Scientists Simplifying Science

When PhDs become leaders, future unknowns become unambiguous

in Face à Face by

It’s well established that having a PhD does not necessarily mean that a career path is well defined and laid out in front of us. As a PhD in training or a post-PhD professional, one must constantly reanalyze their passion and what would help satisfy their career needs. Additionally, it’s imperative to inculcate transferable skills in one’s arsenal for the career they so desire. Such skills are not necessarily learned ‘on the job’, whether academic or non-academic, but also from hobbies, volunteer activities or any other task the individual can be a part of.

In conversation with Club SciWri (CSW), Vania ‘Vay’ Cao (VC), founder of ‘Free the PhD’ and Manager of Scientific Content and Training at Inscopix, elaborates on how her passion evolved with time and what led her to being an entrepreneur and a successful STEM PhD professional.

CSW: Let’s go back in time. What were your career plans while you were a PhD student at Brown University and NIH?

VC: To be frank, I didn’t have any – one of the commonly shared reasons I struggled more than I should have when ready to transition out of the academic path. As a college and then graduate student, I went with the flow to see where the current would take me, and as many know, this can be quite dangerous if you’re not paying attention to where you’re going from time to time.

I enjoyed the ride because I took detours when I saw something that interested me. Those detours eventually let me take control of my career direction, paddle against the current when I wanted to change direction, and end up in a different river taking me on a new journey that I’m quite excited about – working in the business world!

Eventually I started spending more time outside the lab – working with international students on community events, interviewing people for articles, and making my own music videos.

CSW: How did your passion evolve over time?

VC: During tea breaks between experiments, I always threatened to run away from lab and open my own lemonade stand with my classmate. But that didn’t quite happen!

What did happen was this: you know that little voice in the pit of your stomach, the one that tells you something is a bad idea? Since my undergrad days, that voice had been telling me that bench research wasn’t for me, and it just got louder over time. I tried to forge ahead despite that voice, because I wasn’t sure if it would change with a change in research topic.

But as I got older, I started thinking about what I really wanted to do – not what I thought I was supposed to do. Ultimately, the decisions you make will directly impact how happy you will be day to day, and sometimes you’re just not a right fit for a particular environment, no matter how hard you try.

Eventually I started spending more time outside the lab – working with international students on community events, interviewing people for articles, and making my own music videos (Genius in a Lab Coat). These activities kept me energized to finish my thesis project, and also taught me invaluable skills that were directly responsible for getting me employed.

CSW: You are currently working with Inscopix. How has your growth been?

VC: I started out at my company as an Application Scientist, a role that is responsible for the success of the company’s customers. Since Inscopix is a neuroscience company that created a new technology platform for preclinical brain imaging applications, my PhD background and personal interests in writing, communication and education made me a great fit for both the company and the role. I have a lot of fantastic colleagues and an impressive number of fellow PhDs at Inscopix because we highly value the ability to serve our customers – fellow neuroscientists – in accomplishing their experimental goals. It’s been a great way to leverage my research background and experience, and stay connected to a field I love.

As startup companies grow, employees can grow with them.  From directly addressing customer needs, I’ve moved into managing the educational infrastructure that supports them. My latest role also includes training new members of our field team to become masters of our technology for both sales and support roles.

Young companies are dynamic, living entities, and if you find one that you mesh with, you’ll never be bored!

The funny thing is, even karaoke contests and beauty pageants come with useful transferable skills.

CSW: And amongst all this, you never gave up on your passion for singing and being a beauty queen finalist for the 2013 Pacific Miss Asian America Beauty Pageant.

VC: I’m a singer and competitor by nature.  During grad school, I participated in karaoke contests and joined an acapella group at the NIH. Music is an amazing anti-depressant, and singing practice helped me through many tough days of failed experiments!

To really get out of my comfort zone, I competed in a local beauty pageant in my final year of grad school.  It took me two years to get my nerve up, but a good friend of mine encouraged me to give it a try.  Even though I’d spent most of my life as a nerdy tomboy, I figured well, why not?

Although I had no idea how to walk in heels or put on makeup, I approached the situation as a scientist would – do some research on what you don’t know and run some experiments, just like in the lab! I did a lot of Googling, YouTubing and analysis of fashion runway videos to figure out how to strut my stuff, and got placed in the top 5 as the oldest and possibly nerdiest contestant that year. Even my pageant Q&A answer featured Bill Nye and the need for more science communication!

The funny thing is, even karaoke contests and beauty pageants come with useful transferable skills. For example, I will be the “Master of Ceremonies” for a company event for the second time this fall, due to my past experience in the spotlight.

I want to change the definition of what it means to be a PhD, and free fellow scientists to pursue the personal path that is right for them.

CSW: How did “Free the PhD” come into existence?

VC: My transition outside academia was one of the most stressful times of my life. Many competing emotions and fears ruled my life in those last 2-3 months before I finalized the transition. I was afraid of moving on. I was afraid of letting myself and my graduate advisor down from what I thought was the “right” career path. After building a wonderful community in graduate school, I was terrified to move across the country to a new place where I knew no one. It was imposter syndrome to the extreme when I started at my company. I had no idea what I was supposed to do or pay attention to in a workplace with such different priorities and concerns than in academia.

So many of these fears were unfounded – and so much stress could have been avoided – if I had had access to a resource where I could learn from people who had made this journey before me in an efficient, organized and empathetic manner. I felt alone during that transition process, and wished for a resource that spoke to both my intellectual and psychological needs during one of the most defining moments of my professional life.

That’s why I founded Free the PhD – a learning and career coaching resource for fellow scientists who are ready to move into the world past the bench. I want to pass on the knowledge I’ve gained from personal experience and from interviewing fellow post-academic PhDs to build a community – one that people can benefit from through multiple transitions and new adventures. I’ve put hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars into this passion project because I care about empowering fellow PhDs to enter and impact all sectors of society, from industry to education to government.

I want to change the definition of what it means to be a PhD, and free fellow scientists to pursue the personal path that is right for them.

After all, if we want to change the status quo, it’s up to us to take the lead!

Choose to make an impact on the world with your skills and knowledge, inside or outside the lab, in the most effective way for you.

CSW: Very encouraging! What would be the take-home message that you would want the fellow PhDs to keep close to their heart?

VC: One of the reasons it’s so hard for fellow PhDs to leave academia is because we’ve grown accustomed to deriving personal value from the academic environment. That’s all many of us have ever known, and that’s OK. Just remember that your current environment is not a reflection of your personal worth– it can shape you, but it does not define you.

Your PhD experience will inform and enrich the rest of your life, no matter where you go next. Choose to make an impact on the world with your skills and knowledge, inside or outside the lab, in the most effective way for you. That is the path to success.

About Vania:

Dr. Vania Cao is founder of Free the PhD, a career resource and training platform for scientists looking to transition to a life they love. She works at a neurotech startup by day and still performs in a band in her free time.

 

 

 


The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

I’m an IRTA postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute on Aging, NIH, Baltimore. A geneticist by training, I’m now exploring the realms of transcription factor dynamics in T cells using quantitative microscopy and systems biology tools. My interests extend to being the Editor for NPR Office Hours and Friends of Joe’s Big Idea. As I grow, I’m looking forward to interacting and networking with fellow science communicators and outreach managers across the globe. Additionally, I’m also a Crisis Counselor with the 24/7 Crisis Text Line.

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