After completing a PhD and postdoc studying disease mechanisms behind epilepsy and autism, Dorothy Jones-Davis found job satisfaction as a scientific project manager working at the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, where she coordinates projects on neuroimaging and Alzheimer’s Disease.
How does your scientific training help in your job?
My area of research was epilepsy and autism, so my specific research is not as applicable, but having a broad neuroscience background has served me. Even though I’m not at the bench, I still read neuroscience papers; I still understand science.
As for the intangible skills, some are leadership and some are organizational skills that you learn as you work your way through scientific training. I don’t think graduate students actually give themselves enough credit, but you are actually managing a project. My PhD was a portfolio of projects that I had strung together on a larger theme, and thinking about it that way, I am well equipped to be a project manager.
I think the fact that I did so much outside of my PhD and postdoc, such as mentoring, working with high school students and serving on university committees, helped me get a policy fellowship and the job I do now
How do you spend your days?
I work at the Foundation for the NIH as a Project Manager. I enjoy managing public-private partnerships between external partners and the NIH. The partnerships that I facilitate do have an impact on the quality of the science that the NIH can produce and they help catalyze the impact of NIH funding.
What that means on a day to day basis is setting up meetings with folks around the world to get those people together and plan agendas. I spend a lot of time on the phone listening, not talking. I’m an extrovert, I like to talk. But I need to hear what the stakeholders need to say.
The thing that is really interesting is how you can effect change a small step at the time. It sounds cheesy, but I hope that one day all this work will lead to some lasting impact on Alzheimer’s disease.
Why did you go into neuroscience?
I had already been doing research at Wellesley as an undergrad. My mom has epilepsy, and I was in search of a way to help her out. And then a faculty member, a mentor of mine, asked if I had considered graduate school, which I had never thought of. I went ahead and started applying and had no clue what I was doing. I was a first generation student and so I was a little lost. I remember my dad saying “Are you sure you don’t want to go to medical school?” because he knew that route a little better. And when I got my PhD, my mom actually said at my PhD defense, “It’s okay that you’re not a real doctor.”
You describe yourself as half Caucasian and half African American. Do you think it is harder for minorities to do informational interviewing?
It may be more intimidating. People tend to go for informational interviews with people that they know. Whether you have a minority background or not, you may not have a family friend or a cousin that can hook you up. It’s easy to think “this person doesn’t know me, they aren’t going to want to meet with me.” The honest truth is ask and ye shall receive.
Do your due diligence. Make sure that you are ready with appropriate questions and that you’re not wasting anyone’s time. And if you do that, you’d be amazed at how many people are willing to talk with you.
How did you keep from getting discouraged during your job search?
I have an amazing support network. Early on I partnered with a friend who was willing to meet with me weekly to monitor me, to be my cheerleader, my boss, my career coach. I did the same for her. Having that accountability each week but also someone to give me a hug if I thought things weren’t going right, that was really important.
I developed the strategy because I went to a career presentation at the University of Michigan, where I ended up getting my PhD. I was thinking “what do I need to get on my GRE,” and the dean at the time, Earl Lewis, he said this strange thing. He said, “The #1 thing you need for graduate school is a support network, people you can count on.”
You had a child during your postdoc – how were you able to manage that?
Again, it goes back to having a support system. Besides my ever-supportive postdoc husband, I drew upon a wealth of knowledge from other postdocs and graduate students who also had children while at the bench, coming up with a creative way for me and my husband to share childcare for the first year with another postdoc family. I also worked with my PI to come up with a reasonable strategy to remain productive both at the bench and as a mom; we ended up with a plan where I was at the bench during my pregnancy, but worked on writing a book chapter as a compromise that allowed me to extend my time with my daughter.
You can hear more from Dorothy here.