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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Viviane Callier


Viviane Callier earned her PhD in biology from Duke University. She’s currently a science writer at the National Cancer Institute and freelances on the side. Find her online here and follow her on Twitter @vcallier.

What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

When I finished my PhD, I had lined up a postdoc in the same field of study (insect physiology). During my postdoc, I spent a lot of time applying for grants, and also had my first interview for a tenure track job. I started to realize that, the closer I got to what I thought I wanted, the less appealing it became. So I started exploring alternatives away from the bench. I wrote for the university blog and alumni magazine, which led to the idea that I could write full time.

What was your first post-PhD job?

My postdoc lasted just under two years. My first non-academic job was as a senior science writer at a consulting company outside of Washington, DC. As a technical writer, I wrote workgroup meeting minutes, conference summaries, web content — basically whatever the clients asked for.

What do you do now?

Currently, I am a contractor writing for the office of communications and public liaison at the National Cancer Institute, where I write about cancer research, clinical trials and other cancer news. I also freelance for various science news publications, writing about biological and biomedical news, higher education, research funding and more.

What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?

At NCI, I write scientist profiles and news stories for the NCI blog. I also write and edit content for the new NCI website,, that is launching in May 2015. Much of my work involves talking to scientists about their work and staying up to date with new developments. I work closely with other writers and editors to develop drafts, and we have our fair share of editorial meetings to discuss what news we will cover.

What most surprises you about your job?

This may sound obvious, but news writing and publishing happens much faster compared to academic writing and publishing. The pace of the work is very different.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

Talking to scientists and making interesting work accessible to larger audiences are the most rewarding aspects of the job.

An aspect that I did not expect is that the writer-editor relationship is a very close one, and it takes trust and vulnerability on both ends to produce good work. As a relatively new writer, I feel very lucky to have the chance to work with editors whose experience and judgment I can trust.

What advice or thoughts do you have for post-PhDs in transition now?

It really helps to think like an entrepreneur. What value can you bring to a person or an organization, that they would be willing to pay you for? The key is to sell your skills and experience to solve someone else’s problem.

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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  1. David Calverley / April 5, 2015 at 09:40

    A very good interview. I enjoy this feature of University Affairs. As someone with a Ph.D. (who took an alternate career path), I find them a refreshing antidote to the still prevalent belief that the only career route for a Ph.D. is an academic position.