NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Project Manager

June 1, 2015

Name: Martha Sklavos, PhD, PMP

Job Title & Organization: Associate Research Project Manager, MedImmune

Location: Gaithersburg, MD

How long you’ve been in your current job: 8 months

Postdoc Advisor, IC (when at NIH): Dr. Ligia Pinto

What do you do as a Research Project Manager?
I perform strategic management of drug projects within the preclinical drug development pipeline for MedImmune, but I do this by wearing several hats. I use my problem-solving and critical thinking skills every day to identify risks and opportunities to deliver on project based goals and work with several other people on the project team. There are three project leads: myself (research project manager) a scientific co-lead (oncology, infectious disease, etc) and a protein engineering co-lead. The rest of the team is comprised by functional team representatives (toxicology, translational medicine, PK, etc). The research project team must engage senior management to execute the project plan in alignment with the overarching strategy of the therapeutic area (oncology, infectious disease, etc). Thus, I’m an organizer, facilitator, mediator, and a scientific consultant. My role is to see the long-view of the project and steer the team to appreciate long-term (clinical) as well as short term (research-driven) project goals. I often comment on the science and brainstorm and give suggestions, but I am no longer at the bench at all.

I optimize delivery by challenging team members on assumptions for time, costs, and risks for each project. I am accountable for efficient milestone achievement (steps in project progression to the clinic), monitoring and mitigation of changes to plan and budget, risk assessment, and reporting progress to stakeholders. I am the hub of project information and I must be a model of collaboration. A desirable trait for a research project manager is a person who can get along with everyone because teamwork is EVERYTHING in industry. You cannot accomplish anything on your own, unlike academia. You are no longer operating in a vacuum or on an island and everyone is dependent on one another to achieve project goals.

What are the most important skills that you utilize in your current position?
This isn’t a direct skill like graphing data but it really is communication. Everything is communication – you are emailing, having phone calls, going to in-person meetings, having teleconferences, and video conferences every day. It is a meeting culture here. Sometimes I have meetings all day, which is good but can also be a challenge because you still need time to process and do the work that came out of this meeting. Most of the time, I am running those meetings, so my day is intense in that it requires full engagement.

Another beneficial skill would be the ability to deal with change and ambiguity because it is a constantly changing and shifting environment. Each week can look different. The nice thing about being a project manager is that you are really plugged into upper-level management and upper-level decisions. Part of your job is to help take strategy or revisions back to your project teams to relay that information and field questions. You are plugged in to what is really going on in the company.

In industry, team members share a common goal. In academia, I found this wasn’t even the case with certain co-authors! When I was managing my projects in academia it could be quite difficult, let alone the authorship aspect, to figure out. In industry, while people are all working on different projects, the teams that they are working on are all striving toward a common goal and everybody is very motivated and invested.

Because I am not directly at the bench anymore, I have a little bit more flexibility. I can work from home if I need to, which is nice. After all, it is hard to do bench work from home! In industry, they know happy people are productive, so they support flexibility if say the weather is bad or you have a sick child. If you are running a meeting, there are avenues you can use to run a meeting remotely as well. There is built in technology if life happens and you can’t get into the office to run the meeting in-person.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
My favorite part is that I love being a problem solver and I love being a scientific consultant. I really enjoy being able to look at data and add to the science even though I am no longer performing the experiments. This could mean suggesting a different mouse model or that they look at a different marker on a cell that they didn’t consider. Before I knew this position existed, I was struggling because I knew I wanted to go into industry, but wasn’t sure there was a place for me and I would have to either be the hands doing the science or fully on the business side of the science. I was attracted to industry because it is bench to bedside, which can be difficult to see/achieve in academia. It wasn’t until I went to an NIH career fair event, where I listened to a panelist who was a Research Project Manager speak about their job. That is when the light bulb went off for me as it combined many aspects of what I wanted.

What has been the hardest aspect about transitioning into this career?

For me, I was fortunate enough in my postdoc (even though I was still the hands at the bench) that I still did a lot of project management for my studies which involved inter-disciplinary teams. I had an advantage in that I was already working cross-functionally with biostatisticians, epidemiologists, and clinicians and I was the immunologist that was also the project manager. I had a little edge coming from that experience, but what has been different is the industry atmosphere which is a thousand percent different than academia. It is instrumental that you can work and be productive within a team, and that you can functionally and productively work with people with very different personalities. It is also really important for this role to be a problem solver and a critical thinker.

What was your job search like?
It was a process because even though I knew I wanted to go into industry, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to be doing; plus, I knew it was difficult to get into. So, the NIH Career Symposium actually helped give me some focus and helped me narrow my net. Then, I was able to seek out research project managers and ask them about their jobs to see if that is really what I wanted to do.

A lot of people have the misconception that industry scientists are kind of a second-class scientist pool. Make no mistake about it – that is not true at all. Industry wants top talent, from the scientists to the project managers and all the way up. Once I decided that this was really what I wanted to do, I knew I had to make myself competitive for this hiring process and it was suggested to me that I get a PMP, which is a project management professional certificate to help me show intent. I had never been in industry before and they wanted someone with 5-10 years of industry experience, so I knew that was going to be a hurdle that I had to overcome. Showing the intent by getting this certification, which was a process in itself, was extremely important.

I also took advantage of as many NIH and OITE services that I could – I came in for resume reviews and I went to a lot of events, like the Translational Science Training Program and Workplace Dynamics. Workplace Dynamics has proven to be especially helpful given how much I work in teams now.

Can you tell me more about the PMP?
The actual PMP material and exam is structured as if you work on a construction job rather than in scientific/clinical project management. Even though it was a departure from a research project manager’s subject matter, it was helpful because a lot of the general concepts will be used every day as a pre-clinical or clinical research manager. For me, that was key because even when I was interviewing, I had several people directly ask me, “Are you applying for academic jobs?” They wanted to make sure that I was committed and that I didn’t view this as a backup plan. Having a PMP allowed me to be taken seriously and get an interview. The PMP is not a very simple process. First, you need credit hours of project management coursework that is either vetted through a university or through the project management institute. I was able to take an online course through GW’s School of Business. That accounted for the majority of the credits that I needed. I was also very fortunate because I was a Leidos postdoc. Leidos has an entire Project Management Office with the full support of project management instructors who are basically on retainer. They have frequent seminars which were a huge help. When I first went in to learn about the test, the whole office there worked to explain it and show it to me and point me to other resources. They had a two-day boot camp for studying for the exam which I was able to complete. That was absolutely one of the best resources available to me.

In order to actually be able to sit for the exam, you need 4500 hours of project management experiences. Your grad student and post-doc hours qualify because you are working on thesis and research projects and, of course, you were managing your progression (http://www.pmi.org/certification/project-management-professional-pmp.aspx). Again, Leidos had instructors that I could send information to. I would write a little blurb and they would give me feedback about how I had classified my experiences. You had to classify them under headings like planning, execution, monitoring, controlling, and different aspects of project management. Plus, you also had to put references down because they can audit you.

After all of this, then you can take the exam. I believe the exam was around $500 and that part I had to pay out of pocket but it was clearly well worth it to prove my interest in my career path and actually has set me ahead of some who have been in industry for years. My company wants their project managers to have PMPs, even those who have been doing it for years without the credential. The exam was four hours long and all multiple choice questions. It is intense. The instruction manual was about 400-500 pages long. It is like learning another language, or at least it was to me, with the different terminology and way of thinking. It is set in a perfect project management world where everybody always does everything according to process.

What was your interview like?
I had five interviews – two phone and three face-to-face. I got hired for my background in science but more so they wanted to make sure that I was going to be capable of soft skills like conflict management and working with different personality types. At the interviews, they asked over and over again about situations where I resolved a conflict, or a situation when you weren’t happy with an outcome and what would you have done differently. Also, it was no secret that I had no industry experience but. I tried to parlay any examples that I had which could relate to drug development into my answers. In the interview, they are really looking for a good mind with the knowledge and they can teach you the rest.

In hindsight, would you have changed anything about your search?
I just wish I had known earlier what I wanted to do. I think my postdoc was a huge benefit giving me that extra experience but there are people in my position who don’t have a PhD and haven’t done postdocs at all. So, they aren’t necessarily required and I think it is good to know that. While it would be nice if you have an extra ten papers on your resume, I don’t think that was a deciding factor. Doing a shorter postdoc won’t be held against you. For me, I am glad I did it because I felt like I had to get all of the science and bench research out of my system before I moved on.

Any last bits of advice?
Network like it’s your job! Your next job will depend on it. I stayed in touch with a contact I made from an NIH Career Fair and I followed up and spoke to her every few months. Now I sit next to her. She was the contact who told me about my job opening. I had no intention of interviewing at the time I learned of the job opening, but an opportunity came up and I couldn’t pass it up.

Another thing that was really helpful for me was the Healthcare Business Women’s Association (HBA). I had no idea they existed until I saw them on an NIH message board on LinkedIN. They have women in science scholarships and they will support your membership to HBA for a year and you get your own mentor. There are women like me who were pretty early in their careers, but there are also women who are professors who have PhDs, or women who have MBAs, there is a whole range of members.

They believe in making contacts and in networking through volunteering, so I planned a Breast Cancer Event with a group of amazing women and through them I was able to meet so many people from different places (MedImmune, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, FDA, etc.) and now we all go to know each other by working together so its networking without the awkwardness because you have a shared experience. Networking can sometimes be extremely awkward but this wasn’t at all because everybody was very supportive and we got to develop relationships by working on a project together. I’m sure postdocs are sick of hearing that they should be networking but the key here is that it shouldn’t be random – it should be very focused. If you are interested in industry, HBA should be at the top of your list.

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What Are My Transferable Skills?

March 23, 2015

Image of a stick figure with a question mark over head with different colored arrows pointing in different directions.Whether you are seeking a career in academia, industry, government or the non-profit sector, it is important to communicate your skills to employers. There are skills that almost every employer seeks no matter the sector. These often include: analytical, writing, leadership, communication and problem solving skills. Your work as a trainee has given you many opportunities to develop these skills. As emphasized in a Science Careers article, “The Transferable Postdoc,” don’t underestimate these abilities.

You can identify skills that you have already developed which will transfer to your next professional position. If you think about examples that show when you used these skills, you will be more confident about presenting these skills to potential employers.

In a training position, you may have strengthened your skills in a variety of ways. A postdoc experience is deconstructed as an example in the chart below:

Transferable Skill
Application of Skill
Analytical and
Problem-Solving Skills
Designing, planning and trouble-shooting projects
 Writing Skills Writing memos, reports and
papers for publication
 Public Speaking   Skills  Presenting your work in a lab
meeting or at a professional conference
 Communication Skills  Negotiating how to carry out projects/experiments with your
PI and/or colleagues
 Leadership Skills  Mentoring postbacs, graduate
students and other lab technicians

The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) has determined six core competencies and they even created a self-assessment checklist to help you rate your current level. This can help you identify any gaps in your skills set. If you haven’t yet taken time to focus on some of these skill areas, particularly the communication and leadership skills, you can find opportunities now to get involved. Organizations like Felcom, your professional associations and NIH Institutes or Centers can provide good opportunities to develop skills.

• Volunteer to work on a committee or group to plan an event or program.
• Volunteer to mentor postbacs or summer students.
• (Professional Development) workshops and events also provide ways to strengthen skills or learn new ones. At the NIH, the OITE offers workshop on topics that include: teaching science, leadership, how to deal with conflict and many others. Check with your institutions to see what services they provide.

There are many other resources available to help you identify your strengths and skills. Start with myIDP*, http://myidp.sciencecareers.org/. This assessment tool will get you started thinking about skills interests and values, and can help you start planning your next career step with more confidence.

As a follow up, then meet with a career counselor, who can help you with goal setting and career planning as well. If you are an intramural trainee, you can make a free individual appointment with a career counselor by going to: https://www.training.nih.gov/career_services.

 

*Noting this resource does not constitute an endorsement by NIH OITE


Soft Skills = Today’s Critical Competencies

August 20, 2014

Image of a person surrounded by eight different bubbles. Each bubble represents a different soft skill, such as "presenting" or "being on time."Traditionally, soft skills were viewed as a secondary bonus to an applicant’s technical skill set; however, in today’s extremely competitive job market, employers are looking for proof of a mix of both hard and soft skills. In fact, recruiters will view a lack of demonstrated leadership or extracurricular activities on your resume as a potential red flag. Illuminating this fact is a study which shows that 60% of managers agreed that soft skills are the most important factor when evaluating an employee’s performance.

Recognizing the extreme importance of soft skills, The Department of Labor (DOL) developed an entire curriculum on the subject entitled, “Soft Skills to Pay the Bills: Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success.” Targeted toward teens and young adults, this program was created as an introduction to workplace interpersonal and professional skills.

The DOL’s list of key soft skills is very similar to OITE’s core competencies; it includes:

  1. Communication
    Permeating almost every aspect of a job, this skill is often ranked first among employers. It includes your ability to speak, write and present.
  2. Enthusiasm & Attitude
    Employers get frustrated with employees who are resistant to change or unable to adapt to new directions. Having an open and upbeat attitude will help your group generate good energy and move forward on projects.
  3. Teamwork
    There will be aspects of teamwork within every job. Leaders and project managers often lament that most of their jobs are spent trying to get colleagues to work effectively together. Therefore, it is essential to your career to work cooperatively and be able to participate in group decision-making.
  4. Networking
    Like teamwork, networking is about building relationships. It also involves critical elements of communication and the ability to represent yourself effectively to others.
  5. Problem Solving & Critical Thinking
    There is no shortage of challenges and issues that can arise on the job. Employers want employees who will be able to face these problems critically and creatively by gathering enough information in order to develop a solution.
  6. Professionalism
    No matter the job or the industry, professionalism is a critical key to your success. Professionalism isn’t one trait – it is a combination of characteristics. It often means conducting yourself with a high level of responsibility, integrity and accountability. Part of professionalism is having a strong work ethic and being willing to go that extra mile. Another integral component is being dependable, trustworthy, and always following through on your projects.

Soft skills are no longer undervalued by employers. Make sure you are practicing these skills in your current position and/or seeking out opportunities to develop these skill sets. You will not only be helping your professional development, but you will be especially thankful the next time you are in an interview and they ask you a common behavioral question like “Tell me about a time when you had to utilize effective communication skills within a group setting,” and you have a stellar anecdote to share.


Happy Pride!

June 26, 2014

Picture of a rainbow flag waving in the windIn honor of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month, we wanted to focus this week’s blog post on LGBT issues in a job search and at work. Pride month’s history focuses on parades and festivals that celebrate openness and equal rights for all. In a work context, this includes people who identify as LGBT and allies who want to create and maintain a supportive work environment. Two weeks ago, we wrote a post Illegal Interview Questions – What They Are and How to Handle Them.”  This post triggered a discussion and we realized that beyond what’s covered in anti-discrimination laws, there are also disclosures that can make you feel uncomfortable in a professional setting.

For some, coming out can be a hard choice. It is not a one-shot event; rather it occurs over and over again throughout one’s life and career. This is also a very personal decision; how much or how little you want to be out in your workplace or in a job search is often complex and nuanced. Varied questions can arise such as: How important is it to me to be out? How will I come out at work? How will my co-workers react? How gay-friendly is my company and/or field of work? Will I be screened out based on my affiliations if I put LGBT activities on my resume?

Coming Out In a Job Search

When deciding whether or not be out on a resume, job application or in an interview, it is extremely important to do what feels the most comfortable to you. Each individual has a unique experience and viewpoint, so this process varies widely and it may or may not be difficult for you. If you find it difficult, it is a good idea to speak to people in your network or a career counselor. What feels right to you might not be the same as what is right for another. Some individuals choose to use their resume as a way to screen out non-supportive employers and will explicitly list LGBT-related organizations. Others may prefer to disclose their sexual orientation once hired or not at all.

Differences can continue even into the interview. One may decide to ask the following questions, like: Is there a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employee resource group at your workplace? or Will my partner be covered by my health insurance? Another may decide to be more guarded and rely on researching the company online and/or through their own professional contacts.

Coming Out In the Workplace

While being out at work (and in life) can be very satisfying, some people may also have concerns about it. This can be especially relevant depending on your geographic location or the culture of your work environment. No one wants to jeopardize their job security or opportunities for advancement. With that in mind, here are some questions to consider before making this decision (as noted by the Human Rights Campaign website):

  • Does your employer have a written non-discrimination policy? Does it specifically cover sexual orientation and/or gender identity/expression? Does insurance cover domestic partner benefits? Does health coverage cover transitioning costs?
  • What’s the overall climate in your workplace? Do people tend to make derogatory comments or jokes? Are any of your co-workers openly LGBT?
  • What are your work relationships like? Do people discuss their personal lives? Are they asking questions about yours? Is the atmosphere friendly or guarded?
  • Does your state or locality have a non-discrimination law including sexual orientation and gender identity/expression?
  • Is your company ranked on the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index? If so, what rating has it earned?

Coming out during your career is an ongoing process and there is not one right way to do it. Even if you come out to one person at work, you can’t assume that information is being passed on. It is important to assess your readiness and the level of disclosure that feels comfortable to you. It can be helpful to talk to folks who have been through this process to seek advice and support. Out for Work and Out and Equal Workplace Advocates are two good introductory resources. Also, at the NIH, LGBT Fellows and Friends (LGBT-FF) is an excellent group with which to connect. You can join their listserv here.


Welcome Summer Interns!

June 16, 2014

Image of a "welcome mat" - a brown mat with black letters stating "WELCOME"If you are just arriving at the NIH as a summer intern, the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) wants to take a moment to welcome you! Summer is often seen as a time of the year to kick back and relax, but not here at the NIH and we love the extra excitement and energy buzzing around campus during the summer months.

As you continue to settle into your lab, we want to make sure you take advantage of all the opportunities available to you in order to maximize your summer experience. With that in mind, here are some previous blog posts that each summer intern should take a few moments to read:

1. Orienting yourself to a new place and a new role can be tough. Understanding the Impact of Change is a blog post that addresses the challenges of transitions and helps you understand the internal impacts of external change. Follow this up with a quick read on Making the Most of Your Transition to the NIH.

2. Good mentoring relationships are essential to your professional development and success. Take advantage of your time at the NIH as an opportunity to Identify Mentors and Learn How to Make the Most of These Relationships.

3. Summer internships are a great way to gain exposure to a new setting and skill set. Also, remember to take the time to reflect on these experiences by Assessing Your Skills, Values and Interests as a way to better understand how this summer experience fits into your long-term career planning.

4. The OITE is here to help you. Whether you need help asking for a Letter of Recommendation or writing your Resume or CV, remember there are resources available to you.

We look forward to seeing you around campus, and we wish you a productive and professionally enriching summer experience!


Making the Most of Your Transition to NIH

June 2, 2014

Part Two of a Two-Part Series on Transitions

If you are just arriving at the NIH as a summer student, postbac, graduate student or postdoctoral or clinical fellow, adjusting to your experience at NIH represents a transition that will be one of many transitions you will face in your career.

You may be starting a new phase after leaving a comfortable niche in your undergraduate or graduate university. Or you may be exploring some new opportunities. Having a model or road map for your transition can be helpful. William Bridges is a writer whose model of transition may be of interest.

Bridges’ model highlights three stages that people go through when they experience change. These are:
1. Ending, Losing, and Letting Go
2. The Neutral Zone
3. The New Beginning

Graphic image of William Bridges' Model of Transition

 

1. Ending, Losing, and Letting Go
At this stage, you are probably experiencing a situational change which can trigger a psychological transition. Change can signal the start of a new opportunity which also means the end of an old opportunity. This could mean the temporary end of feeling sure of your daily tasks or the end of associating with a (comfortable) peer group. Even if this ending is a positive development, it could cause you to feel uncertain and question yourself and your values or abilities. As you are letting go of your previous experience, make sure you solicit the support and resources offered at NIH. The Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) offers many workshops and individual counseling appointments to help you get oriented and connected to the resources and opportunities at NIH. You may learn more at www.training.nih.gov.

2. The Neutral Zone
The neutral zone or transition period can be a time of creative exploration and discovery while you are clarifying your options and goals. This is a great time to explore new ways of thinking about your career and to connect to people who are working as professionals in fields of interest to learn about their work. In order to learn more about your options and connect, you may want to start talking with people in informational interviews. Sometimes trainees find it helpful to plan how to set up informational interviews with a career counselor, especially if this is a new concept. If your experience has been primarily at the bench, you may also want to explore professional involvement in a FELCOM Committee, a professional society, or committees in your IC or community.

3. The New Beginning
The new beginning is the final step in the transition process. It is usually marked by a decrease in anxiety, an increase in enthusiasm, and a clearer vision on how your recent change fits into your long- term plans. This might include starting medical school, a PhD program or moving on to a career as a faculty member, PI, science policy analyst, specialist in technology transfer, grants administrator, and beyond.

Most people will go through each phase during a change; however, remember that each individual responds to change very differently. You might find that you breeze through transitions pretty quickly while others may struggle with each step. No matter what stage you are in related to your career goals and transitions, please take a look at the resources and services to support you at www.training.nih.gov.

William Bridges’ book, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, offers suggestions about dealing with transitions and coping with change. You can find this book in most public libraries and it is also available in the OITE Career Library on the second floor of Building 2.

 


Asking for a Raise

May 2, 2014

Imprinted image of a dollar sign with an arrow pointing up. The imprint looks like the face of a $5 bill.Asking for a raise can be anxiety provoking; therefore, many people put it off because they are afraid. A very common error is to hope the problem will be magically solved and your boss will automatically remedy the situation for you.

The second most common mistake is allowing the built up resentment of feeling underpaid to grow to a point where you begin making aggressive demands. Generally, neither approach is successful. If you are hoping for a pay increase, here are some things to take into consideration before having that conversation with your boss.

1. First and foremost, objectively research the worth of your job in your city. To discover the market value of your position, use salary comparison websites like salary.com or glassdoor.com. It can also be helpful to speak with colleagues in similar roles; however, just be aware that some companies have confidentiality policies prohibiting the disclosure of salary and benefit information amongst employees. And, speaking of policies…

2. Research your company’s policies. Here are some questions to consider: Are salary increases based on a set schedule or rank? Are annual performance reviews required for a salary increase? Who makes the final decision – your boss or HR?

3. Prepare a list of your accomplishments. Hopefully, this will help remind not only your boss but yourself why you are deserving of a raise. Remember that confidence counts! If you aren’t sure that you actually deserve a raise, your boss will doubt it too.

4. Expect three impasses. As you are preparing to have this conversation, try to anticipate at least three negative responses from your boss and plan your rebuttals accordingly.

5. It is professional, not personal. Keep your focus on the value you add to the organization. Personal factors like the fact that you have children, student loan debt, etc. are not the organization’s problem. Concentrate on why you deserve the raise – not why you need it.

6. Timing is everything. The best time to ask for more money is after you have demonstrated success on the job. Perhaps you finished a challenging project or implemented a more effective policy. Capitalize on the timing of your success. Keep in mind that you don’t always have to wait for your performance review to ask for a raise. Often that seems like a logical time, but many company’s form fiscal year budgets during a different time, so get your request in early.

7. Go for it! Gather your facts, rehearse your pitch, and go in and ask. Few managers are going to be surprised or offended by the request. Remember, the worst that can happen is your boss will say no.

If, unfortunately, your request is rejected, don’t steal away in embarrassment and try to consider some alternatives. Consider asking for a better title which could be more marketable for you in the future. If budgets are an issue, ask when it might be reasonable to consider this conversation again or ask if a one-time bonus is a possibility. If your boss seems unconvinced, pointedly ask what you could do going forward to merit a pay increase. Remember, there is no shame in asking for a raise. Even if you don’t get the result you want, it is important to get comfortable asserting yourself and that only comes with practice.