Thomas Magaldi explains how he found the career he wanted by starting with the job he got.
Contributor Monya Baker
After completing a PhD in genetics at Yale University and a postdoc in virology at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), Thomas Magaldi built a career designing professional development programmes for science students and trainees. He is now career services administrator at Sloan Kettering Institute in New York City. Here he describes how getting job offers meant finding ways to gain experience away from the bench.
What skills from your PhD and postdoc do you use in your job today?
Definitely presentation skills. That is one thing that I really learned from my PhD mentor; he was excellent at providing feedback. Everyone that comes out of his lab is an excellent communicator. I give presentations on networking and resume writing, and I love that part of the job. As a grad student, we look at that as a throwaway skill, but it is a crucial part of my success.
Also my problem solving ability. You’d be amazed at how often applying the scientific method is useful.
What skills can most PhDs bring to the workplace?
Persistence: that’s a skill all PhDs have in pushing through difficult problems.
Doing a thesis is like doing your own mini project. The ability to start and finish your own project is a useful skill in more than just academia. That is one of the most important skills employers look for, regardless of industry.
When did you realize you didn’t want a job in academia?
Shortly after my thesis project hit a dead end, I started to question my career goals. I was perhaps a 3rd year grad student when I started to explore other options. I started organizing career panels and informational interviews. That’s how I came to the realization that I didn’t want to do bench science. I decided that my path was in policy.
Are there opportunities you wish you’d taken while you were still doing your scientific training?
I was at one of the top universities in the world with some of the most brilliant minds. I’m not just talking about science–I’m talking about law and economics–and I very rarely interacted with people outside my department. Looking back on that, that was a tremendous waste. I wish I had spent time interacting with intellectuals beyond biology. I wish I’d taken advantage of the courses in finance and computer programming.
Did your PhD advisor offer any advice?
I didn’t share the fact that I was going to consider other careers until I was a year from graduation. I really waited until my science was in a place where I knew I would graduate and publish good papers. It wasn’t fear of retribution; I was more concerned that he would be worried that my priorities weren’t in the right place, even though I was working long hours and nights and weekends. In retrospect, I should have told him sooner because he would have been supportive.
So what did you do?
Seven or eight months before I graduated, I decided I should pursue the AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science] policy fellowship. The problem was that I had spent two and a half years exploring my career, but spent no time pursuing activities that would make me a competitive candidate, doing things like working with the patent office or doing outreach or working on policies or advising Congress. I came to this conclusion and thought ‘I will find a few things that I can do now to put on my resume now and then do a strategic postdoc.’
What’s a strategic postdoc?
A postdoc that is going to lead to the career that you want. A lot of postdocs get themselves into positions where they aren’t happy because they pick a lab strictly based on the science or the reputation of the PI. That’s pivotal. But scientists should also investigate whether the position will allow them to build the network, skills, and experiences they need for their future career. If you want to go into industry, it’s good to do a postdoc in a lab that has a history of putting people into industry. If teaching is important, you should choose a postdoc that will allow you teach.
I took a postdoc at the U.S. NIH. I got involved with the American Society of Biochemistry and talked with my local congressman about why he should advocate to raise the NIH budget. I did some adjunct teaching and was part of the NIH policy discussion group.
How did you decide where and when to apply for jobs?
A few months into my postdoc, my wife gave birth to our son, and it was important to us as a family that my wife would stay home with him while he was little. Unfortunately the privilege of a one-income family wasn’t a viable option on a postdoc salary. I had done some outreach and policy work and adjunct teaching. I realized that I was actually ready to apply for jobs, because I had assembled a set of activities that would differentiate me, that would separate me from my peers.
There is a 4-quadrant guide for narrowing your search to appropriate jobs. It’s taken from advice Victoria Blodgett gave me when I went to talk with her as a graduate student at Yale. You ask four questions: Where do you want to live? What do you want to do? What can you do? What do you want in a work environment?
Due to my circumstances, it was going to be difficult to check all the boxes in my first job. I took where wanted to live and what I could do. To me what was important for work environment was that I was developing new skill sets and meeting new people.
My primary goal was to get into policy, but I also applied to positions that were loosely related because of my financial and family circumstances. The position at the New York Academy of Sciences asked for candidates to have graduate and postdoc experience, but they cared very little about the specific science I did. They were excited about my other experiences. They liked that I explored a lot of careers on my own. It wasn’t until I got to the Academy that I learned that I really loved this career track, advising people, putting together professional development programmes, developing and planning career workshops.
Want to know more about Magaldi’s career transition? Follow this link to read about how Magaldi found his place in career development.