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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The Industry Job Search is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

September 2, 2013

Professionals in business attire running toward red finish line.

For an industry job for scientists, the interview process generally takes six to eight weeks.  Starting with an initial phone screen, successful candidates move on to an on-site interview where they usually meet with a number of people from the organization and give a scientific presentation.  Next is the final interview, during which a verbal offer may be extended.  What is not as well elucidated is how long the overall search process is likely to take.

The rule of thumb in industry is that your job search will take one month for every $10,000 of the job’s salary and generally longer for your first industry position.  The positions sought by postdocs often times have annual salaries approaching $80,000, so it is easy to do the math.  It is likely that your industry job search will last the better part of a year.

Therefore, a job search is more akin to a marathon than a sprint.  As with many successful long-term projects, it is important to set and meet interim goals along the way. Weekly and monthly objectives are recommended for your job search.   The most critical areas to make continual progress on are:

  • Develop and follow a target list of companies.
    The most common targeting criteria include: companies with a common research focus as your experience; companies within your preferred geographic locations; and companies in which you have contacts.  It is important to follow company news, which may include information on key employees, strategies and financial reports.  For smaller companies in particular, news of a large cash inflow, an initial public offering (IPO), or a licensing deal is often a harbinger of increased hiring.  Overall, this type of data can help set you apart from other potential candidates when that interview comes because you have done your “homework.”
  • Create and foster your network of industry contacts.
    Effective tools for this step are LinkedIn, in which you can sort by company name to identify your contacts within your target companies, and the NIH Alumni Database.  Informational interviews are a good place to start to acquire not only information about particular jobs or a company’s working conditions, but many other answers to the varied questions you may have.  You may even be able to get advance information on potential job openings before they are posted.  From these initial contacts it is important to then expand your network to include their contacts.  A great final question for these sessions is, “Is there anyone else that you might recommend that I speak with?”

Since interviewing for a particular job normally takes only six to eight weeks but your total job search can take upwards of a year, it is likely that you will face some disappointment along the way. Taking care of yourself is essential. Scheduling time for activities such as exercising, meditating, spending time with friends and loved ones, and speaking with a therapist and/or career counselor is often helpful to job-seekers.

This is important not only to cope with possible frustration or sadness, but also to maintain your edge during the interview process.  Feel free to connect with the OITE for guidance and support. https://www.training.nih.gov/career_services.