Kristen Slawinski did a PhD in biology before moving into science communications. She has worked as a recruiter, a Public Relations Executive and a Marketing Specialist. We caught up with Kristen to ask her why she moved away from academia and how she landed each of her jobs.
You were a Research Associate at Amgen before doing a PhD in biology at the Salk Institute – what made you decide to do a PhD?
At Amgen, the people in management roles had PhDs. There seemed to be a glass ceiling for non-PhDs and I didn’t want a degree to stop me from advancing. I also wanted to become an expert at Biology. I was frustrated in my position where I was tasked with increasing the growth and protein production of mammalian cells. I wanted to know more about how cells functioned, and so I chose Biology as my major.
You then became Recruiting Manager at Compass Consulting Group in the Bay Area – why did you decide to leave academia?
I had been in the lab for seven years at the bench during grad school and always knew I wanted to go back into industry because I had such a great experience at Amgen. I remember hearing a PhD alumnus speak about her experience as a recruiter and she seemed to really enjoy the job. I wanted to try something new. I knew recruiting might not be what I wanted to be doing for too long, but it was appealing because I could see what other types of jobs were out there for someone like me.
How did you get that job?
The company was tiny, only seven people when I joined. I applied with my four-page resume and a detailed cover letter describing why I wanted to become a recruiter with a PhD. The company was recruiting for the biotech industry, so my science and industry background came in very handy. My salary was very low to start, but I took the job anyway because I was excited to do something new.
What did you do in that role?
As a recruiter, I would mostly use LinkedIn and Monster to find candidates who fit a wide variety of positions within the biotech industry. I would cold call people using phone numbers listed on their resumes that had been uploaded to Monster. It was a little scary at first but I was offering them a chance at a new job, and possibly a new life.
What skills did you learn in your PhD that helped you with that job and what did you have to learn ‘on the job’?
The only thing from my PhD that helped me with this job is knowing what the job requirements were for highly technical jobs. I would sometimes translate the job description into plain English for some of the other recruiters. Most of being a recruiter I learned on the job. I was lucky to be in a great team where everyone was very helpful right from the start. I also happened to be kind of a natural because I love meeting new people, even over the phone.
What sort of person would that role suit?
It was very helpful to be able to relate to different kinds of people. Potential candidates will have lots of questions and can be apprehensive about trying something new, so there’s a bit of a sales aspect to it. I always felt like I was helping people though. In fact, I would get thank you letters months later from people who were loving their new jobs. It seems obvious, but the sort of person that fits a recruiter role is above all else, nice. It also helped to be competitive because typically an open position is also being worked on by other recruiting agencies, so it’s important to find the best candidates quickly, which takes a sense of urgency and perseverance.
You then became a Public Relations Account Executive at CG Life – how did you get that job? How was that role different to Recruiting Manager?
The role was completely different. I had been following a company, at the time called Chempetitive Group, that was a marketing and PR agency specifically for the life science market. I had met a couple of their employees at one of their annual networking events and they seemed so happy. I wanted to work in a place where I could be happy, as grad school was the opposite. I actually had wanted a position in marketing, but at the time they only needed someone in PR. I interviewed with multiple people at the company over the phone and one in person and convinced them that even though I had no experience in PR, I had what it takes. I had studied what PR was for days before the interview, and even before submitting my resume or cover letter. Again, my cover letter was extremely detailed and told the story of why I wanted to join the company and do PR.
As a PR executive within an agency, I was working with seven different clients at once. I had many roles including social media management, writer, and liaison between the media and my clients. It was a little stressful because I was starting from scratch, and learning the PR lingo. I had no idea what “copy” was. But why would I? I was a scientist! Being a scientist definitely helped though. It helped with writing articles and press releases and to translate research papers that the clients wanted to publicize. It was a very enlightening experience and opened my eyes up to the media world.
You are now a Marketing Specialist at Bio-Rad Laboratories. Why did you make that move? How did you get that role? How is that different from your previous jobs?
I actually am not a marketing specialist anymore. I quit at the end of January. I am now a freelance writer, and I’ll get to that story next. Bio-Rad was a client of mine when I was at CG Life. I was the lead executive for Bio-Rad’s public relations efforts. PR executives typically work with marketing executives and one of Bio-Rad’s marketing directors mentioned that he was opening up a position in his group. I jumped on the chance since my goal was to get into marketing after all. I was hired because I had a good working relationship with Bio-Rad already and because I knew their products very well since I had been working with them for months already. As a marketer at Bio-Rad, one of my jobs was to manage PR, so I ended up becoming the client for my old company and directed the team I had previously been on. It was fun being the client instead of the agency. There were a lot more responsibilities in my marketing position, however. And I had zero marketing experience or training, so again, I was back to square one.
What were your main day-to-day tasks?
Day-to-day I had a diverse array of tasks. There was a never-ending stream of emails. Mostly people needing direction. I was usually able to give direction, but many times I’d need to discuss things with my group before giving an answer. I was involved in many meetings. I was responsible for the SEO, SEM, Publications Tradeshows, Advertising, Media and PR for my division. Under each of those umbrellas were many additional responsibilities. It was a lot for one inexperienced person to handle.
I found that 70% of my job in marketing did not use what I learned in grad school. What was very useful about my science background was that I was able to make sure that all of the written documents or articles were scientifically correct, which was very important to communicating the benefits of our product. Grad school was also useful because we were selling our product to labs, so I felt like I intimately knew who our customer was.
I left my role in marketing because it just wasn’t the right fit for me at the time in my life. I wanted a life that was less stressful to start a family. I now am a freelance writer where I write articles for magazines such as GEN and Biocompare, but also write for Bio-Rad’s life science marcom team. Writing kind of just fell into my lap - there was a need, and I was available. With writing, I love that I can say no to a job, and that each job has an ending and that my name is on the article giving me credit. I also love to learn about new companies or products and translate that information into something digestible in the form of an article.
What sort of person would a marketing role suit?
The person who would thrive in marketing would be very organized, be able to delegate tasks well, and be able to get along and coordinate many different types and groups of people internal and external to the organization. It’s almost required that the person be an extrovert. Staying calm while putting out fires is also a good trait to have.
Do you have any other advice for scientists looking to transition into recruiting or PR and marketing?
There is no one path to get into any position. Many people who transition into marketing start out doing research within a company. I think that the field application specialist is a great role for PhDs not sure what to do after grad school. Start by applying to a company whose products you’re already very familiar with. I’d also say not to be afraid of using positions as stepping stones to a bigger goal. You will always learn something valuable at any position you take, and you can always leave any position you take. And finally, ALWAYS write a good cover letter.
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