Propel Careers

Real life lessons for thinking about life after student-hood Carolyn Cho 

June 18, 2011 
by Carolyn Cho 

This blog is part of a series of blogs that will be written by the Business Area Advisors for Propel Careers. These blogs will share insights into the life sciences industry and thoughts on career guidance. To learn more about the business area advisors of Propel, see link:

When I was a senior graduate student, I helped review medical school admission letters. This was a profound experience for me, and will forever influence how I think about jobs and how I apply for them.

The first lesson came from one of the applicant interviewers who told me that in response to the inevitable "I want to be a doctor because I want to help people", he would ask "If you're so motivated, what have you done in the past 6 months to help someone?". In other words, if you have the time and energy – go do something. There is so much pressure on recent trainees to get a job, and so much advice available to help them know what to do. But without experience to know what needs doing and what one could do, it's daunting to attempt to answer such big questions. The school admissions letter lesson was: get in and get your hands dirty.

I noticed graduate students around me taking on small projects in order to learn a new technique, helping to organize meetings, or volunteering to review admission letters (see opening comment). For me, it was the only way to learn about the current state of the science-related industry, as well as other directions people have taken their own careers, to be able to think about the possibilities for mine. That was the first time I joined AWIS (association for women in science, , it is an association I continue to participate in, many years later in Boston. In fact, Boston could not be a better area to look for these opportunities. I've often said I could fill every day of the week with scientific talks and related events, around here. Propel and AWIS events, alone, offer such a wealth of events and opportunities to pick up the information students need to being their career planning.

Since I put in that plug for Propel and AWIS, I'll also put in a quick plug for networking. In fact, we should have a Propel blog focused on collecting examples of successful networking. My latest example came just a few days ago from a friend who will be attending a conference, and was setting up some meetings with groups she knew would also be there. When looking at an email declining a meeting, she realized the sender had been at a company she had worked with a few years ago. When she sent a follow up note to that effect, the connection had been made, and she got the contact she had been seeking.

Now getting back to my application letter experience, the second lesson came from the application letters, themselves. When I find myself in the position of the applicant, I remember what it was like to be the reviewer. It's not just about getting in, Think about what will Ido when I'm there? Why do I think I'll like it and be any good at it? How well do I understand the skills that are needed? Here's another place where people find themselves with a lack of information, but the resources are there. I mentioned AWIS and Propel. It turns out that scientific societies also do a great job of gathering data and commentary on employment. When I was a student, when I wanted to take a break from "serious" work, I would thumb through science industry newspapers such as Biomedical Engineering News and The Scientist. Through my "recreational" reading, I was astonished to discover that there was a demand for disease biology modeling, and I was on my way.

Carolyn Cho is a business area advisor for Propel Careers and currently is a Director at Merck focusing in the Systems Biology Area

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