Alumni Profiles Series: Jennifer McCulley
Jennifer McCulley, Ph.D., received her degree in Molecular Cancer Biology in 2010. She is currently Project Manager and Senior Science Writer for The Scientific Consulting Group, Inc. in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
What and where did you study before you came to Duke? What made you decide to pursue your Ph.D.?
I was a chemistry and biology double major at Goucher College in Baltimore, MD. The opportunities afforded by a career in independent research, including the prospect of making an impact in treating cancer, really resonated with me and I decided to pursue an advanced degree in cancer biology.
What professional or career plans did you have in mind as you were completing your graduate degree?
I began my graduate studies with the expectation of eventually becoming a tenured professor at an elite academic institution. As I neared completion of my studies, however, I realized that I enjoyed thinking about the research, planning the experiments, analyzing the results, and writing manuscripts more than I enjoyed performing the actual experiments. These are all activities performed by a tenured professor, yes, but to achieve that status I would need to endure a long postdoctoral fellowship and uncertain career prospects in academia. Thus, I began considering alternative careers in science writing, health policy analysis, and project management.
What was your experience with finding your first job after graduation? How has your career path progressed since then?
Following graduation from Duke, I first pursued a postdoctoral fellowship at the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) as one final attempt to ascertain whether I truly wanted to leave academic research. After several months, my initial instinct was confirmed that I would be more productive in an alternative science-related career. I began applying to many job postings in the Washington, DC, area, and eventually landed a science writing position at The Scientific Consulting Group, Inc. (SCG). After a few years as a writer, I was promoted to a Project Manager responsible for managing all of the tasks for one of our NIH contracts. I still provide writing, editing, and analytical support for our other contracts. That’s one nice thing about working for a small consulting company—you gain broad experience by functioning in many roles simultaneously.
Tell us more about your current job. What is your favorite thing about what you do? What has been the most surprising thing about it?
SCG specializes in supporting the development and communication of environmental and health information for Federal clients, such as the NIH and EPA. This means that we work on a variety of human and environmental health-related projects on topics ranging from breast cancer to asthma and phthalates to radon. My favorite part of the job is the wide variety of tasks that we complete. On any given day, I could be attending a high-level EPA policy meeting to provide writing support, working on a programmatic assessment to inform NIH research funding priorities, researching and writing a report on environmental sustainability for EPA, or assisting with strategic plan development for an NIH policy office. The hardest part of the job to get used to is the cyclical nature of consulting—periods of extreme intensity are interspersed with periods of relative famine. It would be nice to have a consistent and predictable workload from week to week, but the excitement of participating in high-impact science and policy work in the Washington, DC, area makes it all worthwhile.
Any fond memories of Duke to share?
I really enjoyed all of the graduate student-friendly activities, such as free movie nights and free pizza events! To this day, I can’t pass free food without swiping some. I also used to love taking my books to the Duke Gardens to study for exams.
Do you have any interesting projects or professional plans in the works?
I think that every human and environmental health project we have ongoing is interesting! We just completed many promotional activities for EPA’s Asthma Awareness Month, for example. I do believe that my delivery of health and environmental science and policy solutions for NIH and EPA clients could be improved through a broader understanding of health policy and epidemiological concepts, so I am exploring the possibility of pursuing a master’s degree in Public Health to supplement my technical graduate training in genetics.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
Job hunting is a numbers game. Apply to as many positions as you can, even if you do not feel that you are perfectly qualified. You never know when you will be selected for what turns out to be a great career opportunity.
What advice would you offer to current graduate students at Duke?
Be proactive! This is the single most important point. Seek out as many volunteer opportunities as you can handle, focusing on opportunities related to your desired career. For example, if you intend to pursue a science writing career, consider contacting local organizations or scientific societies to help with writing or editing newsletter articles.
Abbie Langston, Ph.D.
Abbie Langston is a former intern in the Office of Graduate Student Affairs, and will receive her Ph.D. from the Graduate Program in Literature in December 2014.