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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Jennifer De Mello


Jennifer De Mello earned her PhD in Chemistry from the University of Georgia (USA). She’s currently a senior business analyst at Manheim Wholesale Auto Auctions. You can find her on LinkedIn.

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

I had expected to go into industry after my PhD. However, as I neared the end of my program in 2010 and began researching chemistry jobs, I didn’t see much for an inorganic photochemist. I was looking to stay in Georgia, and there were fewer and fewer opportunities available. I looked at government web sites and saw they wanted precise expertise. I looked at the CDC and biotech, and nothing held meaning for me. (I’ve never been the bio-type person.) So, I had high hopes that slowly deteriorated into the stark reality that it was unlikely I would find something. It should be noted, that by this time I had really met my limit with my PhD program and research, and with the economy and lack of jobs, I really began to question if chemistry was the right path for me.

What was your first post-PhD job?

I was first a contract software quality assurance tester for an education software company. I tested educational games for accuracy, design and quality. It was fun and interesting to be involved in K-12 education, even a small part. And it was a contract position, so I could take time for interviews or job searching as needed.

What do you do now?

I am now a senior business analyst for the technology department at Manheim Wholesale Auto Auctions. I help understand and translate the vision for new digital products (think apps or website functionality) between business and technology units. I work and talk to people all day, resolving issues, building bridges and producing new functionality to make our clients lives easier. It’s not quite as rewarding as building educational software, but the company and people are great.

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

Daily, I am embedded with the technology team (developers, testers) and work to define or review small units of functionality as they are being built. I engage with business units and other technology teams to help the team deliver functionality on time. This could mean coordinating knowledge-sharing across teams, organizing meetings (we’re a face-to-face culture), understanding dependencies between different teams and helping solve any issues or risks that have been identified. If it isn’t coding, I’m in there helping as much as I can!

Weekly, we are having larger discussions about larger vision, growing or adding to our product portfolio, and how better to service our customers. We also have forums for the business analysts to talk with one another and learn how to better serve our teams. Personally, I am also involved in activities that bring perspective to new employees about Manheim as a business, help us catalog our current resources for others to use (and not reinvent the wheel), as well as community STEM outreach and recycling initiatives.

What most surprises you about your job?

For better or worse, digital technology is a fluid business. We can pivot to react to market trends, and also set those trends ourselves. This makes it hard to set 18-month plans, and there are times where projects and visions change. However, that is what keeps the business interesting.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I really enjoy bringing people together, sharing knowledge, learning new skills and being challenged in new ways. I like that I can contribute by doing more than just my desk job. I can start initiatives, outreach programs, and my company and its people are supportive. The pension isn’t bad either!

What would you change about it if you could?

It’s corporate America, and you get what you give. There are structures and rules and red tape. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. I do think we do a good job of reviewing our practices and adjusting as needed.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

I’m really interested in dissecting the vision and goals of a new product, so I would like to get in front of that effort. Usually that’s a product manager or business solutions role. I think that could be a very interesting place. Eventually, I’d like to land in the C-suite.

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

Don’t discount your skills and network. Talk to friends of friends. Go to meetups. Find groups that expose you to many people from many organizations. Market yourself and your personal brand. Grad school is tough – focus on your ability to close the deal, to stick with it, to see it through. You did research? Great! That’s an analysis skill that is heavily sought after today. You understand numbers, datasets, and statistics? Big Data is where it’s at. You did some JAVA for instruments or computations? We need developers like yesterday.

Still can’t think of your hirable skills? Here’s a quick list: Research, analysis, protocol / requirements / SOPs, writing, editing, presentation, project management. Find out how to turn all that specific-researchy jargon into a hirable skill. Look at jobs websites to see what skills companies are looking for and make your case.

Learn people skills. All jobs today involve interfacing with others. Learn how to treat others with respect, how to control a tense atmosphere, how to diffuse situations, and how to get problems to outcomes and outcomes to solutions. You don’t need to be a therapist (unless you are – which is cool), but you need to get stuff done.

On getting stuff done – 100 percent effort does not equal a raise/promotion. Don’t sit quietly at a desk and expect your number to come up. Make sure people know who you are and what you are doing (network!). Get involved in all levels of your corporation, get involved in outreach. Get involved. If people aren’t talking about you, you don’t exist. This is a double-edged sword – make sure they are always saying good things!

Finally, respect yourself. Not every job, not every company, not every salary is worth the cost. If your quality of life is suffering then seriously analyze your situation. Don’t let things linger, and certainly don’t keep yourself in a dangerous situation. You’ve done the hard thing – earned that PhD through blood, sweat, tears, alcohol, depression and sleepless nights – now remember that a job is just a job.

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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