Professional Development

Keep Calm and Postdoc on: Dr. Shannon Harris, chemistry grad, on her alt-ac career path

June 11, 2014

This article is part of a series exploring professional paths for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows that make use of or leverage academic training but are not limited to traditional faculty positions (#alt-ac).

“I don’t want to do any more fellowships. I’m not interested in academics—I want a job in industry,” said Muhammad as we were chatting outside of last week’s photo-shoot. Muhammad has a PhD in biological sciences and is near the end of his first and apparently, last fellowship.

Was this true? Do postdoctoral fellowships only lead to jobs in academia? I had absolutely no idea, so of course I pretended I did and agreed with him anyway. I wish Dr. Shannon Harris had been there.

After graduating with a PhD in Chemistry from SFU in 1997, Shannon completed two postdoctoral fellowships, one with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, NY  and one with the Children’s Hospital of Oakland Research Institue in Oakland, CA.

Although her time as a postdoctoral fellow was not easy, she credits it as being instrumental to her securing her current role as a Senior Manager in Vaccine Research with Pfizer.

I spoke to Shannon on the phone from her home in New York State.

“My first daughter was born while I was writing my thesis, my second child during my fellowship. We were living in NY city at the time which was not cheap and since it was the US my husband couldn’t work. I was supporting all four of us—there was a huge amount of anxiety and uncertainty.”  

With few opportunities to pursue the work she loved in the academic environment, Shannon set her sights on industry—strategically choosing a lab where her supervisor had strong business connections.

“The hard part is breaking in and getting in front of the right people and showing them what you can do.”

However, Shannon warns it’s not all about who you know.

“During my fellowships, I demonstrated that I had problem solving, communication, teambuilding and flexibility. My PhD proved that I could do independent research, but I also needed to show that I could collaborate with others and be a team leader.”

So, should I have told Mohammad that he was crazy to cut himself off from what would surely lead him to the industry job of his dreams? Probably not.  No two paths are ever the same. But next time I might do more than smile and nod—I might just ask a question. Because if Shannon’s experience tells me one thing, it’s that you never know.   

- Jackie Amsden, APEX Certificate coordinator, Office of Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Fellows

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