The Alt-PhD Interview Series features conversations with scientists who have successfully transitioned into a non-academic aka an “alternative” career, and highlights the skills and career moves that helped them get to their current position. For the first interview in this series, it was my pleasure to sit down with Dr. Padma Portonovo, PhD and chat about her professional journey so far.
Her main forte encompasses management of multiple and diverse translational research projects for diverse IU-based research initiatives. In this #AltPhD chat, she talks about her journey from an academic postdoc position into a managerial setting.
LP: Thank you Padma to take time to talk about your post-PhD journey and non-traditional career choices. Let’s start with talking about what does your current job currently encompass.
PP: My current role is to lead and manage multiple and diverse CTSI translational research projects; to establish effective lines of communication, collaborate and execute across non-traditional organizational lines; work with a wide range of University staff and faculty as well as external stakeholders; business community members, venture capitalists, industry, foundations and government agencies.
LP: This job requires significant management skills. Related to this, I have a two-part question. First when did you decide to go into the job that you are currently in? And how did you shape your career trajectory after your PhD/postdoc to get this current job?
PP: My interest in management came from my experience working as a Process Research Scientist in a life sciences company called Cambrex, right after finishing my postdoc in Dr. Joullie’s lab. Here, I developed new synthetic routes for advanced pharmaceutical intermediates as well as drafted drug master files for the FDA (Food & Drug Administration). Over time I was given the opportunity to manage projects at Cambrex which helped me work closely with upper management and allowed me to collaborate with company subsidiaries. I found this to be an extremely challenging yet rewarding experience, and led me to my interest in project management!
I then moved to Vanderbilt University to run the NCI (National Cancer Institute) Experimental Therapeutics (NExT) Program. There, I worked with chemical biologists and molecular oncologists from government, industry, and academia on research projects. I also took few courses in business management at Rutgers University, NJ to improve my management skills. All these experiences helped me to develop the project management skills vital to my current position.
Currently, I am pursuing an MBA from the Kelley School of Business at IU.
LP: This is quite a significant amount of relevant work experience you have gathered over the years and continue to do so with the ongoing MBA degree. My next question is, do you think doing a postdoc is important to transition into the job that you currently hold?
PP: Yes. Postdoc training experience helps you prepare for the career! Planning with your advisor and making connections with your peers and other professionals in your field is essential.
LP: How crucial was networking to get the position you hold? And your opinions on importance of networking in general.
PP: Networking is crucial for a managerial job, it helps cultivate relationship with people you work to accomplish your goals. It is also necessary to network with other like-minded professionals in your field to help improve your social skills. If you plan to become a business leader, having network relations with your senior executives helps you move up the ladder.
LP: What is the career trajectory that you hope to have moving forward?
PP: I am very happy with my current job, and would like to use my business skills to manage projects efficiently and be a better team player. I also plan to actively engage with ICBI activities to help achieve Indiana CTSI’s mission to accelerate bench research to commercialization.
LP: Thanks Padma, I am sure your experience will help many of our readers. Any final words of wisdom to PhD students/postdocs who are looking to transition into the job you currently hold and in general, transition out of academia?
PP: Postdocs need a broad range, beyond-the-bench skills to stay competitive. Specializing in a certain area may run the risk of over-relying on your expertise. Instead of giving you an edge, this narrow perspective could be holding you back and your career might be suffering from tunnel vision.
Have a broad perspective and a wide, varied background;
Read more than just research publications.
Try new hobbies that gives your mind a fresh challenge.
Increase your connections; get to know colleagues in other departments.
Find a mentor to guide you in your quest to gain a broader perspective can be priceless.
Listen with greater purpose and tune in to your conversations at a higher level, and work harder to understand the viewpoints of others.