Yasmin D’Souza graduated with a PhD in Anatomy and Cell Biology in 2013. She currently works as a Clinical Research Coordinator.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in the first place?
I really enjoyed the time I spent learning research methods in my Master’s program and I found that, upon graduation, I wanted to learn more. I really didn’t know what career path I wanted to take at that time, so I thought it would be best to begin a PhD. Also, a lot of people recommended that I do a PhD, and that I would be good at it, so I gave it a shot.
Q: What did you value most about your PhD experience?
I found the intellectual challenge to be the most valuable part. Currently, I am a clinical research coordinator for the longitudinal natural history study on peroxisomal disorders. I still use the knowledge I gained during my grad training—I can partake in troubleshooting and brainstorming regarding experiments because of my research background in cell biology. I am also able to perform some bioinformatics analyses, which is a skill I learned during graduate studies. In terms of helping me with my future career goals, I would say that the connection I made with my supervisor was extremely valuable. Her support in my future career goals has been very meaningful to me.
Q: Where do you find the most support?
I had a few communities supporting me. During my grad studies, my lab peers and colleagues in neighboring labs were supportive. Outside of work, my husband and friends were supportive. Also, YES Montreal, which is a non-profit organization helping job seekers, was very helpful. They encourage you to build connections outside of your immediate circle.
Q: Was there any support you wish you had?
I felt that during my PhD, it would have been helpful if there were a designated person in our department or at our institute who guided us regarding career paths. In a PhD, you’re working over 60+ hours per week and concentrating on your project, which doesn’t directly lead to an obvious career path. A lot of us know that we can’t be professors/principal investigators, yet we continue with our research, and some of us even go on to do postdocs. A lack of this specific type of support led to anxiety about my future during my grad studies.
Q: Were there any resources you sought out to help you with career path development?
At McGill, I consulted with CaPS. They ask you to reflect on what you like and what you don’t like regarding work tasks, and to perform research about potential careers. Once you’ve already graduated, you ideally want a job immediately, but that’s not always the reality. It can take months—years. Really, the necessary work, such as talking with connections, internships, and/or learning about all the different career options, could be done during grad studies. Otherwise, it leads to unnecessary stress.
Workshops are a good starting point. Perhaps it should be mandatory or even just advertised to attend CaPS workshops starting in year one of graduate school. This should allow you to build some groundwork and expose you to different career options. I have been to some round table events and I didn’t feel that was helpful because you’re at a table with nine other students—it’s fast-paced and intimidating, but I’m sure they were probably helpful to some people. I think a one-on-one event would have been more helpful—you need somebody who’s going to listen to you and not just talk at you. Career searching sometimes requires mentorship.
Finally, the advice I’ve been given regarding obtaining employment in a pharmaceutical company is either to keep reapplying, or to first gain experience in a biotech company.
Q: What do you think could improve upon your PhD experience?
I was in school for so long, and my PhD did not lead to a concrete job, whereas other degrees, like a psychology degree can lead to becoming a psychologist. If you complete a degree in engineering, you become an engineer. A PhD in biological sciences doesn’t necessarily lead to a career track. Why not tack on an internship in a pharmaceutical company, for example? Now this PhD is geared towards helping this student work in the pharmaceutical industry upon graduation. This way at least you get the exposure and people in the industry can get to know you and your talents.
Q: What did you end up doing after your PhD?
I worked as a postdoctoral fellow in a food science laboratory, then I became a research assistant in an academic lab in epidemiology. After two years, I went on maternity leave. Currently I am a clinical research coordinator for the longitudinal study on peroxisomal disorders in the division of Child Health and Human Development at the RI-MUHC. I will be starting a Master’s program in genetic counselling at McGill in the Fall.
Q: How did you transition from a research role into a clinical coordinator role?
I learned about genetic counselling after my PhD. After holding many informational interviews, job shadowing, and attending countless webinars, it is clear to me that this is the right career path for me. I saw a job posting for a clinical research coordinator in genetics, under the supervision of a geneticist who was formerly a genetic counselor. I expressed my interest in her work and in genetic counselling during my job interview, and it was a good fit. My supervisor has been very supportive. I am able to pursue genetic counselling as a prospective student, while I conduct research on peroxisomal disorders.
Q: What advice would you have for students who are looking at alternative career paths?
As an example: If you’re a student and you want to pursue a career in the biotech/biopharma industry, the first thing I recommend before beginning your PhD is to research professors and determine which ones are connected to industry. During interviews with professors, express your interest in a career in industry. I would also suggest determining with your potential supervisor how your graduate work will help you gain entry into industry. This may apply to other career paths as well. I would also suggest volunteering or speaking to as many people as possible with “alternative” careers (informational interviews) until you find the right fit for you. Once you find the right fit, find a mentor, and try to job shadow if possible.
Q: If you could go back in time to tell yourself something about your graduate journey, what would it be?
Talk to as many people as possible and learn about the different careers that exist that make use of a science background. Determine how your graduate training can help you on the job market. Determine what tasks you like and dislike. If you want to leave academia, ask your friends and family for help and connect with as many people as possible. Hold as many informational interviews as it takes until you find the right fit. Don’t be shy—be humble and be honest and reflect as much as possible on your past experiences so that you can share these reflections with others. Finally, don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
Many thanks to Yasmin for sharing her PhD experience. You can find her on LinkedIn.
This interview took place in July 2020, and was updated in June 2021. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.