You Beyond the PhD: Do You Have the Right Tools in Your Toolbox?

Maria L. Urso
BTG International

This contribution to the Mentoring Forum covers topics that I presented during a “Mentoring for Diverse Careers” symposium at Experimental Biology in 2015. The goal of my talk was to highlight pivotal actions that were made as my nontraditional career unfolded. I opened my talk with the statement, “this is not a story of adversity, but rather a story of opportunity and finding a ‘good fit.'” I opted to be particularly candid in my talk, since, although I always touted that every stage of my career was the best phase of my career, each was not without internal and external conflicts. I felt that the best way to inspire and educate others on these difficult career decisions was to be transparent, since then one would be empowered with the appropriate tools to take on the adversity associated with the path less traveled.

In a nutshell, I had an extremely successful PhD with a fantastic team of mentors, most notably my advisor and friend, Dr. Priscilla Clarkson. One thing that I will never forget about my mentor was that she took a chance on me. I showed up in her lab lacking a lot of the basic skills that one would hope their graduate students would have, which prevented any immediate contribution to the productivity of the laboratory. Dr. Clarkson noticed one thing about me, and that was all it took. Rather than deny me entry into her lab because I had not yet published as a master’s student or because I was not well-versed in the muscle-damage literature, she asked me what I wanted to do and how I thought I would go about doing it. Although I did not have a past pedigree, I had a vision that was tethered to a realistic plan and enough passion to guarantee that complacency would never be an issue during my tenure. Accordingly, I left Dr. Clarkson’s laboratory with a toolbox full of skills that would guarantee a prosperous career if I continued to develop and refine them as I matured. In addition to my full toolbox, I had several publications in notable journals, successful grant applications, molecular biology laboratory skills (that were self-taught following an initiative by Dr. Clarkson to bring our laboratory up to speed), and a direct commission from the U.S. Army.

As any mentor or mentee could imagine, the final aspect of my departure from my PhD created a few waves and hushed discussions among my colleagues and mentors (not to mention my mother, but that’s a different column). However, this was not a rash decision by any means. I had spent my entire research career up until that point doing research in humans related to skeletal muscle breakdown, whether it was a consequence of exercise-induced muscle damage, injury, immobilization, or aging. As I interviewed for postdoctoral positions in notable laboratories across the country, I just could not see myself transitioning away from the line of research that I had established. Additionally, although I had academic mentors providing advice, I was fortunate to have a mentor since the day I was born in my father. He was a physician and spent many years providing medical support in the U.S. Army Reserves. Since I was young, a career in medicine was always something I wanted to pursue. So, I joined the military to follow some life dreams and personal motivations, and to continue to do skeletal muscle research in humans, particularly military-relevant research. I entered the military as a commissioned officer with a military operational specialty (MOS) of 71B, or Research Biochemist. In this role, I would not only serve my country as a scientist, but my research would provide answers to military-relevant problems such as blast injury, rhabdomyolysis, inflammation, and spinal cord injury.

After 7 successful years as a military-scientist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM), I decided to use the skills that I had developed to transition to a clinical research and medical science team in industry. Remarkably, despite the notion that you can only be hired in industry if you have industry experience, the transitions were not only seamless, but I was able to make significant contributions within a relatively short time of being hired. I can only attribute this steady trajectory to the tools that were placed in my toolbox throughout my career: tools that were collected from my mentors, peers, adversaries, and experiences.

Although my nontraditional career decisions tended to be cautioned against rather than lauded, I have continued to grow as a scientist, and each day I am more fulfilled by the opportunities that have presented themselves. I am convinced that the only way to produce fantastic work is to have the right tools for the battle and to love what you do. I want to use this column as an opportunity to highlight the essential tools for the battle that I emphasized in my talk.

Essential Tool #1: Knowing What Drives You
The best mentor in the world cannot give you this tool; this one must be acquired on your own. In an effort to achieve favor while working on our doctorates, the vision of the laboratory becomes your own. As important as it is to contribute to the overall success and productivity of your laboratory, it is absolutely critical that you do not lose sight of who you were before you began this adventure. Many of you are also athletes, musicians, bakers, artists, etc. As best as you can with the responsibilities that you must juggle, do not let your side passions go. To remain creative and productive, you will need something that is yours. The benefit of maintaining something that you are passionate about outside of the laboratory is that it will always give you a chance to do an inventory and examine your current engagements from an outside perspective. When you look from the outside in, ask yourself: Are you still excited? Are you making decisions because they feel good and motivate you, or because you feel pressured to? Have you been pressured to do something that might seem unethical when you look at it from the outside? Are you truly managing your time properly, or are you getting lost in busy-work? Asking yourself these questions is important for not forgetting who you are and sticking to your convictions when making difficult decisions.

Essential Tool #2: Having a Blueprint
A blueprint is essential to your career because it will consistently remind you of your vision, particularly when your plate is so full you cannot look beyond the next 4 months of tasks. Write down where you want to be in 6 months, 1 year, 2 years, and 5 years. Revise your plan as necessary. Do your homework. Learn about other career opportunities outside your laboratory and read career descriptions of the job that you want. Modify what you are doing to obtain the skills and experience required. If others try to persuade you to think differently, you will have a solid plan in place that may help you to navigate difficult discussions.

As a start to some nontraditional career opportunities, here are some links:

Put your plan on paper, do your research, and follow through, despite persuasion.

Essential Tool #3: Honing Your Fundamental Skills
Make sure you practice your writing daily. Clear writing is a skill that should be easy, but oftentimes we are determined to make our writing sound as impressive as our research. This tool is critical in grant applications and manuscript preparation. Your goal should not be to impress the reviewer with your vernacular. Your goal is to clearly explain what you plan to do (grants) or did do (manuscripts) concisely. In scientific writing, you will be amazed at the elegance that comes with simplicity. You should also be able to write or speak persuasively. Although we are scientists and not salespeople, we are always selling something. It may be an idea, a research finding, a proposal, or a hypothesis. Become the best scientific salesperson you can be. When making a transition away from the benchtop, the ability to express yourself and your work clearly is of utmost importance. You will no longer be speaking to like-minded scientists but to clinicians, businesspeople, policy-makers, sales teams, patients, etc.

Essential Tool #4: Your Elevator Speech
Many of you are working on niche projects in a laboratory. You have spent months immersed in the literature and running experiments. It is important to remember that you are now an “expert” in this domain and that others may only have a cursory knowledge of your research area. You will lose their interest if you begin to go into the intricate details of your work. It is always a good idea to prepare a two- to three-sentence overview of what you do. This is not an easy task. You need to make two to three impactful sentences that explain the following: the tissue/organism you work with, the research question you are answering, how you are going about answering it, and why it matters. These sentences should be understood by everyone from your mentor (for accuracy) to the officer at passport control who asks what you do as a scientist. This elevator speech is going to be your first impression as you navigate nontraditional career opportunities, and it needs to be perfect.

Essential Tool #5: Managing Projects and People
We are all going to manage projects and people differently. The key point here is that you devise a formula that is reliable. Having a reliable formula to produce quality work ensures that, when you are part of a team that is in an up-tempo production mode, you will deliver. This is how you become an asset to any team and sought after by employers. Whether your project is big or small, your formula should apply (albeit with a few tweaks). Oftentimes, when you are in a leadership positon and managing people, you will not have the luxury of first devising a plan to manage a task.

As an example, when I was writing the literature review for my dissertation, I accomplished very little the first 2 weeks. The enormity of the task was so daunting, I avoided it. One day I realized that if I wrote two pages per day, I would have a literature review completed in advance of my deadline at the end of the semester. The rule was that I could not get caught up in small details; I just had to put pen to paper for two pages per day, and I would go back and edit when I was done. Each day I started by writing two pages of text—it was so easy! I found that once I started I did not want to stop after just two pages of writing. I ended up finishing a month in advance of my deadline. My formula is to take a large task with a far-away deadline and break it up into smaller tasks with daily deadlines. I have relied on this formula for everything, from work to house projects.

Essential Tool #6: Accept Challenges and Live Outside Your Comfort Zone
Once you know what you can accomplish when you put your mind to it, start accepting new challenges. I recall thinking my plate was full during my first year of my PhD program. By the second year, I was handling twice as many tasks, and I still had time to do things that I enjoyed. If I accepted the first “full plate,” I never would have taken on new challenges. Allow yourself to fill the plate with more than you planned. You may surprise yourself with what you can accomplish when you take new risks and live outside your comfort zone (n.b., see section below on expecting to fail). Despite the expectations around you, design your own constantly evolving expectations. Say yes and get involved. Ask questions at conferences. When it is your turn to be front and center, give the best front and center that you can give.

Essential Tool #7: Conference Attendance and Interactions
When I attended my first national conference, I did not know a single person there except for my master’s advisor. He had friends and colleagues that he needed to meet with, so I was on my own. I went to symposia, met people at the poster sessions, and exchanged e-mail addresses with people whom I still collaborate with today. When I went to my second national conference, I was with my peers, and we spent the entire conference together. I went home without meeting a single new person. After that, I began to avoid the “conference pod.” Break away from your home team at conferences. Go to the sessions that pertain to your work, but also to those that excite you. Attend the career seminars. Start discussions at the poster sessions. You are much more approachable on your own, and you will not feel pressured to step away from a conversation prematurely. Do not be afraid to step away from the crowd on the small things, it will make stepping away for the bigger things easier.

Essential Tool #8: Get Involved in Professional Organizations
Aside from the “village” that raised me during my years in school, the single greatest contributor to my growth was my involvement in professional organizations. I began by volunteering for small things at regional conferences (e.g., manning registration booths), then national conferences (introducing speakers), then serving on committees. These opportunities allowed me to work on projects with scientists whom I had previously idolized from afar. All of a sudden, I not only had a seat at the table, but we were exchanging ideas on how to bring a new concept to life. These professional relationships will give you a platform for everything from research advice to visibility.

Essential Tool #9: Expect to Fail
Human nature: we all want to earn an A. Nobody takes on a research project or activity with the intention of earning an F. However, it is when we earn those Fs that we learn more. Most of us will attempt the project again in an attempt to turn that F into an A. Others will use that experience as a learning experience for the next project, perhaps refining the experimental design and approach. Take big risks and expect to fail. This will prevent complacency or an inability to start something new in fear of receiving an F. Get the F, learn how to make it an A. In the long run, the failures will shape you more than the successes. Become an expert at uncertainty and build resiliency. One of my favorite quotes is from Arianna Huffington (co-founder of the Huffington Post): “We need to accept that we won’t always make the right decisions, that we’ll screw up royally sometimes—understanding that failure is not the opposite of success, it’s part of success.”

Essential Tool #10: Find a Niche
People will tell you to follow your passion. How many of you have just one passion? Following your one passion may be a dead end. It is better to identify which skills you have that may be valuable to others. Once you do this, hone those skills until you have career capital. Constantly determine whether and how you are distinguishing yourself from the thousands of individuals with the same major or degree.

Essential Tool #11: Have a Hobby That Overlaps With Your Career
Once my mentor taught me how to write, it became one of my favorite things to do. I was also an athlete, so I was continually exposed to trends and fads in the fitness world. As a side project, I started writing columns and blogs for different periodicals incorporating scientific evidence and human performance and nutrition. While doing this, I established connections and relationships from industry to private organizations. As my skillset improved, I was invited to serve as a scientific consultant, speaker, and writer for these different organizations. Suddenly, I was getting paid to do something that I considered a hobby. At the same time, I was refining the skills that I used every day in my professional life.

Final Thoughts
As you traverse your career, you will find many more tools to add to your toolbox that you find are essential. The key focus is to never stop adding tools to your toolbox. Build bridges instead of burning them, never pass up an opportunity to be assessed, and listen to what goes on around you. Take chances constantly, but be prepared to accept that not every decision will be the right one. Only you can choose the career that is right for you, and, with the proper planning, you beyond the PhD will be exactly the right fit.

Maria Urso is a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) for BTG Pharmaceuticals, a specialty pharmaceutical company that offers therapies for patients with COPD, vascular disease, and cancer. She received her PhD from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Prior to BTG, Maria was the Director of Clinical Research at Arteriocyte, and a scientist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM). While at USARIEM, Maria served on active duty as an Army Major.

Maria is a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, a member of the MSL Society, and previously served on APS’s Women in Physiology Committee. In 2012, she was a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) from President Barack Obama.

3 thoughts on “You Beyond the PhD: Do You Have the Right Tools in Your Toolbox?”

Thank you Maria for providing such excellent guidance on the essential skills for a successful career.  I appreciate that these skills are transferable from a traditional academic research environment to other careers, including working for the government and industry.  I have a question for you regarding how you managed the expectations of others when you were making the decision to join the Army at the completion of your PhD.  I know many trainees are uncertain about how to approach their mentor when they are exploring career opportunities beyond the traditional academic research track.   Thank you!

This was very insightful and encouraging advice. I especially appreciated the idea that failures (and I have certainly had my share) are a necessary part of success! I was intrigued by your advice about accepting a “full plate” and exploring possibilities outside of your comfort zone. I was often given the advice to stay focused, particularly at the beginning of my career, and to be careful not to take on too much. How would you suggest balancing expanding your horizons and taking risks, with remaining focused?

“Your ‘Beyond the PhD’ article is very informative. You are fortunate that your transition from academic research scientist to military research to clinical aspects in industry went smoothly due to your scientific background, hobbies, and experiences. For those whose overall experiences are not intricately intertwined as yours, can you comment on how to network with people outside of academia so that they can obtain the appropriate tools to transition into industry? Attending conferences is a start, but how about LinkedIn? Can one rely on all 500+ connections that one may have or do you still have a core group of connections that you count on the most? Any other ways to network?”

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