Real Work, Real Life

Immunologist

August 23, 2023 Emily Sampson Episode 26
Real Work, Real Life
Immunologist
Show Notes Transcript

On this week's episode of Real Work, Real Life I’m talking with Shannon, an Immunologist, who has worked academia and now works at a biotech start up. If you have considered a PhD in the hard sciences or are interested in biotech or academia, this would be a great episode for you. We cover so much about this career path, from debate around the ethics of the post-doc process, to the need for a technical track for PhDs that are gifted scientists but not necessarily strong managers and mentors, the fact that kids who are curious and independent thinkers but don’t necessary thrive in traditional school often make the best scientists, and at the end, a discussion around giving yourself time between high school and college to explore fields that interest you before making the increasingly expensive investment of college in something you may end up hating. This was such a thought provoking discussion and I’m excited to share it with you. 

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Shannon Immunologist

[00:00:00] Welcome to real work, real life, where I talk to real people about what they do for work and what that means for their lives. Today, I'm talking with Shannon and immunologist who has worked in academia and now works at a biotech startup. If you've considered a PhD in the hard sciences or are interested in biotech or academia, this would be a great episode for you. We cover so much about this career path from the debate around the ethics of the postdoc process. To the need for a technical track for PhDs that are gifted scientists, but not necessarily strong mentors and managers. To the fact that kids who are curious and independent thinkers, but don't necessarily thrive in traditional school. Often make the best scientists and at the end, a discussion around giving yourself time between high school and college to explore fields that interest you. Before making the increasingly expensive investment of college in something you may end up hating. This was such a thought provoking discussion, and I'm excited to share it with [00:01:00] you. So let's get into it. 

Emily: Thank you so much for being here, Shannon.

Shannon: Happy to be here.

Nice to see you.

Emily: nice to see you too. So what do you do for work?

Shannon: Well, I have a PhD in immunology and I now work for a really small biotech company I am the director of project management and I run our immunology team. Generally speaking, we do drug discovery and development.

Emily: Oh, that is so interesting. So what interested you about it initially? How did you get into this field?

Shannon: It was pretty roundabout, I originally studied mechanical engineering and undergrad. And I did a master's in that. And then I was working in consulting after my master's and it was really boring and I hated it. And I was living in New York City, which was fun for a little while, and then I was like, well, I don't wanna live here forever and my job kind of sucks. So I quit my consulting job and I moved back to Maine and I, did [00:02:00] some of those undergrad classes. Like I didn't take in undergrad because I was a mechanical engineering major. I knew that I wanted to, or initially I thought I wanted to go back to school for like a dual D V M PhD.

So veterinary medicine and research. And then, after taking some classes and working in a lab and doing some shadowing, I realized I just wanted to do research. I just wanted to do a PhD. I wasn't interested really in clinical practice from a veterinary point of view. And I got really interested in immunology and microbiology.

I worked in a few labs at the University of Southern Maine for a year or so. And then I applied to grad programs kind of all over and got into kind of an umbrella program at the University of Colorado in Denver. And ended up joining this lab for my PhD doing research on the pathogenesis of H I V.

So trying to figure out how H I V propagates itself in the body and [00:03:00] how it causes disease. I really liked that. I loved the grad school. I was at a big research institution, which was really cool. there were tons of faculty members. The University of Colorado has a handful of hospitals associated, so there was a lot of what we call translational immunology, which is more human focused.

So a lot of immunology research is done on mice. That's just how the system's developed over the years. And so we have a lot of tools and a lot is known about mouse immunology. It's obviously harder to study humans.

Uh, you know, like the FDA

doesn't Yeah. Ethics, etc. You know, pitch. You know, a lot happened in world War II in the fifties and sixties. That led to a lot of reform around human research subjects and gaining informed consent, et cetera, et cetera. So, you know, it's difficult obviously to do human research, so it's all done on mice, but regardless, that was kind of a digression.

I knew that I wanted to do work that was more [00:04:00] applicable. Academic science is great and it's super important and basic science, forms the basis for all translational research and translational work. But it kind of wasn't for me. I knew I wanted something that was more applied science So after I finished my PhD, I joined a group up in Missoula, Montana doing vaccine research. So. Which became very relevant a few years ago. Like people that never used to care what I did for work, they'd be like, oh, what do you do? And I'd be like, I'm an immuno. And they'd be like, what does that mean?

I was like, well, I studied the immune system. They'd be like, okay. Like end of conversation. And then, you know, at at covid they'd be like, oh, can you tell me like all these things? And most of the time I was like, no, nobody knows the answer to that question yet. But yeah, kind of got a little more relevant as the vaccine work progressed.

So we do research on vaccine adjuvants, which are like additives that you can add to vaccines [00:05:00] to try to generate a specific immune response. Try to guide the immune response that you want out of a vaccine. And also had a biotech, a startup company. So after I postdoc at University of Montana for like. Year and two and a half years. I think I started splitting time between the University, Montana and which is our startup company. Well, it's a little bit past the startup stage now, but it's still quite small. I was faculty and working at, in Immune and I split my time for like, three years, maybe which was really hard.

You kind of have two jobs. And then in January I went full-time to in Immune which has been really cool. So we just are getting into our first clinical trial, right now. Our first patient is supposed to get dosed on Friday. So that's really exciting. And we're moving to start our second clinical trial by the end of the year.

Emily: That is so, so [00:06:00] fascinating. this is really detailed, but the PhD and then postdoc, how long did each of those take, and how much did they cost?

Shannon: So, in hard sciences, anything life sciences you know, like physics, math, et cetera, the hard sciences are typically stipend based. So you get paid to do research in somebody's lab and get your PhD. You don't get paid a lot. When I did grad school, which was, I think I started fall 2012.

I finished in fall 2016, so it took me just over four years to finish at that point. Years to Colorado grad students stipend was 28,000 a year. It's obviously gone up since then. That was like 10 years ago. but I will say four years to finish a PhD is pretty fast. Especially for the hard sciences like immunology, chemistry.

Five to six years is a little bit more typical. I think when I was at Colorado, [00:07:00] like average time to finishing your PhD was five and a half years in immunology. If you did immunology. Some of the sciences take longer. A lot of it just depends on your project and how lucky you get. if your experiments are working or if you got lucky and the first project that you started working on ended up, you know, going somewhere, then you finish a lot more quickly than if like you have, three failures before you really get into your thesis project.

And that happens a lot. it super depends. I know people who have taken seven years to finish and it's not because they're bad at what they're doing, it's just because they got unlucky or their advisor sucks, or, you know, their experiments were just really long.

And so there's a really wide variation in how long it takes you to finish a PhD or like some people had a kid in their third year, you know what I mean? And so then that makes it take longer. And then postdocs, postdocs are paid positions. Again, it [00:08:00] really depends on your field, how much you get paid like biomedical and life sciences.

The nih, the National Institute of Health actually sets a scale for postdoc salaries, but it's not a requirement. So institutes don't have to pay you that most of the time. They do. And I think right now for a year zero postdoc, which is someone right outta their PhD, it's like 53 or 55,000 a year. A lot of the big cities pay more. no one would go to San Francisco or Seattle or something, or, or even Boston, on that salary. It's just not doable. 

 The bigger institutions in bigger cities will typically pay a bit more, but it's not a lot. Being a postdoc kind of sucks from like a salary perspective. You know, there's been a lot of debate in the industry, like, should postdocs even be a thing? 

Emily: Like, 

Shannon: it 

Emily: just start working?

Shannon: exactly, is it really, ethical to pay somebody with a PhD so little, just because they're a postdoc and you can, and so [00:09:00] when you are a postdoc in a lab, you're expected to function, completely independently train other people.

You often are the primary point of contact for like graduate students in the lab. You kind of are mentoring and supervising them. You're basically being trained, you know, to become a faculty member, but you're expected to write all the grants and do all the experiments and, train, the new people and mentor the grad students and you get paid shit.

People are starting to push back against doing a postdoc or saying like, Hey, if you want me to do this, you're gonna have to pay me a lot more. It's a really good deal for people who hire postdocs and it's a shit deal for the postdocs.

Emily: So if you wanted to become a professor someplace, get on tenure track at a college, would you sort of need to do a postdoc right the 

Shannon: Yes, yes. The way the system is set up. Absolutely. Especially if you wanna stay in academia, you have to do a postdoc. There are a couple of mechanisms for [00:10:00] transitioning straight from grad school into a faculty position. There's one NIH grant mechanism that supports that.

But they're so hard to get. You have to have incredible publications and really high tier journals in order to be considered for that. It's really, really rare. So yeah, postdocs are basically requirements for academic science. If you wanna go straight into industry, they're less required now.

especially like in demand Jobs and skills will hire you straight out of a PhD into like a scientist position without having done a postdoc. But I think for scientists still at this point, like if you want flexibility in your career, if you're not sure if you wanna go academia or biotech or industry, you should do a postdoc.

Otherwise you're gonna kind of get pigeonholed into an industry position and not have the flexibility to, change fields if you want to.

Emily: Oh, that's so [00:11:00] interesting. It's like a little bit of a, gate, 

Shannon: Yeah. It's a little bit a gate, 

so it kind of the way like the medical system is set up, you have to do a residency after you finish medical school and you don't get paid shit and you have to work all the time and work really hard hours and like yes, it's more training and also You kind of are getting used a little bit.

Emily: right. Yeah. Hmm. That's really interesting. So what kind of personality do you think would do well in this general field?

Shannon: Scientists typically are people who are really independent thinkers So I'm like that super annoying person that when someone tells me something I'm like, oh really? where did you hear that? Like, who did you hear that from? what are their credentials?

why should I believe you? give me all your sources,

you know, there, 

Emily: but yeah, I see where you're going with that.

Shannon: which some people like and some people don't. you know, it's that person that kind of always questions any knowledge that's put in front of them. I think super curious people are really good [00:12:00] in science. It's really interesting because, the more I think about it, people who do well in school, like traditional school don't always make the best scientists because you know, when you think about high school, you are mostly regurgitating, right?

You're like giving back facts. you're sort of memorizing and you're not taught to question what you're being taught or there's not a lot of instruction into like how to generate new knowledge and science is the generation of new knowledge. It's kind of frustrating because obviously like the people who get into like good schools and then are gonna think about undergrad or grad school are often the kids who did really well in school.

And that doesn't always make the best scientist. that kid who can't sit still and keep their mouth shut in class is probably gonna be a great scientist. And I think that deters a lot of people from wanting to do more school, you know what I mean? [00:13:00] And so it can be difficult, I think, to get the right people into the field.

You know, if you like answers, this is not for you. You have to be really okay with not knowing you have to be really good at failing. 90% of science is saying, well that didn't work. and and like moving on with your life and trying again. I would say you know, 10% of the things you do will actually work in terms of being a path that you can follow to like a paper or a small percent of an answer to a big question.

And so you have to be really comfortable with uncertainty. You have to be really comfortable with not knowing anything. And you know, you have to be really curious about, what is next because you're always trying to do the next thing and dive more deeply into whatever your question is and generate new knowledge.

And you never know if you're right. even when you get an answer, like you never know if it's right [00:14:00] because that's the first answer that there ever was. You're kind well, I think this is what this means, but you know, it's just a such a tiny piece of the puzzle that you don't really know.

And it might be a hundred years before someone is able to fully answer the question that you're trying to ask by like, taking little pieces of knowledge over time and putting it all together to make a big picture. not like taking a test oh, good job you got an A.

no, it's not like that at all. It's you know, you work for a year on something and then it doesn't pan out and then you have to start over. so you have to be, yeah, you have to be really motivated by curiosity and asking questions rather than wanting to know the answer. Because you almost never get answers.

You just give more questions.

Emily: Probably a good thing I didn't go to the sciences.

Shannon: Yeah, it's it's very amorphous kind of, for lack of a better term, and it's really well suited, I think, to people who don't do traditional [00:15:00] school. Sitting down and reading a textbook isn't their thing. 

Like, great. We want those people. And it's hard to get those people. Because kids who don't do great in traditional school think academia is not for them.

Science isn't for them. But that might be the person who it is for

Emily: So interesting. it feels like every career I talk to almost is like, you need to be kind of resilient. It's like, is there

Shannon: Yeah. Super resilient. Yeah. Like, oh my gosh. So resilient, like grad school is so hard.

Emily: Yeah.

Shannon: if you don't love it, don't do it, don't, torture yourself. You know, there's always, every year, you a handful of kids in your cohort who you're like, oh, you are so miserable.

Emily: Yeah.

Shannon: of leaving, they just torture themselves through getting a PhD instead of being like, oh, I hate this. I'm gonna get a master's and leave. 

Emily: Yeah, I 

think the sunk cost fallacy really harms a lot of people 

Shannon: yeah, I think I think so. yeah, you have to be really careful that, that doesn't happen to you. I think it's important, especially when you're trying to figure out what your career is [00:16:00] gonna be like.

No one to quit. if you're miserable, just go, just do something else. there's no point in being miserable. it's just not worth it.

Emily: I bet a lot of people could probably use that advice 

Shannon: Yeah, I think so. science is very much not for everyone. It is for a very small percentage of the population that wants to have a job that's the most frustrating thing in the world. And don't do it if you don't like it. That's the best advice I can give people. If you're miserable, don't do it.

Just 

go do something

else. Yeah. And so there's lots of different ways to be in science too. Like you don't have to get a PhD. I supervise for lab technicians and so their job is actually doing the experiments in the lab. they have a very different job than I do. Does it come with a lot of the same frustrations as my job?

Yes. But also, when you get a PhD, as you kind of advance in your career, you get farther and farther away from the lab, you know, and tech [00:17:00] technicians stay in the lab. if you love lab work, maybe consider not getting a PhD, like get a master's or just stay in the lab and, you know, keep doing that hands-on work.

Whereas if you go the PhD route, you'll be expected to move on from doing lab work.

Emily: Yeah. Yeah. So this is sort of a hard left turn from that question, but what do you make now and what do your other benefits look like? 

Shannon: So the hard thing about. A academic science and b biotech is that salary ranges are huge. For example in academia, like it super matters what school, what university you're at. the University of Montana does not pay very well. traditionally until like maybe five or so years ago, Missoula was a pretty affordable place to live. And that's not really the case anymore. But because we're a state university, you know, the salary caps are dictated by legislature [00:18:00] and I think it's gonna take a long time for that needle to move for faculty at, any institute that's not a private university, 

cause private university, they can do whatever they want. So when I was at the um, , as like a, you know, new faculty member, my salary was like 80 or 85 and that was pretty high for the University of Montana as a assistant professor at In Immune. I make one 20 now. That's on the low, I think on the lower end for someone who's a director level position. But at the same time, we're a really small company. We're still trying to make it that salary can vary so widely depending on if you're at a brand new company. If you're in a big city, if you're in a small place A director level position could be anywhere from a hundred thousand to two 50, depending on where you are and who you're working for.

Benefits wise, we, [00:19:00] again, if you work for small biotech, the variability is huge. a lot of startup companies can't offer any benefits and that's not super unusual. We offer health insurance. So for health insurance, immune covers 70% of the premiums and employees cover the other 30%.

We have dental and vision and a 401k 

with 

Emily: and teeth are Eyes and teeth 

Shannon: I know eyes and teeth are not part of your body. Emily, I don't know if you knew that. But they have to be covered separately even though ophthalmologists go to medical school.

Anyway, little little side there. But we also have unlimited time off,

Emily: Nice. 

So, 

Shannon: in quotes. please don't take six months off, but it's not like a set limit.

You know, Our maternity paternity leave policies are flexible. So there's just like a lot of flexibility in your time off situation.

Emily: Yeah. So if thinking about it on a broad range [00:20:00] in some ways, academia might be maybe a little less, but potentially a little more stable and with maybe more built out benefits in industry. Might be potential for a little more, but 

Shannon: Well, it depends what you're talking about when you say industry. So industry also varies widely. So you have like biotech and biotech startup companies, which are super high risk jobs. there's no guarantee your company is gonna exist in the next two years. And then there's big pharma, right?

So working for like the Pfizers and the Merx and the Johnson Johnsons, those are typically very stable jobs that pay a lot,

with like great benefits. But also I've never worked for big pharma, but A lot of people I work with used to work at Big Pharma, so working at Big Pharma, I think for a whole lot of scientists carries a lot of frustration because a lot of the time those companies will make decisions not based on the science, but they'll make a business decision that kill a bunch of really [00:21:00] promising projects from a scientific point of view.

And so I know from talking to other people, that that can be really frustrating and there's a lot of red tape and things move really slowly. you know, it's kind of a choice. it's can be a very different type of work, but it's super stable. You're gonna get paid well, you're gonna have great benefits.

 It just depends on what you want and you know, like where you wanna be , it's hard to find a job like that when you wanna live in the middle of nowhere. I think now with remote work, for some jobs it's more possible, but especially for lab based work, you have to be in person.

You have to be, at a company site, you know, wherever the lab is, that's where you have to be. And so I think especially wanting to be in Missoula or wanting to be somewhere that's pretty rural, pretty in the middle of nowhere, like lots of good outdoor access. there's obviously not any big pharma companies here.

 I mean I really like my job and I don't think I would like working in big pharma, but you know, it might [00:22:00] be a nice retirement gig someday.

Emily: Yeah. Yeah. So thinking about that, how much say do you have in location? when you were looking for your grad degree and when you were looking for your postdoc, and now today, are there , big hubs for this kind of work throughout the country, or thinking about a postdoc, is it sort of like you might just have to go someplace where the postdoc is?

Or did you find that you had a lot of agency in where you lived?

Shannon: I mean, it's kind of both and it's sort of up to you. yes, there are big hubs for biomedical research like Boston, Seattle, San Francisco. Those are the big ones now. Even like what they call the research triangle in North Carolina has quite a bit of research. There's smaller hubs in like Atlanta and then obviously the NIH is in Washington DC DC has a lot of, biomedical research.

the big cities, the places that you would assume kind of have a lot of biotech, have a lot of biotech, 

 that [00:23:00] said, if you're willing to take a really risky position, kind of like I did, or you know, work at a smaller university where your chances of having to move after doing a postdoc are a lot higher. There's a lot of different places you could go.

 There's a lot of small universities or small biotech companies kind of scattered all over the country. But you know, if you decide you don't wanna work there anymore, or if your lab loses funding or your biotech company doesn't make it, you're probably gonna have to move. And so I think that's the appeal of a lot of the hubs for biomedical research and biotech is that, maybe your company doesn't make it, or you don't like the lab, you're doing a postdoc in, or you lab loses funding or you wanna kind of change fields a little bit.

If you're somewhere like Boston, you don't have to move to do that.

Emily: Right. That's interesting. What are your hours like and do you feel like you have a good work-life balance? Um,

Shannon: My hours are really variable. So [00:24:00] when I was splitting time between and in immune, that was really not sustainable over the long term. I was working all the time. two summers ago, like summer of 2021, things were really busy. I was writing a bunch of big contract proposals and I literally worked every day the entire summer.

Emily: Oh, 

Shannon: awful. And kind of after that I was like, this isn't sustainable. You know, those kinds of hours and just trying to work essentially what were two full-time jobs into a 40 hour work week, was impossible. And so, since January, since I've been a full-time in immune, my workload has gone much more manageable.

And I actually feel like I can make progress at, in Immune, you know, sort of before I was spread so thin that I sort of just felt like I was treading water, you know, at both the university and at I immune. I couldn't really get anything done. I could sort of just keep [00:25:00] things from falling apart.

And now being a hundred percent in immune, I have a normal schedule for the most part. You know, some weeks are still busy, like when you have deadlines, even though we're a biotech company, we still write a lot of NIH grants and contracts. So when we have deadlines, you don't work weekends and evenings for a little while. Like that's just gonna happen. But then you also have down weeks where you're like, oh, I worked 80 hours last week. I'm going home at three o'clock today, and nobody cares. I have a lot of flexibility in my schedule where I know that some weeks or even some months, I'm just gonna be slammed and I'm working all the time.

And then other times I'm not.

Emily: yeah. 

Shannon: But definitely when you're a postdoc and when you're early in your faculty career, you work a lot 

and that's normal, 

 Those.

Early years are really when you're trying to establish yourself as a scientist. And so, you know, you're writing grants like crazy and you're still in the lab to some extent, and so you're just are working a lot. 

So the most difficult transition in science is going [00:26:00] from postdoc to faculty for sure. That's the hardest in terms of getting that first faculty job. depending on like kind of what your postdoc was like, it can be the most jarring in terms of like, now you're being asked to do a totally different job. I kind of had the advantage as a postdoc. My mentors really involved me in a lot of the grant writing and budgeting. Which you kind of get frustrated with at the time. You're like, I'm writing all these grants for someone else. But also you're learning so much with people to guide you and how to do it so that then when you have to do it by yourself, you know what you're doing.

 When I transitioned to faculty, I had already written a bunch of big grants and contracts, with other people who had already done it. And so it was not that big of a leap for me to start doing it on my own. And to, supervise scientists officially in the lab.

Whereas I had been doing it unofficially, throughout my whole postdoc. But that can be a really difficult transition for a lot of people. 

Emily: I'm [00:27:00] interested to know how much grant writing and budgeting and contract writing is a part of your job. I sort of, in my imagination, pictured a lot more of you know, beakers and spinning on 

lab 

Shannon: Yeah. Yes. So no more beakers are like, not part of my

life anymore. Um, yes, exactly. So once you transition out of being a postdoc, you really aren't in the lab anymore. Even as a postdoc, after my first maybe two years as a postdoc, I was almost completely out of the lab running projects and writing and, managing that is sort of unusual, more of a function of the group I was in and how we operate.

Usually as a postdoc, you're in the lab a lot, but you're also writing grants. I would say as a postdoc. Most people are maybe like 50 50 or like 70. Yeah, 50 50 is probably pretty normal. Or like 75% lab, 25% writing. [00:28:00] My job is now like a hundred percent writing. most of the time it's writing emails, but it's still writing.

I'm not in the lab at all. I haven't been in the lab for years. Could I do it if I had to? Yeah, I like to think so. I did a pretty sweet cardiac stick like a year or two ago. I was pretty proud of myself. Um, But yeah, I'm not really in the lab anymore. I just write and I manage projects.

I'm involved in science from the planning point of view, designing experiments, you know, working with. The folks in the lab to like look at data and plan the next experiment or the next kind of series of experiments how are we gonna get there? But I don't actually do the lab work anymore.

Emily: Yeah. That's interesting. So many jobs, the work you do changes a lot

throughout the The career. 

Shannon: Yes. That's one of the big jokes in science. It's every time you get promoted or move on to the next thing, like you have a completely new job 

and you have to figure out how to do that. And it doesn't always translate right? people who are great in the lab are [00:29:00] not always great at grant writing or teaching or supervising grad students.

Or most of the time they're not great at like managing budgets and big projects. And that can be really hard because you get promoted because you're great at science, but now you're being asked to do something totally different. That is not hands-on science. And so whether you're gonna be good at, that's kind of a crapshoot.

a lot of the times no one teaches you how to do the, stuff that's not in the lab science, you're sort of figuring out on your own or you have to go and seek sort of that mentorship. I think I kind of got lucky in that, my postdoc was a lot of that. It was a lot of, being taught how to write these grants and contracts and put budgets together and run projects.

I think a lot of people don't get that.

Emily: I've talked to a bunch of people that had to go to grad school of some variety for their profession, and almost all of them have said they got no training in the other things, [00:30:00] like the running their own practice or budgeting or,

Shannon: Yep. It's the 

same in science. 

Emily: all. And It's 

Shannon: Totally. It's the same. 

Emily: half of it, it feels like.

Shannon: I think it comes, you know, because you are needed in the role that you are hired into,, postdocs are needed in the lab. we have grants, we have contracts, we need this work to get done. And postdocs are great at getting it done because they know what they're doing.

And they don't need to be told what to do. They have their own ideas. They often come up with new great ideas, stuff you didn't think of. So they're super valuable in the lab and that's how you get faculty jobs is being great in the lab and getting cool new papers out and writing interesting grants.

But then when you get promoted to faculty and you're expected to like manage those grants, a lot of people are like, oh, well how do I do that? You know, they know how to do the work in the lab, but they don't know how to do the next thing. 

Emily: Yeah. 

Shannon: a little bit sink or swim.

Emily: Hmm So how do you [00:31:00] view the prospects for people entering your field right now? Is it super competitive or, or are there tons of open roles? What does it look like?

Shannon: It really depends on your field. I work with a lot of chemists and I can say chemists with a PhD are very in demand right now. You're thinking about doing your PhD in chemistry, like go do it. You're gonna have all the job offers in the world. We have a lot of trouble hiring people who are already in the US who have a PhD in chemistry, in the type of chemistry that we're looking for.

You know, we often end up hiring from overseas that's fine, that's great to do, but it's also a lot more expensive for companies to do that, 

especially small companies.

As an immunologist. Yeah, there's a quite a bit of demand, but also I think it depends what you wanna do.

So obviously, you know, grad schools are churning out way more PhDs [00:32:00] than there are available faculty positions. So you can't, go in with the expectation that you're gonna be able to stay in academia, even if that's what you wanna do. You know, for me that wasn't a big deal. It wasn't what I really wanted to do, and I kind of knew from the start that I probably didn't wanna stay in academia.

But a lot of people do. You know, a lot of people go to grad school wanting to stay in academia and find that, , I don't know. 10%, maybe less than 10% of people who finish with a PhD actually end up getting a faculty position in academia. You know, you have to be really good.

You have to be willing to work really hard and you have to get lucky.

that's a really big component of this whole thing that I think it's overlooked a lot. you have to be in the right place at the right time with the right skillset and meet the right person. you know, I often think about how incredibly lucky I've been to land where I landed, yeah, I had to work hard and do well and be good, but also like, I don't know, 75% of that was luck.

Like I was [00:33:00] in the right place at the right time to get the position that I got, when I was a grad student, looking for labs to do my thesis my PhD mentor happened to have just gotten an r o one, and I was able to join her lab, when I was looking for postdocs, the lab, I ended up postdocing in, happened to be looking for postdocs.

 If anything had been off by like six months, it wouldn't have worked out. And so the timing of being in the right place at the right time is just incredible. Like, yeah, I'm sure I would've found something I liked and been successful at it, but it would've been something different.

It would've been a, a different path. And so I think it's really important to not discount in the process,

Emily: And manage your expectations. Don't go 

in with this like expected path. I think that's good advice in any career almost, if you go in expecting things to go one particular way the entire way through, you're probably gonna meet

some disappointment. 

Shannon: Exactly. And I think for [00:34:00] science in particular, you have to be flexible and, what opportunities come, you gotta take 'em whether they are what you thought you would be doing or not.

But I think also, once you have a PhD, there's a lot of different routes open to you.

Emily: Yeah,

Shannon: change fields or a lot of people go into data management or analytics. especially now with all of the sort of computer based work that you do in any field, get a PhD you have to learn a certain amount of coding.

You have to learn a certain amount of data analysis. 

You know, there's 

other, 

yeah, a lot of STA stats you know, there's a lot of different field you can kind of, shift into where you're using your skillset, but not necessarily you're really specific knowledge base to do your job.

Emily: Oh, that's interesting. 

Shannon: So yeah, if you want a PhD, don't expect a faculty position. It's rare. Like I said, a lot of luck is involved, but if you are willing to be flexible, then great. [00:35:00] And it's possible, you know, obviously I had one, I know a lot of people who have gotten faculty positions, but it's not the norm.

And it usually takes a long time, I got promoted to faculty after Postdocing for like three years,

Ish. And that's fast. And again, it was, sort of luck. There was a need in our research group we're research faculty, so I didn't really have to go through the formal hiring process at the university. we were a hundred percent self supported by our grant contract money.

My salary came from our grant contract money, not from the university at all. So those are easier positions to get if you are in a lab that's that well funded. And also, you know, it's again kind of an unusual situation.

Emily: Yeah. What are some things that are challenging about your job, especially if you think people might not expect? 

Shannon: I think the level of uncertainty and lack of job security, [00:36:00] even when you're faculty, even if you have an academic faculty job, you could lose funding at any time. The N NIH decides oh, we're not interested in that anymore. Or the field moves on and you haven't kind of kept up.

that can be the end, you know, again, luck. the role that sort of luck plays in it, like working on a project that the rest of your field thinks is really cool and interesting and relevant plays a huge role in how well funded you're going to be.

And, again, kind of the role of the dice and how much it matters, how good your colleagues are and how good your mentors were.

That is really important, whether you're gonna get good training or not. And also I think what surprised me is how Ill suited some people are to the role of faculty, right? Like I said, like it's not clear that when you hire or promote someone who's a really good scientist, that they're gonna be good at being faculty or being a manager or, those sort of not [00:37:00] in the lab science skills.

So then you end up with this huge range of people who are all really smart and obviously great scientists, but some of them are freaking terrible at, being mentors or being professors or being managers. And some of them are great and it's sort of a roll of the dice. I think you have to be careful too especially our graduate student, You have to select your mentor really carefully.

I, don't think a lot of grad students think about that. I didn't. And I got lucky, right? My 

mentor was great, but a lot of people join a lab because they think the science is really interesting, which is valid. And then it turns out their mentor is shitty. you know, they either are like on a power trip or they just ignore their grad students.

Or they are actively, creating a toxic environment. And as a graduate student, like there's not much you can do other than change labs, which can be really hard. You know, you really have to talk to, Other graduate [00:38:00] students in the lab and postdocs and get them to like, give you really candid answers about how good a mentor the PI is.

You know, they could be brilliant, they could have the coolest science, but they could be terrible at being a mentor. And so I think it's way, way more important, especially as a grad student and a postdoc, to be in a lab of someone who's a really good mentor versus someone who has all these accolades and is really well known in the field and on paper looks really good, but they actually are not a good grad student mentor.

it's hard as a grad student cuz you don't know what you're good at yet to kind of try to match your strengths and weaknesses with a mentor's strengths and weaknesses. some people need a really hands-on mentor. And some people are gonna hate that. but it's hard to know that before you're a grad student.

But you have to choose your mentor before you're really a grad student, And so that can be tricky to navigate. So I would just say, select [00:39:00] your mentors with care. And that's something that's frustrating, you know, about being in science is seeing, you know, those mentors or those supervisors that are not good at their jobs, but they're in that position because they were really good at science.

And so I think it would be nice, in the field if there was a more clear path for people who are great at the science, who are great at the bench, but who turn out aren't great at running a lab or being mentors or being supervisors. And for them to just stay in the lab. Once you've moved on from being a postdoc, you know, it's considered almost a demotion to be back in the lab.

so it can be really hard for a, for people who wanna stay in the lab. people be like, oh, you have a PhD. Like, why are you still in the lab? what are you doing? why haven't you advanced in your career? And then for people who either move into like a supervisory role or management role and they don't like it, or they're not good at it, it's hard to put them back in the lab because they'll see it as a demotion essentially.

Whereas [00:40:00] like, no, this is what you're good at, this is what you should be doing. go teach people hands-on rather than trying to, you know write grants and manage people. so that's difficult is that there's not like a technical track. For advancement. After you get a PhD,

you're expected to move on from the lab.

 I mean, I tell people all the time, if you love being in the lab, don't get a PhD. You'll be expected to move on from the lab and pretty quickly.

And so if that's what you love, either don't go to grad school at all or get a master's, learn some new skills and then, and then go back to the lab.

Emily: So you've talked about a lot of things you like about your job, but is there anything you would add, especially if it's something you think people wouldn't expect?

Shannon: I really like the variety in my job. Every day is something different. I could be trying to figure out why someone's experiment's not working, [00:41:00] or I could be, brainstorming with other scientists what our next grant is gonna be. Or I could be. Working out a manufacturing issue for our, clinical stage product and, figuring out why things aren't working the way we thought they should be working.

And so I do a lot of different things, even like within an hour I could do all those things any given day. I also really love, when I started my PhD and was in, you know, suddenly like immersed in science, I was like, oh, I found my people, these are my people.

And so, scientists are kinda a weird bunch. my husband likes to say, I have a really high tolerance for really weird people. Which is true. I do you have to, if you're gonna be in science, you have to like super weirdos and I love weird people. a lot of scientists are really weird, and I think that's great.

And so I really like working with people who are really smart, who [00:42:00] are, oftentimes weird and quirky and funny. People who are just super curious and who don't take things at face value who like to try new things and who are, okay with being like, yeah, I'm gonna work really hard on this for a year and it might work and it might not.

We recently were about to become what's considered a clinical stage company. We're about to have our first clinical trial actually running.

And so learning how, you know, you kind of translate research from the bench into the clinic has been really interesting. It's been really hard. I have learned so much about drug manufacturing in the last year that I ever expected to learn.

It's way more difficult and more complicated and more expensive than you would would expect. So that's been cool. And I think just you always have the opportunity to learn something new cuz that's literally your [00:43:00] job is to go generate new knowledge and learn new things. 

That, you know, it's endless.

Your job never really gets stagnant. And I like that,

 

not everybody likes that, right? not everybody wants to do something new all the time. But certain things , you get better at. Every grant is different, but the process of writing a grant is the same. every paper is different, but the process of writing a paper is always the same.

And so, you know, you have a framework for something, but the context is new.

Emily: Yeah. And I mean, your work having a chance to make a impact on

human 

Shannon: that too. We often like forget about that because it happens so rarely. Like, you can't hang your hat on that, Right,

Like, you can't, that can't be the thing that makes you happy in science, right? Because the odds of that happening are so, so, so low. You have to be really what's considered process driven as opposed to [00:44:00] outcome driven, right?

You have to love the process. You can't just get excited on the outcome because the outcome, there's no guarantee, 

Emily: right.

Shannon: the failure rate is so incredibly high that. That can't motivate you. Yes it can from a really high level, yes, I want to do something that could, you know that the idea and the goal is to contribute to improving human health, but it's what you're working on never gets there, which is really likely 

you can't let that make you miserable because the odds of getting a product successfully through a clinical trial and having efficacy are very low. 

So 

you have to love the work and you can't be so focused on the outcome, right? You could do everything, right. Your clinical trial could go beautifully and then it could turn out your drug just doesn't work in people. There's nothing you [00:45:00] can do about that, and there's no way you could have predicted it.

There has to be other things about your job that you like. There has to be other reasons you're there. you're gonna be miserable.

Emily: Oh, that's good advice. so this is the last question I have for you. What is one piece of advice generally about work that you would give your younger self?

Shannon: Like any work, general about work? 

Emily: about work? 

 Or say you were talking to an 18 year old, you knew and you were like, here's a lesson I've

Shannon: Yeah. I mean, I think I've kind of touched on it at some 

point in this wildly meandering conversation, but I think knowing when you're miserable and being willing to walk away like the sunk cost. When people say, oh, that's a sunk cost, you gotta stay. that's the logical fallacy. When you're miserable, you go, you quit, you move on, you find something else. I think obviously that's a really privileged position to take. when I was miserable in a consulting job after undergrad, that paid [00:46:00] really well. I quit because I could, because I didn't have to worry about paying my bills or having an income or having a job.

I could quit and regroup and know that no one was gonna let me fall into homelessness or poverty. Right? That wasn't even on my radar. I knew I had a safety net. And so I think for people who don't have, that can be really tricky. Like, yeah, I hate this job, but I need it.

And so I think in that case, there's always things you can find that you like about what you're doing, whether it's the people you work with or the people you interact with, or the freedoms that your job gives you. I think it can be really important to focus on those things. If you can't quit your job, if you can quit your job and you hate it, just quit your job.

Just do it. It's not you're gonna be okay. You're gonna land on your feet. And when you find the career that you want and the job that you want, you're gonna be so much better at it, [00:47:00] 

and you're gonna be so much more successful because you like it. So I think being engaged in your job is a huge part of being successful, you know?

And so I would say don't go to college when you're 18. don't, do not go straight from high school to college.

 Do something else. If you think you might wanna be an X, Y, or Z career, find a way to get an internship 

either while you're in high school or after high school. take a couple year a year two and work don't rush college because A, it's super expensive and B, if you don't study the right thing the first time around, you might find yourself going back.

I had five years between finishing my masters and going back for my PhD because I totally switched fields. Which is fine. You can totally do that. But in retrospect, it's hard to say I would've done something different because I like where I ended up.

Emily: Yeah.

Shannon: But a more direct path, you know, would have been to, study [00:48:00] bioengineering as an undergrad or be a biology major or even a chemistry, like pre-med.

there are a lot of things would've been a better choice for me as an undergrad than mechanical engineering, but I just didn't know. 

And so I think when you're 18, you're right outta high school, like you don't know anything. you really don't, you don't know what's out there. You don't know what, you just don't.

And I mean, of course you don't, And so I think this push, if you're successful and if you're a high performing person, you go straight from high school to undergrad. Like that's what you do. I don't think we should do that.

I don't think we should push kids to do that. especially the kids who are really high performers really smart. the kids that get shuttled right from high school to undergrad that's not doing them any favors.

Emily: And they're the kids too, that that worry that if you don't go right away, you won't go

Shannon: Mm-hmm. 

Emily: Those kids are gonna

go, 

Shannon: not a thing. Yeah. 

You're gonna go. Um, but even if you don't go, that's fine too. 

Say you find something else [00:49:00] outside of kind of a traditional academic route that you love, like, great, 

do it. See where it goes. You know, you can always go to school when you want to. It's always gonna be there.

So I think, it's important to not rush it's important to quit when you know you're miserable. 

Emily: I love it.

Shannon: Also, I know that if I was 18, I wouldn't listen to anything I just said. So right? if 

someone told me outta high school, take a year or two off, I would've been Like, 

no.

Like,

then I'm gonna be so far behind, right? I would've thought I would be behind my peers and 

Emily: That feeling of That feeling of being behind 

at 18, it's like, oh, it's 

not real, but It 

Shannon: It feels so real and it's not real. it just isn't.

so like a, most people don't go straight through to grad school anymore, which 

Emily: Right. 

Shannon: It's rare for someone to go straight from undergrad into graduate school. And the students that do tend to really struggle when I started grad school, I was 28. I [00:50:00] think that was pretty normal. There was a couple of other students starting who are my age, a couple who are younger, and a couple who are a little older.

And so I think taking the time to figure out what you wanna do and not saying oh, I'm too old. Or oh, I waited too long to do that. that's not a thing. when you figure out what you wanna do, just go do it. If 

you have the means and if you don't, I think, you know, that is really hard. And then in that case, know, I think you have to work with what you have find things. 

Emily: something at 18, figuring out it's

wrong and going back is always gonna be more than taking a year 

Shannon: yes, 

yes. 

Emily: do.

Shannon: I agree. Yes. 

it's expensive to go to undergrad. For what you don't wanna do.

Um, 

Emily: Yeah.

Shannon: it's just expensive to go to undergrad and B, it's expensive if that's not what you end up doing. my engineering degree did come in handy, right? Like it did help me. It was 

super technical. I took a lot of [00:51:00] math that I would never have taken and I think it was most value to me in that it was really hard and school had never, ever, ever been hard for me until I did that. and so I really learned how to struggle and I really learned how to learn something that I wasn't sort of maybe innately good at.

And in that respect, it was really valuable. Cause after my undergrad experience, like grad school was almost easy. Not. from a technical standpoint, but from a mental health standpoint, 

I was like, this is really hard, but I wanna be here. I'm happy doing the work.

I like doing the work. and I'm not miserable. it's just hard work. I know I can do it. Whereas I think if you go to grad school without already having done something really hard, if that's the first really hard thing you do, it's gonna hurt. dealing with that is gonna be the hardest thing, 

And so I think struggling in certain areas, struggling in undergrad, like [00:52:00] isn't necessarily a bad thing. And it doesn't mean that you can't go to grad school, right? it's kind of one of those things too, like we kind of talked about earlier, maybe the kids who don't do great in traditional school might make the best scientists.

don't look at the sort of the previous step as necessarily a gauge of whether you're gonna be successful at the next step.

Emily: Oh, that's,

Shannon: Because I think, you know, kids maybe who don't do great in school, they hate science class cuz they're just avie asked to memorize and regurgitate facts that is not science. Like don't let that turn you off from science. That's the furthest thing from actual science.

Emily: Yeah.

Shannon: And so, I would encourage people who are curious about anything to after high school, go work in that thing for a little while. Even if you got shit grades in it in high school, 

 

if you think computers are really interesting, but your school didn't have computer classes or you just weren't good at [00:53:00] it in high school, that kind of doesn't matter.

Doing the thing is very different than sort of what your class in high school might have been like. figure out what a field might actually be like.

Emily: I love that. That's all the questions I had for you, Shannon. I really had fun talking to you. Thank you so

Shannon: Oh good. I hope 

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