A Deep Dive into The Oft-Asked Question: What Can You Do with A PhD?

  • August 26, 2021
iJOBS Blog

By: Brianna Alexander

Be flexible in your thinking, acknowledge the skills you have. Learn, work hard and lead.” -Dawn Lee, PhD  


There comes a time during our PhD training when we begin to think about what life looks like after graduation. Over the last few years, we’ve become masters at experimental design, data analysis, and science communication. But what can we expect once donned in a cap and gown and conferred with a PhD? Somewhere between our nurtured passion for science and the desire for a rewarding career lies a position designed just for us. Whether in academia or beyond, one of the first steps to career success is opening the door to the oft-asked question and bravely exploring what’s on the other side: What can you do with a PhD?

As many can attest, the conversation about post-graduate career options has changed. The expectation that all graduate students will go into academia has withered, whilst non-academic career paths are being more encouraged and supported in degree-awarding institutions. In fact, a recent brief  by Bicakci and colleagues published by the American Institute for Research, indicates that over 60% of STEM graduates are now taking non-academic careers. What this means for the modern-day STEM PhD pursuant is that it’s time to do some additional research. It’s time to evaluate what skills you have, what you enjoy doing, and what career path fits you best. Whether academic or non-academic, there are positions being made just for us! To help graduate students open the door of opportunity, the Rutgers iJobs program has been hosting a myriad of events designed to familiarize students with the numerous career paths available with a STEM PhD. This past Tuesday, July 20th, iJobs hosted a blockbuster virtual career panel featuring 8 panelists who, in sharing their unique stories, demonstrated the diversity in career paths for the modern-day STEM PhD.        

The panel was facilitated by Dr. Janet Alder, assistant dean of Graduate Academic and Student Affairs at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, who is a primary advocate for post-graduate career exploration. With over 60 attendees, this was a very popular event! It began with brief introductions from each panelist followed by a “things I wish I knew during my PhD” segment and interactive breakout rooms for questions. Lastly, the end of the seminar gave a final moment for panelists to offer parting advice to graduate students on the career hunt.  Let’s first take a look at the panelist overview, illustrated below.

iJobs article image

As gleaned throughout the course of the event, below is a more in-depth view of each panelist’s major career responsibilities.

1. Medical Science Liaison: Brian C. Kramer, PhD

  • Principal MSL-Associate Field Director at Janssen Scientific Affairs

According to the Medical Science Liaison Society, the role of an MSL is to, “establish and maintain peer to peer relationships with leading physicians, referred to as Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs), at major academic institutions and clinics.” In this position, MSLs are the critical connectors of a drug’s development team with KOLs, who have a stake in the investment and use of a particular drug. MSLs have a thorough sense of the scientific and medical data behind a drug as well as knowledge in marketing, economics and importantly, science communication. Outside of the logistics of the position, Dr. Kramer stated that the mentoring aspect of being an MSL is what he loves the most.

 2. Scientific director: Dawn Lee, PhD, CMPP

  • Scientific Director at Scientific Solutions

A scientific director wears many hats. While responsibilities may vary across organizations, generally scientific directors work as research administrators whose major responsibilities are to support the logistics of a drug’s development. Tasks may include leading a research training project, overseeing publication of a manuscript, preparing educational materials and leading critical collaborative meetings. Dr. Lee was candid in sharing that her journey to becoming a Scientific director began elsewhere, as she was a medical writer primarily working along the promotional side of drug development. Now, however, she is in medical affairs and the work she does allows her to see the full depth of a drug’s development from the experiments to the marketing.  To that end, she emphasized the importance of flexibility in career exploration, stating that it’s important to “be flexible in your thinking; acknowledge the skills you have, learn, work hard and lead.”

 3. Science and technology policy fellow: Eileen Oni, PhD

  • Health Science Policy Analyst at National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Working in the field of science policy, Dr. Oni shared in her bio that her focus is to utilize her STEM background to design and advocate for evidence-based policies which will “enhance the effectiveness of STEM initiatives.”  More specifically, in her role some of the responsibilities include: strategic planning for funding and research success, compiling and analyzing data as well as communicating with various stakeholders, including those at the congressional level. When asked about the level of political familiarity needed to be successful in science policy, she responded that the important thing is, “knowing where to find what you need.” 

4. Senior Medical Writer: Juan M. Valdez Capuccino, PhD

  • Senior Medical Writer at BGB

A non-academic career quickly growing in popularity, medical writers help to bridge the gap between scientists, patients, and drug investors (i.e clinical facilities). According to an article by Sharma S., published in Perspectives in Clinical Research,  “Medical writing involves writing scientific documents of different types which include regulatory and research-related documents, disease or drug-related educational and promotional literature, publication articles like journal manuscripts and abstracts, content for healthcare websites, health-related magazines or news articles.” Interestingly, while most of the job is writing, there are other, more creative elements of medical writing which can include designing pamphlets, generating slide-decks and/or graphics to illustrate complex concepts to audiences more simply. In addition to encompassing different styles of writing and material formats, medical writing is a broad field which can converge with other fields, like consulting! To this point, Dr. Capuccino elaborated more on his work at BGB, where medical writing and consulting intersect.  He is a medical writer in that he creates materials for medical education (like slide decks and digital art), but having prior experience in consulting, he also works along the consulting and advising side as well. He emphasized the value of working in a structured team environment, which he said helps to make the work less stressful. Finally, Dr. Capuccino highlighted the value of talking to others, stating that communication can really help you find niche positions that may not be readily advertised within a company.

 5. Program Officer: Ashlee Van’t Veer, PhD

  • Director of Research Training and Career Development at the National Institute of Mental Health

As Dr. Veer shared in her bio, the primary responsibilities of a program officer are to oversee program development initiatives that foster the training of young/early-stage investigators. This includes but is not limited to reviewing grants, manuscripts and progress reports as well as serving on advisory committees to ensure that investigators are making progress. In elaborating on her career trajectory, Dr. Veer stated the criticalness of networking. She stated that when it comes to government jobs, having a solid application as well as bona fide references can help immensely.

 6. Operations director: Melissa VonDran, PhD

  • Vice president and Operations Director at the Biorepository National Disease Research Interchange (NDRI)

Dr. VonDran serves in a unique capacity at NDRI, a center dedicated to providing biological specimens to research groups (academic, corporate, and independent).  In this position the major responsibilities are to oversee the strategic planning and execution of an organization’s goals. More specifically, according to the Institute of Directors,  this can include budget control, policy implementation, data evaluation, as well as management of product distribution. In this capacity, the ability to both work in a team as well as lead a team are of importance. As such, Dr. VonDran highlighted the significance of the collaborative environment of PhD training and how it helps to foster such skills.

 7. Senior Research Investigator: Matthew Scarnati, PhD

  • Senior Research Investigator for Preclinical drug development at Eternity Biosciences

While we’ve learned much about non-academic careers outside of the bench, there are STEM PhDs that do decide to stay at the bench as a full career investment. On the panel Dr. Scarnati was unique in that sense; he was the only one who remained at the bench for his professional tenure. According to his bio, Dr. Scarnati now works at Eternity Biosciences designing in-vitro assays to “screen compounds for disease indications.” As many panelists were curious about his decision to stay at the bench, he did note a key difference from predoctoral training, stating that in his current position there is a lot more freedom. He also described his experience in trying to find a career that fit. Initially he applied for pharmaceutical/industry-based positions and found that his home was at the bench. His experience reassured attendees of the importance of exploring your options to find a career that is a good fit.

  8. Planning and execution lead for clinical trials: Jean Honeywell, PhD

  • Planning and Execution Lead at Bristol Myers Squibb

Dr. Honeywell’s position gave attendees more of a glimpse into the clinical opportunities available with a STEM PhD. As a lead for clinical trials, the responsibilities in this role are centered around project management and the logistics of planning and executing clinical trials. More specifically, this can entail overseeing site operations, communicating with contract research organizations and data management.

After reflecting on their current positions, panelists put themselves back in the shoes of a graduate student. Dr. Alder asked each professional to share something they wished that they’d known during their predoctoral training. The advice primarily centered on three main areas: the benefit of practical experience, the value of networking, and importance of flexibility in your career search. Dr. Scarnati, who ventured into industry before settling on bench work, shared the value in getting experience through internships. These experiences can help you to get a feel for the type of work, work environment, and work style you enjoy. He also explained how important it is to network, especially when transitioning into competitive fields, and how soft skills can be a key component to succeeding in new environments. Flexibility was another huge theme discussed among the panelists. Dr. VonDran explained that we should always look for new ways to use our skills and explore our passions. Echoing this point, Dr. Veer gave attendees a confidence boost when she stated, “you can’t fathom what opportunities there are for someone with a PhD.”

As the event convened, panelists took a moment to share final remarks with attendees and things to consider on our quest for the most fitting career path. Dr. Kramer enlightened attendees with a new approach to career searching when he said, “Follow your own advice” and “don’t tell yourself ‘no’.” He expanded on the importance of envisioning success for yourself even if a position is outside of your area of expertise. As someone who had to really advocate for himself when applying to be an MSL, he noted that self-confidence goes a long way in the search for a fulfilling career. He also shared with attendees a tip for the application process: the “T-Letter Cover Letter”, which is a twist on the traditional cover letter. In this format, applicants cut right to the chase and list in one column the criteria that the company wants, and the skills/qualities that they possess in the other column. In this direct approach, the applicant clearly demonstrates confidence and qualification.

On a more personal note, Dr. Oni shared wise words on the importance of humility. “Stay humble…Just because there are letters behind your name doesn’t mean you know everything,” she said. This was a key bit of advice in my opinion and one that we don’t hear often. As we progress in our careers, I think we should always remember that although we have earned an advanced degree, we can still stand to learn from others. Personally, I think that having the quality of humility will potentiate our growth and success in any field that we choose.

Overall, I learned many things throughout this insightful event. As I listened to panelists, there was one essential message that I garnered: a PhD can take you many places. There is literally something for everyone post-graduation: the organizer, the designer, the leader, the communicator, and the list goes on. It was also reassuring to learn that while we may be experts in our current fields, that this does not disqualify us from venturing into completely novel areas of work. There will come a time in our PhD journey when we begin to think about what life looks like after graduation, and when it does, we’ll have a lot to explore.   


This article was edited by Senior Editor Samantha Avina.