Laura graduated with a PhD from the Department of Biochemistry in 2018. She is currently a Lead Clinical Specialist.
Q: What made you first interested in doing a PhD?
When I was graduating from my undergrad at the University of Ottawa, I knew I was really interested in research. I had done a co-op program where I worked in private labs, university labs, and also in industry. It was such a great experience and I really enjoyed research so I was looking for Master’s programs across the country. I found one at McGill with a supervisor I really liked, and very quickly decided that I wanted to stay longer than a couple of years, so I fast-tracked and switched into the PhD program.
Q: During your time at McGill, did you feel that you had a good support system or community?
In my lab, there were three of us that started within a month of each other, so we all became very close because we hit all of those milestones one after another. We’re all still very close, even though we’ve all since graduated. Our lab was pretty big, so there were senior grad students that mentored us for a few years before they left. But also the whole cancer center fifth floor had a number of different labs, and all the grad students got to know each other. It got me involved in some extracurricular activities. So during my PhD, I was involved with the BGSS—the Biochemistry Graduate Student Society. I did finance and eventually I became president. There was a very good community there, I think you just needed to find it.
Q: Did these extracurricular activities help you in any way, whether it’s with your job or with networking?
Completely. Coming into grad school, I was fairly shy. I was like, “I’m just going to focus on the bench and do my science”. But these extracurricular opportunities really helped me develop as a person. A lot of the soft skills that helped me in my job now were leadership skills that I developed through my time with the Graduate Students Society. I was a TA for a number of years, which was very helpful. I also wrote for the Gradlife blog. So those extracurricular activities helped me grow as a person, and helped me develop my soft skills, so by the end of my degree I had much more marketable skills than just my ability to run 100 experimental tests an hour. I realized since I left academia that we don’t really learn to value a lot of these soft skills we accumulate in academia.
Q: What do you do now in your current job and how did you end up there?
My job title is Lead Clinical Specialist at a small startup. We are a medical device company. I actually kind of fell into it—I started doing basic science at the company first, but moved over to more of a sales, education, and science communication kind of role. I’m not on the bench at all anymore, which was something I really wanted to leave behind when I left my PhD.
So at the same company, I had two positions. The first one was a short-term contract and it was on the bench; it was mouse work, which I did a ton of in my PhD. The first job I got was only a four month contract which, looking back, is kind of crazy. They saw that I had the ability to figure stuff out and get things done, and they would randomly throw different projects at me. Sometimes it was clinical trials, sometimes it was mouse work. They extended my contract for four more months and then afterwards, they offered me a full time contract in the position I’m in now. I think the reason they kept renewing me was because I was doing well. They could see that I was smart, that I worked hard, and that I exceeded their expectations. They also saw skills that I didn’t even see in myself. I never would have thought I would be in this role two years ago. So it’s really nice to work for a company that sees where your skills are and wants to foster that.
Q: What is your typical day like?
My job is very exciting because every day is a little bit different. It’s very customer-facing and a lot of talking to strangers. Before COVID, I would travel around, mostly in the States, to support our sales force as kind of an expert on our devices—so how it’s used in the clinic, the science behind it, etc. I would go to a lot of conferences, work in the booth, or give presentations to large audiences. My job is supporting the salespeople and providing them that extra knowledge because they’re not scientists, they’re salespeople. I don’t use my science as much as I would if I was still on the bench. But there’s the odd project that will come through where I’m just the only person who has the skills to do it. So that’s really gratifying too, to be able to kind of use my science when I need it.
Q: What made you realize that you preferred to do something other than bench work?
Some time in my fifth or sixth year, I just realized that this isn’t making me happy anymore. So I needed to figure out what did make me happy and I found that I really loved writing, like I wrote for the blog. I loved TA-ing—that was like my favourite day of the week—I got to interact with the kids, I got to talk about science and explain things. It just wasn’t the bench work. It made me realize that if I was having more fun TAing and more fun with the student society than in the mouse room, that I didn’t want to dedicate another five years of my life to doing this sort of a postdoc. And I still love science. I love talking about it, I love thinking about it. But my skills are better suited at science communication and discussing it with people and not doing the science, but explaining the science. So it took some soul-searching, but I figured it out in the end.
Q: What kind of advice would you give to someone that’s working on their PhD?
I would tell them to start thinking about what you want to do after your PhD at the start of your PhD. When I came in, I really didn’t have a plan. I was like, “Oh, I like research”. The PhD was my goal for a long time, but your PhD should not be the goal—it’s what you do to get to the next step. I think you need to figure out what that next step is a lot earlier than I did. Otherwise, you’re going to be scrambling at the end being like, “I know I don’t want to do the postdoc, but what else do I want to do?” It’s okay if that changes for you. But thinking about this early is important.
When I was finishing up, I knew the science was going to be fine. I was going to write up my thesis and the defense was going to be okay. But I was more anxious trying to figure out what to do next and not having a lot of resources to kind of figure that out. I didn’t know what jobs were out there that were available to me. I think the university could do a little bit better at helping their students with this, because I think it prepares us very well to be postdocs, but not much else. I started going to a bunch of career day events and it was really eye-opening. I knew what I didn’t want to do, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I needed to figure that out for myself.
Q: What was the most valuable thing you learned during your PhD?
This sounds weird, but self-value. During the PhD, you’re with so many smart people. Everyone’s so talented. A lot of people are more talented than you are. I think the PhD pushes you down. You fail so often that you start thinking that you’re not good at anything. But that’s just science, that’s not you. When you get into the real world you start seeing that the work you do is good. So that’s the best thing I learned afterwards, is that I needed to value myself and my skills.
Q: Is there something you wish you knew before starting the PhD?
I wish I had more of a plan before I started and knew what I wanted afterwards. The best thing about a PhD is that you learn about yourself. I learned science, but I also really learned a lot about who I am.
I think more people need to know that there are jobs out there other than a postdoc. They also need to know that people do well after their PhD. You hear some of these stats and some of them are very scary, like how there are very few academic positions. But I got a job and I’m happy.
Many thanks to Laura for sharing her narrative!
This interview took place in June 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.