Alumni Profiles Series: Felicia Hawthorne

 February 8, 2018

Felicia Hawthorne

Felicia Hawthorne received her Ph.D. in Genetics and Genomics from Duke University in 2012. Dr. Hawthorne has held positions in sales development, technical marketing and support management, and global strategy and business analytics management in the biotechnology sector. She currently works as a product manager at Illumina.

Could you tell us about your position as a product manager at Illumina?

Working as a product manager can mean a different thing every day. Generally speaking, I'm in charge of steering everything in the right direction—making sure everything is working properly, customers using the product are happy, our sales team knows how to talk to customers about the product, and customers know how to compare our offerings. I also act as a liaison between our external sales team and our internal teams. If there's something going on that's affecting our customers, I'm the one communicating with our developmental team, our statistics teams, and our internal teams to talk them through the problem and guide them in coming up with solutions. For example, we recently had a software issue related to our technology that was affecting our customers. I am not the one who writes the software fix that changes the configuration, but I work with the software team to find the best solution. I communicate the needs of the customer, and the software team talks me through different options. My goal is to figure out the best path forward and to find a solution that meets everyone's needs.

It sounds like you have to be able to speak a lot of different languages to different people.

Absolutely. One of the major ways I add value to the team is by having the ability to speak to people from different backgrounds. I have to be able to talk to non-scientists and explain to them difficult concepts in a manner they will understand. I can't be everywhere at once and talk to every customer, so I have to make sure the people who are talking to the customers understand what's going on. On the other hand, I also have to be able to talk technically with our internal groups. When changes in protocols are proposed, or when teams want to do things slightly differently, I may ask if we have thought about the time added or how the proposed change will fit into the established workflow. I have to understand both sides.

Has there been anything that's particularly challenging or surprising about your current position?

My current position is a bit different from the positions I held at smaller companies immediately out of graduate school. I think in many ways working at smaller companies was an easier transition from graduate school than working at a larger company would have been because you have a lot of independence and deal with a lot of quickly moving things. In my current role working for a larger company, there is a lot more process to how things get done. You may know right away that this is the way we need to do something, but it's not as simple as just making that decision. You have to talk to lots of different people. You can't turn a big ship very suddenly. When I was in graduate school I frequently used Illumina products. Now I see the other side—the complexity of what goes into every change and every update of a new product. It's cool, but it was surprising to me how much was involved.

How did graduate school prepare you for your current position?

Having a deep technical knowledge of the field I work in is obviously valuable, but someone once told me that in college you learn how to be taught, and in graduate school you learn how to teach yourself. When you go through the graduate school process you learn how to solve problems, you learn how to read things critically. In your coursework you learn that just because a paper says something doesn't always mean it is the case. That's a valuable skill set that I use in my current position. I evaluate a lot of information and put together different pieces to solve problems on my own. I also have to educate myself in certain areas I don't know all that well. There's no way I'd be able to each myself some of the topics in my general field if I hadn't gone through the process of really learning genetics, doing experiments, setting them up, having them fail, and figuring out a better way to go about things.

How did you find yourself in your first position out of graduate school?

I applied to many different positions, guided by the fact that I knew where I was moving because my now husband had taken a postdoc position at Stanford. Some companies sent me an instant rejection, some companies I never heard back from, and I had quite a few phone interviews, but it was actually a bit tough for my first role out. I did not apply for any roles that involved bench science, so I didn't quite know what all of the roles I was applying for meant.

When it comes to your first position, at some point you just have to jump and get your experience.  While I was interested in the company I ended up working for, there wasn't an opening for me in the role I wanted.  Because they were a smaller company we were able to work out a deal where I took a role that I thought I was a bit too qualified for, but it ended up being a good step forward. It gave me the opportunity to come in and be more valuable than they needed in the role. I could do all the things they needed and then still have extra time where I could explore my next career move. I could help out with different functions of the company, and then figure out what I liked. It was a win-win for both me and the company.

What was the transition like from being a graduate student in academia to a professional in industry?

It was a bit of a shock. When you get to the end of graduate school, you're on this high. You've finally finished and you feel on top of the world. When you start somewhere new you're at the bottom of the totem pole again. The transition was a somewhat frustrating in that sense, but one of the advantages a Ph.D. offers is that you can rise in the organization quickly and your ceiling is much higher. One thing I think academics need is patience. As someone coming out of graduate school it's important to understand that while you knew your area of academia well, transitioning to industry means there are other areas you don't know very well. There are other people who know it better than you and you have to work with them to get that knowledge.  It's a transition, but it can also be very rewarding. You end up meeting a diverse set of people with very different backgrounds. This diversity can be really powerful for the group when we're making decisions that move projects forward.

Is there any other advice you'd give to graduate students or things you wish you'd known?

When you work in industry, you will meet people from very different backgrounds. I came from this high-level academic background where your value is based on the fact that you have a Ph.D., but I have learned so much about how to do my job well from people that l would've thought the unlikeliest of mentors if I had met them in graduate school. Be humble and open to learning from all different people.

And don't be afraid. It can be hard to jump into industry because you're really educated, but not super experienced. You just have to have confidence in the fact that you can go and do a fantastic job, and that will speak for itself. Go get experience. People in industry will recognize when you are working hard and doing well.


Rachel Newcomb
Rachel Newcomb

Ph.D. student, Genetics and Genomics

Rachel Newcomb works in the Alvarez lab studying the effects of polyploidy on breast cancer tumorigenesis and recurrence.