Vay Cao, Ph.D.
Vay Cao, Ph.D.Founder
I founded Free the PhD soon after I transitioned into my job outside of academia, in order to pay it forward for others who are eager to make a difference in the world with their research knowledge, but are struggling with their career transitions. If we want to change the experiences of fellow PhDs on the job market, it’s up to us to make it happen for each other.

My mission, and the mission of our Advisors and Advocates, is to Free Your PhD: to help you join us in the world outside of academia, because we don’t see the need for anyone else to struggle, flounder and stress like we did.

I received my Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the National Institutes of Health Graduate Partnerships Program with Brown University, and started my day job in a neurotechnology startup company after a brief postdoctoral fellowship.

Laura Mariani, Ph.D.
Laura Mariani, Ph.D.Free the PhD Advisor
I received my Ph.D. in neuroscience from Emory University in 2016, and transitioned from academic research to executive search consulting.

I work with universities, healthcare systems, and other not-for-profit organizations to identify and recruit top leaders in medicine, research, and administration, including department chairs, deans, and directors of research. In graduate school, I developed broad interests in higher education leadership while serving on student government in multiple roles, including President of the Graduate Student Council. I also participated in a variety of science education, outreach, and advocacy activities, including an interdisciplinary teaching fellowship funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a science policy workshop on Capitol Hill sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Prior to starting graduate school, I worked as a research technician at Children’s Hospital Boston and did a combined BS/MS in neuroscience at Brandeis University.

Diana Bogorodskaya, Ph.D.
Diana Bogorodskaya, Ph.D.Free the PhD Advisor
Diana has a PhD in biomedical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and is Director of Business Development at Prellis Biologics, a bio-printing startup.

As a Free the PhD Advisor, she consults on strategies to sustain and further expand the existing community. She also creates original content for Free the PhD and does one-on-one career coaching.

John Burkhardt, Ph.D.
John Burkhardt, Ph.D.Free the PhD Advisor
Dr. John M. Burkhardt is a neuroscientist and behavioral scientist, specializing in competitive behavior change. He is the founder and managing partner of Capita Neuro Solutions, a consulting firm for the application of applied neuroscience, behavioral economics, and data analytics in the commercial space to understand, predict, and influence behavior.

Originally a research scientist, John has worked as a professor of neuroscience, having served on the faculty at the University of Oslo in Oslo, Norway, the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, Portugal, and the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD.

Subsequent to his academic career, John worked with the Vitruvian​ Group, a boutique management consultancy, and iMotions A/S, a software company specializing in biometric research. More recently he served as Director of Behavioral Science at Integrated Systems, Inc, a government contractor with practice in the IRS, SEC, and DOD.

John earned a B.Sc. in experimental psychology from Duke University and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Wake Forest University.

Will you join us as our next Advisor or Advocate? Contact us to get involved!


  • Gordon Research Seminar on Basal Ganglia – Career Panelist (2020)

  • UCSB – Beyond Academia Keynote and Career Exploration Workshop (2020)

  • Gladstone Institutes – Interactive Career Exploration Workshop (2019)

  • Indeed Interactive Worldwide Conference – ““Hello From the Other Side” Panelist (2019)

  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: Career Workshop and Graduate Symposium Speaker (2019)

  • UC Berkeley – Beyond Academia Conference STEM Keynote Speaker (2019)

  • University of Pennsylvania – PGWISE: Free the PhD Career Workshop (2018)

  • University of Pennsylvania – Genetics Gender Equity Group: Free the PhD Career Workshop (2018)

  • Stony Brook University, STRIDE Program – “Advancing Careers with Content” (2018)

  • UC Berkeley – “An Evening with Biotech: Charting A Course Through Industry” (2017)

  • National Institutes of Health Graduate Student Council – Initiated the “PhDs in the Real World” Career Panels (2016)

Free the PhD



Neuroscience PhD to Medical Science Liaison

“During my postdoctoral fellowship I began exploring career opportunities outside of traditional academic career tracks. I eventually became interested in the medical science liaison role in the pharmaceutical industry as I thought it was an excellent balance of all my interests and utilized my training thus far.

Medical science liaison positions are notoriously difficult to obtain, even with industry experience but I had none. From the very beginning of the application process Vay coached me on techniques to break into industry and how to craft my interview skills for this process. I found her advice invaluable and truly feel that every step of my interview process went superbly well as a result of her advice. I can now happily say I landed a medical science liaison position at a dream-company for me and have Vay to thank.

I highly recommend anyone in grad school or in a postdoctoral position to consult with Vay about potential career tracks and help you realize how you can leverage your science training to much more than the bench.”

Steven L. Miller, Ph.D.
Medical Science Liaison at Greenwich Biosciences


Advice on application process | Interview coaching | Negotiation coaching

Steven L. Miller, Ph.D., Greenwich Biosciences

Neuroscience PhD to Senior Review Analyst

Emotional Support

“At my sixth year of postdoc training, I still haven’t wrapped up my research result for publication, and sensed a disadvantage if I keep going to pursue a job in academia.  Even though I felt the urgency to plan for my next career opportunity, I was afraid to explore unknown career options.

I was on the brink of my true career, and Vay push me forwards.”

Application Editing

“Vay tailored my CV or resume for each job that I applied, and edited my cover letters for email inquiries. Without her help, I cannot put all the information together to allow me to confidently search in the job market.

I landed on a real job not long after I took a detailee position Vay helped me apply for.  It was from a diagnostic company, and one of my informational interviewees was my internal reference.  The job interview was scheduled with short notice.  With so much previous practice, I handled it well.”

Negotiation Coaching

“I was initially offered a salary range lower than I expected.  I took the hiring manager’s explanation as I didn’t have the exact job experience.  However, Vay pushed me to step up for myself as my research experience is a perfect match for the job.   She helped me with my negotiation email in a professional way, not too aggressive since I really like the job; not too timid as I am confident that my experience fit well.

The company re-offered me with a higher salary and with this offer, I finally finished my long-term postdoc training and moved to a real job that I have never thought I would do.”

Yizhou Ye, Ph.D.
Senior Analyst, Gene Dx


Advice on the role and likely responsibilities | Interview coaching | Negotiation coaching | English editing & coaching

Yizhou Ye, Ph.D., Gene DX

Neuroscience PhD, to Scientific Director Offer

Confidence Boost

“I got a clear plan with action steps, a timeline, and confidence that what I was doing was the right path. She helped me evaluate my experience and abilities in a way that helped me prove my worth to myself.”

Salary Negotiation

“The company initially offered me a rate that was much lower than what I wanted.  Vay helped me clearly identify how much I would take and therefore how much I should ask for in my negotiations.  I ended up asking for more than what I thought I should have initially.  The organization came back at me with the exact number I was looking for.  Vay helped me with my email back to the organization and gave me the next steps to take.”

Kristen K, Ph.D.  Received offer for Scientific Director at Cure CMD.


Advice on the role and likely responsibilities | Interview coaching | Negotiation coaching

Kristen K, PhD., received offer for Scientific Director, Cure CMD

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