Gabriel Kaufman graduated from the Department of Experimental Medicine in 2016. His PhD research focused on allergies and immune modulation. He currently (Jan 2021) works as an Associate Scientist at Certara, where he provides scientific consulting services for drug development.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in your field?
I chose to do a PhD in Experimental Medicine because I wanted to further my professional opportunities. Prior to the PhD, I completed a Master’s in the same general field of study – life sciences – and I worked for a year. I saw the types of jobs that one can get with a Master’s, and realized that the types of jobs that I was interested in doing, the career path I wanted, really required a doctoral degree. So I was focused on those jobs that – I believe – needed the higher academic training.
Q: Did you have any resources that helped you make that decision?
When I finished my Master’s in 2010, I tried to obtain a position in the biotechnology industry but it was very challenging because the job market was affected by the 2008/2009 recession, and by the changes in the Montreal industry scene, with the closure of several major employers in the sector. I ended up working for a year as a research assistant at McGill’s Department of Microbiology & Immunology with a newly hired professor who was starting his lab. His career path—pursuing the higher degree—was inspiring to me. I remember when he asked me in the job interview where I saw myself in five years: I said that I wanted to continue my training in some form.
Q: Was it always clear for you that you wanted to go into industry?
By the time I started my doctorate, I knew I wanted to go into industry and not continue in academia. Like I mentioned before, I looked at the types of jobs that I wanted to do and the training that they required. Most of them required a doctorate, which generally opens more doors than a Master’s degree.
A disproportionate number of my family’s friends are academics. When you’re in the academic bubble, the only thing that you know is academia. But the sobering statistics is that some ninety percent of PhD graduates will have to do something else with their lives besides being a tenure-track professor at a research university. I was pretty convinced that I would go outside academia in some way, shape, or form. And that was really my goal going in.
Q: Is there anything during your PhD experience that you valued the most?
When I started my PhD, the lab was at an old research facility up on Prince Arthur. We were going to move to the new research institute on the Glen campus of the RI-MUHC. You can imagine that moving a lab is a complicated endeavour. In addition, we had some very specialized equipment that needed a specialized design for the lab space in the new facility. Because I was one of the frequent users of this equipment, I became involved with the moving team and was invited to one of the major planning meetings. I ended up having a positive influence on the way the new lab was designed and set up, so that we would be able to continue using the equipment efficiently. The process of meeting the stakeholders, understanding people’s needs, and making sure our voices were heard—that was a really nice experience. Those collaborations were very valuable and I remain friendly with these people today. It taught me that I really enjoy working with people and helping people come together. It was also a great learning experience about both planning and executing a complex team task.
Q: What would you say were your biggest challenges in finishing your PhD?
The first major challenge was amassing enough novel research to convince my supervisor to let me write my thesis. Very often, you have a few small projects that don’t fit together as a cohesive whole. The doctoral thesis really has to be a work that stands on its own merits and reads as a single story, not just a collection of research reports. (Full disclosure: one of the examiner critiques of my thesis said exactly that!)
The second challenge for me was working full time right before I submitted my thesis. So for two or three months, I was working twelve to thirteen hours a days, because I worked eight hours at my job, and then spent another four or five hours writing my thesis. That was just due to the timing, because I had a CIHR doctoral research award that ended in December 2015. My research supervisor was able to keep me on in the lab for four more months, but he was not able to pay me throughout the thesis writing process. Thankfully, I was employed in May 2016, but that meant that I had to write and work at the same time, and that was very difficult. I ended up submitting in August 2016 and defending in December 2016.
Q: What challenges did you face after your PhD?
I joined the pharmaceutical industry—I went to work for a contract research organization right at the end of my doctorate. The transition to industry culture was very abrupt and challenging. Academia tends to be kind of loose, diverse, and varied whereas in industry, things are much more regimented.
Obtaining a position in the biomedical job market was also somewhat difficult. Biomedical wet lab researchers are in oversupply in North America and Europe, well outpacing the demand. Therefore, there are a lot of people trying to get a small number of jobs.
Q: What would you say are the skills that you learned in your PhD that are the most valuable now?
So the technical knowledge that I learned during my PhD, I don’t use much, surprisingly. My company does not actually maintain any lab space. What stayed with me was the analytical and statistical knowledge. During my doctorate, I learned how to program in R, the computer language, to analyze microarray experiments. That skill has been very valuable, and extensively used, in my present position. There’s also a lot about biology that I learned—having suffered through a life sciences doctorate—and that general background knowledge is helpful.
But perhaps the most valuable thing I learned during my doctorate is the way you are taught to think. You’re taught to analyze and be hypercritical—to look at the flaws in the argument and to see how to make that argument stronger. But sometimes you have to turn that off and you have to say, “Is this good enough for my purposes?” It is sometimes challenging to strike that balance, but the ability to examine a situation, think critically, solve problems, and be creative in how to solve those problems, as opposed to being formulaic or rote—those approaches, which are more about mentality than discrete skills, have proven to be very valuable.
Q: What is your job like day-to-day?
So I am an associate scientist at Certara. It’s a company that helps other companies develop new medicines. My job title says “Scientist” but I’m actually a consultant. The company’s expertise is data analysis and biosimulation—we do a lot of the biostatistics for drug development. Most of my day involves data wrangling and analysis — coercing the data into the right formats for analysis and then trying to make sense of it! I have a particular specialty in blood test data. When we get data from clinical trials, my job is to make sense of the blood tests and determine the mathematical parameters about the medicine, like how much of it makes it into the bloodstream, how it moves through the body, and how fast it is cleared or metabolized — these are very important in determining the safety and efficacy of a drug.
Q: If you could go back to before your PhD and tell yourself something, what would that be?
I would say to consider another line of training, which will take less time to get you to the same earning potential. The reason why I say that is while the PhD degree got me a job and I’m happy doing what I do — I enjoy the work, the company is very supportive and it’s a healthy corporate culture — but it’s taken me a really long time to get here. I look at other professions and the training they required, the length of time and effort — and there’s less of an opportunity cost there. The opportunity cost of a PhD is very high. If you’re doing a doctorate in order to gain a marketable skill, it’s going to take a long time and you’re not going to make that much money doing it. So I would tell myself to consider another way to get to where you are that maybe doesn’t require such a long vow of poverty and silence.
Another thing I would tell myself is to organize my thinking more—organize my research projects, and do the minimum amount of work possible to write my dissertation and get the degree. It’s okay when you start your PhD and you’re not sure what to do, which avenues of research to pursue. Think until you have an idea, and then follow it through. Sometimes that can change and that’s okay as well. But you don’t want to be zigzagging through seven or eight years. The second part is that you want to do the minimum possible, write up a good quality project, get your degree, and move to the next great thing, whatever that is for you. You don’t want to take too long examining every last little thing and get lost in the details because research, by its definition, is never-ending.
There are always more questions you can ask, and if you like research, you should be interested in asking those questions, so it’s sometimes hard to withdraw and step back. When you have enough to make a respectable thesis on its own merits— it might not be the first time you’ve tried, it might take two or three tries—but it’s more important to focus in an organized manner on your project. Answer the questions that you need to write up. Get it out and move on to wherever you want to take your professional life, with that additional strength and resolve that the degree brings. And the letters “PhD” often help.
Many thanks to Gabriel for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find him on LinkedIn.
This interview took place in July 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.