Interview by Payal Ray, PhD
Dr. Valerie Virta holding a 3D-printed model of a polio virus (photo provided by Dr. Virta)
Dr. Valerie Virta served as a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Tom Sargent’s lab from February 2011 to June 2014. During her time at the NICHD, she studied the evolution of BMP signal regulation in fish jaw development. She stepped away from the bench and now works as a Scientific Editor with the National Library of Medicine. Dr. Virta kindly answered a few questions about her new career:
What does your current position entail?
I am a Scientific Editor with the PubMed Health web service in the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the National Library of Medicine. I am a contractor rather than a federal employee. My position is with Medical Science and Computing. Two main aspects of my job balance each other and constitute my mission, which is to help make systematic reviews* more accessible to the public.
Primarily, I curate and assess systematic reviews for their possible inclusion in PubMed Health. This consists of a lot of quiet research at my desk, being on the computer, and reading and analyzing systematic reviews and the material related to them. I then compose internal memos and reports to keep track of my progress and the conclusions I reach. It is not unlike keeping a lab notebook; only it is more formalized and intended for audiences besides me.
The other major aspect of my job is attending meetings and serving as a liaison between different groups. I spend a lot of time learning from other people both in terms of procedures as well as listening to their concerns and answering questions. I then may write emails distilling these meetings for my supervisors and other interested parties.
When and where did you learn about this career field?
It was an unusual process. I learned about my new field each step of the way: from my boss as I was told about the posted job, during the interview process, once I had accepted the position, and as I was getting oriented; and I continue to learn more about it every day.
Frankly, I was ignorant about evidence-based medical research because it is a relatively new field. Only recently have basic scientists become aware that systematic review methodology applies to current concerns about reproducibility of experimental results. However, I have since realized that systematic reviews and their methodology are important for patients, doctors, researchers, policy makers, insurance and health care administrators, public health agencies, and many other stakeholders—and that’s just in the medical field.
How did you find this particular job?
I found this job through networking. I can’t emphasize enough how important networking is. Even if you are not actively searching for a job, it is wise to consider every professional interaction, and perhaps some social interactions, as potential interviews—they may well be!
Please describe the application/hiring process. Did it take a long time?
I did not realize that I had been interviewing for my position until my current boss told me about a posted job opening at the company. In retrospect, I would say that I had probably been considered as a possible candidate for several months (I am sure others were, as well). This is what I mean when I say you never know when you are interviewing. What I thought were networking-type questions turned out to be a subtle assessment of whether I had an appropriate skill set and would be a good fit. After all, I could have not been told about the opening, and I would not likely have found it myself in the places I was looking for jobs.
The opening was posted for about a week. I interviewed within a couple of weeks of applying for the job, and got the offer a couple of weeks after that. I did not actually start the job for another six weeks because I wanted to finish a detail I was doing at the very end of my postdoctoral fellowship.
What’s your typical day like?
I am able to set my own hours and usually arrive between 8 and 9 a.m. First, I check my email and reply to urgent messages and consider if my schedule for the day needs to be adjusted. I make sure I am prepared for any meetings I have that day. I am usually working on at least one longer-term project, so I will focus on that for a while. I often spend my lunch hour eating with a friend, and only rarely do I need to skip lunch. In the afternoon, I prepare whatever needs to be done for the next meeting I need to go to, or continue working on one of my larger projects.
With that said, I remain flexible in case a coworker needs help or my boss wants me to do something that wasn’t already on my list. I usually leave between 4 and 5 p.m., and rarely do I need to work in the evenings or on weekends.
There is a balance I strike between meetings and the work associated with those and my longer-term projects. Time management is important so that I can actually make progress on something important that I may not get asked about for weeks or months at a time. It’s a flexible routine and I enjoy the opportunity to always learn while serving the public.
Did you do anything in particular at the NICHD to prepare you for your career transition?
I did many things at NICHD to prepare for my career transition, beginning with attending the NICHD Fellows’ Retreat as well as the NIH-wide Career Symposium. When I heard speakers that interested me, I asked for their contact information and if I could arrange an informational interview. Although this was intimidating at first, people generally say yes, so it got easier. In addition to networking at every opportunity, I took career development courses that interested me from the OITE. If there is one thing I wish I had begun earlier, it was that. Employers want to know that you have put thought and effort into a career transition and that you are ready to embrace a new career. In addition, I learned many “soft” skills that helped me in my bench research.
I also did a detail in the Program Office at NICHD. If a detail is something you would like to pursue, I would recommend starting the process as soon as you know that, because it takes a long time to arrange. I had a wonderful experience and it helped me realize I definitely wanted to go into administration.
What aspects of laboratory work will translate well into this career field?
Time management, effective self-assessment, skillful communication, willingness to experiment and learn (also when something is not working), creativity, focus, and discipline all translate well into my new field. It really helps that keeping track of what I’ve been doing has become second nature because of my many years of research experience.
What are some of the future career options for someone in your position?
There are several directions I can go: I can transition to an administrative position elsewhere at the NIH or a different government agency, or at a medical school or university. I could move further into the field of systematic reviews and evidence-based research. As our group grows, I could enter management, or I could use the skills I gain here to transition to a management position elsewhere. A lot of options are available to me now that weren’t before, so I keep an open mind.
Do you have any advice for fellows who are thinking about pursuing similar opportunities?
It’s easy to fall into a trap of thinking you have become over-specialized and there aren’t many fun, intellectually stimulating, and well-remunerated positions outside academia. This is simply not true! The first thing to do is some self-examination: what got you into science? What do you like and dislike about what you do? What are characteristics of your ideal job? Use your answers to chart a course in learning new skills, networking, informational interviewing, and generally answering the door when new opportunities knock. I say this because our team is small and what I do is very specialized, so I can’t give more specific advice about my field. I am trying to give general advice that will help you on your journey.
If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Virta’s career, feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Editor’s Note: A systematic review is a piece of writing that compiles high quality clinical trial and research results pertaining to a focused clinical question. The systematic review is an important component to evidence-based medicine.