Alumni Profiles Series: Heather Elser Smith

 November 8, 2017

Heather Elser Smith

Heather Elser Smith is the Director of One Patient Services, a subsidiary of QOL Medical, LLC, where she is responsible for improving access to products through research, education, and provider/patient services, and supporting commercial, sales, and marketing internally and externally. She received her BSN from Thomas More College in 2001, her MSN specializing as a Neonatal Nurse Practitioner and Neonatal Clinical Nurse Specialist from Duke University in 2007, and her PhD in Nursing from Duke in 2012.

What was the path you took to your current position and career?

Growing up, I always wanted to be a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurse after my young cousin with osteogenesis imperfecta passed away because of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). I obtained my Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree in 2001 (from Thomas More College), and worked for a period of time as a NICU nurse. However, I became frustrated with being limited to my assigned patients at the bedside. I wanted to expand my knowledge and scope of responsibility to neonates, so I pursued my master's to become a nurse practitioner.

During my education up to that point, I had always been interested in becoming an educator one day, which presented itself much sooner in life than expected. That’s why I decided to obtain my PhD. I received my PhD in Nursing in 2012, but it prepared me much more beyond my myopic thought of being a professor. My original goal and the PhD program’s goal also was to turn students into faculty members. After a few years in the program, I no longer felt called to go down the faculty pathway.

The process to find my own pathway took nearly a year and along the way, I sought out to not only find a job but also educate others about the value of a person with a PhD in Nursing. After sending multiple applications, I received a rejection email from a company called QOL Medical, letting me know that my skills were not applicable to the position. I wrote back to educate them on what a Nursing PhD could offer and within minutes, I received a response stating if I was still interested in the position, I should resubmit my CV. I did just that, and I have worked ever since at QOL Medical. I am now in charge of the Raleigh office managing a patient hub for a rare disease drug, the clinical research group, and medical education and writing.  Although I did not know it at the time, the journey and self-transformation that my PhD provided absolutely prepared me for taking on the responsibilities for what I do today in my job. I never expected to end up here, but I am extremely happy about it.

How do you think we can better bridge academia and industry?

I think the perspective between the two groups needs to be re-evaluated. Having clinically trained individuals in industry is a necessity to develop and promote proper drug and device work. It is really just an extension and a different forum for what is happening in academia. I am an advocate for more PhD nurses in industry because I believe it is the perfect combination between clinical knowledge/experience and research with a lens for knowing medical information and health care systems that can result in effective research protocols and effective processes. The market is always changing, the lifelong learner perspective from a PhD serves you well to always learn new things, and being a nurse sets you up for being agile and flexible.

What do you think is important for success?

I think that it is very important to have classmates and colleagues whom you can consider family. My PhD cohort was small with only three people and the program as a whole was also less than a dozen for the first few years. We went through the program’s challenges together and bonded through events like campout. At work, I have close relationships with not only my colleagues but also my boss. It’s important to have colleagues who understand the challenges (like balancing family and work) you are going through. I would definitely use the words “team,” “family,” and “village” to describe the people around me.

What dID  you think of Campout?

I would definitely do it again if Kim and Ryan – other PhD Nursing mates – were here with me today.


Simone Tang
Simone Tang

Ph.D. student, Business

Simone Tang is a Ph.D. student in business who studies how morality and ideology impact judgments and decision-making. When she’s not PhDing, she is writing Yelp reviews. You can learn more on her website at