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Yes, a PhD in life sciences can lead to a career outside of academe

Three graduates share their PhD journeys and their forays into the biotechnology and therapeutics sector.


With the increasing pace of scientific and technological advances, a life sciences expertise is in high demand. Government investment in biomanufacturing and life sciences has also opened more roles, including up to 65,000 new workers by 2029. Canadian PhD graduates are part of a rich talent pool that can contribute to research and development, management, operations, and innovation. By looking at career narratives of PhD graduates, we are observing a “branching pipeline” of positions supporting biotechnology and drug development, as well as the crucial transferable abilities that make graduates so versatile in the workforce.

We present three narratives of PhD graduates from the life sciences, summarized from the TRaCE McGill project, a cross-disciplinary initiative to track the career outcomes of PhD graduates from McGill University. We learn who they are, what their current roles are, the skills they draw from their PhD journey, and their most salient advice for graduate students.

Mark Bazett (PhD in human genetics), senior director of preclinical development

Like many graduate students, Dr. Bazett first got into research through his undergraduate co-op program. He enjoyed research so much that he continued in the same lab as a master’s student and transitioned into the PhD program.

Dr. Bazett initially planned to continue to build a career in academia. However, after his PhD, he found an industry postdoc. Dr. Bazett thrived in the energy and culture of working in biotech, but when he realized he wasn’t enjoying hands-on laboratory work anymore he switched to a management role within the company.

Today, Dr. Bazett directs the preclinical department of an oncology-based drug development company. In this role, he leads the investigation of the mechanisms of the drugs that the company is developing.

He notes that the ability to synthesize literature quickly and manage projects are skills he developed during his PhD that currently help him in his day-to-day work. As he reflects on his graduate school journey, he wishes he had seized other opportunities outside of laboratory research, such as working with collaborators and taking extracurricular courses.

“Getting out of that comfort zone and onto the next stage is where your growth and learning happens,” he says.

Ava Schlisser (PhD in pharmacology and therapeutics), regional clinical operations manager

Dr. Schlisser was guided by her curiosity when she decided to enter graduate school. She knew she wanted to stay in science after her PhD but didn’t have a specific career in mind. Soon after she defended her PhD, she had a baby and took a year off from her career search. She found a job at a contract research organization, thinking it was more of a stepping stone, but discovered that she really enjoyed the challenge.

“I felt that I was learning constantly,” Dr. Schlisser says. “Even to this day, five years later, I still find myself learning on a daily basis.”

Dr. Schlisser worked as a clinical trial manager, in which she organized, implemented and monitored clinical studies. Since 2021, she has moved on to a large pharmaceutical company where she runs clinical trials in hospitals and clinics all over Canada, enrolling patients and facilitating the trial for federal approval. She continues to advance her learning and create new networks with oncologists, scientists, financiers and regulatory bodies.

Dr. Schlisser cites the various soft skills she picked up during her PhD as paramount to her daily work, including critical thinking skills, presentation skills, organization skills, and the ability to focus under pressure. Her experiences presenting her research in front of a large audiences and her rigorous committee panel helped shape her as a scientist.

On a final note, Dr. Schlisser emphasizes the importance of having a rich life outside of graduate school, such as exercising, spending time with family, and maintaining hobbies. She acknowledges that while the PhD is important, mental health is equally important.

Michel Ntemgwa (PhD in experimental medicine), clinical manager

As a PhD student, Dr. Ntemgwa believed that doing a postdoc was the only career path but he soon discovered, thanks to career fairs, that there were many different paths to choose from.

Dr. Ntemgwa was motivated to find a job quickly because his kids were born during his PhD program and his family needed his support. With a young family, he was interested in government jobs because of the work-life balance they offered.

After going through Health Canada’s recruitment process, Dr. Ntemgwa was hired as a regulatory affairs officer, in which he reviewed documents for drug approvals. He later served as an evaluator, in which he reviewed applications concerning the safety and efficacy of over-the-counter drugs.

Dr. Ntemgwa notes that organizing conferences were valuable experiences during his PhD. He reviewed poster submissions, which helped him gain reviewing skills that he needed when he eventually worked as a drug evaluator. He also had the opportunity to review manuscripts for journals.

His advice to PhD students interested in government careers is that they should attend career fairs and apply a year before graduation, because the lengthy application process typically includes exams, interviews, and reference checks.

Since the publication of his TRaCE narrative, Dr. Ntemgwa has been promoted to clinical manager of his drug evaluation unit and now supervises and leads his team in clinical reviews of drug efficacy and safety.

“I was happy to be able to do something different and still contribute to science without being in a lab,” he says. “Overall, I feel really proud and blessed to be working in a place where I can see the effects of what I’m doing.”

Altogether, these graduates share similar stories of entering PhD programs guided by their scientific curiosity. The transferable skills that they developed from their academic work and involvement in extracurricular activities – such as conferences, collaborations and attending career fairs – helped them to succeed, including in their current workplace. Like many other graduates in the life sciences field, these graduates found personal fulfilment in their careers as well as opportunities for a balanced lifestyle.

Sonja Soo is a PhD graduate in the department of neurology and neurosurgery at McGill University and worked on the TRaCE McGill project as a narrative editor. Emily Bell is associate director of the Desjardins Centre for Advanced Training, a program of professional skills and career development for trainees at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre.
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