Recent Ph.D. alum talks about her successful job search

Author name
Samantha Bowen, Ph.D. ‘13

Thumbnail Starting at an early point in the course of my Ph.D., I was very aware that I did not want to pursue an academic career path. In fact, I had a good idea of this before I even started graduate school. During the final semester of my senior year at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, I took a science policy course that involved directly lobbying congressional offices for a chosen scientific issue of personal interest. Cold-calling and meeting with legislative assistants for some of the biggest names on Capitol Hill was an intimidating process, but it was also eye-opening for me. To my surprise, people listened to us, and my group was actually able to get our issue, which was a grant program to promote green buildings on academic campuses, included in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. That experience brought to my attention a whole different side of science: the policy and administrative side.

When I first applied to graduate school, I was probably guilty of doing so because, like many of us, in some part I did not know what else to do with myself after college. I had done bench research throughout my undergraduate career and enjoyed it, and thought it would be great to get more research experience, but I don’t think I had a good grasp of what a Ph.D. could realistically do for me. However, as I entered Duke in the fall to get my Ph.D. in molecular genetics and microbiology fresh off of my flirtation with science policy, I was invigorated by the fact that there were clearly many avenues available for a trained scientist. In retrospect, I think that knowing early on that I probably did not plan to enter academia was rather freeing; when you are narrowly focused on an academic career, it can be a hard process to let go and consider other options, as I saw with people around me.

As I transitioned from a first-year to a senior graduate student, I felt extremely fortunate to be at a place like Duke: the graduate school made constant and tangible efforts to expose students to alternative career paths, whether in non-academic research or other roles. I was also lucky to have an advisor who was very supportive of me having a non-academic career. As my sixth and final year approached, I started to frequently attend seminars, career fairs, and information sessions for companies. I also started to work with the Duke Career Center to develop my resume, explore job possibilities, and find out more about interviewing. As I worked with my career counselor, consulting came up on my radar fairly quickly and initially seemed quite attractive to me as a great way to implement the analytical and creative thinking skills that I had acquired in grad school in new and different settings. My career counselor and I combed through consulting job listings, and I also spent time on the Duke eRecruiting site to find openings. I identified a number of possibilities, had my resume reviewed and tailored by my counselor, and enthusiastically applied to several companies including some of the “Big 3,” a healthcare consulting firm, and a niche pharmaceutical consulting company. I was surprised to find that I got interviews with two companies, but I was also quite worried, as I had no background with case studies. I conducted practice case study interviews at the Career Center ahead of my interviews, which was a very useful prep tool, although one that should be utilized starting far in advance of potential interviews to give plenty of time for multiple sessions and studying. I interviewed with very nice people at both companies, but I knew walking out from both that I was unlikely to get an offer, and furthermore I was unsure whether I’d want one. However, I chalked up both interviews as good learning experiences.

Soon after those interviews, I started writing my thesis and getting ready to defend in the spring, and I knew that the job search needed to get serious. Having learned a lot about how to conduct a job search through my time at the Career Center, I looked into various science policy positions, and knowing that I liked scientific writing and editing and had a strong background in both, I also applied to several editor jobs at scientific journals as well as scientific and medical writing positions. On the advice of my career counselor as well as my thesis committee, I had a few informational interviews with people in the scientific writing field to find out more about potential opportunities that weren’t immediately apparent to me, and I was interested in a potential career in that direction, but I wanted to look at other options too.

Right after I defended, I had a fortuitous opportunity find its way into my inbox. My advisor, who was very enthusiastic about helping me find a job, forwarded me an internal email from the Duke Human Vaccine Institute  (DVHI) that mentioned they had one or two scientific management positions open and were looking for newly-defended graduate students who wanted to start a non-academic track career. As soon as I saw it, something clicked. I had always enjoyed the administrative roles that I had taken on in the lab—keeping things running smoothly was very fulfilling to me—and I hadn’t ever considered a science management position before because, despite all my exposure to alternative career paths, I didn’t realize that jobs like that existed for new Ph.D.s. Additionally, for personal reasons I was keen to stay in the Durham area, and loved the idea of remaining at Duke. I immediately emailed the head of the DHVI to express my interest, and I was told that day that they’d like me to come in for an interview within the next week or two. One month later, I started at the DHVI.

I am learning how to manage large-scale grants, which entails tracking experimental progress, financial progress, coordinating members of the consortia associated with each grant, coordinating shipments of materials, helping to plan studies, and many other tasks. The skills that I will acquire in this job are incredibly useful and applicable in any management position, and I am very confident that I made the right choice to go in this direction for my first job and to build a strong foundation for my career. Overall, by far the most important part of my job search was finding someone, in this case my advisor, who was connected into a network and could send potential jobs my way. Additionally, I found that it is important to consider job avenues when they come along that you might not have realized you were interested in. You never know how various aspects of your graduate career, in this case some of the laboratory administrative work that I was involved with, turn out to be the tasks you most enjoy and want to pursue.

Samantha Bowen is currently the Program Manager at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute.