By Jillian Weeks

Doctoral Candidate, Center for Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh

Danielle Minteer, Ph.D., PMP, is a Medical Devices Scheme Manager for BSI, a major business standards company. I’m fortunate enough to know Danielle through our overlapping time in a student consulting group, and we’ve stayed in touch as she’s continued to build her (very interesting!) career.

When she began her Ph.D. in Bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh, Danielle, like many of us, had a traditional academic career in her sights. 

“I wanted to be a PI of my own lab, be on the cutting edge of research, and teach/mentor the next generation of scientists,” she told me. A glance at her impressive CV — 13 peer-reviewed publications, over 50 presentations, and numerous organizational and leadership roles — makes it clear that she was on this track.

 In her fourth year, however, her eyes were drawn outside of academia when a good friend became interested in management consulting and its fast-paced, dynamic, and well-paying opportunities. 

“It was the first time since 2007 that I had begun to consider not being a PI/professor. I looked to the mentors I respected and admired around me,” she said. “One was a scientist with whom I worked for several years… I watch her struggle to earn a tenure track position. She works 60-70 hour weeks, takes work home, even with a family of her own. She does everything right; she’s found her niche in the field, gets promising results, has influential collaborators on her manuscripts and grant applications, but still struggles to get funded. I didn’t have faith that I could survive in this competitive and frustrating world.” 

Danielle also began to think more seriously about what her financial future might look like if she followed the same path. “I didn’t want to be in my 40’s with a Ph.D. in engineering, without job security or the ability to help my family financially if they needed it. I already felt behind compared to my engineering friends who went straight into industry after their BS; they were making 6 figures, paying off student debt, saving for retirement, and already leading teams and climbing the ranks.” 

As someone who’s spent the last few years quietly envious over my friends who have 401(k)s, I could relate. 

With the seed of that idea planted, Danielle began to consider her alternatives. “There weren’t many resources for Ph.D. students interested in non-academic career paths back then,” she said, “but on my own, I realized that the things I’m really good at, and the things I enjoy – being a good leader, creative thinking, working with many types of people from different places with different backgrounds, continuous learning – could also be done outside of academia.”

And with that, she hit the ground running. 

Danielle got involved with Fourth River Solutions, a nonprofit consulting organization of science graduate students and postdocs at the University of Pittsburgh dedicated to experiential learning in business. After finishing her Ph.D., she worked in management consulting for early-stage VC-backed biotech companies, which made her realize she was qualified to work in client-facing roles and for large corporations. 

Danielle then made another turn, returning to science in a postdoctoral fellowship in clinical research coordination. That led to a project management role in the same clinical group, where she earned her Project Management Professional (PMP) Certification. 

She believes this series of experiences has made her a more versatile candidate for future positions.

“After that step, with clinical research and pre-clinical research under my belt, I became qualified for many more roles and paths, including clinical evaluation, regulatory, clinical data management, medical writing, medical affairs, and clinical development roles in industry.”

Her current role at BSI is providing even more experience in the industry sphere, which she hopes to use in future managerial and leadership roles. 

So, looking back, what advice would Danielle give fellow Ph.D.s thinking of an exit from academia?  

“My path had many unconventional twists and turns – there were a lot of times I wasn’t sure if I had made a mistake leaving secure, well-paying jobs I wasn’t happy with, or if I was doing enough to get where I want to be. Nothing in life will ever be all sunshine all the time, but keep pushing through with frequent pulse checks, and if you aren’t happy with where you are, consider the appropriate steps you need to take and do the work to change it.” 

Her story is a great example of how versatile a Ph.D. can be, but Danielle is always mindful of the hard work and (sometimes scary) reframing it takes to truly put the degree to best use. “Don’t be afraid to switch paths away from the field you have a Ph.D. in – your Ph.D. was a few years of your life; your career will be 30+!” 

Got questions or comments, or aspire towards a similar career path but unsure how to get started?  We’ve helped PhDs like you to land research, consulting, science communication, commercial, and client facing jobs with step-by-step, realistic guidance, based on our first-hand experience working away from the bench.  Join our Free the PhD Careers Community for personalized help with your resume, networking, interviewing and skill-building to find a life you love outside academia!