Rory Sleno graduated with a PhD from the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics in 2017. He is currently a Senior Scientific Evaluator at Health Canada.
Q. What made you interested in pursuing a PhD?
I’m originally from Montreal and studied at McGill for my BSc, majoring in microbiology and immunology with a minor in pharmacology, so the transition to graduate studies was already in motion during my undergraduate years.
As part of the minor, I joined the lab of Dr. Terry Hébert for an undergraduate research project. That early experience in the lab definitely contributed to my pursuit of graduate studies since my graduate research project started as a continuation of that earlier work. Initially, I was only considering a MSc but once the project showed some promise, I decided I would commit to a PhD.
Q: If you could sum up what your job is to someone who doesn’t do your job, how would you describe it?
I work for the Government of Canada and my specific role involves ensuring the safety of drugs in Canada. My Directorate evaluates safety information for drugs once they’ve been approved and marketed in Canada and develops strategies to minimize any new safety concerns identified post-marketing.
Drug authorization in Canada is supported by evidence generated in clinical trials. Clinical trials are conducted under very controlled environments; they generally involve a small group of patients who are extensively monitored and strictly prescribed the drug in line with the design of the study. Once a drug has been approved for sale in Canada, many more patients will be exposed to the drug in the “real world” setting. New or rare side effects might be observed in this real world data given the much larger exposure (i.e., rare events may now be captured) and use of the drug in a broader patient population (e.g., children and pregnant women).
We look at reports of side effects in patients in the real world setting and ask: “Is the benefit/risk profile of this drug similar to what we were seeing in the clinical trials that supported approval of the drug?” If we identify new issues, we communicate them to Canadians and make sure that patients, healthcare professionals, and the companies that sell the drugs, are aware of these new risks. If there are situations where there are new risks or risks that were previously identified but are now understood to be more severe, we might introduce risk mitigation measures. That could include controlling the distribution of the product (e.g., confirming a negative pregnancy test before a pharmacy dispenses the drug in the case of a product that is linked with birth defects), or if we find that the risk associated with the drug outweighs the benefit even after considering mitigation measures, the drug can be withdrawn from the market and the authorization to be sold in Canada is revoked.
Q: What experiences from graduate school have been valuable to you?
Looking back, I think a lot of what I value now has to do with exploring opportunities outside of the lab work. I was lucky enough to have a PhD supervisor that supported my interests beyond the lab. I was involved in the Graduate Management Consulting Association at McGill and had the opportunity to participate in case competitions. They had nothing to do with the scientific topics I was researching in the lab, but it developed my presentation skills and let me practice taking complex ideas, distilling them down, and presenting them. It’s those types of opportunities, that develop soft skills, that I think played a large part in preparing me to transition from academia.
My work in the lab was very fundamental science; it was cell-based experiments, trying to understand molecular concepts. I would say that the technical skills I learnt during my research in a lab (e.g., western blot) are not relevant to what I do in my day-to-day work now, but you learn a lot of other things in the lab, such as critical analysis, project management, and scientific communication. Specifically, scientific writing is absolutely key for my current job—being able to be concise about complex scientific information is paramount in any knowledge based position in science. No matter what job you move to, I think clear communication is an incredibly important skill.
Q: What would you say was your biggest challenge?
I would say my biggest shock was when I was nearing the completion of my PhD. The transition from finishing graduate studies to finding placement in the workforce was more challenging than I had anticipated. I found myself having a hard time communicating my value for a position outside of academia. It was definitely a challenge to make the jump into the role that I’m in now. I think luck plays a large part, but luck does favour the prepared.
In general, the transition out of academia—be it into the private or public sector—is difficult. Often, I don’t think there’s a clear understanding from both sides as to what the other has to offer. A way around this would be to take advantage of opportunities for internship during your PhD, maybe in the last year or so, as it provides both sides the opportunity to learn about each other.
Q: Do you have any advice for people who are in graduate school but are trying to transition out of academia?
From my experience, I think luck plays the biggest part for that first job and the best way to overcome the challenge is to speak to as many people as possible. It’s always said: “network, network, network”. The number of connections you have to make before something sticks can be very large. In my case, I found out about my current position by chatting with a colleague in the department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics. Before I was even looking for a job, I had casually let her know that I was close to finishing up my degree and wasn’t interested in staying in academia. Out of the blue, she sent me an email saying she had heard that Health Canada was looking for recent grads, and thought I might be interested. All she had was an email address. So I reached out and was offered an interview.
That’s my best advice, letting people know that you’re looking. You never know when something’s going to come up so just try to get out there as much as possible.
Q: Is there a particular myth that you think should be busted about graduate school?
I’m not sure about myths but I think it’s very important to realize that there are high levels of stress in graduate school. During the application process, while carrying out your research, and in the transition to the next phase—it’s important to take care of your mental health. Whether it’s imposter syndrome at the beginning of your studies, the frustration of a failed experiment, or the discouragement of another rejected job application, remember that most of your peers have or will experience these feelings as well. There is no shame in seeking support.
Many thanks to Rory for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find him on Linkedin.
This interview took place in June 2020 Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.