dress is appropriate for a meeting of this caliber, erring on the side of business formal for evening events. It’s pharma, dress like you belong there. Second, obviously be professional. Be careful of drinking too much and making inappropriate jokes. Bring business cards with you and plan to represent your company with the utmost integrity. And always remember to thank your host(s). Ours was a lovely, brilliant woman who worked for the pharmaceutical company, spoke six languages (!), and took care of every last detail of our travel accommodations and meeting needs. We made it a point to shake her hand and thank her personally following the meetings.
I also extended my stay in Germany before and after the meetings, 1) because I wanted ample time to adjust to the time change and to review all materials relevant to the meetings, and 2) because I was in Germany for the first time! I needed schnitzel and beer in my life… as soon as all the important meetings were over, of course!
Prior to the meeting, the writing team and I worked incredibly hard preparing the materials that would be presented in front of a dozen or so bonified medical experts from all over the world. We discussed every possible thing that could go wrong and tried to prepare for every possible hiccup. The days flew by and suddenly, it was time to make the trip overseas!
I flew overnight, alone to Germany. Upon my arrival, I was of course exhausted and was so very thankful I gave myself an extra day to adjust to the time difference and prepare for the meetings. I slept all day and was wide awake all night, but I was ready to go the first morning of our meetings. What none of us could have anticipated was that the hotel would be doing construction and cutting our power off for several hours each day. It was horrible timing, but we all managed, and the meetings were a big success for Gold Star.
What struck us all about the meetings with the executives from this pharmaceutical company and the medical experts who traveled from all over the world was how kind and inviting they were. They treated us like professionals, which from my understanding is not always the case in these types of meetings. There was one Canadian doctor who took the time to learn our names and even invited me to join the round table discussion for which I was assigned to take notes. It was absolutely fascinating to hear them debate data from the clinical trials and discuss their own practices back home.
And just like that, the meetings were done. We all wanted to change out of our stuffy business attire and see the beautiful city where we were staying. So, we immediately backed up our audio recordings, organized our meeting notes, and then we crammed six adults into a European minivan, which is not even close to the size of an American minivan, and took a ride down to the touristy part of town. We walked along the river, had schnitzel, beer, Riesling, and apple wine. We were all instant friends and would share this experience forever. It was perfect.
That’s not the end of my story, however. Prior to and while preparing for the trip to Germany, I had been interviewing for a full-time medical writing position. After weeks of requesting updates and all the anxiety, my phone rang with good news! They say it’s not what you know but who you know that makes getting a job a reality. That proved true for me! I only found out about the position through my network. I called on one of my MSL contacts for the second time since graduation (out of frustration and a little desperation), and she was kind enough to put me in touch with her former classmate who works with a continuing medical education (CME) company, called Clinical Care Options, or CCO. The CCO team has a great reputation for not only the work they do but also for treating their employees well. I was ecstatic! I finally found a position that would allow me to use my medical knowledge from veterinary nursing and my scientific background in research with a company I could see myself staying with long-term.
Of course, I still have a lot to learn in the CME world, and CCO has especially high standards, but I’m making progress and absolutely loving my job and colleagues so far. I owe a lot to Karen and Gold Star for giving me this opportunity, for fostering me as an inexperienced medical writer, and for helping young professionals get the experience they need to succeed- something I intend to pay forward as often as possible. I hope to stay with CCO long-term and plan to continue working with Karen and Gold Star as long as they’ll have me, but life has many unexpected turns. Stay tuned to see where this journey takes me…