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Alumni Profiles Series: Sarah Wong-Goodrich

September 28, 2016

Sarah Wong-Goodrich graduated from Duke with a PhD in Psychology and Neuroscience in 2010. She also receievd an MA in Experimental Psychology from California State University, Fullerton. She completed a postdoc at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and went on to work in industry and as a freelance science writer. Dr. Wong-Goodrich is now an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Iona College, a small liberal arts college just outside New York City.

When you were finishing  graduate studies at Duke, what career plans did you have in mind?

I was a bit discouraged by the funding environment when I graduated, and I had seen several of my friends struggle to even just get an interview for that elusive tenure-track position. At the time, I didn't really see myself in academia, writing grants for money that wasn't there or applying for academic jobs that were drying up. I had no idea about the diversity of non-academic jobs available other than working at the bench, so I considered just working in industry in R&D at a company. However, there weren't a lot of resources [for non-academic careers] and it didn't seem as though the faculty encouraged it. So I followed the natural academic path and took a postdoc at the NIH when I graduated. It wasn't until I got my first industry job as a scientist that I started to learn about all the different kinds of careers I could do with a science PhD. One thing I would have really benefitted from knowing as a graduate student was the diversity of careers available to people with STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] degrees. You don't just have to be a bench scientist: there are also careers in medical affairs, clinical research, science and medical writing, regulatory work, and consulting, among others. There are so many other options than just becoming a professor.

you've had a diverse and exciting career path. Could you share your experiences in different careers? what made you decide to enter/leave them?

My government training was as a postdoc in behavioral neuroscience at the NIH, which I really enjoyed. I went on to work as a bench scientist at a medium-sized biotech firm, where we developed therapies for neurological disorders; it was a very fast-paced job, with set goals and regular performance evaluations. I found that once you get one industry job, a lot of recruiters start contacting you on LinkedIn. In fact, I've gotten all my industry jobs, including freelance projects, through contacts on LinkedIn. I left my bench science job because I was recruited to be a medical science liaison at a larger pharmaceutical company, where a main role was to cultivate collaborative relationships with key opinion leaders in psychiatry and neurology. It was a really great job, but there's a lot of travel, which was a challenge when I was just starting my family. I left to become a medical writer, where I was working for clients at pharmaceutical companies—many of whom had MBAs, but lacked scientific training—and I was essentially hired to write about the science behind their pharmaceutical drugs. It was a great opportunity to learn more about the business side of drug development and marketing. However, I started looking back into academia for adjunct opportunities, since I've always really loved teaching and mentoring, even when I was a graduate student. I eventually got an adjunct position and was then encouraged to apply for a tenure-track vacancy in the department, which I was fortunate to get, and I love it. I am now able to use my industry experiences in this new academic role when advising undergraduate and graduate students about potential careers in science.

How did you get started with freelance science writing? How do you balance freelancing with your other professional duties?

For me, I first worked as a medical writer at an agency, which involved very long hours and a grueling commute that put a serious strain on my work/life balance. The agency eventually let me freelance with them instead for a while, and I was also able to get additional projects on my own as a freelance writer. For people interested in breaking into science/medical writing, I would say the best thing you can do is inform yourself. Familiarize yourself with the various types of science writing available. There's science writing for government, non-profits, pharma, law, or editing for science journals, among others. I spent a lot of time reading about potential careers with a science PhD and looking for job opportunities on places like Indeed. I also had a friend refer me to a writing workshop with Emma Hitt that is very useful in introducing you on how to set up as a freelance medical writer. As a freelance writer, you have control in choosing the kinds of projects you want to do and how much work you want to take on in light of the other professional duties you may have.

Could you talk more about being in academia? What is your favorite aspect of being a professor?

The last 5+ years of my career path have really been a reflection of trying to find that ideal work/life balance: trying to be happy and satisfied with both my career and personal life. At first I chased these careers that may be considered more prestigious or with high earning potential, but I found they can put a serious strain on family life. I love what I'm doing now and I finally get this really great work/life balance, so that works for me. In my new academic job, my main role is teaching, but I also have a small research program. I'm starting a new project in the fall, and I will have a few undergraduate students helping me conduct behavioral experiments. It's very exciting to be back in research. But ultimately, I get to teach and mentor college students, which is my favorite part about being in academia. I had amazing mentors when I was a college and graduate student, so to be able to give back to the next generation of scholars is really rewarding. I love being a part of that process.

You were very involved in mentoring and extracurricular activities when you were a graduate student. do you have any advice about finding/balancing these opportunities?

At Duke, I was required to be a TA for 5 semesters, which included leading my own discussion sections. I think this requirement is wonderful because it develops your teaching skills and gives you teaching experience to put on your CV. If your program at Duke doesn't have a TA requirement, I'd definitely look for opportunities to TA or help teach a summer course. Duke also has wonderful summer research programs for college students. You can use those to take on as many undergraduates as you can manage, and foster those relationships. Being a research mentor alone gives you ample teaching and mentoring experience. Talk with your PI and see if there are any undergraduates interested in your lab that you can mentor in addition to summer programs. Leadership is probably one of the key skills that hiring managers are looking for, especially in industry. You can also draw upon those skills for management roles.

It seems that you have had some really strong mentors during your studies and careers. Do you have advice on finding mentors?

I sought out my PhD mentor, Christina Williams—she was actually the reason I applied to Duke. I initially reached out to her over email, then met her at a conference and we really hit it off, so I let her know that I wanted to be a part of her lab. You have to be really proactive in finding mentors. In order to be successful at most things, you have to be a go-getter. I took advantage of being under her tutelage, even if we disagreed at times; I think it's really important to try to make the most of the mentor relationships that you have. I got on every project I could and worked with every potential mentor I could. It was the same for my postdoc and working in industry. I was really fortunate to have excellent mentors along the way, but I had to be proactive about being really involved in those relationships. Sometimes you think you have to make it on your own, but this whole world [of career development] is about networking.

What's the best career advice you've ever received?

This might sound cliché, but you have to do what's best for you. You don't have to worry about pleasing others. You only have one life to live, and you've got to live it. Sometimes you're going to have to make really tough decisions about your career, whether that be leaving a position, starting in a new field, etc., but you've got to make them. At the end of the day, the only person you're going to answer to is yourself and your family (if you happen to have one). There might be a little more at stake with graduate students and their mentors, who may only see one end goal for their students of becoming a professors, but at the end of the day they don't have to live your life – you do. They'll respect your decisions and what you choose if they're good mentors.

Do you have any advice you'd like to share with current Duke graduate students (about graduation, work/life balance, career choices)?

In addition to being proactive about your career development while you work hard as a graduate student, take advantage of extracurricular activities! It’s good for your brain! I was on the Duke club swimming team, which was a great outlet for me. I was able to stay in shape and make some really great friends. I study the neurocognitive benefits of exercise, which I constantly work hard to integrate into my own life. The best things for cognitive aging are exercise, social interactions (friends), and keeping your brain stimulated. As a graduate student, you have the last one covered, so it's important to also work on the first two, especially while you maybe have fewer responsibilities outside of school.


Sarah Kleinstein

Ph.D. student, Molecular Genetics and Microbiology Program

Sarah Kleinstein is a Ph.D. student in the Molecular Genetics and Microbiology program. Her research focuses on understanding the genetic basis behind differential responses to infectious diseases. In 2015, she relocated with her advisor to the Institute for Genomic Medicine at Columbia University, where she continues her graduate research.

Professional Development Tag

  • Alumni
  • Career Development
  • Career Paths
  • Leadership
  • Mentoring