PhD candidates take degrees beyond the academy gates

By Maria M. Lameiras | Emory Magazine | Dec. 11, 2015

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Illustrations by Chris Lyons

When Karen Ventii 08PhD joined the cancer biology program in Emory’s Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences more than a decade ago, she wasn’t entirely sure where the experience would lead—nor did she know exactly where she wanted her education to take her. She was simply interested in the field and hopeful that her graduate degree would open up the right doors. 

“I enjoyed science and biology and their application to medicine and health, and I knew I wanted to stay in the health field, but I didn’t know how I could parlay that into a career I was passionate about. I didn’t know what niche was for me,” says Ventii.

With the encouragement of her adviser, Professor of Biochemistry Keith Wilkinson, Ventii took every opportunity during her graduate studies to attend networking and career events organized by groups such as Georgia Bio, a nonprofit organization in Atlanta that promotes the interests and growth of the life sciences industry. A seminar featuring a medical writer ignited Ventii’s interest in a career that could combine her love of science, education, and outreach.

“My experience in graduate school allows me to synthesize complex information and understand it in its simplest element,” says Ventii, who now runs Gold Star Communications, a medical communications agency in Atlanta. “That helps me in the medical writing world where, on any given day, you are faced with the challenge of explaining complex medical information at the patient level. It helped make me a better communicator.”

The support and flexibility offered by her PhD adviser was integral to her success in finding her niche, Ventii says. Grateful for that support, she has given workshops on medical writing at Emory.

“It is important for me to be involved, because my path in grad school was very self-motivated, but I recognize that some grad students don’t have the time or resources to help them with that,” she says. “I love being a medical writer, and I am passionate about telling people to be aware of what’s out there, because they really might find the career of their dreams.”

In higher education, the pinnacle of academic achievement is the PhD, a degree that long has been equated with the prestige of professorship. But as the number of PhD graduates in all fields has risen during the past two decades, the percentage of those finding careers in academia has declined.

The James T. Laney School of Graduate Studies has launched several programs to provide resources to students who are exploring a range of career options. Among these is Pathways Beyond the Professoriate (PBP), a series that connects students with alumni from a variety of fields who share their career experiences and how they use their advanced degrees in positions current students may not have considered.

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