In this episode, Emily interviews Dr. Sean Bittner, a newly minted PhD in biomedical engineering, on how Sean navigated finding and landing his first post-PhD job in medtech innovation. Sean timed his start date for immediately after his grad student position finished so as to not miss any paychecks, and they discuss how early Sean started networking and applying for positions to enable that smooth transition. They also talk through the strategies and tools that were most helpful to Sean in the job search process. Finally, Sean lists the elements of a job offer and what questions you need to ask to fully understand the salary and benefits. This conversation will benefit current graduate students and PhDs who are planning to pursue private sector jobs in the near or far future. You won’t want to miss Sean’s powerful concluding advice!
Links Mentioned in the Episode
- PF for PhDs S6E12: How This PhD Student’s Budgeting Practice Enabled a Hawaiian Vacation (Money Story with Sean from Authentically Average)
- PF for PhDs Community
- PF for PhDs: Podcast Hub
- PF for PhDs: Subscribe to Mailing List
- Sean’s Twitter (@thelifescicoach)
- Sean’s Instagram accounts: @seanwithoutanh, @thelifesciencecoach
- The Life Science Coach Website
00:00 Sean: Graduate school doesn’t always, I think, do a great job of reminding students of their worth. Of not just financial worth, but also their work worth and just like worth as an individual. But that was huge in my job search, was understanding like, no, no, I deserve to be here. You know, I deserve to be having conversations with working professionals that I admire that I think are, you know, extremely brilliant and hardworking. Like, I deserve to be here because I’m those things too. I did a PhD. I did these other things that qualify me to be here. This is myspace and I get to take it.
00:42 Emily: Welcome to the Personal Finance for PhDs Podcast: A Higher Education in Personal Finance. I’m your host, Dr. Emily Roberts. This is Season 10, Episode 14, and today my guest is Dr. Sean Bittner, a newly-minted PhD in biomedical engineering, on how Sean navigated finding and landing his first post-PhD job in medtech innovation. Sean timed his start date for immediately after his grad student position finished so as to not miss any paychecks, and we discuss how early Sean started networking and applying for positions to enable that smooth transition. We also talk through the strategies and tools that were most helpful to Sean in the job search process. Finally, Sean lists the elements of a job offer and what questions you need to ask to fully understand the salary and benefits. Don’t miss Sean’s powerful concluding advice! Without further ado, here’s my interview with Dr. Sean Bittner.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
01:48 Emily: I am delighted to have Dr. Sean Bittner back on the podcast. He was actually a guest on season six, episode 12. This was while he was in graduate school. We talked a lot about budgeting, how he and his wife were budgeting accrding to their values. Fascinating episode, recommend listening to it. But Sean is back because he very recently finished his PhD. We’re recording this in mid-September. He finished last month, and also started his post-PhD job last month. And so we’re going to be talking about that process of like, how do you do the job search, like while you’re finishing up your PhD? And how do you evaluate job offers? So really excited to talk to you, Sean. Will you please introduce yourself further for the audience?
02:26 Sean: Sure. Yeah. Thanks again, Emily. My name is Sean Bittner. I’m a recent PhD grad in bioengineering from Rice University. Recent as in four weeks ago. So very exciting, still kind of in the thrill of being done. And then, yeah, I also started my post-PhD job the day after, and I’m excited to just chat about the job search, and all the things to think about.
Timing Between Finishing PhD and Starting New Job
02:53 Emily: I know, because this is something that I’m sure is on the minds of many, many graduate students. Definitely in like the year when they’re finishing up, but maybe even the multiple years before then. This can be a great conversation for postdocs as well. Even people who have already navigated one job search might, you know, pick up some tips or at least some different perspective on how you did things. Of course, this always ends up being very individual, but so happy to hear your story. So the first thing I want to ask about is timing, because you just mentioned that you didn’t miss a paycheck between finishing up with your however you were being paid, assistantship or fellowship or whatever, and going into your job. So like, wow. Like if that was your goal, how did you manage to work out the timing that way?
03:32 Sean: Yeah, yeah, so this is a good thought. I would say it was a long time planning. There are a couple of elements there. One is scheduling the thesis defense, I think is always a little bit hairy just based on having to get four or five, six people in the same room at the same time. It’s hard. But I actually defended my thesis two months ago, so it was July 13th and had about a month’s worth of just wrap up and carry over after that. But I also had two weeks of vacation to use still. So right after defending, my wife and I took a much=needed, I think well-deserved vacation. And I came back, I had two weeks of work left, and then I was trying to set it up so that, okay, I’m done.
04:12 Sean: I already took my vacation. So I don’t need to take a bunch of time off between grad school and work and trying to get a start at my new job. Some of the companies that I was looking at were starting immediately, or starting a week later. But it wasn’t, you know, start in two or three months. I think I tried to make sure that it was just a consistent transition. I also wouldn’t necessarily know what to do with myself for three or four weeks off. I just, I like, I don’t know, having a purpose and going and doing some cool stuff.
04:41 Emily: Another thing you mentioned in there is that you defended two months ago, and then you had this bit of extra time, which I think is really good idea. You’re going to have to do edits on your thesis. Maybe you’re trying to get a last paper, you know, submitted or there’s always kind of wrapping up stuff. So I definitely think it’s good to time that defense a little bit before your pay would end.
04:59 Sean: Right.
04:59 Emily: It sounds like you, like were you paid through the end of a normal like semester term, like the summer term, or was your end date like somehow, otherwise negotiated?
05:08 Sean: Yeah. So, this is another good question. It depends on the department, the advisor, the school. The academic year is also your pay year at Rice, for grad students. And that ended on August 15th. After you defend your thesis, you can have a conversation with your department and with your advisor about, okay, how long do you actually need to finish everything up? And the discussion that we had was, I’m going to take two weeks vacation. I haven’t taken that yet. When I get back, I have about two weeks worth of work left to wrap everything up, finish any final changes and edits to my thesis. I didn’t have the last paper to try to complete on the tail end. So I didn’t have that time crunch. But then also there are students still working in the lab. So, you know, making sure that they kind of have a good turnover plan, I don’t want to just leave them high and dry and say like, oh, bye I’m out. You know, I wanted to make sure that everybody that I could assist in bringing up to speed, I did that before I left.
Transparency About Job Start Date Flexibility
06:08 Emily: Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah. Okay. So it sounds like you sort of knew that this date, this, you know, academic year turnover was a reasonable date. And so did you time your job search process then around knowing that was the ideal date to start, like mid-August?
06:22 Sean: Yeah. I had more of a guesstimate than a true date. Like, I didn’t know for sure, “Oh, it’s definitely August 16th.” Right? But I had an inkling of when my thesis defense would be, I knew it would be late summer, ended up being the middle of July. And when I was job searching, I was very transparent about that. Some people were looking for, “Oh, we need you to start on Monday.” Obviously that didn’t work out. And then some people that I was talking to later, I was open from the beginning. I’m interested in this opportunity, but it’s going to be sometime in August. And all of those companies had hired PhD students before. So they’re familiar with the idea that I don’t necessarily know the exact day I can start. But I got out of the way pretty quickly any really serious mismatch, like as I said before, I was talking to somebody briefly and they were like, yeah, we are excited about you, but we don’t have a job open until January. And I said, Hmm, I don’t think I can wait that long. And I’m glad that I didn’t because, you know, we’ll talk about this later, but I love the job that I’m in. So, I wouldn’t have wanted to wait for a maybe of a job that might open. But I think I was as clear as I could have been, I guess that’s the way to put it.
07:35 Emily: And let’s talk, I’m going into so much detail about these timing questions, because for me it was a source of stress and I think it’s a source of stress for other people as well. So for the types of jobs that you were looking for, it sounded like the company’s timelines were quite wide-ranging from, I want you to start next Monday, you know, if they were to hire you to, we have many, many months lead time on this. And it’s a little bit different from the academic search process, which is a little bit more well-known. It’s, you know, these fixed portions of the year that are dedicated, determined from parts of the process. So how did you like figure out what these timelines were and then therefore be able to backtrack and know how early you needed to start these conversations and start applying?
08:16 Sean: Yeah, I would say it was unique to every company, honestly. Similar to how you mentioned with the academic traditional academic pipeline, there are fixed dates in a normal schedule. And even with coming from undergrad, thinking about getting a job straight out of undergrad, there’s kind of a fixed schedule. You apply in the fall. You might hear something December, January. They expect you to start in May. Like that’s a standard thing. And so when I was looking at this in February and March of this year, I was kind of thinking the same thing, like, okay, I’m going to start talking to people. But I’ve learned, I work in the med tech space now, and I learned that it’s really dependent on what each company’s needs are at that time. Some companies I talked to, they had to fill somebody that day, like they needed somebody immediately.
09:00 Sean: And some of them, it was, you know, our fiscal year doesn’t roll over until August and we can’t add a new position until then, right? So I knew it was going to be, like I said, I knew it was going be sometime over the summer. And so I was trying to narrow down to some people. And again, just trying to get them to work with me a little bit flexibility-wise on, I won’t be available until August, but on the other hand, I will be available in August, right? And so like, how can we work this out?
Starting the Job Search
09:30 Emily: And so, maybe you said this and I missed it. So how early did you start your job search?
09:37 Sean: It’s a little hard to narrow it down just because like I would say, you know, I was talking to people for quite a while. I would say I was talking loosely to people as early as the fall, maybe winter of 2020. And then I started to have more serious conversations about job stuff in maybe March of this year.
09:58 Emily: So it went maybe more from like networking, feeling each other out to like, okay, we’re going to like put pen to paper and like get your name in front of somebody.
10:06 Sean: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. And, I can’t remember the exact date, but the call that ultimately got me in front of the people to get me in front of to get the job that I have now I think was in June, maybe. So a relatively quick turnaround in terms of, or compared to what I was expecting. You know, I was thinking like, okay, I’m gonna apply in March and they’re going to have me start five months later. And it was pretty quick.
10:34 Emily: Yeah. I guess I’ll chime in a little bit more on this timing. And of course I have not had a “job” job post-PhD, but my husband has. He has also a PhD, and so he works for a startup and it was quite small at the time he was hired. I think he was maybe employee number 12 or something like that. And they hired him and another one of his colleagues right around the same time. And for him, it was a very quick interview process because he was already in a postdoc that was very casual. It could end at any time. And so he was like, yeah, like we want to get started in a month or two or whatever. Like totally we can do that. That’s how quickly he was hired. His colleague who was hired at the same time, had a start date of about six months later.
11:12 Emily: So that same company was very flexible with these two different candidates. And probably that’s because they’re a startup that they could be that flexible. But I just thought it was interesting that like both of them were like, you know, coming out of PhD, coming out of postdoc and had different timing needs and the company was able to accommodate both of them.
Network or Nothing
11:29 Emily: So when you embarked on the networking that ultimately led to applying, what, you know, had you picked up in terms of strategies, maybe from your professional development during graduate school, maybe from outside sources, that were really useful to you during that period?
11:44 Sean: Yeah. So I think I’ll start with the easiest one. Everybody says it, it’s almost a cliché, but it’s really true. It’s network or nothing for the most part. It’s you got to know somebody. And I don’t mean like, oh, your, your dad’s on the board or like you have a family friend. But all of the jobs that I applied for, I knew someone that put me in front of someone else that put me in front of somebody else. Zero of them were I had the most compelling application on LinkedIn. And I think, like I can’t understate that enough, I guess. Like LinkedIn is super useful for finding information, getting connected to people, learning about the different types of jobs that are available. But ultimately, it’s a stack of resumes in terms of applying. And in fact, I didn’t actually formally apply, in the traditional sense, until well after I had had an inkling that the company was interested in me. And that’s true for all of the companies I applied with. So I think the number one is work on your network, reach out to people, just try to get in front of, you know, get some face time, and tell people who you are and why you’re excited about them.
12:52 Emily: You’re right. Everybody says networking and it’s really intimidating for a lot of people to hear. So please, can you be more specific about like, who was in your network? Like who were those first, the first layer of people that you like reached out to, and then maybe there was another layer, but who was that initial network?
13:09 Sean: Sure. So, of the opportunities that I was considering at the time, each of the companies I got connected to by one person, or in one case, two people. One of them was a former manager of mine. They had moved on but was connected to one of the companies, introduced me. The second one was another student in one of the master’s programs at Rice, went and took a job at this company. And I kind of knew them and I was familiar with the company. And I just said, “Hey, I’m interested in your job. Can you tell me about it? Not that I want to take your job, but I’d like to maybe work for your company.” And that’s actually the job that I ended up taking, is they ultimately connected me with their boss, and that person’s boss is the CEO. And we sat down and had a chat.
13:57 Sean: And they just said, “Yeah, we’re looking for somebody. You seem like you fit the bill. Let’s let’s talk.” The other one was somebody I had worked with in the past. I had done a little bit of, of just like, I guess, diligence work is the best way to describe it. But I had done some work for them in the past when they were at a different company. And then when they moved, they said, “Hey, I have a job open. Do you want to talk about it?” And I said, “Sure. You know, I’d love to chat.” So all of the people that I networked with, it wasn’t just, again, I reached out to them once on LinkedIn. It was people that I’ve worked with explicitly in the past that can speak of my skills, that can speak of, ideally, my personality. People that knew me more than just a face that’s that’s on LinkedIn.
14:44 Emily: Absolutely. I totally agree, that first layer does not have to be like reaching out to strangers. Like no, it should be people who, as you said, have some personal connection with you, hopefully through work, but not necessarily, who can then, you know, forward your name onto the other right people. And I think that, you know, current graduate students like need to know that their peers around them, and potentially their advisors and other professors around them as well, can very well serve as that first layer. So I know one of my, like sort of regrets in graduate school, was not being better connected with the other people in my program, especially the people ahead of me. Let us just say, leaving Duke before me, whether that was PhDs graduating before me, whether that was masters students or undergrads coming in after me, make those connections, too. Because they all are going to be out there potentially, you know, in a place that you’d be interested in working. So those connections are so, so important. And that networking, the “networking” quote unquote, is just your normal connections with other people who you work with and are around during your graduate degree. It’s much more casual at the beginning, but you have those loose connections and then you can pull on them later as you did. And just let them know, I’m looking for work. I’m going to be graduating at approximately X date. Your company sounds cool. Can we talk about that more?
15:59 Sean: Yeah, I think I had, I don’t want to say an easier time, but I have a fairly gregarious personality. It maybe becomes a little bit more natural to me to just kind of get out and talk to people. But it’s really true that, maybe not the reason I got my job, but like the connection that got me the job that I have is a masters student that I knew left Rice before I left Rice, was working at the company for a few years and I said, ‘Hey, can we talk?” Done. And that was it.
LinkedIn and Beyond
16:26 Emily: So we mentioned networking, you mentioned LinkedIn. Did LinkedIn come into play, particularly in your search, given that networking in real life was actually what led you to, you know, the right place?
16:40 Sean: Yeah, so again, I think it’s a good informational tool. It certainly came into my search in terms of figuring out what other people in my field were doing. And then also, in a lot of cases, LinkedIn was the first touch point. For example, this masters student that I’ve talked about a couple of times, that was my first message on LinkedIn, was, “Hey, can we, you know, have a phone call and set it up?” Everything after that was phone calls, emails, et cetera. But the first message was LinkedIn. And same thing, you mentioned other students in your department, other students in your program and at the university, some of my other connection points were prior students in my lab that graduated years before me with their PhD. But you kind of have this like familial relationship because you came from the same lab, you know. They want to see other students from that lab succeed. So same thing, you know, either LinkedIn or just having access to their email and just cold emailing and say, “Hey, I’m from so-and-so lab. I’d love to chat about your own experience in job searching. Can we set up a call?” But yeah, LinkedIn is hugely useful. I think it’s just not the beginning and the end, it’s the beginning.
17:51 Emily: Yeah. Any other strategies that you want to share with us that you found useful during this process?
17:54 Sean: I think one thing to keep in mind that we maybe haven’t touched on so far is, the network that you have is bigger than you think it is. And that’s not like a empty hollow way of saying, like, you don’t know who other people know until you ask them. Example: I have a friend of a friend who, when I said, I’m interested in this company that I’m looking at, they said, oh yeah, I know so-and-so manager at that company, let me put in a call. And I didn’t ask for that. You know, I didn’t ask for, can you recommend me? I just, they asked me about how my job search was going, and I was honest about it. And the next day I got an email and said, oh yeah, I heard from your manager, friend. I’d love to chat. Let’s talk about it. So there is the element of like, you have to network, but there’s also asking, just being explicit and asking your friends and your colleagues, like who do you know that might be able to help? Because that’s ultimately what we’re all here to do. I would love if somebody from my lab, my department reaches out to me that knows me and said, “Hey, I’m looking for a job. Can you help me?” Love to, I’d be happy to help if I can.
19:02 Emily: Yeah. I think that’s a really common human thing. Like if we can make someone else’s experience go easier, it’s something that we’ve already done in the past. And you’re also, you know, if you actually get a hire, like you’re also helping your company and so forth. So it’s kind of like a win-win, win-win all the way around for networking.
19:20 Emily: Emily here for a brief interlude. If you are a fan of this podcast, I invite you to check out the Personal Finance for PhDs Community at PFforPhDs.community. The Community is for PhDs and people pursuing PhDs who want to take charge of their personal finances by opening and funding an IRA, starting to budget, aggressively paying off debt, financially navigating a life or career transition, maximizing the income from a side hustle, preparing an accurate tax return, and much more. Inside the Community, you’ll have access to a library of financial education products, including my recent set of Wealthy PhD workshops. There is also a discussion forum, monthly live calls with me, and progress journaling for financial goals. Our next live discussion and Q&A call is on Wednesday, November 17th, 2021. Basically, the Community exists to help you reach your financial goals, whatever they are. Go to PFforPhds.community to find out more. I can’t wait to help propel you to financial success. Now, back to the interview.
The Anatomy of a Job Offer
20:33 Emily: Okay. So, you’ve networked, you’ve gotten your name in front of the right people, you’ve interviewed, and you’re finally getting, you’ve mentioned a few different job offers. And so what actually did the job offers look like, and what were the components that you were sort of considering?
20:48 Sean: Yeah. Yeah. So, this is, I think the meat of the conversation today. The standard job offer, I feel like, baseline, has two components. You have base salary, and you have ancillary benefits, whether that’s vacation time or sick time, like just time off basically. But, there are other things to consider there. And so, it’s interesting. I kind of had the gambit of a variety of different things that were part of the quote unquote package. Here are some things in no particular order that it could be: straight salary and, you know, vacation or sick time or whatever. One of them might be salary. And if you’re at a startup, it’s salary plus stock in the company, it could be. Some other things that other companies do is you have a salary, but also we have a retirement plan, whether it’s 401(k) or 403(b). You’ve talked about that a couple of times with other students, or I guess other professionals now on the podcast. Those things are things to keep in mind. Whether the company offers health insurance or not is hugely important.
21:54 Sean: But all of these things together are a much larger conversation than just the salary number that you see on maybe your job offer. Something else to keep in mind is you may not see those other things on your offer letter, if that makes sense. So not that they’re, you know, trying to be hidden or anything like that, it just may not be part of the standard form email that you get of like, “Oh, we’d like to offer you this job. Your compensation is this, you have this many weeks off.” I asked I think all of those questions to all of the companies, and they were very forthcoming with the information once I asked. But it wasn’t part of their standard letter. There’s also some differences in time. Sorry, I’m kind of all over the place.
Variable Employee Benefits
22:36 Sean: As an example, the company I work at now, the time off policy is really generous. I think it’s everything, sick vacation, et cetera, is all PTO, or paid time off, but it’s unlimited PTO, right? So, I don’t have this weird situation where like, “Oh, I’m out of sick days, but I’m sick. Or my kid is sick, or I have to take my animal to the vet or something.” And on the other side, like I don’t have to feel like I can’t use any of my vacation days, right? Like there’s a very open policy about that. Some of the other companies, it was very explicit. You have 40 hours or 40 hours of sick leave and, you know, two weeks of vacation or whatever. I would say that’s more of a standard notice. It’s two or three weeks vacation and then a fixed amount of sick time also.
23:23 Sean: On the stock side, I think there’s pros and cons to stocks. I’m not a huge single stock guy, for retirement. So, you know, when I look at single stocks, it’s kind of a gamble. You know, they could be worth a huge amount of money if that company skyrockets. They could also not be worth very much if something happens and, you know, especially in biotech. That comes and goes, right? And so like, you kind of got to weigh, okay, is this a gamble I’m comfortable taking? And then the last piece, I talked about retirement before. One of the companies I was looking at offered a retirement package. It was, I forget if it was a 401(k) for 403(b). But it was required participation up to a certain amount. So, it wasn’t a match, it’s just they set it up so that, you know, X percent of your salary has to go in no matter what. That can be valuable because it prevents you the legwork of having to go set it up yourself.
24:15 Sean: But, as you’ve talked about previously, if you’re interested in having a little bit more control over your own retirement package, you can set up an IRA. You can just set up external mutual funds. If they have a plan at work, they will send you information about the funds that they have available. And you can kind of make a decision on how was the track record for these funds? Can I get, you know, better returns elsewhere, whether it’s an IRA or just a mutual fund in a non-retirement account. I think all of that nuance like doesn’t immediately come to mind when you’re first looking at a job, but it is important. And I also want to just put a small asterisk here. Money is only part of the conversation. Ultimately I took the job that I took because I love the work, and I’m really passionate about the type of work that I’m going to get to do. But it is part of the conversation.
25:08 Emily: Love everything you said, like, exactly right. The salary is going to be upfront. Maybe the time off policy will be upfront. Maybe they’ll mention something about healthcare or retirement or insurance or something, but you’re probably going to have to do another layer of questions and say, “Hey, send me your booklet on your, you know, retirement policy, and I’ll take a look at it.” Or like, let me know, like, you know, I mean, insurance is such a massive, massive issue. Especially, like I’m thinking, you know, I’m married, we have two children, we’re all on my husband’s workplace insurance. So like how much of a premium his employer pays versus how much he pays. The deductibles, all that stuff matters a lot because we have a lot of people riding on that one, you know, policy.
25:49 Emily: And maybe, you know, you have to evaluate how much that matters to you, but if you are supporting a family on one insurance policy, you could be looking at a premium of a thousand dollars a month easily for an employer that doesn’t help out that much, or even more, versus an employer who pays a hundred percent of the premium or 90%. It’s a massive, massive difference. But that’s very individual, you know, you have to really decide what’s more important to you. Is it the vacation policy? Is it the healthcare? Is it that the retirement plan has a match? And that’s super, super good to you or whatever. And maybe that’s why they’re not that upfront with this because like salary matters to everyone, but like maybe there’s different levels of caring about these other elements.
26:26 Sean: Yeah. And it could also be you know, no fault to the company. It may just not be prudent to kind of give all that information out upfront. So for example, some of the companies that I looked at, I knew that there was a retirement plan. Or I knew that there was health insurance provided. But in the case of health insurance, which you just talked about, I didn’t actually know what coverage was available to me until after accepting the job, or in the case of one of the ones I didn’t take, until after I would have accepted the job. So, that’s also a little bit of a gray area where, okay. I know that there is some type of insurance provided, but I wouldn’t get to decide whether, like you said, it would be better for my wife and I to stay on my wife’s insurance versus change over to this new one until actually taking the job.
Comparing Job Offers
27:12 Emily: Exactly. So you were in the fortunate position, the well-timed position of having multiple offers, it sounds like simultaneously, or at least like overlapping or something on the table. Yeah. And so you could actually look and say, not it’s a yes or no on this job, but like, what do I like about this job offer versus this one? And of course the work’s important. You mentioned that the work matters, I would say most. But the salary and so forth benefits are part of that. So how did you do this like comparison? And also, did you do any negotiation knowing that you had, you know, competing offers?
27:43 Sean: Yeah. So this is a good question. I think I did it in tiers. The first tier was, like you talked about just now, the nature of the work. The job that I have now, it wasn’t until realizing that that job was available to me, that I realized how excited I was about that type of work, right. And so, I think there’s something to be said for like, if it’s financially feasible, of course this is a personal finance podcast. If it’s financially feasible, pick the job that you enjoy, because there are going to be some days that you don’t enjoy. And I think those days go down better at a company that you enjoy doing work that you like, as opposed to at a company that you’re not super thrilled about, but you’re getting paid a lot to do it. So that’s, you know, obviously tier one.
28:27 Sean: Tier two, this is a personal finance podcast. I looked at kind of the, just as much as I could, apples to apples of each of them. Again, I talked about, I knew that there were benefits for all of them. I didn’t have insight into the specific coverages and all of that until actually taking the job. So in terms of like evaluating them, I picked the one that was what I consider an optimum. It was the best combination of salary and benefits and I’m passionate about the job. And then in terms of negotiation, I didn’t really negotiate, in part because I knew that the offers that I was getting work were competitive with what I would expect for the types of roles I was getting. So I didn’t ever really push back on, oh, you know, I think I’m worth this much or, you know, this other, I didn’t really do any of that.
The Tactic of Honesty
29:19 Sean: What I did do was be transparent about wanting the job. For example, I did have a favorite and obviously I took that one. But when we were having that conversation, I was transparent with them and I said, this is my top choice. I’d love to do it. Like, how do we make that happen? And it wasn’t until I think like sometimes employee applicants and employers are playing this game of chicken of like, I want to be vulnerable and tell you that I want you, but I don’t want you to say no, right? And so like, there’s this weird tension. And I just, I tried to cut through that and say like, if you guys are not interested in me, cool. You know, like I get that. I’m going to go pursue another opportunity. But if you are, like, I’m really interested in this, let’s make it happen. And I think that ultimately sealed the deal because they also were probably thinking a little bit of like, we like him. We’ve said we like him, but we’re not really sure where he’s going. He said he has a couple of offers. So I know it can be a little nerve-wracking, but like, there’s something to be said for transparency and honesty, if that’s part of the conversation.
30:27 Emily: I think that, it sounds like, you know, that conversation was prior to the formal offer being made, right? Like that could have been what tipped you over into getting an offer versus maybe we’ll go with another candidate, you know, that sort of thing. So like, I think at that stage, you use that tactic really well. Honesty, the tactic of honesty.
30:45 Sean: Right. Yeah. And I think, so another, I guess small detail that’s important here is, I knew the terms of what an offer would be for each of the companies before actually receiving the offer. So that’s, I think part of it too, is like the formal paperwork wasn’t filed, but I knew what it would be talking about. There wasn’t a part where I came in and something, you know, surprised me totally out of the blue. I wasn’t expecting that. So that might be part of it too, is I think that there was a little bit less formal, like I’m applying, I wait for my offer letter, I consider the offer letter and more of a fluid, like, I know what we’re talking about. Everybody’s kind of on the same page in terms of information, and now we just need to make some decisions.
Tell Us More About Your Job
31:28 Emily: Yeah. That’s really good insight. I think for anybody who has not had a job in the private sector, and they’re not really sure, especially, let’s say particular to your space, and of course this is going to vary across other companies, but like, it’s good to just hear someone’s experience and how you navigated that. So tell us a little bit more about the job that you actually took. What is the nature of the work that you’re doing?
31:47 Sean: Yeah. So, I’m going to be working in we’ll call it, I guess, med tech innovation or med tech support. So basically what I’ll be doing is helping support startup companies in the medical device space, getting them prepped and moving through the different stages of development, helping, you know, maybe teach them some core concepts about regulatory and clinical trials and all of these things that they have to do to get their product to market. I’m, I think excited about that aspect in particular, you know but now I’ve really fallen in love with this coaching and teaching space over the last couple of years. So like I’m going to get to do that as part of my job, which is super cool. And then I also get to stay in the science realm without actually, you know, holding a pipette myself, which was, I think ultimately my goal coming out. That’s something I didn’t think to talk about earlier, but that was part of, I knew kind of the nature of the work that I would want coming out of grad school, which was, I want to be involved in science, but I don’t necessarily want to do the science myself. I think I see myself more as a coach, a mentor, a supporter of other individual contributors than I see myself as one.
Role of Side Work in Career Path
33:05 Emily: Given the skill set that you’ll now be using that you developed partially through the coaching and teaching side work that you were doing during graduate school. How much of, you know, how important was it that you pursued those side endeavors in ultimately, you know, formulating and landing this particular job and career path?
33:24 Sean: So, I think it’s a good question. I think the answer is a little nuanced. Over the course of my PhD, I did a couple of different things. I did the traditional research route. Of course, that’s what I got my PhD in. I also did some short-term consulting at a nonprofit in town. And then I did, as you said, coaching and training, more leadership and career coaching style. All of those things were relevant in the job search, in getting the job that I ultimately have. In fact, the fact that I have a PhD in bioengineering, I think qualified me to be even at the table having the conversation. But the things that sold me, that you know, put me over the edge were these other ancillary things that I was doing. And going back to the networking piece, an ancillary skill that you have is conversation, right? I work in now, medtech innovation. There’s a lot of handshaking and smiling and waving and chatting and, you know drinks over dinner. Like there’s all of this kind of stuff in this field. And so having gotten experience in learning how to evaluate startup companies, in learning how to decide whether a team or a founder or somebody is coachable, is willing to do the work and learn. Those are things that I didn’t get through five years of bench work, but are incredibly relevant to my job.
It’s Okay to Just Be You
35:00 Emily: I think what I’m taking away from your explanation there is, during graduate school or during these earlier phases of training, you be you. You just do the things that you want to do, learn the things that you want to learn, explore different opportunities, figure out what you like. And it’s okay. In fact, it may be very helpful if some of those things are not strictly grad student role kinds of things, strictly at the bench, strictly just publishing papers and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Like, and if you are you during graduate school and you’re pursuing all these other things that you like, it will help you find and craft a job and career that you actually like later on, don’t try to fit yourself into this like I’m just a researcher or I’m just a teacher mold if that’s not you. If it’s you, perfect. Grad school is great for you. If that’s not exactly you, you need to explore these other areas because you don’t want to be stuck into a mold that you don’t fit in for the whole rest of your career.
35:57 Sean: Yeah. I think that’s true. I do want to, you know, obviously present the caveat of like, it’s true, you’re getting a PhD in the stuff that you’re doing at the bench or in the case of, you know, non-wet lab stuff, in the stuff that you’re doing for your degree. So you do have to obviously do that and do it well. I think there’s value in, you know, crafting a really strong body of work. That being said, there are a lot of people that they do their research, and that’s what they do. That I think qualifies you to be at the table to get jobs that people are looking for PhD hires for. And in the case of a more traditional academic route, like kick butt at publications and grant writing, all of that. Hugely important, and those are the things that are relevant to your job.
36:44 Sean: But that’s not necessarily the case for everyone. And in fact, again, personal example, of the offers that I was considering, only one of them was even really closely related at all to the specific work I was doing. So I think I talked about this last time, but, my PhD was in the 3D printing space. I was looking at bone and cartilage printing. That bioengineering experience was more relevant to one offer. For all of the other job opportunities, they were interested in my coaching background. They were interested in my knowledge, not only of science, but of like the startup environment. Those are things that I wouldn’t have learned just in my lab work because the lab work’s not designed for that, right? The lab work is designed for the really detailed, basic science level type work that is used to eventually create some of these opportunities.
Best Advice for Another Early-Career PhD
37:40 Emily: I think that was very, very well put. I ask my guests as you know, a last question, which is what is your best financial advice for another early-career PhD? I think we just got some fantastic advice, but do you have any others? It could be something we’ve touched on already in the interview, or it could be something completely different.
37:57 Sean: Yeah. So, I guess two, because I’m not great at following directions. The same thing that we just talked about, which is, I think there’s real value in pursuing and carving out whatever path makes the most sense for your career, whether that’s a traditional academic route, whether that’s something else. Finding and doing and pursuing opportunities that are relevant to that. I think the other thing is, we’ve talked about this before, and you’ve talked about this with several students on the podcast previously. Graduate school doesn’t always, I think, do a great job of reminding students of their worth, of not just financial worth, but also their work worth and just like worth as an individual. But that was huge in my job search was understanding like, no, no, I deserve to be here. You know, I deserve to be having conversations with working professionals that I admire that I think are, you know, extremely brilliant and hardworking. Like, I deserve to be here because I’m those things too. I did a PhD, now that might be because I’m stubborn, but like I did a PhD. I did these other things that qualify me to be here. And I’m not a poser. I’m not taking somebody else’s place by being here. Like this is my space and I get to take it.
39:16 Emily: Wonderful. I think this interview is going to be so useful to graduate students and postdocs who are, you know, looking forward to this post-PhD career transition, especially into the private sector. So thank you so much, Sean, for joining me on giving this interview.
39:29 Sean: Sure, sure. Thanks for having me again.
39:37 Emily: Listeners, thank you for joining me for this episode! pfforphds.com/podcast/ is the hub for the Personal Finance for PhDs podcast. On that page are links to all the episodes’ show notes, which include full transcripts and videos of the interviews. There is also a form to volunteer to be interviewed on the podcast. I’d love for you to check it out and get more involved! If you’ve been enjoying the podcast, here are 4 ways you can help it grow: 1. Subscribe to the podcast and rate and review it on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or whatever platform you use. 2. Share an episode you found particularly valuable on social media, with a email list-serv, or as a link from your website. 3. Recommend me as a speaker to your university or association. My seminars cover the personal finance topics PhDs are most interested in, like investing, debt repayment, and effective budgeting. I also license pre-recorded workshops on taxes. 4. Subscribe to my mailing list at PFforPhDs.com/subscribe/. Through that list, you’ll keep up with all the new content and special opportunities for Personal Finance for PhDs. See you in the next episode, and remember: You don’t have to have a PhD to succeed with personal finance… but it helps! The music is “Stages of Awakening” by Podington Bear from the Free Music Archive and is shared under CC by NC. Podcast editing by Lourdes Bobbio and show notes creation by Meryem Ok.
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