Alumni Profiles Series: Melissa Keenan
Melissa Keenan, Ph.D. is a Consulting Technical Writer at TriLink BioTechnologies. She completed her doctorate in 2015 from the University Program in Genetics and Genomics (UPGG) under Jen-Tsan Ashley Chi, M.D., Ph.D.
What was your transition to industry like after your Ph.D.?
I worked in a couple of different companies before graduate school, so that gave me a few “mini-exposures” to industry prior to my Ph.D. I went to UCSD for my undergrad, and I did an industry internship in a small company, as there are so many great companies and opportunities in the San Diego area. Once I finished undergrad, I worked for a big pharmaceutical company for about a year, then I went to Duke for my doctoral studies. When I started my graduate school search, I thought I wanted to be a professor, so I chose Duke because they have the Certificate in College Teaching, and I enjoyed that Duke had the infrastructure to enhance my teaching abilities. However, by the end of graduate school, I just knew a career as a professor wasn’t for me. I wanted a higher salary than teaching positions could offer and more control over where I would be located.
Right after graduate school, I started applying to entry-level scientist positions at large companies, specifically in San Diego to be closer to my family. However, one big issue I faced was figuring out how to effectively network between the Triangle and California. Networking can be very helpful for getting a position in a new industry, and there was really no way for me to do it long-distance. Meanwhile, I applied to both industry and academic postdocs because I had been told that although a postdoc is another training position, it offers additional training and opportunities for career growth. A postdoc is a great opportunity to gain additional experience and perspective and to run a new research project, which can set you apart from other applicants who just finished graduate school. I ended up securing a postdoc at Ionis Pharmaceuticals after submitting an online application, so, in this case, my CV alone was enough to get me a phone interview. Doing an industry postdoc was crucial for me to build my early career in industry.
What motivated you to go into science writing?
I thought when I started my career in industry that I would likely stay at the bench, but when my son was born prematurely, I had to prioritize his health. I ended up leaving my postdoc early to help him meet developmental milestones. About a year ago, my undergraduate roommate reached out to me to gauge my interest in a small writing position associated with the marketing department at her company. I sent in a writing sample and got the job, which got my foot in the door for science writing. Before COVID-19, I had thought I would potentially go back to benchwork full-time, but as I have experienced the flexibility of science writing during quarantine, I have found that I am more interested in continuing this position. The option to work part-time is a huge positive for me.
What does your writing position entail?
I write research updates for TriLink, which is essentially a summary of a recent published study that has used one of their products. TriLink has a host of oligonucleotide and mRNA products that are used in many different ways, so highlighting the various uses for their products for an audience of industry professionals is one of their marketing strategies.
How was your experience of pregnancy during an industry postdoc? Was your employer amenable to your needs?
My experience with pregnancy in industry was very positive. There are policies and procedures defined and in place, and there is a human resources department to enforce them. In academia, the lines can be blurry when it comes to expectations of time, so it was helpful to have the policy structure present at Ionis to lean upon during my pregnancy. My boss was hugely supportive, and there was no push for me to work outside of my work hours.
What is the job security like in your current position?
In most situations in industry, you shouldn’t expect longevity in your job. For me, living in a biotech hotspot like San Diego or even like the Research Triangle Park, I know that if I lose my job at one place, there are many opportunities to find another job in the area without having to uproot my family and relocate.
How does industry research compare to academic research?
Industry research is much more interconnected, and you’re relying on other people while they rely on you. It is more collaborative than academia, but there are plenty of days where you’re at the bench doing PCR all day! As a postdoc, you’re still responsible for pushing your project in the lab, but company goals, in my experience, are a high bar. If you are not pushing yourself as an individual, even while relying on other people, you won’t meet those objectives. In that way, it’s still similar to academic research.
Do you have any tips for the application and interview process for industry positions?
Network! If you can get your application to the hiring manager, not just through the HR portal, that’s huge. On a more basic level, try to understand what the goals of the company are and what they value, then do your best to reflect those values during your interview. Your understanding of what is important to them will be more evident during your interview, but also find ways to highlight those foci on your résumé or CV. Write in a way that demonstrates that you are an ideal candidate for the spot this company is trying to fill.
Where could you go to find information on company goals and priorities?
Even if you don’t know anyone at the company well enough to ask them to send your application onto hiring, find someone on LinkedIn who currently works or used to work for your target company. Asking them questions about the corporate culture will show you what to emphasize during your interview. Of course, also read their website, look into any news articles, and go to Glassdoor.com, but talking to someone will give you the best idea of what the company really prioritizes.
What would you change if you were to do graduate school all over again?
Overall, I’m really glad that I took the time to make sure that a Ph.D. is what I wanted to do for my career. The experiences that I had outside of academia prior to graduate school were hugely beneficial for me because they helped me to better define my goals and understand how a graduate education would help me to achieve them. At this point, I feel confident about my professional standing, but I also wish I had conducted a more thorough job search in Durham. It’s a great place!
What is your favorite memory of Duke?
It has to be Carolina games in Cameron Stadium! I’m a huge basketball fan.
Ph.D. student in the University Program in Genetics and Genomics.
Rachel Meade is a Dean’s Graduate Fellow and BioCoRE Graduate Scholar in the second year of her doctoral studies through the University Program in Genetics & Genomics (UPGG). She studies the host-pathogen interface between Mycobacterium tuberculosis and diverse mouse populations to reveal the genetic factors controlling susceptibility to tuberculosis. While Rachel is currently interested in pursuing further academic research, she enjoys connecting with UPGG alumni and exploring the diverse career opportunities available to doctoral graduates in the biomedical sciences.