Jason McSheene *15 (MOL) interviewed by Duygu Coskuntuna, GS (NES).
In the Trailblazers Beyond the Tenure Track series, current Princeton graduate students interview graduate alumni pursuing a range of careers beyond the tenure track. Collectively, these stories help graduate students develop a vision of the journey ahead by exploring the experiences of trailblazers who have gone before them.
I earned my PhD from the Department of Molecular Biology in the field of developmental biology, which is the study of how an organism develops from an early embryo to an adult organism. I learned a lot about genetics and cell biology which brought me closer what I wanted to do – become a diabetes expert. Almost everyone in my family has diabetes, so I always wanted to learn how to treat it. I’ve just finished five years as Associate Medical Director at ApotheCom, and I am an elected member to the Board of Education in Hamilton Township, NJ.
Laying the groundwork
As I was going through my studies, I ended up teaching five courses (instead of the required two) and discovered a love for teaching. I also found out that I liked putting together posters and giving presentations for, say, regional or national conferences. For me, graduate school was a great opportunity to practice those types of skills in addition to research.
So, when I finished my PhD, I knew I didn’t want to be in academia. It was just a personal preference; I thought the lifestyle in academia just did not match up with what I really wanted. Throughout graduate school, I was trying to figure out where I belonged, and what I wanted to do when I left grad school. That's how a lot of networking came into play: if I saw something interesting, I reached out to someone to do an informational interview and get a better idea of what their field or career was like. Those networks led to a great opportunity for me to engage with medical writing, pharmaceuticals and biotech.
Back then, I didn’t even know a career in medical writing existed, although it is common nowadays in biology and biomedical sciences. Medical writing is essentially taking the extant and emerging medical science, then converting it into publications or more accessible formats for wider audiences, such as YouTube videos or patient brochures. That was exciting to me, because it aligned with what I enjoyed in grad school—communicating the science. I was able to do that for my main client, which was a well-known, diabetes-focused company that, funny enough, I had unsuccessfully approached earlier for an internship position. That was almost six years ago, and since then I’ve become an expert in diabetes information, the science behind it, and the relevant treatments. I’ve also gained expertise in disease of obesity, which was only indirectly on my radar but is still related to type 2 diabetes. ApotheCom, and other agencies like it, works on wide ranges of diseases and treatments, from gene therapies for rare genetics diseases to novel cancer therapies and everything in between.
And some of that networking led me and my friends to make a podcast: PhD in Progress. Around 2014-2015, PhD in Progress was one of the few podcasts about personal and professional development that were geared towards graduate students and postdocs. It also aimed to provide insight on ideas outside academia by communicating common practices from the business world. We covered topics such as productivity resources and the decision to go into a postdoc or take up a career path beyond the academy.
My PI was Becky Burdine at the Department of Molecular Biology. She was very accepting of the people in our lab spending time figuring out what their career path should be, and she wasn't pushing me to do one thing only. From our lab came a wide range of careers, both academic and non-academic.
In biomedical research there are three general career sectors: the first is academia; second would be industrial -pharmaceuticals and biotech companies; and the third is state-run institutions, such as National Institutes of Health or the Food and Drug Administration. When I finished grad school, for example, I was looking for industry postdocs, so I applied to different companies in the Princeton area. There, you can start as a postdoc with your research in someone else's lab and then you become an independent scientist and develop your own lab. That would mean I’d spend less time on applying for grants, but on the other hand would still be told which direction to take. I did quite a few interviews, and spent a long time trying to get a job in there and it just wasn't working out. I started eventually looking into other things more in line with my interests and eventually found a job at my company, not far from Central Jersey.
The moment that changed everything
All throughout graduate school I liked learning about different things. I also liked being in the lab setting and I loved the camaraderie of doing research alongside other people, trying to build a story that informed the world of some information that it didn't know before.
Lab was great… but looking at the proteins and pathways wasn’t captivating me. Through books and podcasts, I learned that I’d like to be part of a company—not an educational institution—and I felt more of a pull towards industry.
In 2013 there was a graduate student who was slated to give a talk at the Princeton Alumni Friday lunch series. She had to back out a week before the presentation and asked me whether I’d like to do it. I accepted, thinking my topic of study, the process of left-right asymmetric organ development in vertebrates (think “Why is the heart on the left side instead of the right?” , would be relatable enough. I put together a nice slide deck.
When I arrived at the Nassau Club where the event was going to be held, I discovered that there was no screen for projecting my slides! I still made it work though, and it ended up being a fun talk. I met someone there named Joelle, who mentioned they were a diabetes medical writer. I had her business card at my desk for three or four years, and while I thought about calling for an informational interview, I never did.
After I finished my PhD, my friend Abigail Sporer, who was a co-host on the PhD in Progress podcast, invited me to dinner with Joelle. I went and we had a great chat about medical writing. It turned out that she was looking for someone to start at the company as soon as possible. I went in for an interview the next week and had a job within two weeks.
Life beyond academia
It's been about 12 or 13 years since I started my PhD so I'm in a different spot because I now have a wife and young kids to take care of. As a PhD student you have an independence that you're able to work with, and that manifests itself in more work in lab, going out on the weekends, having adventures or improving yourself.
Medical writing is a good path for people out of a PhD in biological sciences, because it helps you learn a lot about the medical industry. At Princeton, we aren’t around patients in a hospital context. Princeton’s biomedical research skews more towards genetics and cell biology than clinical science. Medical communications is a very broad field, what I do therein is mostly healthcare professional focused. When you're thinking about science communication, for example, you're thinking about who the audience is – you would not talk to elementary school students the way you’d talk to people at a national conference.
My job is to take the publications and what we call prescribing information (the bible that comes with any medication that has all the notes and no one reads it unless you're interested in it) and make that into something visual and accessible for healthcare professionals. This could become a nice professional looking presentation, a YouTube video or LinkedIn content. What I do is mostly geared for the healthcare professional, but I still get to talk a little bit more about the science. In the end, all my projects help our clients provide better care or more effectively market their therapies.
For me, it’s important that my work is rigorously vetted by the medical and legal team for pharmaceutical company clients to ensure accuracy. So, for every claim I incorporate into a presentation or a brochure, I have to highlight the references and show the science that backs it up. I sometimes have to rein in our clients from claiming things we can’t really support with evidence. I love that it's not just marketing—it’s based on published science.
One thing that's interesting about medical communications is that you interface with so many different types of people. My clients typically are marketing people, so their job is to help promote and sell their companies’ products. I also work not just with their medical team (medical professionals who are mostly MDs or clinical specialists) but also their legal team.
There are a lot of benefits to medical communications and depending on the company you're at they tend to have flexible schedules for writers. I'm an associate director and my role evolved from mostly just writing at first, to my current role which involves directing a team of writers, as well as writing on my own.
In a way, it's very similar to a laboratory setting, with junior graduate students doing their research, senior graduate students mentoring and postdocs running their own mini lab. I’m also in charge of growing the business account, so I have begun stepping into the financial side of the business. This includes pitching projects to our clients and developing ideas that would internally benefit the company.
One thing that this job allowed me to do was to run for school board in my town, Hamilton, NJ. With a more rigid job, it just wouldn’t have been possible. For me, community engagement has always something for which I wanted to spend at least a season of my life. Jobs in medical communications can help you do that, especially right now when everything's remote. Even before the pandemic began, many agencies in this field accepted remote-only positions. I see this trend continuing.
When it comes to comparing academic life to life outside of academia, there is a certain flexibility in academic life that you might not have if you're reporting to a boss and having to meet strict deadlines. That lends itself to kind of fluid existence as opposed to a very strict regimented one.
You can be multitasking in academia, but it's usually two or three related papers or experiments, whereas in my job there is a lot of multitasking between unrelated issues, with up to a dozen emails from a client every day that I must respond to, then I'm also trying to work on the project that's due at the end of the week. I addition to that, I’m thinking about how to grow our team’s portfolio, estimate staff needs, and how to best budget my writing team’s limited time.
It's very hard to directly compare the lifestyles. In my industry, it's up to the individual to set their boundary between work and life. I've had a family, so I had to create more of that boundary. I really try not to be online during the weekends unless there's a huge project push. In my graduate student days, it was different because I had to help with maintaining the animal facility on the weekends. Since I was going to be there twice a day, I might as well do that experiment.
As a graduate student you tend to be mostly responsible to yourself and your PI. As a medical writer and director, I am responsible to my client service colleagues on the business side, to the creative team who puts together videos and artwork, to the executive leadership team, and to (most importantly) the client. I’m the one responsible to the client in case of bad news and could face their possibly harsh reactions, whereas in academia if an experiment is not working, there may be disappointment but overall, it’s limited to your lab and PI.
Best advice for graduate students
I always encourage people to say yes to opportunities when they come up! Don’t be shy about talking about what you want out of your career. Everyone wants to help someone.
In my opinion, earning a PhD is about learning about how you learn the best, and then applying it. I learned in graduate school that I'm more of an audio learner. When it came to learning things about business, I learned a lot through listening to podcasts. Just figure out how you learn the best and know that in academia, it is helpful if you can just read something and retain it, but that might not be your situation. Don't force one method if that's not your way.
Graduate school is such a fun time because you're surrounded by brilliant people everywhere. And once you get out of academia, you're also surrounded by brilliant people, but it's not the same. When you're in industry, people are mostly working so that they can go home to their families and be done for the night, which is totally fine, but you have few opportunities to explore your interests. While in grad school, take those opportunities to go outside your field, because you may never be in the middle of such rich and varied educational environment again.
As for the public-facing profiles of graduate students and how best to manage them, the answer is manifold. It's up to the individual to determine how they would like to be viewed by the public. Some people have big personalities and can use them to their advantage. Others may be wholly focused on their research, which is also great. My first suggestion is to participate in departmental seminars, meet visiting speakers, and take opportunities to present your work to lay audiences. It may sound simple, but I also highly suggest intentional practice for your professional email and phone skills.
Importantly, when developing your "public-facing image," understand that you cannot control what others think! In my experience, people yearn for authenticity, so do not go out of your way to emulate someone who may actually be quite different from yourself. Be sure to develop an understanding of yourself, your strengths, and your weaknesses. Exposure to the public will only amplify those traits.
This interview has been edited for clarity. Read More Trailblazer Beyond the Tenure Track stories here!