Getting Guidance from a Former Graduate

Written By: Asmita Adhikari, PSC Graduate Student

Editor’s Note: This interview was republished from the March Monthly Spotlight section of the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists (AAPS) student chapter website. To view the original interview, please visit the AAPS student chapter website here.

The AAPS student chapter at UMB strives to provide an avenue for students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty who are interested in the field of pharmaceutical sciences to develop and enhance their career paths. One way that we accomplish this mission is by staying connected to and sharing insights from former members who have launched their own careers, allowing current students and trainees to learn from their experiences and challenges.

Below, I interview Heather Boyce, PhD ’17, a former student in the lab of Stephen Hoag, PhD, professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences and director of the Applied Pharmaceutics Lab (APhL) at the School of Pharmacy, and current staff fellow at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Continue reading to learn about the advice and guidance she has for current students and recent graduates beginning to pave their paths in the field.

What differences do you notice between your time as a graduate student to your current work as an employee at the FDA?

I had more fun as a graduate student for sure! As a student, my timelines were mainly driven by self-motivation (i.e., how fast I wanted to graduate), so there was a lot of freedom to move at my own pace.

In contrast, my work at the FDA is primarily driven by Generic Drug User Fee Amendments (GDUFA) deadlines. Oftentimes, I get an assignment and I have to quickly identify any potential issues as well as which primary stakeholders need to be involved. Then, I must effectively collaborate with all necessary individuals to get the assignment completed on time. This aspect can be fun, especially when meeting new people or learning about different divisions at the FDA. However, there are many times when I come across interesting topics as part of these assignments that I want to explore further, which as a graduate student, I would have had the time to investigate, but as an employee, I do not. But, these issues do become interesting research topics for our ORISE Fellowship Program.

Additionally, as a graduate student, I was able to speak whatever was on my mind without concern about how I communicated. Working at the FDA, I’ve learned how delicate language is and how to craft careful written and verbal communications, because I want to ensure that my thoughts are never misconstrued or used against my employer. I’ve also learned there’s a way to write regulatory documents that takes some skill and learning. Luckily, I work with a great team of regulatory experts who are able to lend a second set of eyes to my work and provide recommendations for how to best express certain regulatory ideas and concepts to the public and potential applicants.

What resources and professional associations impacted your career development the most? 

Being a member of the AAPS student chapter impacted my career development the most. It was an excellent opportunity to set a big, long-term goal and work with a team to accomplish that goal. Additionally, AAPS taught me how to network, navigate a large organization, and build effective collaborations across universities. This last part is especially important because it can be overwhelming to work at such a large organization where you need to figure out who the experts are for specific subjects, and how to build relationships to forge effective collaborations. Participating in AAPS at UMB and at the national level was instrumental to honing my ability and confidence to collaborate across offices at the FDA.

What challenges did you face when looking for a job after completing your PhD?

I was very fortunate to receive an offer from the FDA through a contact I met at the AAPS national conference. The opportunity fit well with my goals for after graduation and the work was aligned with my graduate studies.

However, I did struggle during my early attempts at finding a position. Initially, I was aggressively applying and reaching out to my network, but I wasn’t getting any interviews. I made the unfortunate mistake of following resume advice that sounded good at the time, but wasn’t ideal for the types of jobs to which I wanted to apply. The idea was to fit all of your accomplishments and goals on one page. The source where I first encountered this advice ensured me that if I wrote my resume well, I should be able to sell myself in that one page. I created this gorgeous looking resume, fine-tuned the content so it was succinct, to the point, and communicated impact. The response was resounding silence.

After two months of not receiving a single interview request, I consulted a friend who owns his own company. He looked at my resume and said it looked like I hadn’t accomplished much, even though I had. We worked together to revise the resume, keeping my format but adding in much needed detail. My new resume told a story about who I was and what I wanted to do. After the revision, I started receiving more interview requests.

The point is, there is so much advice out there, but much of it is not relevant to the scientific field. As a scientist, you need to show you are an expert in your area, and it requires space to do that, so don’t feel like you need to make your resume a certain page length because of some preconceived notion of what a resume should be. Focus on your personal brand, your skill set, and your track record for success.

What advice would you give graduate students who are looking for a position at the FDA or elsewhere?

My best advice is to network, work on your personal brand, and sell how your skills can be beneficial to the hiring group. While networking provides you with an opportunity to get the interview or have hiring managers look at your resume, it is also important to know what skill sets and expertise define you the most (your personal brand).

Your ability to communicate to the hiring group about how these skill sets and expertise can bring value or contribute to the group’s mission and work is also incredibly valuable. One of the best ways to communicate your value is to have a purpose or objective statement at the top of your resume. I see tons of resumes from potential candidates, and the candidates who stand out to me are those who clearly communicate their expertise and what they are looking for. It makes my job easier as an interviewer, giving me a better understanding about how this potential candidate will fit into the role we are looking to fill.

Another way to develop your personal brand is to work on your LinkedIn profile and presence. Oftentimes, when we need candidates with certain skill sets, I search LinkedIn to find candidates who would be a good fit. I’ll scan profile summaries to determine if I’ll reach out to someone based on their stated expertise.

The best way to leverage your network is to look for open positions at the place you would like to work. Determine which person (people) in your network works at that organization with whom you have an established rapport. Send them an email with the job post, explaining how you would be a great candidate and ask if they are willing to pass your resume on with a good word. While most people genuinely want to help to the best of their ability, it’s up to you to do the work for your contact.

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