“What do you want to do with your PhD?”
Both dreaded and inescapable, this question seems to crop up at every gathering of family, old friends, and new acquaintances. For those of us who mark “industry” in our tentative list of potential careers, it can seem a daunting path to an endpoint with uncertain responsibilities. What are some of the jobs available in industry? How does a PhD student gain the experience and seek out opportunities that lead into those positions? The best way to answer these questions is to ask people who have walked that path before: people like Wenny Lin, a CAMB-GTV alumna who now works as a Senior Real World Data Scientist (or epidemiologist) at Genentech, a member of the Roche Group.
At Genentech, Wenny collaborates with teams that push drugs in late-stage development to market. This encompasses a range of activities, from designing and managing clinical trials (Clinical Development Team), to investigating potential side effects (Safety Science Team), to educating the medical community (Medical Affairs Team), and demonstrating the value of drugs to achieve insurance coverage (Payer Evidence Team). Wenny’s main role on these teams is to provide strategies for utilizing evidence from “real world data” such as insurance/administrative claims, cancer registries, and electronic medical records. When an observational research study is needed, Wenny forms a study team to design and execute the study, and disseminate the results at conferences and in peer-reviewed publications.
Wenny’s expertise in epidemiology stems from her work on HIV vaccines in the lab of Hildegund Ertl at the Wistar Institute, where she became interested in HIV prevention and gained bench skills. Early on at Penn, she audited a few public health and epidemiology courses, and at the end of her PhD in 2008, she applied and was accepted to the Cancer Prevention Fellowship at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The fellowship program sent her to Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health for a one-year Master’s of Public Health degree, concentrating in Quantitative Methods. While completing her Master’s coursework, Wenny also worked as an intern at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, compiling the state’s data on birth defects for annual reports and press releases. In 2009, she moved to the NCI for the second part of the fellowship program and joined a group in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology & Genetics. There, she learned statistical programming and combined epidemiological study design methods with her molecular biology background to identify immunological, nutritional, and genetic risk factors and early detection biomarkers in esophageal cancer patients. Towards the end of her fellowship in 2013, Wenny’s husband decided to pursue a MD at Stanford, so she began a job search on the West Coast.
While she was submitting job applications, Wenny also checked LinkedIn to identify contacts who could connect her to hiring managers for any potential job opportunities. Then, if she was in the area, she would ask hiring managers for in-person informational interviews. These in-person informational interviews not only allowed her to learn more about the company and positions available, but also let Wenny make a direct impression of herself as a potential candidate. Having been involved on hiring committees at Genentech, she stresses the importance of building your network early, and making the most of it during your job search. If there is someone in the company who knows and can vouch for you, it can be just the edge needed to elevate you above other equally qualified candidates.
Networking and communicating with people both in science and in other fields are skills that Wenny cultivated as a Graduate Associate (GA) in Penn’s undergrad dorms and as a GAPSA executive board member. Beyond advancing skills useful for career preparation, her extracurricular activities also helped her stay grounded and engaged during grad school, which she admits can be a very isolating time when lab experiments continually fail. So for an individual who took advantage of many opportunities in grad school, is there anything that Wenny wishes she had done differently? She admits that her one regret is not making more connections with BGS faculty. Though it is easy to be intimidated by their “star power”, faculty have much to share about their career and life experiences. Seizing opportunities to learn from others and to build your network, whether with faculty or other scientists, is a habit that will serve you well throughout your PhD and beyond.