Zachary Knecht PhD'18, Neuroscience: Medical Writing Scientist, Vertex Pharmaceuticals
Can you describe your career path and how it has led to your current work?
Like many graduates, my career path has seldom been a straight line. I graduated from Brandeis with my PhD in neuroscience in 2018 and quickly moved to a prestigious postdoc position at MIT. It took months of soul searching to realize I simply wasn’t drawn to the postdoctoral endgame: becoming an academic professor. I started taking every opportunity to learn more about career opportunities outside of academia. One day, I received an invite to a webinar led by Dr. Toby Freedman, who has made her career on the subject of job opportunities in life sciences. Her talk did something I’d seldom seen done in other discussions of careers - it broke down career opportunities in practical terms like pay and lifestyle. I was drawn, unexpectedly, to the field of regulatory affairs because Dr. Freedman had characterized it as in demand, well paying, and not requiring a high degree of travel. From there, I started trying to learn more about specific job roles and how my skill set could fit them. I ultimately stumbled on Medical Writing, which employs people with strong science backgrounds to write up documentation for government regulatory agencies about new drugs, medical devices and clinical trials. I started reaching out to medical writers on Linkedin and through my own professional network to learn more about their jobs, and their lifestyles.. I had always had a strong interest in scientific communication, I’d always liked writing and I actually had solid experience doing it. I’d written grant proposals, journal articles, a few lay science pieces, and some other projects that could pad out my resume nicely. A few job applications later, and I’m now going on 1 year loving my job as a medical writing scientist at Vertex Pharmaceuticals!
What services and/or resources did you use while at Brandeis for your career search?
While at Brandeis, I made frequent use of the Center for Career and Professional Development, lectures hosted by the Career Development for the Sciences student organization, and my own research talking to friends and using the Brandeis alumni network. Although these things were ultimately helpful in discovering the career path I wanted to follow, the most important thing was the people I met along the way. No one can tell you what career to pursue, but having a solid foundation of friends, coworkers and mentors all helped to get the job. The phrase ‘it’s all about who you know' is real and very true. Regardless of what you end up pursuing, the people you have behind you are going to be your most important resource, directly and indirectly.
What skills from your Brandeis degree have you found most valuable in your current work?
Everything I learned at Brandeis has been important to my career. Yes, my scientific training was top notch and I rely on it daily. But the soft skills - communication, public speaking, good writing, interacting and conversing with smart and interesting people, the opportunities for professional development offered by Brandeis, all played important roles. While at Brandeis I was able to easily start a campus organization - this gave me opportunities to be a leader among my peers, I took part in the SPROUT Grant program and gained experience in business development, I mentored undergraduates, visiting high schoolers and new graduate students. Even having to write my own grant proposals, and put together my annual Pizza talk were critically important to my development just by being opportunities to put myself out there and become better known to my peers. All of these things were either in the back of my mind or directly referenced in my resume during the interview and in starting the new job. Bottom line: you should never pass up an opportunity to add a new bullet to your list of experiences, it can never hurt you and you never know what will be the clincher that gives your resume an edge over the competition!
What advice do you have for current students as they embark on their job search?
As I’ve stated throughout, seek out new experiences and challenge yourself. It sounds corny, but remember that any given networking event you go to, article you write, person you meet, or idea you put out - could be the thing that gets you noticed and opens more doors. Maintain a professional network, keep up with your friends from grad school, what they're doing, and where. Don’t be afraid to make connections outside your network too - I was able to get some fantastic advice just by messaging people with relevant or interesting backgrounds on linkedin and asking (politely) to speak to them for a few minutes or answer some questions by email. DON'T ask them for a job, just ask to talk about their career, what they do and what got them there. Many people are happy to have a conversation and having the willingness to reach out to people played a huge role in my getting the job. Finally, remember that the beautiful thing about working in life sciences is that there is an ABUNDANCE of opportunities for jobs you’ve probably never thought about, and won’t find without some digging. Luckily Brandeis has given you impeccable skills as researchers! Know yourself and your skills, likes, and dislikes, find your niche, and when you do, you’ll have a much more direct path to your dream job.