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The Biggest Career Missteps PhDs Make

Skip ahead to:
6:50 Show Me The Data
23:50 James Gould, Ph.D
50:52 Sarah Rodrigues, Ph.D.

Are you making some of the biggest career mistakes PhDs make in their job transition?

You might not even know you’re making these common missteps that might be sabotaging your job search and career transition. 

This week on the Cheeky Scientist Radio Show we are joined by James Gould who is director of the Office for Postdoctural Fellows at Harvard Medical School and works with postdocs for vocational and leadership training and guidance. James shares his experience of his own transition into using his PhD to help other PhDs avoid common, but not always well known, career missteps. We are also joined by Sarah Rodrigues, PhD, Customer Consultant at Elsevier, who discusses her transition into this role, the matrix hierarchy she works within, and how this is a perfect fit for her education and strengths. 

About Our Guests

James Gould is the director of the HMS/HSDM Office for Postdoctoral Fellows at Harvard Medical School where he’s implemented research, career, and professional development programs and policies for HMS trainees since 2011. Jim has spoken and published on career and professional development topics in a variety of forums, locally and nationally, including articles in Nature Immunology covering CV to resume conversion, interviewing strategies, and manuscript writing. He’s been a guest blogger and steering committee member for Naturejobs and its Career Expo, a mentor in the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN), and a guest speaker on Cheeky Scientist and BioCareers webinars. Prior to HMS, Jim completed two postdoc fellowships at the National Cancer Institute of the NIH where he chaired the Fellows & Young Investigators Association, interned with the Office of Training and Education, and also found time to study cancer metabolism. He is a member of the National Postdoctoral Association, Graduate Career Consortium, and AAAS. Jim received his BS in Biotechnology/Molecular Biology at Clarion University of Pennsylvania and his PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Louisville.

Sarah Rodrigues, Ph.D. in Hematology & Oncology, she first worked as business developer and now she works as a Customer Consultant in Europe. Sarah is a Medical laboratory scientist with experience in business development and consulting, driving customer engagement and market insights. Her driver is to support research and innovation to help bringing new applications to the market and patients. She has worked in clinical and fundamental research, in lab information data management, in scientific information analytics, scientific publishing and scientific/medical communication with the aim to support doctors and scientists.

Key Takeaways

  1. How to avoid common career mistakes that PhDs make and how you can avoid those.
  2. Ways for postdocs to transition into meaningful careers and the importance of creating endpoints for PhDs.
  3. In industry, how your experience as a PhD can lead you into a career that plays to your strengths and a customized role to match your goals.

Biggest Career Missteps PhDs Make: A Conversation With James Gould

Isaiah: If you haven’t connected with Jim, I highly recommend that you do. He’s always posting great stuff, always speaking. Very, very active and our oldest in terms of going way back to 2003 person that we’ve ever interviewed and we’ve done a lot of collaborating with Jim, always learning from him. It’s great to have Jim with us.

Jim, how are you?

James: I’m doing well. How are you?

Isaiah: Good, let me hide the… Great to be on. Yeah, it was 2013, right?

James: I think so, yes.

Isaiah: That was the summer series of …?

James: I think it was a leadership series, maybe.

Isaiah: Did you start that at Harvard?

James: Yeah. It was something that we were trying to develop, understanding what gaps in programmings we had. One of the things that kept coming up from the postdocs was, “We need to know what leadership is and how to do it.”

Isaiah: Yeah, and I remember, so it was the very first talk that I gave under Cheeky Scientist was with Jim and he did a great job. He even mentored me.

He was like, “Well, let’s tone down this a little bit. Maybe change the topic here a bit,” but yeah, it’s interesting. I can’t believe it was almost six years ago. Pretty incredible.

James: Yeah, it’s been a while. I guess I am one of your oldest colleagues, though I’m not that old. I think you might be actually older than I am.

Isaiah: In terms of age, yeah. I was correcting myself. I was like, “Hey, wait a second, I’m aging myself,” because… I think what’s been interesting to me is to see your trajectory and everything you’ve been able to do and the clinics you put on.

Thinking about the first question, I was really excited to ask it because I don’t know if we’ve ever talked about it. What was your path? Why did you decide to get into helping develop PhDs to even go beyond that, to writing so much about it and to putting on these clinics? Why do you do what you do and how did you get into it?

James: Why do I do it? It’s always been something that I’ve done, even when I was a young kid, just helping others. I wasn’t perfect or a saint but I was always willing to say, “Hey, what about this?”

Because one of the things that I’ve found is I’ve made all of these mistakes that you were talking about on Cheeky Scientist, that you were talking about with that other previous speaker, I’ve made all of these mistakes. If I’m not learning from them, I’m helping other people learn before they make these same mistakes.

As an undergraduate, as a graduate student, and as a postdoc, I was helping my fellow students and postdocs figure out their larger issues, whether it was an interpersonal issue or conflict with their faculty mentor or it was maybe a personal issue but not so much. But how do I apply? What’s my approach? How do I reach out to people?

I’ve always been a people person. I mean, I’ve made all the mistakes and hopefully I’ve learned from most of them. It was very fulfilling knowing at the end of the day, I helped this person or I helped these three people and compared to my research, I would maybe do one successful experiment a week, maybe a month. It wasn’t enough to keep me going, keep me motivated but I knew I had to finish my PhD and I knew I had to do the next step as a postdoc and we can talk more about that.

But it was really the people aspect of my research and interacting with smart people and them helping me figure out my research issues as well as as career professional development.

But it was really fulfilling to do that. I found that I was actually, I had a nice natural tendency to be helpful rather than harmful and giving bad advice. I found it very useful and then I ultimately realized I could do this for a job.

The next step was actually convincing myself and then my wife that it was worth still getting my PhD and it was worth still doing a postdoc, that I would be getting my PhD, and if it’s worse, still doing a postdoc, but I would be transitioning into a research adjacent type of position, helping people do their research, because doing a PhD and a postdoc like, “Oh, yeah. I’m going to cure cancer.” And I quickly realized maybe it’s not going to be me, but maybe I can actually help someone realize their full potential, by removing some barriers, or at least raising their awareness of some barriers that might be harmful to their research. So again, it just comes back to … it was very fulfilling, then I realized I could actually do it for a job.

Isaiah Hankel: So in grad school, is when you first were like, “I want to help develop careers.”? 

James: Yes. 

Isaiah: Wow. 

James: It was mostly, “I need to develop my career, and if I had an issue, many others had the issue.” And began exploring how to do that, talking with faculty. Thankfully, there were very sympathetic faculty saying, “There’s more out there than just academic research.” And became involved in developing a biochemistry student group for my department, became involved in recruiting students, and just developing myself, to help develop them.

Customer Consultant Career Track: A Conversation With Sarah Rodrigues, PhD.

Isaiah: And we’re going to move right on in. Sarah’s one of the very first people to join the association, and get hired through the association. I think in our founding year, she came, and she was maybe the third person, third ever. And this is thousands, and thousands, and thousands of members later. Very excited to have her on. She is currently a consultant at Elsevier. She’s had multiple other jobs, she’s worked at AgileBio, CEA, in terms of her academic background. Very, very excited to bring her on, and talk about her career track, and how she got into it, and what she does. 

I know some of you have been considering working for different journals or publication companies, you’ve considered being consultants, and doing things that are off the bench. Sarah is a great person to talk to, and I’m going to bring her on. I know you’ve had a few careers now, a few different jobs in the industry, and I’m excited to hear about this one. Can you talk a little bit, just to help us understand what you do, and who you work with?

Sarah: Sure. So before joining my current company, I worked as a business developer at a small company, AgileBio, and data management, basically. And then I joined a company maybe you know of, Elsevier. So most people know about the publishing of Elsevier, but actually Elsevier, it’s more an analytics company, going through this transition from what content, and what we can do with the data-evidenced decisions.

Isaiah: So it’s a more data management, right? So you’re more on the analyst side, and you’re looking at consumer analytics, I’m guessing?

Sarah: So, yeah. So in my job I get insights that they are based on consumers, but also insights to the customers, to the return on investment. Also doing workshops, national trends, and analysis of a bunch of data, that is on the impact and publications of a country, or an institution, or department.

Isaiah: And this is fascinating. I love what’s happening just in the last couple of years. Like if you see jobs that end in analyst or consultant, you can be sure that you can get it. Or researcher, like we hear a lot about user experience researcher, customer consultant, business analyst, or consumer analyst. You’re looking at data. It’s data analysts, management. You have to have experience collecting it, etc., but it’s on the market, or how customers are responding to stuff. It’s to help guide decisions, in terms of like Sarah said, product development, business development. It’s an exploding field. It’s like data scientist is splitting, and there’s the data scientist positions where you need programming languages, but then there’s data scientist positions where it’s more about data analysts, like analyzing data. 

And those are going into these other job titles and types, which is good news for most of you, who don’t know programming languages. You can get into these. So what do you love about your current job? I mean, what do you do on a day-to-day basis?

Sarah: So maybe it’s very much cliché, but we don’t have a routine. But what I actually like about it is we have a range of programs, tasks that we do. So sometimes I am over my Excel, doing a presentation on how the return on investment and opportunities, maybe gaps, etc. And the other day, I may … and a customer face-to-face, or doing a workshop, or doing big events, bigger events to institution. So I guess, it’s a like a perfect fit for me that likes that data analysis, but also likes to have, not just coded analysis, and delivering it, but also have this face-to-face with the customer, and public speaking side as well.

** for the full interviews check out the video above

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Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah is a Ph.D. in Anatomy & Cell Biology and internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant. He is an expert in the biotechnology industry and specializes in helping people transition into cutting-edge career tracks.

Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.
Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.