Alumni Profiles Series: Cynthia Hougum
After you received your Ph.D., you transitioned immediately to industry. Did this move reflect your career aspirations during your graduate training?
No. It would have been very difficult for me to predict this outcome. I thought that it would be a very clear process, in which I would go to graduate school and then I would understand where I was going and what I was going to do in my career. After my graduate study, I took my first position at GE because it was a technical leadership program that allowed me to see three different parts of the company and to determine what I really wanted to do. I knew that I loved chemistry and science, and I wanted to see the diverse ways I could apply my scientific work.
I did think about going into academia because I truly enjoy teaching. During my first year at Duke, I had a wonderful experience teaching the introductory undergraduate course in Chemistry. When I defended, however, I decided that I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to try out industry jobs. If it didn’t work out, I thought that I would go back and explore academic career options.
What do you think are the challenges that current graduate students will face in their transition to industry?
First, the transition is not as hard as you might expect because companies are looking for the same qualities that are important in graduate school. They are looking for strong foundational skills, a good work ethic, and the ability to meet deadlines and deliver projects. In some ways, it is actually easier to be successful in industry because the scope and goals of your research are more clearly defined. Instead of discovering something new and novel, you are actually applying the knowledge in the field.
However, even though you might still be doing science, you also have to be able to communicate the value of what you are doing in order to get projects funded. It is essential to know how to be a good leader, how to work well in a team, and how to handle conflict. These are skills that most graduate students already have; you just need to think of them as tools in your toolbox, ready to be used in different situations.
Did you face any particular difficulties climbing the career leader as a woman?
Yes. When I started my career over 20 years ago, most of the people in my network were men. Back then, I was in a chemical industry which was very male-dominated. The situation has changed dramatically now, especially when my work interacts with the life sciences industry, in which there are more women. However, I still observe more men in engineering-heavy fields.
The central advice I would give to women entering these fields is not to think about it too much. Be secure in your skills, your intelligence and leadership abilities – these can triumph over many difficult situations. However, you have to be prepared for some realities. You will probably have to be more persistent and creative when negotiating within the corporate structure, because you might not have the same connections.
The thing that I have always admired and appreciated about GE, where I spent 25 years of my career, is that they have a very clear policy around non-discrimination and there are protections in place for their employees. Not all companies have a similarly inclusive and proactive culture.
How do you juggle your career success and your personal life?
It’s important to pick a company or a university that has a flexible working culture. I, personally, don’t believe that you have to be in the office to get the job done. Of course, this depends heavily on the type of work you do, and that’s why you have to do your research and decide on your priorities. Sometimes, when you’re juggling work and the rest of your life, this is easier said than done.
As Michelle Obama said, “You can’t have it all.” You have to make your own rules. Don’t let the outside impose rules on you. When I started my career, I thought that I had to be the perfect wife, the perfect employee, and the perfect mother, and that my house had to be perfectly clean, but I found that it was just impossible. When you hold yourself to unrealistic standards, you start making yourself miserable and making everybody else around you miserable.
I have been lucky, frankly. Both my husband and I work and we have both had to travel frequently. We don’t live near family, which can make this more difficult, but we make sure that we have good day care, good neighbors, and people on whom we can rely. We have a great support system, but it is definitely not easy for either side. When I have had to move or transition between roles in my career, my husband has had to take a step back in his professional trajectory to follow me.
Don’t expect it to be easy, but it is not impossible.
Have your experiences as a woman in STEM affected your motivation and career goals?
Yes, absolutely. I always felt that I had a responsibility for those folks who would come after me. Sometimes this can feel like a heavy load to carry. In the early days of my career, I was one of only two female executives out of 4,500 engineers in GE. I love to point out that this number has increased! However, both of us early female executives were motivated by this imbalance. We started the first Women in Technology group, which involves community-building and peer mentoring. What we found is that we have to work to create the network. Everybody has the responsibility to mentor up and down; we learn from each other.
In addition to that, I was also very blessed to lead the GE Girls STEM Camp, which is an opportunity that the company provides for middle-school girls every summer. That also was really important for me because it gave these girls a purpose and motivation to stay involved in STEM. We even brought participants on-site to show them what they could do. These events became so big that last year, there were over 160 volunteers involved.
What do you think are the essential qualities of a good mentor?
To be a good mentor, you have to listen carefully and you have to be willing to take the time to really connect with another person. For me, mentoring definitely takes a lot of time, but it is very rewarding.
To have an effective mentor-mentee relationship, I believe that some of the work has to come from the mentee. You should do an assessment of what you are looking for in a mentor and the fields that you are interested in. You are going to need different kinds of mentors. One person won’t fill all of your criteria.
Also, don’t underestimate the power of using the Duke Alumni Network. This network is one of the reasons why you come to Duke and is one of its strongest assets for your professional development. It can be as simple as searching for people who work in certain companies who graduated from Duke. Reach out to them, and then conduct a short informational interview. Be prepared! Prepare key questions to make sure that those 15 minutes will not go to waste.
What career goals would you like to work toward in the future?
I would love to lead a business. That’s a part of what I do and I would like to focus more on it in the future. My career has been really broad, and I have been building this toolkit of skills to be able to run a business.
What is the best career advice you have received, and what is your advice to fellow women who want to pursue a career in this field?
I think the best career advice I ever received was from my stepfather. He kept reinforcing to me that I could do anything that I wanted to. Whenever I felt that I couldn’t be or do something, he would always ask, “Why not?”
It might sound like a cliché, but I needed somebody to be telling me that, over and over. I believe that confidence breeds success. If you believe you can, this attitude is clear to other people.
Ph.D. candidate, Molecular Cancer Biology
Felicia Lim is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in Molecular Cancer Biology. Her research focuses on how hormones affect our immune system and how this influences their ability to fight cancer cells. She also participates in the Global Health Doctoral Certificate Program as she is interested in using her expertise in research to enter science diplomacy and global health. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, listening to music, and hiking.