Analyzing the NIH Alumni Database: Where are our NIH postdocs going?

March 13, 2017

In the OITE we are often asked about the career paths of former postdocs. While we do not conduct mandatory exit surveys, we do have some data from the OITE NIH Alumni Database. This database is populated as fellows leave the NIH. To date it contains about 1100 entries. Of those, 639 contain career information that we have been able to analyze. Caveat: this information is only from former trainees who have voluntarily created entries in the database; it does not capture the full range nor percentage of actual career paths*.

PDAlum Figure 1
We began by comparing data on our intramural research program (IRP) alumni to the data published in the 2012 NIH Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report (BWF). This report analyzed a post-training workforce of 128,000 people in terms of six categories. Academic Research/Teaching accounted for 43% of the workforce, followed by Science-Related, non-Research (individuals employed by industry, government, non-profits who do not conduct research) and Industrial Research at 18% each. The Non-Science-Related workforce employed 13%, and Government Research accounted for an additional 6%. Two percent reported they were unemployed.
In Figure 1 we show that fractions of IRP alumni who have continued in Academic/Research Teaching (39%) and Industrial Research (14%) were similar to those in the national BWF survey. However, far more IRP alumni continued in Government Research (15% of NIH IRP vs 6% in the national survey) and Science-Related, non-Research (33% of NIH IRP vs 18% for the national survey) careers, while far fewer went on to careers in non-Science-Related professions (< 1% vs 13%). No one in our alumni database reported that they were unemployed.
Our percentage of alumni staying in government research is higher than the national average (15% vs. 6%). This is not surprising that some fellows choose to stay as staff scientists or become tenure track within the IRP. The information of what careers are considered non-science related was difficult to find. Our analysis of alumni careers suggests that science-related non-research careers are more common than the national average.
Dissecting the Academic Research/Teaching data provides us with more information about what types of positions are held in this sector, Figure 2.

PDAlum Figure 2

This category includes only positions directly associated with research or teaching; careers in academic institutions in offices such as tech transfer, policy, academic affairs, etc. are counted in the Science-Related, Non-Research category. Three-quarters of alumni in this sector are in academic tenure-track or tenured positions. In fact 192 total alumni in the database are tenured or tenure track faculty (185 are in academics and 7 in government research). From this data we predict that 30% of IRP alumni have tenured or tenure track faculty positions.
The data for the Science-Related Non-research careers demonstrates the breadth of career options that are available for PhD-trained scientists, Figure 3. We binned careers based on the job titles that were submitted to the alumni database. Discerning the exact jobs of the 25% of reported careers in program management/analysis is challenging. The titles range from program coordinator to manager, director and advisor. Similarly, it is very likely that the 5% of alumni that report working in grants (as program officers, analysts, or review) is low due to the lack of precision in the job titles within the program management/analysis category. The data still provide evidence that program administration (making sure that science runs) is a common career choice. Science policy is a career path selected by 20% NIH of reported alumni. These careers are in all sectors, but are mainly spilt between the Federal government and non-profits (i.e., professional societies). Other career choices reflected in Figure 3 show the breath of career choices for NIH postdocs.

PDAlum Figure 3

If you want any addiional information about the careers in these categories we suggest that you explore the alumni database. As a current fellow with an OITE account you can search the database: https://www.training.nih.gov/alumni. Additionally, you can use the contact information in the alumni database to set up informational interviews as you plan your career post-NIH.
In 2017 we hope you will help us with this data project! Are you an NIH alum? If so, join the database or update your earlier submission. Last year around 800 people logged-in to the database and updated their information. But we still have too many gaps. 460 postdocs, for example, have an alumni database account that include no information about their current position. Only have ~20% of our postdocs* actually contribute to the database. The OITE really does want to know where you are! Current and future postdocs want to be able to see career trends and how training at the NIH might influence their career choices. So join the database or update your record now: https://www.training.nih.gov/alumni/register
*The database was built in June 2010. We estimate that 800 postdocs per year leave the NIH. Therefore the maximum sample size could be ~5200 alumni. With 1100 reporting that represents 21.2% of the potential sample size.

To learn about the full range of services and programs offered by the Office of Intramural Training and Education, visit us at https://www.training.nih.gov.

 


NIH OITE Alumni: Where Are They Now? Director of Career Services

October 17, 2016

dumsch_amandaName: Amanda Dumsch

Job Title & Organization: Director of Career Services; SAIS Europe, Johns Hopkins University

Location: Bologna, Italy

What was your job search like?
I wasn’t actively job searching; however, a former boss emailed me a link to an open position at SAIS Europe.  I didn’t pay much attention to it at first and I actually sat on the email for over a month. Then, one day while I was at the National Career Development Association Conference, I suddenly decided it couldn’t hurt to send in my cover letter and resume. The process moved seemingly quickly after that.

How did you make the decision to take an international job?
It was actually a difficult decision for me because I was in an enviable position. My job as a career counselor at the OITE was fantastic. I was happily employed in a job that I liked working alongside people I respected. So, I worried and wondered. How could I walk away from that? I also lived geographically close to my family, so the prospect of moving an ocean away – on a different continent – stressed me out.

Making the decision took time and I did a lot of things to help get clarity. I made pros and cons lists; I journaled about it; I spoke to career counselors; I talked to trusted colleagues; and I conferred with loved ones constantly.  I even reread some of the very blog posts that I had written about decision-making, including:

Making a Career Decision? Use the CASVE Cycle

3 Decision-Making Tips

Decision-Making Activity — Prioritizing Grid

As a feeling decider, the decision ultimately came down to a gut feeling that this was the right next step for me in my life and my career. Sometimes stress and worry still kick in though and I panic, What if I made the wrong decision?  But, I try to take a moment to breathe and remind myself that I can always make a new decision if needed in the future.

What have you learned from this process?
There is an adage “opportunity knocks at inopportune times” and I have often thought about this line because it felt so applicable to my situation. Perhaps more than any other time in my life, I had committed to multiple projects through the end of the year. So, moving felt very disruptive to all of the plans (professional development courses, the NYC marathon, trips) that I had scheduled.

As a planner, it can be hard for me to make adjustments when something new comes up, but I learned to be more flexible and adaptable. The fact that this something new was so life changing felt exciting… and stressful.  I remind myself that almost everyone struggles with transitions and even positive change can create stress.

Any final thoughts?
While at the NIH, I had almost 2500 individual appointments; in these meetings, I had the chance to meet with trainees at all levels – postbacs, graduate students, and postdocs. I met smart and ambitious individuals doing remarkable work at and away from the bench.  Many of my meetings focused on transitions; helping people transition both to and away from the NIH.  I was constantly impressed by the trainees that I had the privilege of working with and I was especially struck by the visiting fellows.  Their courage to move to a different country, learn a new language, and adapt to a new culture was inspiring to me.  I look forward to experiencing a new way of life in a new part of the world, but the people I met at the NIH will always be dear to me.


NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Public Health Informatics Fellow

August 1, 2016

Image of Raymond FrancisName: Raymond Francis Sarmiento, MD

Job Title & Company: Public Health Informatics Fellow, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Location: I am the first and only CDC fellow based outside of Atlanta. I have been based in Cincinnati, Ohio since 2014 because I joined the fellowship program with a lot of health informatics experience primarily because of my prior NLM fellowship. The Public Health Informatics Fellowship (PHIF) program was looking to pilot test how to send out a fellow into the field, if you will, so they asked if I was willing and I said yes. They wanted to try and see if that could be a successfully proven approach in providing informatics technical expertise and support to CDC institutes located outside of Atlanta.  I would say that the whole experience has been a success so far, not only in terms of my work here within my institute (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health or NIOSH) but also for the PHIF program as well.

How long you’ve been in your current job: Nearing the end of my two year fellowship at CDC

Postdoc Advisers, IC:
Dr. Paul Fontelo (medical informatics training director at Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications) and Dr. Clement McDonald, Director of the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications at the National Library of Medicine (NLM), U.S. National Institutes of Health

What was your career progression after NIH like?
After finishing my two-year postdoctoral clinical informatics fellowship at the NLM, I moved to an applied training fellowship on public health informatics over at the CDC. I’m currently at the CDC, doing work on occupational health surveillance, epidemiology, electronic health records, data analytics, and natural language processing.

What is your day to day like in this role?
The work that I do is a mixture of public health project management as well as conducting research on improving public health using informatics techniques and problem-solving frameworks. In a typical day, I connect with key project stakeholders, including the software engineering team, content development and management team, and internal and external users. On a near daily basis, I communicate the progress we have made on each of the projects to the respective project managers and team leaders. As a team, we work together on improving our health information systems, mostly occupational health surveillance programs and consumer tools, that have been developed here in NIOSH.

How did you find this opportunity?
It was something that I had known about prior to my NLM fellowship because I had previously applied to PHIF in 2010. When it was time to move forward with my career, I felt the need to gain more applied informatics training experience, particularly in public health, mainly because I wanted to expand my horizons in terms of being able to find and apply practical informatics solutions to real-world public health problems.

For individuals who are interested in a public health informatics fellowship, do you have any insights on what would make them a competitive candidate?
Being able to show that you possess a strong foundation in terms of understanding health informatics concepts and that you are competent in your statistical analysis skills are things that are strongly desired for PHIF candidates. A candidate’s willingness to learn is also a critically important qualification.  Aside from those, having previous research and/or evaluation experience will help the would-be fellow succeed in PHIF.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
My favorite aspect is being given the chance, on a daily basis, to gain valuable experience and exposure to the workings of public health surveillance and epidemiology as it is conducted in the United States. I value my time and experience here because I believe it will help me in the long term especially when I return to the Philippines, which is my home country. Working in one of the top public health institutions in the world and the premier public health agency in the United States has given the chance to collaborate with the top scientists in the field and this has helped me understand the best practices in terms of implementing informatics solutions to public health problems.

Your work sounds like an intersection of two very popular fields – public health and health informatics. So, what are you hoping to do next after your fellowship?
After the fellowship, I intend to return to the Philippines because I am highly interested in establishing the public health informatics field back home. At present, there are no companies or government agencies in the Philippines that focus on using health informatics frameworks and solutions to local public health problems. Another idea is to join the Philippines’ Department of Health as a public health informatics expert or maybe even be our country’s health informatics czar as the Philippines continues to develop and successfully its national long-term plans for e-health and telemedicine. In addition, I am also open to opportunities where I can apply both my clinical and research expertise, maybe in roles such as Chief Medical Information Officer, Senior Health Data Scientist, or Clinical Research Director who deals with clinical informatics projects.

What are the most important skill sets that you utilize?
Definitely, effective communication skills and the ability to constantly improve are critical skills one needs to use every day. By effectively communicating your message to your intended audience, particularly to key stakeholders and champions who will can greatly influence the outcome of your project, your project is likely to succeed and meet your target outcomes. I cannot emphasize this enough.

For somebody who wants to go down a similar path like yours and get more experience in both clinical and public health informatics, what would you recommend to them?

I would say that the most crucial thing for early career scientists is to identify a mentor or scientist who you would like to emulate or model your career after.  If you do your research and are able to realize that “Yes, this is the career arc that I want to experience… This is the career that would help me grow into the best version of myself as a scientist.”, then by all means do everything you can to try to connect with that individual. Take advantage of what you can learn from your mentors. Ask for the necessary support and guidance that you will need for you to be on your way to your desired career path.

Another thing, especially for foreign nationals who are experiencing living in the United States for the first time, is to not be afraid to contact the “fathers” or “mothers” of your chosen field. Often, we feel intimidated so we hesitate in doing this, but you truly won’t know if they will be open or not to helping you unless you try. If everything falls into place, then you have taken that first big leap of working toward your goal to becoming the best scientist that you could possibly be.

Furthermore, constantly improving yourself and looking for ways to build your capacity in areas where you feel you need to improve — maybe in machine learning, maybe in regression analysis, whatever it may be – will contribute immensely to your future success.

When you look at your career to date, is there anything you wish you had done differently?
I probably would have applied for the NLM fellowship a few years earlier in my career. Being on the same career trajectory but on an earlier timeline, I would have likely been working on helping to improve the public health agenda in the Philippines a couple years earlier. But overall, I have no regrets, only a profound appreciation of what I have been given and how much I can contribute towards helping my home country.


NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Principal Scientist & Group Leader

June 27, 2016

Image of Joseph LeeName: Joseph Lee, PhD

Job Title & Company: Principal Scientist/Group Leader, Shire/Eurofins Lancaster Labs

Location: Boston, MA

How long you’ve been in your current job: Since November 2014 – a year and a half

IC: I was at NCI for five and then picked up by NIDDK for a year to do a research fellowship in the molecular medicine branch

What do you do in your current position?
I am the gene therapy program lead for the Analytical Development group at Shire, but I’m running it as a contractor so to speak. Officially, I work for Eurofins Lancaster Labs.  They have a professional staffing group and in that I am effectively the site manager for the Shire group. Generally, I wear two hats.  In the first, I have two groups under me – the Analytical Development and the Analytical Development Testing Group. In the second, I am also a principal scientist, where I specialize in gene therapy.

What does the day to day look like for you?
It is complicated for me because I have two departments and close to 18 people under me (not necessarily directly managing them – they are embedded within the department with Shire technical leads) for which I am responsible. So, in this role I step away from the technical responsibilities and try to help them more with their career development.  The other hat is the technical hat – I am essentially the analytical development program lead for gene therapies within Shire.

Now, one of the things you need to understand about working in big pharma is all these things sound kind of nice, but big pharma likes to divide things into a hundred different categories. This means that there can be ten program leads for gene therapy but my slice of the pie is Analytical Development. There is also somebody from Discovery, Regulatory Affairs, Process Development, Early to Mid-Stage Development. In our portion, we are responsible for CMC (Chemistry, Manufacturing, and Controls – i.e., manufacturing; leading to Investigational New Drug applications and ultimately to the clinic). We all contribute to the bigger pie as a whole.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
You know it’s kind of funny. You go through that evolution. You are on the bench as a postdoc, then you are on the bench when you are an early researcher, but eventually you wind up off the bench. I know that there are a lot of postdocs out there that don’t want to be on the bench anymore and want to directly go into administrative. But, you kind of think that after so many years of grad school and training, that being on the bench is a comfortable place where you don’t have to worry about anything but the project at hand. Eventually, you get pushed off the bench by getting asked to do more administrative or management projects.  Especially nowadays, there is an internal mandate in which secondary or tertiary development processes are outsourced to CROs (Contract Research Organizations), so you find a lot of what you do is manage your projects through the CROs. This is actually really common within big pharma – a lot of their developmental programs and the analytical parts of it get outsourced to CROs, even though some of it remains in house. It is in that capacity, that we step in and help manage it. A lot of my time is spent managing projects, typically on the phone on conference calls, which I actually enjoy.

What has been the hardest aspect about transitioning into this career?
When you are a grad student/postdoc, there is something very gratifying about doing all of the work on your own. I was a fairly meticulous and very careful person and the quality was up to me, so when I ran my gels or did my blots or whatever analyses, the overall quality was dependent on my own time, effort and care. Now as a manager, you sort of have to convey that to your CROs and your internal research group which is very challenging because you have to find out what motivates other people.  Plus, you have to have confidence and trust in your staff to be an extension of your hands.

Did you go through a management training or on-boarding process?
There are always a few courses on management training available, but I think much of it is a trial by fire mentality. I made a lot of mistakes going through my career. You are always making a few mistakes here and there and sometimes it’s big and sometimes it’s small. It really is a continual learning process. There are some management courses offered but I think there is an expectation when you are coming in at a higher level, that you already have some management skills.

What was your job search like after your time at the NIH?
After NIDDK, I got a position at a contract research organization (CRO) called BioReliance, in Rockville. I stayed there for about three years and I started as a Senior Scientist in the Development Services group where I managed all of their custom molecular biology and assay development projects. Then from there, I got recruited to a small bioservices company up in Boston called Batavia BioServices. They (actually, my department – Virology & Molecular Biology) quickly folded after a few months. I had a feeling that might happen, so I had been quietly searching. On the same day that my position at Batavia ended, I got an offer letter from Eurofins which was incredibly lucky. I was extremely fortunate in that regard, but the thing is, you don’t lean on that type of luck (at least for me, good timing like that rarely happens).

When I was at the NIH, I didn’t network like I should have. When I look back at my career planning and what I tell postdocs now is that it really is about networking, networking, and more networking.

As somebody who admits they didn’t network like they should have, what do you think then was the key to your success? Can you point to something that helped you get to your position now?
A lot of postdocs leaving the NIH will hear a refrain, “Well, you don’t have any industry experience.” I mean that is really what you are going up against. Recruiters and employers want to see that you have that specific kind of experience. You have to be fortunate to be able to get your CV to the right hiring manager. Like everybody else did in the beginning, I went through the three phases of applications. I did the carpet bombing approach where I flooded everybody and everything – Monster, Career Builder, etc. LinkedIn at that time wasn’t as sophisticated as it is now, but I went through hiring lines in all sorts of places to submit my CV. And that didn’t work so great.

Then, I went into specific companies. For example, I looked at Genentech and looked at who was working on specific projects in terms of the industry/academia type of basic/translational research and I found emails in scientific manuscripts and I started writing directly to these PIs in industry. You can always figure out how to find their email or contact information. That proved to be a little bit helpful and that got me a few hits.

However, the biggest one is contacts. One great source that a lot of people don’t realize or recognize is the account managers. The way I got into BioReliance is that I knew one of the account managers/sales person through BioReliance because she was formerly at LifeTech and I had a good rapport with her. So, when I saw that BioReliance was hiring for a scientist, I inquired through her and she as an account manager sent it to the right hiring manager.

How did you respond to the interview question about industry experience?
This specific hiring manager really liked my “go get ‘em” attitude. However, during the on-site interviews, I was constantly challenged with the line “Well, you have no industry experience.” That is always difficult to overcome and it is very dependent on the hiring manager. Personally, I got mixed results, but generally I inferred that they could have a really good scientist with little industry experience or they could get a lousy scientist with a lot of industry experience. But, if you hire both of us, in six months, I’ll have industry experience and still be the better scientist. So, as a company you have to decide what is more important to you – the science or the industry experience. You have to be able to convey that to your interviewer in the nicest way possible. Like I said, that explanation got mixed results. A few interviewers thought it was arrogant, a few loved it – funny thing is that the ones that thought it was arrogant turned out to not have the advanced degrees and had to claw and work their way up.

In hindsight, is there anything you wish you had done differently? Any last bits of advice?
I had a great time at the NIH as it offers you an environment to pursue many directions in research and you are less imposed with the budgetary component like if you were in a university. With that being said, where you go next will be up to you – whether that is industry or academia.  You need to have a plan and you need to have contingencies if something doesn’t work out. One thing for certain, no matter whether you are in industry or academia, your career can be cut short because of budgetary constraints or reorganizations of departments.  Personally, I have never felt or allowed myself to be so comfortable that I don’t contingency plan for the worst. I have been fortunate because I always do have a plan if something bad were to happen. It is like a game of musical chairs and you kind of understand that the music is going to stop at some time – if you have good instincts, you can anticipate when the music stops.

If you are good at what you do, you’re constantly going to be contacted by recruiters. That is why LinkedIn can be so helpful. There seem to be two types of recruiters. One who finds you through LinkedIn and the other who finds you through internal databases like Monster/CareerBuilders or other sites. The ones who find you through LinkedIn are pretty sophisticated and tend to search more for executives, principal scientists, director level positions. The ones at Career Builder and Monster are going to lump you in with the keywords on your resume and they’ll inquire about your availability for contractor positions more at that associate scientist level.

LinkedIn is an incredible resource so I always suggest that everyone maintain their account

Any last bits of advice?
You need to learn how to manage people. At some point, you will be put into a position where you manage people and I think that you have to be very serious about getting to that level where you become a manager. You have to take it at heart that you are dealing with somebody’s livelihood as a manager. You have to be responsible for them but you also have to be accountable for you what you do and how you could potentially affect their lives and their livelihood. It’s easy to push somebody around and expect them to do all sorts of stuff for you, but you have to make sure that they are getting something back from it.  If they sense that they aren’t getting developed professionally, then you will lose one and then you’ll lose another and so on. People will see that you are an ineffective manger and once they take your reports away from you, then you are on the island.

It is easy to think that you may be something special – well educated, highly trained. You are part of this great ‘fraternity/sorority’ of researchers seeding academia and industry.  It is up to you, but it is better to, at least try to be, a good person.  Paraphrasing a quote…the measure of a person is not how they treat their superiors, but how they treat their subordinates.

Good luck to all!


NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Founder/CEO, Neural Bytes, LLC

May 31, 2016

Name: Antonio Ulloa, PhDImage of Antonio Ulloa

Job Title & Company: Founder/CEO, Neural Bytes, LLC

Location: Washington, DC

How long you’ve been in your current job: Founded Neural Bytes in 2012


Postdoc Advisor:
Barry Horwitz, PhD, IC: NIDCD

After your postdoc, what was your career progression like?
I knew I wanted to be independent and follow my own ideas, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. My wife and I ended up moving to London. I had an advisor/friend from Spain who I had a lot of success writing grant applications with, so we got together during one of his visits to London and we decided to write something together. We wrote a few grant proposals together and he got one of the grants later on. I enjoy writing grant applications and the stress of having to meet a deadline.  All of this was in the field of robotics. But, it essentially was a freelance thing. He encouraged me to register a company in England, so that I could join the consortium formally. But, I’m not a business person so I didn’t understand why this was so important. While we were waiting to hear about the grants, I became a stay at home dad to our two children.

When the kids were a little older, I eventually founded my first company, Alpha Brain Technologies, which I registered in England. The goal of that company was to make games and applications for iphones and ipads to help people with the acquisition of a second language. For me, it was to use everything I knew about how the brain processes language since I had a lot of knowledge about that from my time at NIDCD because I did fMRI experiments and computational modeling, etc.

I really enjoyed creating the company and I used the resources in London for starting a business. Google had a program to help small businesses start and they gave you a website for free web tools and advice to help you. It was very fulfilling but not financially rewarding.

Is that company still in business?
No, after seven years in England, we moved back to Washington, DC so I shut that company down. And I opened a company in the US. This time I wanted to create computational models of the brain for researchers to use in the labs. I knew that most neuroscience labs do empirical work and that they often don’t have computer scientists on site. It is becoming more and more common that people have to pose some computational hypothesis for how things work, not just the results of their empirical studies. So, the idea of the company was to create software for those labs to use which was user-friendly.

Did you utilize any resources in the United States to help set up your business?
Yes, it was very different from setting up a business in England. What I have now is an LLC – a limited liability company and those don’t exist in England. But, I used a lot of resources through the Small Business Administration (SBA) and I also used a lot of resources through Score.org. They have lots of workshops and one-on-one meetings.  That was great at the beginning, especially when you don’t know where to go, what to do, or how to start. They gave a lot of advice by phone, email, Skype, and in-person. They also have videos online that you can watch to help you.

Plus, an accountant. I had a hard time finding an accountant who I was able to ask basic questions to because there were basic concepts that I didn’t understand and I wanted to have a sense of how things worked. I did finally find one and it has worked out well. Accountants are a great resource to ask questions to and some of them have great websites/blogs with basic questions to help you as well.

What does a general day to day look like for you?
Since I started the contract with the NIH in April 2014, I spend a lot of time at the NIH. I would say half of my time is at the NIH. I generally go there in the mornings and spend 4-5 hours on the project that I have with them. The project will update a specialized software tool for brain modeling by making it more accessible to neuroscience researchers without computational experience.  I have also given them ideas on how to upload that to an open repository. There has been a move recently to move everything to a more open science and having data and source code uploaded to public repositories.  Mostly my contract involves writing software and giving them solutions for their research.

How did you win this contract? Was it a difficult process?
Yes, it was. I had something very specific in mind to build this research tool software, and then I had some ideas about how research was done at the NIH, but even so I had to do a lot of research about who was doing what. So, I ended up just approaching people and/or emailing them. I would give my business card and proposal. Many people said no, but then it just worked.

What are the most important skills that you utilize in this position?
I think presentation skills is a big one. Research skills is another big one. I did have to write a business proposal, but nobody really looks at it. It is really just for yourself, but it can be useful to have the skills to be able to write a vision statement and technical reports.

What is your favorite aspect of running your own business?
The independence and the flexibility in the hours. We have school-aged children so my wife and I both have to take them to school. A lot of flexibility helps with that. And I enjoy the independence because it means that I set my own goals. I know exactly what I want to do in the next five years and that is what I am going to do through my business or through a contract with my business or small business innovation grant. So, those two things are really great for me.

What has been the most challenging aspect about running your own company?
Paperwork and tax returns. There is just a lot of paperwork. I gradually eased into it, but it can be daunting because one has to have a license and a registration and a certificate of compliance, and a company number from the IRS, and a business bank account. There are lots of little things that need to happen in order to have a company which offers services.  Then, there are lots more requirements in order to have a contract with the federal government. It is a long list of things that one has to set up and keep updating every year or so.

My accountant does the tax returns but I use QuickBooks to help keep track of everything. This helps keep track of all the expenses and I can upload the receipts and categorize it. At the end of the year, I can produce a report which I give to the accountant and they’ll tell me how much I have to pay and estimate it per federal/state.

For somebody who is hoping to go down a similar path and start a company, what last bits of advice would you give? In hindsight, is there anything you wish you would have done differently?

Yes, don’t wait! I waited and I was a little too cautious. I thought that if I started a business formally that there was no way back or that if I left it alone for a few months that it would go down the drain. Or that I had to either do research or have my own business, but no, that is not the case.

True, there are several things that you need to keep up with but there is no reason to wait if that is what you want. You can have a business and you can also have your research. In fact, I could have started a business as a postdoc because I had an idea already of what I wanted to do. Even now, I have an idea of what I want to do for my research so I continue writing scientific articles and presenting work at conferences. I want both things.

Don’t be afraid to try – it can feel intimidating, but it is not rocket science.


NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Chief Executive Officer

February 16, 2016

Name: Catherine C. Swanwick, PhD

Job Title & Company: CEO, Catlilli Games

Postdoc Advisor, IC: Dr. Robert Wenthold, NIDCD; PRAT Fellow through NIGMS

What was your career progression like after your postdoc?

Near the end of my postdoc, I wanted to look into details to gain experience away from the bench. I ended up getting a position as a Scientific Writer for a non-profit lab called MindSpec in McLean, VA. This was a good fit for me because I was a neurobiologist and I studied synapse development and regulation at the NIH, so I was able to contribute to the scientific conversations. I started doing bioinformatics research for them, but after a couple of years, I decided I wasn’t getting enough people interaction.

Even though I love research, I am more of a people person and I am more of a big picture person where I like to see the direct impact on people’s lives, so I found a job doing science education at a children’s science center. It was kind of like the Little Gym but for science, so we ran a lot of after school programs, fieldtrips, workshops, taught home school groups. I was there for two years as the Director of the Life Sciences Program. I wrote the entire curriculum for ages 3-14 for biology, chemistry, anything in life sciences. I also taught about 14-15 classes per week. It was a pretty intensive teaching boot camp. I worked really hard and since it had such a large age range, one hour you would be teaching three year olds about density, for example sinking or floating; then the next hour, you would be teaching middle schoolers about wave properties. You really just had to be ready for anything. I invented a lot of the curriculum on the fly based on what was or wasn’t working. I was used to the scientific world where I planned everything out very carefully and teaching wasn’t like that at all. I had to learn to improvise, teach different ages and simplify high-level concepts. I really enjoy bringing that cutting edge research world to kids.

While I was there, one of the things that I loved to do was to make games for my classes. I found it to be the most effective way of teaching kids and getting them to learn without realizing it. I would make up games that weren’t trivia games, but would use scientific concepts for the basis of the game. So, as you are playing it, you learn vocabulary and how things work. I had a colleague who did the same thing and he is a brilliant game designer, who has been really passionate about games his whole life. We started making games together that outside people noticed, like the Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences. After this, we realized there weren’t that many STEM applied games. There are math and trivia games, but not many games focusing on life sciences.

We decided to create our own company and together we co-founded Catlilli Games. The name is a combination of our names because my name is Catherine and his last name is Nardolilli, so that is how we got Catlilli. We formed it in January 2015, so we just celebrated our one year anniversary.

How has it been starting your own company?

I’m not a business person at all, but in many ways my training as a postdoc was like small business training because you learned how to manage people and how to budget as well as how to supervise and organize your time. Running a lab is like running a small business.

I have learned that it is not just science skills that you learn at the NIH, you learn a lot of things like management that are applicable in many jobs. I have learned a lot along the way, but my postdoc at the NIH really gave me a strong foundation.

So, I do the business part and my co-founder, Jon does the game design. It has gone really well because Jon has so many ideas and can just churn out games. In July of last year, we were accepted to George Mason University’s game institute. It is called Virginia Serious Game Institute, which isa business incubator for game companies. The other companies make computer games and we are the only tabletop game company. The mission is to make games that teach people and to make learning fun. The other companies focus on a variety of topics, but at Catlilli we focus on K-12 STEM.

We have residency at George Mason, so we occupy office space and we have business mentorship. It has been life changing for our company. We have quarterly deadlines within our year to help us create business plans and get IP patents and things like that. After a year, we graduate from this program but will most likely stay in residency at George Mason.

How did you learn about this opportunity?

I heard about it through the George Mason Enterprise Center, which help small businesses start. They told me about the game institute because I had never heard of such a thing. Apparently, this is the only one in the country but there are some in England that they modeled themselves after. There are world class computer game designers here, so it is really just remarkable. We applied and I didn’t think they would take us because we didn’t make computer games, but they did and they are really excited about our mission and they think it fills a space that isn’t being hit yet.

Since we’ve been here, we have actually been collaborating with the other companies and have been working to turn our tabletop games into apps that can go along with them. They have really liked working on this because the game mechanics are all worked out before moving on to the digital version.

How do you market your games?

We do a lot of events at museums and at schools and then we’ll sell the games. We also sell a lot to teachers and to home school families. In our first year, we haven’t produced a lot because we have been testing to make sure they are right. After we graduate from the institute in July, we are hoping to get investors to mass produce these games and go for a national market.

What has been the most rewarding part of this new venture?

My dream was to have my own lab. I love academia, research and the lab. I never wanted to go to industry. But, being in this position is like having my own lab — only my lab makes board games.

It is almost exactly the same thing, so it is really fun. We are making board games so we have to design them and plan them and test them and there is a lot of scientific method and analysis as well as communicating results to people. I still feel like I’m using that analytical part of my brain, but I also feel like it is toward something that is immediately applied and useful to people, providing more instant gratification. When I show the games to teachers and kids, it seems like everybody really enjoys them and I see that they learn a lot. They will come in not knowing anything about genetics and then they’ll play one of our games and they will leave talking about dominant and recessive genes and the combinations and what that means. That makes me really happy, especially since I feel like I haven’t wasted my training and I am still doing something that makes a significant impact on people’s lives.

What has been the biggest challenge in starting your own company?

I have no business training. I have had to learn how to write a business plan and do finances and all the really fine details. It has been a steep learning curve but I have really great business mentors at Mason, so that has been comforting. It is still a challenge because it is out of my realm.

What are the most important skills which have enabled you to be successful?

I think communication skills because when I was a postdoc, I loved presenting and writing. I enjoyed synthesizing information and presenting it to people. Knowing and connecting with your audience has gotten me far. When we applied for George Mason, I had to come for an interview; on paper I didn’t look like a good candidate. I am a scientist with no business background and I didn’t make computer games. But, I feel like I convinced them that I was passionate about this and dedicated to STEM education. I think that is what got me into the program. My ability to impress upon people that this is a really important issue and we need to connect the cutting edge science world with the education system and I am uniquely suited to do it.

What advice can you give to a postdoc who would like to pursue a similar path?

A lot of postdocs have the ability to have their own small business. If they are interested at all and are creative and have that initiative, the best thing I did was to volunteer in FELCOM. When I was at the NIH, I was in FELCOM and I co-chaired the Career Development and Social Committee. That taught me so much about how organizations work and how people interact with each other, as well as how formal meetings go. I learned so much from getting outside the lab and getting involved in committee work. That type of experience gave me a lot of practical skills.

What are you the most proud of?

We have gotten two awards recently. We were selected in December by the Washington Post as a semi-finalist in their pitch contest. It was kind of like Shark Tank in a way. They picked ten young start-up companies out of 200 nationwide and we were one of them. We had to go downtown to the Washington Post office and give a one minute pitch to try and win $250,000 in advertising.

Out of all the talks that I have ever given, that was the most stressful ever. I was in front of a crowd of 300 people and there were cameras on me. It was stressful, but giving talks at the NIH – so many posters and so many powerpoints – was really good preparation. I kept telling myself it is just like a science talk and it is just one minute.

Even though we didn’t win, it was really exciting and we got a huge amount of exposure.

Last month, we were chosen as a finalist for the Duke University Startup Challenge. I went to Duke as an undergrad and they have this competition every year since 1999. There is one for undergrads and one for alumni, so we are in the alumni competition. So, we were chosen to be in the finals and we launched a campaign on Indiegogo, a crowdsourcing campaign. We are competing to raise money against other Duke alumni and faculty.

Any last bits of advice?
I wish more postdocs would make the connection between lab and business. I feel that if more postdocs realized this, then they could certainly launch their own biotech startup or whatever it might be. Now that I think about it, George Mason has biotech incubator for businesses that do bench lab work and are trying to get off the ground.

But, I love to work and I am used to that research life where you just work, work, work. I take all of the skills from the lab and I use it here. I have learned how to be self-disciplined through doing my PhD and then doing my postdoc project and I don’t need somebody standing over me telling me to work. I credit a lot of these lab skills with teaching me how to be independent.

My biggest advice is just to not be in the lab all day, especially at NIH where there are so many amazing opportunities that you can’t get anywhere else. Whether it is through volunteering or seminars, get out of the lab.


NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Biomedical Engineer/Lead Medical Device Reviewer

January 11, 2016

Name: Joshua Chetta, PhD

Job Title & Organization: Biomedical Engineer/Lead Medical Device Reviewer, FDA

Location: White Oak, Silver Spring Md

How long you’ve been in your current job: 1.5 years

Postdoc Advisor, IC (when at NIH): Joseph Frank, Clinical Center

What do you do as an Engineer/Device Reviewer?
I’m in CDRH, the Center for Devices and Radiological Health. Most people know about the FDA in its capacity as a drug regulatory agency, but it also regulates medical devices. Things like implants, pace makers and all the hardware that you would see in a hospital room – all of the monitoring devices. So, the medical devices have their own regulatory pathways. My day to day job is to review applications from companies for clearance to market a device in the U.S. In some cases, those are straightforward applications, especially if there is already a similar device on the market. In other cases, it can be more complicated, especially if it is a new device or a new technology that we haven’t seen before.

How is the workflow structured?
I am in the Dental Device Branch which I wasn’t expecting to be as interesting as it is, but we get a lot of really fascinating stuff sent our way.

A submission will be assigned to an individual reviewer, who will act as the lead reviewer. Depending on the complexity of the device and the submission, the lead reviewer can either handle it on their own or call in others for consult. There are subject matter experts in the FDA whom we can ask for help. So, with respect to the review, there is the science side of it but there is also a project management side of it. I have my deadlines and I have to write my analysis and reports but I also have to get other people’s reports and compile everything to come up with a consensus.

What are the most important skills that you utilize in your current position?

Absolutely communication skills are vital, both oral and written. The ability to talk to people from different backgrounds and not only to make yourself understood but to understand where they are coming from as well. The ability to keep good records is extremely important since everything we do has legal ramifications. It is important to keep track of why decisions were made and the justification for those decisions. Emails, telephone/conference calls all need to be logged. This is essential because a lot of what we do can have an impact down the line. For example, if a device comes out and is questionable or it doesn’t do well, then it needs to be clear why a decision was made, so being meticulous with our written record is pretty important.

Of course the other thing is that you also have to have to look at data, analyze it and synthesize it. Often, you are working with short deadlines, and with test reports that may or may not include all of the information you’d like, or with studies that haven’t necessarily been designed well. A lot of the time, you are trying to do the best you can with what you have. It means relying on the scientific and regulatory knowledge of yourself and others to fill in the gaps. The process involves rigorous scientific analysis as well as trying to navigate through the regulatory framework, to come up with the best rationale to justify a decision. So there are a few constraints that make it interesting.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
There are a lot of really great things about it. First, the people that work here are great. The other reviewers come from different backgrounds. Since we review medical devices, we have everybody from engineers to clinicians, to physicists and chemists. There are all sorts of people here, so you walk down the hall and can ask a microbiologist what he thinks about sterilization. Then, down the hall on the other side is an electrical engineer who you can ask about circuits and software. That is a really, really great aspect of it – that everybody comes from a different background but we are all very much a team.

The other thing that I like is the actual science side of it – it is really interesting. There are a lot of ideas and new technology out there which people are trying to get through. It’s interesting to see how technology is progressing and how these things are moving along.

What has been the hardest aspect about transitioning into this career? What are some of the challenges you initially faced?
It might sound silly, but sitting at a desk is really difficult. I was not prepared for that. I’m evaluating the data in applications, so I am pretty much at a computer most of the day. I’ve found that being at a computer can be tiring. It is not the same as being in a lab where you are running around and doing different things all the time.

The other thing, which I probably should have expected, is coming in and not knowing much. It has been difficult, but thankfully the people that I work with are all amazing. There’s a lot of experience in my branch and everybody is incredibly generous with their time and answering questions. There’s a sense that they have all been here before and we are all in this together. I like that curiosity encouraged here. However, being the new guy and dealing with the steep learning curve has been humbling.

How did you come to choose this as your next step?
I knew after my postdoc that I didn’t necessarily want to go into academic science. I had kind of burned out on basic, or even translational research. I realized I wasn’t really cut out for it. I like this because it is very much on the application side of medical research and science. It is as close as you can get to helping change the way that medicine is practiced in the United States, by making sure that new technology gets out to market quickly, but that the data supporting it is strong. From my background as a biomedical engineer, this seemed like a really interesting way to bridge that gap between the social relevance of science and what we do in the lab. I thought that was going to be cool and it has been.

What was your job search like?
I knew people here, so that helped. My wife has actually worked at the FDA for a few years and the fact that she liked her job so much made this seem like an attractive possibility, because I wasn’t necessarily thinking regulatory science until I heard her and her friends from work talk about it. It was definitely helpful to know people.

Also, I used OITE. I used LinkedIn. Lori Conlan (Director of Postdoc Services at OITE) helped connect me to people and I actually ended up getting a few job offers at the same time. So, like people say – network, network, network.

What was your interview like and how did you prepare for it?
I did many, many practice interviews at OITE, which were all really helpful. I met with OITE to learn about what types of questions to expect and how to prepare to answer them. I find interviewing to be very intimidating, because selling myself is not a skill that I have much experience with. So I have found that practice is really important, in order to figure out how to get my points across succinctly and clearly.

The interview itself focused on creative problem solving and how I would go about doing things given certain situations, or how I had solved problems in the past, so it was actually a fun interview. It didn’t seem to focus so much on skill sets as much as personality and problem solving approach. The focus here is on having a broad scientific knowledge and a willingness to learn. Meeting with everybody and the interview process definitely sold me on the job.

Advice for somebody hoping to go down a similar path?
It’s tough coming from academic research, because unless you’ve been involved in the regulatory side of product development, or maybe tech transfer, I don’t think most of us have had experience with regulatory science. I guess if you worked at a regulatory consultancy or law firm that deals with shepherding applications through the FDA and the regulatory process in general that could help; however, at the reviewer level, there is an understanding that most people come in without much of a background in the regulatory side of things. The important part is to demonstrate broad scientific literacy, competency, and a willingness to learn new things and put yourself in a position where you aren’t going to have all the answers.

With that being said, I should have done more research on the regulatory process prior to my interview. I talked with my wife a lot and she explained the broad process to me. But there are resources on the FDA’s website intended to describe the process to industry, and I would recommend that people interested in working here take some time to reveiw those. But still, until you do it, it will all be theoretical and the nuts and bolts of it are often more complicated than it sounds.

How long was your search and if you had to do it again, would you change anything about your job search?

One of my problems was that I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do. Coming from an academic science/research background, the academic path seemed clearly marked out. Anything other than that was unknown. I took advantage of the courses and seminars which OITE offered because a lot of them focused on non-bench career options. Even after that though, I still didn’t necessarily know what I wanted to do, so it would have been nice to nail down a direction a little bit sooner.

I was seriously looking for a job for at least 9 months before I finally got any offers and I was looking in a less serious way for well over a year. It was a reasonably drawn out process, but if I had figured myself out more, it might have helped me identify my options sooner. At the same time, that exploration process was important as well.

Any last bits of advice?
You know, I was told this many times but it didn’t really hit home until after the fact. However, the thing that everybody says about networking and putting yourself out there and exploring different options is really important. I struggled for a while trying to find insight into what I was looking for and that only came after a long process, so try to embark upon that sooner rather than later. Finding a good job was (for me) about knowing myself and what I was looking for in order to find something fulfilling.


NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Biologist

November 2, 2015

Name: Juliane Lessard, PhD

Job Title & Company: Biologist, FDA, Center for Devices and Radiological Health

Location: White Oak, MD

How long you’ve been in your current job: 1 year

Postdoc Advisor, IC: Dr. Maria Morasso, NIAMS

What do you do as a Biologist?
I mostly review pre-market regulatory submissions for in vitro diagnostic tests, which are considered medical devices. My division gets many different types of pre-market submissions (e.g., PMA, 510k) depending on the type of device and the type of test. My supervisor will assign me a submission and I then begin the review process. I work with product specialists, other reviewers in the division, and management to get a good idea of what we need, evaluate performance data to identify any potential safety issues, and determine what we should ask the industry sponsor to provide for us in order to complete the review. I also interact with the industry sponsor directly to clarify issues, request updates to the material, etc. Within a pre-determined time frame, we will decide whether the submission contains any deficiencies too significant for us to continue our review at that time. If so, we issue a hold letter with a list of items that the sponsor needs to address in order for us to continue our review. Or, if there are no deficiencies, I recommend approval or clearance of the submission and if management is in agreement, the sponsor can go ahead and market their product.

What are the most important skills that you utilize in your current position?

I do a lot of reading and a lot of writing. There are memos for everything and because I interact with the industry sponsors directly, it is very important to be able to write clearly. There is a highly specific way to write in regulatory affairs, which was a pretty steep learning curve for me coming to the FDA. I read probably a couple of hundred pages a day. It can be easy to get lost in the details, so it is really important to be able to extract the important points from a submission while keeping the big picture in mind. I would say this is very similar to manuscript reviewing for publication in journals.

How did you get up to speed on the regulatory affairs writing style?
The way it is done in my division (and in most other offices at the FDA), I was assigned a mentor who was different from my direct supervisor. In the beginning, that mentor worked with me on all of my submissions. She would edit my language and offer suggestions on how to word things. She would also provide examples for me to look at how certain issues had been addressed previously. This mentor worked closely with me for the first six months and my direct supervisor would meet with me every other week to go over any transition issues. In addition, I completed several months of coursework as part of the Reviewer Certification Program, which is a requirement for new reviewers in the Center for Devices and Radiological Health.

Other than the writing style, what has been the hardest aspect about transitioning into this career?
One of the hardest things to adjust to was the amount of reading that I do. I also sit in front of a computer all day. There is no getting up and doing experiments and then sitting back down. A lot of the work is very deadline driven. This wasn’t a problem in the beginning, but now that I have more parallel submissions to work on, it is very important to schedule my timelines well. In the lab, I could just do an experiment next week or not look at it for another month, so my current work is a lot less flexible than time management in the lab.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
I really love how diverse the work is and how relevant it is to public health. It is very rewarding for me to know that my work has a much more immediate impact than what I was working on when I was on the research side at the NIH. For example, I can go to the drug store and see some of the over the counter devices that we regulate. Our division reviews pregnancy tests, so when I see those, I think, “Oh, look at that – I am part of the pathway for this product to be on the market in the US!”

What was your job search like?
It started when I met with OITE pretty early on during my postdoc. I did all of those personality tests, but what really helped me was Science Career’s IDP. I knew I didn’t want to go into academia and I was looking for something that was a little more family friendly. One of the top hits from the IDP report was in Quality Assurance and Regulatory Affairs, and I didn’t know anything about it really. Then I remembered that I had met somebody from the FDA when I was in grad school. I looked her up and found out that she was still at the FDA. She invited me to come over to see the office for an informational interview and she gave me a couple more people to talk to. I started doing a lot of informational interviews in this area. I also used LinkedIn and found several alums not only from grad school but also from my college who now work as regulatory reviewers at the FDA. Most people were really willing to talk on the phone or in person for a couple of minutes. I made up a short questionnaire so I could ask everybody similar questions.

Eventually, one of my informational interviewees showed my resume to her supervisor and I was invited for an interview. I was originally hired as a Staff Fellow, which is a Title 42 direct hire position. After I had my interview, I had to submit a formal application for this position. A Staff Fellow is term-limited (for two years), so I continued applying for review positions in my division through USAJobs after I started at the FDA. After a few tries, I was successful and my Staff Fellow appointment was converted to a more permanent (GS) position as a Biologist.

What resume tips can you share?
One of the things I learned from my informational interviews was to highlight the following skills: time management, critical thinking, writing skills, presentation skills, and team work. For my resume, I tried to incorporate most of these skills into my qualifications summary on my resume. It also helped to highlight a lot of manuscript review experience because that is very similar to pre-market review work at the FDA.

What was your interview like?
It was a group interview. The way our division is structured is that we have several branch chiefs, kind of like lab heads. All of the branch chiefs were there. It was mostly based on my resume and they asked me questions on my background and what kind of lab techniques I was trained in, as well as questions on how I manage my time and why I wanted to work at the FDA. Overall, pretty standard questions and it was only a one round interview.

You have to have a lot of patience with the government hiring process, even with Title 42. For me, I interviewed in May and didn’t hear officially that I was going to be hired until the end of September. I have heard from others that generally the process takes about four months after a successful interview.

You did a lot of research and informational interviews about this field. Now that you are in it, is this work what you anticipated? Any surprises?
The type of work was expected, but the details weren’t. I didn’t realize how many different types of submissions we would get. There is a really big span from engineering to clinical trials to basic chemistry.

In hindsight, would you have done anything differently in your job search?
I would have started earlier. The postdoc helped in terms of the work experience, but not in terms of the technical knowledge. Part of me wishes I had explored this career option in graduate school in more detail.

For somebody, hoping to go down a similar path, do you have any last bits of advice?
My advice to others is to start early because it can take a long time to find an opening and to find somebody who needs a reviewer. Plus, it takes a while to get through the hiring process.


NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Assistant Professor

July 27, 2015

**TWO-PART SERIES — Part 2: Job Search**

Name: Veronica Irvin

Job Title & Organization:  Assistant Professor; Oregon State University, College of Public Health

Location: Corvallis, Oregon

What was your job search like?
I really did want to get back to academia but I was also realistic that I might not be able to. I definitely had other career options in mind because I knew how difficult it was to find a tenure-track faculty position. Not only that, my position is actually hard money, which is even harder to find.

So, I tried to keep my options open in terms of career field, but I was also willing to move anywhere in the country. If you are fixed on a certain geographic area, that can be limiting. While I was at the NIH, I really focused on publications. I didn’t have any grants going to the university. Coming from the NIH, there was only one mechanism that I could apply through which was the K’s and the university was very forgiving of that because they also realized that by being at the NIH, I was aware of the grant process. So, during my postdoc, I focused on publications and that did matter quite a bit. I know that is what everyone says but it really is that way. It is just easier for them to see what you have done and to count. I also think that networking is important, but networking only takes you so far. My postdoc advisor could help me look at job postings and let me know if he knew anybody in that department or university and what that might actually mean when you look at the job descriptions. He helped me decipher the nuances between them and would help point me to his contacts at universities and on search committees.

Can you tell us about your timeline? How early did you begin your job search?
I attended almost every single training that I could from OITE. I cannot say how helpful they were. Specifically, I went to one that Sharon Milgram facilitated on Applying for Tenure Track Positions. She had mentioned that you should apply one year before you are ready, and I think that is some of the best advice I have ever been given. You have to apply to tenure track positions in the fall, almost one year prior to starting. So, I applied one year before I was ready and it was a great experience because you have to write your research statement and teaching philosophy. It was a great activity to sit down and realize where my holes were and how I wanted to try and focus my next year’s work in my postdoc. It took a lot of time to put together an application for a tenure track position, so I was glad that I started a year out. My postdoc advisor told me that you should consider this: every position that you apply for is one less paper you will get because of the amount of time you have to spend tailoring your application for that university and the job description. I think that helped me a lot because I went online and read a lot about OSU and I knew people who worked there, so I asked them a lot about it. So, applying one year before you are ready is really useful because you get to see what goes into preparing a tenure track application and then it still gives you a year to fill in the holes that you see in your application for the next year. And what happened for me is I actually ended up getting the job during my first year of applying. When I wrote the application, I never thought I was actually going to get this job but I was still so happy I did it because it really did help me focus.

You mentioned publications mattered a lot in your academic job search. Does that mean the quantity, quality or both?
I know this is hard to hear but for a research position or for a research-intensive university, it is still so true. Everyone says both, but it is hard to do it all. First of all, it is really hard to get into really good journals. For example, I don’t have any papers in Science or Nature or JAMA and you don’t necessarily have to have that. I think that one paper in JAMA or Science will help you tremendously. So, I had multiple papers in the next level journal and I still think that they were very good journals but they weren’t the top seven. For me, it was having multiple papers in journals that matched the research disciplines I was focusing on.

What was the interview like?
So, everything happened very quickly for me. This university posted early, the due date was October 15th. I was called within a week for references and then a week later for a phone interview. I did a phone interview with four to five individuals probably a month after I applied and then I heard back two weeks later for an in-person interview.

I flew out in January for the two-day interview process. Essentially, it was from 7:30 am to 7:00 pm each day. I met with someone for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In between meals, every moment was scheduled with meeting and interviews. I started off with the search committee and then the directors of the school. Then I did a presentation about my research which was an hour total. Next, I had an interview with the dean and I also met with a bunch of different faculty from within my school. The deans and directors asked a lot of questions about productivity and what courses I could teach and ideas for the future. The other faculty I met with were really trying to assess if I was going to be a good colleague. These interviews were a lot more low key and more about trying to see if you have common research interests. My feeling about those interviews was that they were trying to see if I was going to be a good fit and if I was going to be able to contribute to meetings and communicate with them. Some concerns could arise if there was nobody that you could collaborate with on your research. If that was the case, then that could be a hiring downside.

Is there anything you wish you had known going into this interview?
No, because I had asked a lot of people about their experiences interviewing and I also practiced interviewing at the OITE. I also went over my research presentation with people who had interviewed and/or worked in academia, so I wasn’t really surprised by anything in the interview process. But one question that others had warned me about getting and which I actually got in my interview was, “How do you bring diversity into the classroom? How do you bring diversity to your research?” Diversity was undefined and vague.

In hindsight, would you have changed anything about your search? Any last bits of advice?
My job search worked really well and I was fortunate to get a job during my first year of applying, but even if that hadn’t happened, I am so happy I started a year out. I can’t say how helpful that was in focusing me during my last year of my postdoc. I took the advice of applying a year before I was really ready, so everything felt like practice to me. Actually, during my interview, I felt really calm because I didn’t think I was going to get the job and I thought it was just good practice. My postdoc advisor gave me great advice before I flew out for the interview, he said, “Just have fun.” At this stage, they aren’t flying you if they really don’t like you and they aren’t trying to embarrass you. It helped take the stress off because I met so many people during my interview and there was no way I could know everybody’s research background.

In terms of advice: I would try to talk to faculty at the university within the same college or school who have the same dean because they will have a sense about how decisions are made regarding teaching load and money goes within the college/school. Talk to people (of course they can’t be on the search committee) to see what advice they would give. Once you have a phone interview, you will know who is on the search committee. I would look for other people and call or email them, or even better ask colleagues for referrals. That way you can know what kind of support they got their first year and it will make it clearer for you.

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Last week, we posted Part 1 – Job Overview.

 


NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Assistant Professor

July 22, 2015

**TWO-PART SERIES — Part 1: Job Overview**

Name: Veronica Irvin

Job Title & Organization:  Assistant Professor; Oregon State University, College of Public Health

Location: Corvallis, Oregon

How long you’ve been in your current job: Started in September 2014, so I’m in my second term.

What is your role as an Assistant Professor like?
It’s a tenured track position, broken up between teaching, advising, research, scholarship and service. The first few years I have a reduced teaching load to get introduced to the system and develop my course syllabi.

What courses are you teaching?
This term I am teaching Program Evaluation for MPH students where they design an evaluation plan for a real-world health program. They work with a stakeholder in the community at a health department, a non-profit or a community organization, who is implementing a health program. The students design an evaluation that fits around the needs and the timing of the project, including some of their outcomes. It gives the students experience working within the community and a realistic picture about what timing and financial constraints are in a real-world setting.

The other course is a writing class for undergraduate students. In our university, they want to give students a chance to learn writing not only from the English Department but also learn what is common in your specific genre or discipline. Seniors will actually do a writing course with non-English department faculty to learn writing methods. The university actually provided me with a course on how to learn about teaching writing.

How did you come to choose this as the next step after your postdoc? Has a tenure track faculty position always been your goal?
I have always been leaning toward academia. That is where I was from prior to my postdoc. I really enjoyed my postdoc at the NIH and I was really thinking about whether I wanted to stay in more of an administrative role within research or go back to academia. In academia, I really liked the idea of working with students one-on-one and I liked the prospect of having a little bit more freedom about what your research will focus on. I really did miss working with students which is what I had done prior to the NIH as a graduate student.

What do you consider the most important skills that you utilize in this role?
Definitely writing skills and it is important to listen and understand the priorities of not only the students you are working with but also with the community organizations you are engaging. If I really want a student to have another opportunity with a community organization or a clinic, I really have to stop and think, “Why would this clinic want this student?” I need to make sure it wouldn’t be a time burden for them and analyze the benefit that each party could receive from this partnership.

What about soft skills?
How to write effective emails and how to have a one-on-one discussion with a student are some skills I use a lot. Many times, things come up in a student’s personal life which they have to come and talk to you about. Or, it can be a discussion on grades and having to explain why they may or may not get an ‘A.’ So, I think those conversation skills and being able to respond to emails whether it is department-wide or between you and a student are very important.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
I really enjoy engaging with the students and working to tailor the program for each student. There are some students who want to do more statistics/design versus students that want to do more community outreach/organization. It helps to tailor their courses and research experiences to help them be better prepared to land a job.

The university is the number one employer in the community so there are a lot of bonds between the university and the community, which is great. For me, it has been a process of starting slow and trying to make and establish those connections. That has taken a few months and I am still not quite there yet, but relationship building can take time.

What has been the hardest aspect about transitioning into this career?
Moving the research that I was doing at the NIH and trying to get it started up here. Finding out what will and what won’t work here has been challenging. One of the challenges is that we are located in a smaller city so for a lot of health promotion or public health research, you are now working with a smaller representation of the population. I have been trying to adapt whether I can do some of the research from OSU but with a population that lives elsewhere or can I tailor some of my research questions to match the population that lives here.

How has the orientation to this role been? What has the process been like for new faculty and how have you been supported?
There are lots of orientations and at our university, they gave us no teaching the first term in order to give us time to go to all of these new meetings, whether it was meeting with the IRB or others.

But it is important to note that I asked about this during my interview. It is important to ask good questions during your interview. My university actually has a formal mentoring program for new assistant professors. So, when I came in the fall, they worked with me to identify two faculty members who I wanted to work with for either teaching or research. So, I meet with them separately at least once every other month. The goal is to become tenured in five years, so they also help you make sure you are on the right track for that. I speak with my mentors about what I have done and my goals for the rest of the year so that I can make sure I have had a successful first year on the track to becoming tenured.

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Next week, we will post Part 2 – Job Search.