Three rooms. Three panels. Three career areas. Ninety minutes to absorb as much information as possible. But if you missed the Career Focus Q&A Breakout Sessions at the 15th Annual NICHD Fellows Retreat on May 31, 2019, fear not. All 13 panel participants have offered answers to prominent questions asked by fellows during the event. For your reading pleasure, we have divided their responses according to their respective panels. Enjoy!
Career Focus: Research and Development
Panel participants (left to right):
- Thomas Miller, PhD, Food and Drug Administration
- Kely Sheldon, PhD, Caprico Biotechnologies
- Monica Gupta, PhD, Taconic Biosciences
- Allyson Byrd, PhD, Genentech
Q: Do you think publications are important before applying for a company job?
MG: In my opinion publications showcase your ability to formulate and execute projects. They support your candidacy and show value to the bench work you have done at NIH. However, do not wait too long to get them published in highly reputed journals. It’s important to have publications on time before you send applications.
Q: Did you already have experience in the company’s work?
MG: Not directly, but I was always observant and eager to learn about other projects done in my group, which helped me expand my horizon and job search.
Q: What really makes a difference in being offered an interview?
AB: As a panel, people had a range of experiences. One panelist had submitted many CVs, while others found opportunities via contacts at the companies. Having been on the other side of the hiring process, we all agreed that personalizing your CV and cover letter to the position was crucial. This includes incorporating many of the key words included in the job posting. These extra steps can go a long way in getting your CV past the initial HR screen and then elevating your application above the others.
We also discussed how you can still apply for a position even if you don't meet all the criteria on the job posting. Companies include everything they would possibly want on a job posting; however, the expectation is never that the applicants will perfectly meet that description.
Getting your first job in industry is often the most difficult. After that initial experience, many additional opportunities will become available. Therefore, if your first job offer is not a perfect fit, still consider it as a possible learning opportunity for a few months. In contrast to academia, in industry moving around is more normal.
TM: I produced targeted resumes for about five to seven companies. I took the time to make sure that I felt well qualified for the positions and that my cover letter and resume fit the job description well. From those, I got interviews at two companies, both of which I also introduced myself to at a local career fair (which was mentioned in my cover letter). Once in the company, I built a network that helped me get a job at the FDA without having to send my resume through the normal human resources (HR) channels.
KS: Since most jobs today have a very impersonal online application, you want to be sure to tailor your CV to the specific job in which you are applying. Companies use keyword-searches to filter through applications—be sure to include those “buzz-words” listed in the job description relevant to you.
MG: I reached out to NIH connections in industry to get guidance on career opportunities.
Q: Should you focus your presentations for industry jobs on job requirements and industry interests?
MG: Definitely, yes. Tailor your presentations to match the needs of the organization to which you are applying. Show how you can bring value to the team. Keep it simple, and make it understandable to your audience.
Q: How do you negotiate salaries when a job is offered?
MG: In a discussion with your potential employer, align the values that you bring to the table with commensurate compensation.
Q: Was it a hard transition out of academia?
TM: I knew I wanted to go a career route independent of academia. Once in industry, I started in a research and development (R&D) position at the bench, which was very similar in day-to-day operations I was used to at the NICHD. I did not mind the challenge of being time- and scope-constrained within industry. I slowly transitioned into technical managing of the projects over two and a half years, allowing a much more natural transition into management and away from the bench. Once I was no longer at the bench, I found I was happier working on the management side. From there, it was a smooth transition into the FDA, where I get to oversee a number of different projects using novel technologies.
Q: What’s your day like in the company; is your creativity affected?
MG: In a typical day, I communicate with clients on their projects, help them with our product portfolio, and work on project design. I work with operations and scientific groups to manage projects based on their clients’ requirements.
Initially, you need to go by the protocol—mostly do what is expected out of you. But once you are in the system, you will find pathways for opportunities to explore your creativity. I participate in new product launches and write scientific articles for my organization’s products.
Career Focus: Scientific Administration
Panel participants (left to right):
- Dennis Twombly, PhD, NICHD Office of Extramural Policy
- Amy Kullas, PhD, American Society for Microbiology
- Rose Freel, PhD, NCI Office of Technology Transfer
- Linda Huynh, PhD, NICHD Office of Communications
- Elizabeth Baden, PhD, NICHD Office of the Director
Q: We all have heard how important it is to acquire additional skills other than those at the bench, but how does one actually go about getting these skills to document on your CV or resume?
AK: Since you’re at the NIH, it can be easier than you think! There are a lot of different interest groups and intramural organizations to get involved with. While at the NIH, I was involved with both the Global Health Interest Group (GHIG) and the Science Policy Interest Group (though there are so many more!).
I was the co-chair of the Science Policy Discussion Group and a contributing blog writer and editor. This allowed me to get non-technical writing and editing skills, which I use daily in my position. With GHIG, I hosted national and international seminar speakers, organized and advertised annual symposia and co-authored articles for the intramural NIH Catalyst. Collectively, this allowed me to develop relationships with individuals from diverse backgrounds around the globe. I cultivated partnerships and alliances with individuals in both internal and external institutes, centers, and organizations. Also, you could be a volunteer with the National Museum of Natural History in their Q?rius exhibit. This could allow you to engage a broad audience with interactive biological topics.
There are plenty of ways to get out there and obtain the skills that will be important for your next step! Remember, YOU are the only person who is in charge of YOUR career and future; make the most of it.
Q: Is doing a detail (in which you either divide your time between the lab and a particular office or take a few months away from the lab to work in that office) an important way to get experience in your position?
EB: Most of my career away from the bench has been in science policy. For that arena, I think that a detail is an excellent way to gain experience. Science policy offices at NIH are often open to hosting intramural research fellows who are considering their career options and trying to find out more about a career in policy. A detail for a few months in a policy office (in one of the offices within the NIH Office of the Director or in an Institute and Center (IC)), even if it’s just part time, would give a fellow a good sense of what that position would entail and help to discern whether it could be a good career option. The experience provides the opportunity to meet others with policy careers and to interact with communications and legislative liaison staff, as these positions and offices often work closely together. Building a network of contacts within all of these communities could open up job opportunities down the road if you pursue a career in this area. Although I don’t think any detail opportunities at NIH exist for my current position (chief of staff), I have noticed that many of NIH’s current chiefs of staff have worked in science policy at some point in their careers!
Q: How can a postdoc or student train for your career path?
LH: For science communications, you actually have a stereotype to overcome. People in communications will assume that because of your PhD, you don’t know how to communicate science to a lay person. Translating science takes reading and practice. Read the health or science sections of major newspapers and magazines and look at how the articles are structured. Read news releases from science organizations and universities. You’ll see that these items are organized the exact opposite of a research article. Practice writing for a lay audience and have samples ready for interviews. You can also try writing for The NICHD Connection. Share your drafts with friends who are not scientists and ask them if: 1) they found the article interesting, and 2) found it easy to understand.
Q: What does a typical day look like in your job?
RF: In technology transfer, every day is different! As part of my job, I negotiate different types of agreements that serve to either support the research at NCI or at an outside institution, or to allow a company to develop an NCI technology into a potential product. This means I spend a lot of time reading and responding to emails and questions, reviewing agreements and changes made by an outside party, and talking on the phone with potential partners to discuss the agreements we are negotiating.
Another part of my job is to work with the NIH contract law firms to manage patent prosecution on NCI inventions. For this part of my job, I spend time reviewing drafts of patent applications and responses to the patent office, and talking on the phone with the law firms that handle those cases.
I work directly with the NCI investigators for their tech transfer needs. For this, I spend time discussing their research and what our office can do to help support or further that research. I also spend time reviewing new inventions from those labs to determine if NCI would want to file a patent application and discussing patent applications and patent strategy with the inventors. Overall, it’s an exciting job with a lot of variety that keeps every day interesting!
Q: I am familiar with research positions in the NIH intramural program. What types of jobs are there in extramural programs?
DT: The main types of extramural positions at NIH fall into three general categories:
- Scientific Review Officers (SROs)
- Program Directors/Officers (POs)
- Those in Policy Positions
SROs are the NIH officials in charge of running peer review committees, either at the Center for Scientific Review (CSR) or at one of the NIH institutes. They have expertise in the subject area handled by the review group so they are able to understand the science and plan for a fair and comprehensive review of grant applications. SROs analyze incoming applications, recruit reviewers from the extramural community, assign applications to those reviewers, run the review meeting, and prepare review summary statements.
POs direct research programs in areas of their scientific expertise. They provide advice on extramural funding programs with prospective applicants, and they oversee the awarded grants in their portfolio. POs are also heavily involved in steering the direction of the research. They organize workshops to identify gaps and opportunities and propose new areas of research as part of an NIH institute’s strategic planning.
NIH staff who end up in policy positions have usually started as an SRO or PO. Policy positions involve implementing existing NIH/HHS/government policies, interpreting policies in unusual circumstances, writing new policy provisions when programs need to be fine-tuned or updated, participating in institute funding decisions, and serving as a resource/coordinator for other NIH staff and the extramural community.
Q: What types of backgrounds do NIH extramural staff (SRO, POs) have?
DT: NIH extramural staff, for example scientific review officers (SROs) or program officers (POs), have a scientific background with expertise in specific areas of research. The majority have obtained a PhD degree and completed several years as postdoctoral fellows. Most also have experience as faculty at universities or medical schools and have served as active investigators. NIH staff hired as medical officers have clinical degrees, e.g., MD, MD/PhD, or other. Medical officers have usually done a clinical fellowship with a significant research component and have been involved in clinical research after being appointed as faculty.
Q: At what career stage do people get jobs in the NIH extramural programs? What are some important factors in deciding to work in NIH extramural programs?
DT: Scientists enter NIH positions at various times during their career. A few enter after completing a postdoctoral fellowship, but most applicants for NIH positions have more research/academic experience and have often been funded investigators. Some faculty move to NIH after spending a few years in their first academic appointment; others have reached senior faculty levels and make the decision to take on more administrative roles.
Common reasons given for such a career change include frustration with the demands of maintaining a funded research program, a desire to have a larger impact on the scientific community, and—maybe most importantly—the stability of NIH positions. Federal employees generally have a one-year “probationary” period, but few leave within that year. After three years, their employment is essentially “tenured.” As for salaries and potential for promotion, most SROs and POs have GS-13/14 positions on the federal pay scale. The FY2019 salary rate for NIH staff at GS-13 level in the Washington, DC area ranges from $99,172 to $128,920. The range for GS-14 is $117,191 to $152,352. Individuals entering at the GS-13 level often move up to GS-14 within a couple of years. More senior NIH staff with major grant portfolios or supervisory responsibilities may move up to the GS-15 level. One major advantage of working at NIH is that any given staff member can quite easily change roles and move from one NIH institute to another. The majority spend the remainder of their careers at NIH, though a few re-enter academia as institutional administrators (chairs, deans, vice president for research) or return to clinical work.
Q: How does someone find a position in extramural grants programs at NIH?
DT: Extramural staff positions at NIH are all advertised on USA Jobs. You can do a search by NIH institute or by topic area. One of the best ways of finding out about extramural positions is to look on the NIH institute’s web site and contact a program official in your area of science. Another possible source of information is the training officer at each institute. A PO or training officer are usually the individuals you would contact about extramural jobs and ways to launch and fund a research program. However, they are also able to provide advice on NIH positions.
Career Focus: Academe & Science Education Administration
Panel participants (left to right):
- Kate Monzo, PhD, University of Maryland, College Park
- Sydella Blatch, PhD, NIAID Training Office
- Patricia Silveyra, PhD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- Zelia Worman, PhD, NASA Research and Education Support Services
Q: While you were a postdoc, how did you find opportunities to acquire relevant expertise for the current job you have?
SB: Some ways to build teaching experience, short of being an adjunct, are below. Some involve reaching out to faculty you may know anywhere in the world, or perhaps reaching out to meet new contacts locally.
- Volunteer to teach a day or week of classes for a local professor, perhaps a topic in your area of expertise (some professors may need class coverage when they are out of town).
- Volunteer to help students in a course with a special project that you create (lecture or lab). You don’t have to be physically present but could help over email, Skype, etc. Examples of a project might be to read/analyze a journal article, interpret lab results, or write a lab report. You can provide feedback on drafts, for example, which can really save the professor time.
- Take science teaching/pedagogy courses offered at NIH or elsewhere (perhaps with a professional society, Massive Online Open Courses, or at a local college). The American Physiological Society (APS), for example, has a week-long teaching course (one of the other panelists, Patricia, did this).
- Develop a curriculum—maybe this could even be a guide for new postbacs or summer students with a series of informal workshops/discussions that you could lead to help them build research/laboratory skills.
- Lead or participate in a journal club for postbacs/summer students.
- Be creative—you could have someone videotape you teaching to post on YouTube and link to it on your CV (one of the other panelists did this, Patricia, through the APS course mentioned above).
KM: I am happy to have postdocs visit the classroom to get a sense for what level different courses are taught and how active learning works in the classroom. I am not teaching in the summer, but maybe some folks would be interested in the fall.
PS: In many cases, a postdoc will require many hours concentrating on one topic/project and not really spending time exploring/developing other career areas. However, it is important to keep in mind that the postdoc is a time for career preparation and exploration. I knew that I wanted to continue pursuing academic research, but I also wanted to teach and mentor students. I also knew that to be a principal investigator, I needed to develop leadership skills. So, I used several resources both at my institution and outside to develop those skills.
To acquire teaching experience, I volunteered to serve as a mentor to summer interns and helped develop a hands-on workshop on basic techniques. I also found opportunities to teach one to two lectures as a guest by connecting with senior faculty members. Finally, I attended a week-long training on teaching skills offered by the APS, where I learned to create a teaching portfolio, write a statement of teaching philosophy, and use different teaching methods in classes.
To work on my leadership style, I read many books. One of my favorites was “Becoming the Boss” (by Lindsay Pollack), which gave specific advice for junior leaders. I also worked on improving my networking skills by participating in committees and attending activities sponsored by my institution. I tried to become involved in activities I could do without interfering with my lab work hours, but I also wanted to learn how to better manage my time and commitments and plan my experiments around scheduled meetings. Participating in these activities really expanded my horizons and helped me transition out of my postdoc.
Q: How do you apply for a job that requests one year or more of teaching experience if you don’t have it? Is it important to have formal experience or is “mentoring” enough?
ZW: Some of the panelists recommended applying anyway and trying to use as much of their experience as they have; in some cases, though, formal teaching experience is necessary. The panelists recommended contacting professors that may be open to letting them teach a module, so you can obtain the experience necessary.
Q: How do you balance teaching and research in a “teaching heavy” position? Do you feel like the research suffers from having to teach during the academic year?
ZW: The panelists gave a lot of ideas on how to balance teaching with research: organizing is key; delegating; working with students to make sure their notebooks are in order; preparing classes; etc. Overall the message was that the research will go slower than you’d like but if you enjoy teaching, it’s very satisfying.
Q: How do we find support to become a good mentor if we lacked support as mentees?
KM: The panelists recommended finding support out of network, such as through professional organizations or to request extra mentor support from the department. I suggested that at primary teaching institutions, mentoring should be a priority.
Q: How do you network if you’re not an extrovert? How can I do that in teaching?
ZW: Sometimes you’ve been networking without noticing! Just talking to a person at a conference during lunch is networking. When you go to a conference, check out who’s attending and who you’d like to meet. Read one of their papers and go talk to them. Have business cards to hand out (professors are busy and won’t likely remember you, but a business card makes you look professional and gives them a way to contact you). After you meet the professor, send them a follow-up email! Be yourself, do things you like, volunteer, and you’ll be networking in no time!