Why I paused my Ph.D. research to work as an industry intern

Written by: Tess Torregrosa
Published on: Sep 29, 2021

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Image credit: Robert Neubecker

One hot July morning, I put on a business casual dress and headed to a biotech company for the first day of my internship. It felt daunting. Academia was my safe space; I had never worked anywhere else. When I arrived at the office, I was ushered into an orientation room, where people in formal business attire told me about the company's mission, products, and research areas. As the morning wore on, my unease about working for a for-profit company grew. I left the orientation wondering whether pausing my Ph.D. research to take on the internship had been a mistake.

When I started my Ph.D. program, I was open with my advisers about my career intentions, telling them that I wanted to work outside academia. I enjoyed doing research, but I wasn't interested in sitting at a desk writing grants for the rest of my career—something I knew I'd have to do a lot of if I became a professor.

My university had a program that enabled students to take a break from their research to do an internship at a company or government agency. My advisers told me about the program early on, and they encouraged me to plan on doing an internship during my final year. They thought that the experience would help me build connections and figure out what to do after graduation.

So I started to search for internships during my fourth year, at first focusing my search on science policy because I'd grown increasingly interested in that career path. I was disheartened to find that paid internships in science policy in my city were few and far between. I needed a solid paycheck and couldn't afford to relocate to another city temporarily, so I widened my search and started to look at positions in the biotech industry. My university had connections with local companies, so it was easier to find industry positions.

After the orientation session on my first day at the company, my manager sat me down to chat. I noticed her sneakers, colorful T-shirt, and cool haircut, and I remember thinking that she didn't look anything like the corporate representatives I'd listened to that morning. She asked me what I wanted to do after I graduated. After hearing of my interest in science policy, she asked, "Are you sure that the day-to-day experience of science policy professionals appeals to you?" I couldn't come up with an answer that felt satisfying; all I could say was that I thought the work would be important. "You should take on a short-term position to find out if you'll like it," she advised. Suddenly, it hit me that I'd spent years dreaming up potential jobs based on my interests, but I didn't have any experience to know whether I'd like any of them.

Over the past 11 months, I've learned that her advice to give a new career path a try was spot on. I'd gone into my company internship expecting to do standard experiments devoid of creative thought. I was prepared to get bored quickly. But there's more creativity in industry than I imagined. Few products actually make it to market, and my company is willing to try different ideas and experimentation methods, even if they ultimately lead to a dead-end. I have been surprised by how much I've enjoyed my work.

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"I'd spent years dreaming up potential jobs based on my interests."

My experience at the company has been so positive that my manager and I agreed to extend my internship to a full year. My Ph.D. advisers even allowed me to include some of the experiments I performed at the company in my dissertation.

I successfully defended my Ph.D. this month, and I am on the hunt for my first post-Ph.D. job. I've been applying for scientist positions in industry—now convinced that industry is where I would like to work after all. On the side, I hope to volunteer for groups that are working in the realm of science policy. I haven't given up on that dream, but I understand that you never know whether you'll like something until you try it out.

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Tess Torregrosa recently completed her Ph.D. at Northeastern University in Boston, and she is in the final month of her internship at Biogen.

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