iJOBS Career Panel: Project Management

  • December 23, 2022
iJOBS Blog

By: Sonal Gahlawat


Let’s start by debunking the myth project management is not a skill you can learn as a PhD student. According to the Oxford Dictionary, a project is “a planned piece of work that is designed to find information about something, to produce something new, or to improve something.” Keeping the definition in mind, PhD students manage multiple projects daily: thesis research, side projects for our advisors or collaborators, training or mentoring undergraduates in lab, and teaching undergraduate classes, all while trying to balance a social life to avoid burnout. So, if you are someone who wants to get into project management (PM) after your PhD, you have already started building your PM skills, and are ready to confidently market yourself as a professional project manager in industry!


On October 19, 2022, graduate students and postdoctoral associates attended a career panel on PM hosted by Rutgers iJOBS. The career panel allowed all attendees to explore PM as a career path after academia. It’s time to meet our panelists and learn what motivated them to become project managers.


The keynote speaker was Rebecca Baerga, a Director in Global Project and Alliance Management (GPAM) at Merck & Co., and she has a doctoral degree in Cellular and Molecular Biology from Rutgers University and UMDNJ Graduate School of Biomedical Biosciences. Rebecca has extensive PM experience in different areas and is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP®). After graduation, Rebecca was awarded the NJ Commission for Science and Technology Post-Doctoral Fellowship, which allowed her to work in a cancer biotech startup, Niiki Pharma. At Niiki Pharma, Rebecca served as the Project Manager and later Director of Preclinical Operations. In her role, she successfully managed a preclinical program with two IND applications to the US FDA. Later, Rebecca worked at Education Testing Service in the education sector, where she oversaw the company’s research pipeline and played a critical role in launching three innovative products. After working as a professional project manager, Rebecca wanted to return to the pharmaceutical industry, where she could combine her scientific knowledge with PM. After struggling for a while and having applied to countless jobs, Rebecca learned about the importance of PMP® certification and how the company wanted to make sure you knew PM principles. The PMP® certification gave Rebecca an edge over other candidates and helped her get back into the pharma industry with a job at Merck. She is currently a drug development expert, integrating information to create new strategies in the drug pipeline and  mentoring/training incoming project managers. What an inspiring and ambitious journey!


After giving a fantastic mini review on the drug development process from discovery to FDA approval and to the market, Rebecca informed the attendees about the importance of project scope. Project scope captures different activities that need to be completed at the granular level for a project goal to be achieved. As a project manager, it is imperative to ask critical questions to the right people to deliver a successful project. Using an example case study, Rebecca demonstrated the ever-changing duties of a project manager: changing project scope when needed, motivating team members, sharing updates with stakeholders, convincing leadership why a change (or no change) in scope is essential, persuading investors to contribute more money, making fast decisions to pivot to a new strategy, and more.


Cartoon of trees and different tree swings

Figure 1: Critical role of communication in project management as depicted above by the “Tree Swing” story (https://www.flickr.com/photos/cappellmeister/5921913)


Our next speaker was Claudia Campbell, who is an independent consultant and Chairperson at PMINJ’s Life Sciences, her own company that was launched in 2019. Claudia also has a master’s degree in Microbiology from Rutgers University and UMDNJ Graduate School of Biomedical Biosciences. With over 30 years of experience in the medical device and in vitro diagnostics industry and a certified PMP®, Claudia helps startup companies translate their research into a successful product development and supports small medical device companies with their post-market studies. Claudia calls herself an “accidental project manager” because she started managing projects early in her career in whichever field she was working, including technical and marketing. So, while she holds many functional titles in different companies, Claudia always utilized her PM skills to fulfill her job responsibilities.


David Dalessandro, our third speaker, is a Senior Director of Project Management at Sherlock Biosciences with a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and a master’s in Engineering Management from the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Like the previous two speakers, David is also a certified PMP® and holds a Certification in Innovation and Entrepreneurship from Stanford University. As a leader, innovator, and project manager of new product development, David has over 35 years of experience in implantable medical devices, in vitrodiagnostics, and consumer products. Previously, David worked at Johnson & Johnson, launching > 20 medical devices in cardiovascular, surgical, orthopedic, diagnostics, and consumer markets. At Sherlock Biosciences, a biotech startup, David manages cross-functional teams to develop affordable at-home diagnostic tests for detecting DNA and RNA for diseases and infections. According to David, there has always been a “blurred line between a functional leader and a formal project manager,” and he has always led teams, whether formally or informally. Wanting to delve into the diagnostics industry, David applied for a PM leadership job and was hired, without a formal PM education. And you know why? Because the bottom line is companies want to see whether you have successfully managed and launched products, no matter if you are a trained project manager with a professional certification.


Last but not least, Carlos Caicedo is a Director of R&D/Technical Lead Surface Technologies (against SARS CoV2) at Orthobond Corporation with a doctoral degree in Biomedical Engineering from Rutgers University and UMDNJ Graduate School of Biomedical Biosciences. Before joining Orthobond, Carlos worked at 3D Biotek, LLC, where he worked on developing 3D biomaterial scaffolds for stem cell, tissue engineering, and drug discovery applications. Currently, Carlos supports the antimicrobial characterization of biomaterial surfaces by helping Orthobond with intellectual property (IP) and process optimization of their proprietary technology for applications in the medical device industry. As an engineer, Carlos interfaces with the business unit to support their proof-of-concept scientific opportunities. For Carlos, the transition from science to project management happened gradually. After showing his ability to gather information and expertise, the company’s leadership wanted Carlos to step up and lead the strategic component of the scientific program.

Of course, as graduate students, we always doubt whether we have the right skills to enter the world of PM. While three of the four panelists are PMP® certified, the question remains, “do you need a PMP® certification to get into the PM role? The answer depends on you. According to David, a PMP® certification gives you a set of tools and a rationale you can use in your job. Without a professional education, David was following the basics of PM. However,  the certification gave him a framework with formal structure that he continues to use for efficiently managing multiple projects. Moreover, as informed by Claudia, one can also join Project Management Institute in New Jersey (PMINJ) and get involved with the local and national chapters. PMINJ offers networking opportunities, training resources, and a mentor program if you want to explore the role of project manager.


You have completed a crash course on various PM career paths and the project manager role. Awesome. Now, it’s time for a rapid-fire summary of the Q&A session.


Q: How do you improve your PM skills while still in graduate school?

  • A: As a graduate student, you already have a ton of PM skills: managing your thesis project, working with collaborators, designing experiments with time-constraints and limited resources, writing manuscripts and grant proposals, mentoring other students, etc. Start highlighting your skills!


Q: How do you land an entry-level position in PM?

  • A1: In your PhD you have already delved into PM. Rebecca recommends articulating what, why, and how you are doing your work, keeping the bigger picture in mind.
  • A2: Entry level positions for PM might have different titles but include the same responsibilities. These positions can be Project Coordinator or Project Analyst.


Q: Additional skills that can be learned while in graduate school?

  • A: Familiarity with PM software, knowledge of different phases of clinical trials, FDA regulations, the drug and medical device development process, and risk management. These are some ways that allow you to differentiate yourself from other candidates.


Q: Difference between Project Manager, Program Manager, and Product Manager?

  • A: Project Managers usually manage one project or team. Program Managers manage several projects and may have project managers report to them. Product Manager is usually a title for someone with a marketing role (in the life sciences field) and is responsible for the brand, indications, and marketing of the product.


Q: How is the work-life balance in PM?

  • A: According to Rebecca, “there is no work-life balance, but work-life integration.” The project manager’s position is usually flexible, which allows you to build your own schedule. However, with the increased workload, especially nearing the end of a project or deadlines, you might struggle with finding time for your personal life. The key is “finding time for things you care about.”


As the event was wrapping up, the panelists were asked to share one challenging aspect of their role and how they handle it. For Carlos, it was time management. In a fast-paced industry, “one is always working against money, time, and resources.” As a project manager, you must guide people to spend money efficiently, understand roadmaps with risks and rewards, convey information to stakeholders, and, most importantly, listen to their concerns.


The PM career panel gave me a massive amount of information and opened another world of career options for me. As we develop our PM skills in graduate school, they will become the foundation of our career, whether we become a formal project manager or a functional leader. To all my fellow graduate students who are thinking about working as project managers, I hope this career panel answered your questions and gave you the confidence to figure out your next steps for becoming a project manager.


This article was edited by Senior Editor Natalie Losada and Senior Editor Shawn Rumrill.