Rutgers University–Newark students have remained determined throughout the Covid-19 pandemic to maintain high levels of engagement in their courses and extracurricular activities. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the RU-N Chemistry Society, a student group that has been very active during this period.
This week, the group held its Fall 2021 Alumni Career panel, the third such virtual gathering over the past year. The hourlong event featured three alumni from the pharmaceutical industry who fielded questions from students, covering topics like industry trends, hiring preferences, internships, avenues for specialization, and networking.
“The panelists were really enthusiastic and gave relevant answers to questions about how to approach their career and transition into industry jobs right after college,” said Mya Serrano, who re-established the Chemistry Society in spring 2020 and is stepping down as president this month. “They offered really helpful advice.”
The panelists included Adriana Herrera (SASN ’94, Biology), VP, U.S. Commercial at Kite Pharma; Mark Gaydos (SASN ’92, English), VP and Global Head of Advertising, Promotion and Labeling within Sanofi Pharmaceutical’s Global Regulatory Affairs organization; and James Stambuli (SASN ’98, Chemistry), Senior Principal Research Scientist for AbbVie’s Process Research and Development Team.
The trio began by discussing the workflow and logistical hurdles their companies faced when Covid-19 hit, and how they adapted to keep their areas running smoothly. Inevitably, the issue of remote-work arrangements came up, and Gaydos and Stambuli each spoke to the strain that balancing work and family put on some colleagues, as lines blurred between home and office. They also addressed the toll that isolation took on single colleagues and stressed the importance of checking in with them to provide support.
The conversation then pivoted to the skills that companies look for in hiring students straight out of college. All three panelists acknowledged the Catch-22 of trying to get a job when you’ve had little to no work experience.
Herrera said that Kite Pharma looks for students who are self-starters and make the most out of every opportunity they’re given, whether it’s volunteer- or job- or internship-related. She also stressed the importance of building relationships with professors, peers and others as undergraduates.
Being proactive tells us you’re committed to what you’ve done, and nurturing your school relationships is how you build a strong foundation for a smooth transition into the professional environment.
“Being proactive tells us you’re committed to what you’ve done, and nurturing your school relationships is how you build a strong foundation for a smooth transition into the professional environment,” Herrera said.
Stambuli echoed those sentiments and discussed the interview process, emphasizing the importance of being enthusiastic about what you’ve done and what you want to do, and researching the company and area you’re targeting.
“We have three major companies at AbbVie with different specialties. Know what our biggest-selling product is; read our newsletter and know what the current issues are,” Stambuli said. “That tells us, Are you just looking for a job, or do you really want to be here?”
The panelists agreed that paid internships and fellowships are an excellent way for students to start amassing all-important work experience, learning what they do and don’t like, and getting their foot in the door at companies. Kite Pharma’s internships expose students to many facets of their business, said Herrera, which benefits both the company and interns, especially if the latter are the first in their family to attend college and have little career guidance, as she did.
“It's a great way to help you decide if one area speaks to you more than others,” Herrera said.
Gaydos added that his company’s internships are “one long job interview,” saying it’s easier for his company, Sanofi, to bring in a paid intern instead of a contractor to evaluate how they work with a team or produce in a lab, and gauge their level of enthusiasm and knowledge.
“And it’s also much easier than just having a phone call with a potential hire, because we get to know you as an intern, and it gives us an opportunity to leverage you for another job opening in the company, or even create one if you’re coming from the inside.”
The Art of Networking
On the topic of networking, the panel returned to a prior theme: building strong connections with professors and peers. Stambuli stressed the importance of doing well in one’s classes and “knocking on doors,” not only with RU-N faculty but with visiting professors as well. He recalled a University of Pennsylvania professor who spoke on campus when he was an undergraduate. Stambuli approached the professor afterward. They talked and traded contact information, and that relationship became useful for him later on.
Gaydos agreed, adding that some industry associations also allow students to attend conferences and events, and listen to a variety of speakers, which is another great way to get exposed to ideas and connect with people.
She kept her ears open as she interned to migrate to a different place within the company. It pays to be proactive.
Stambuli then responded. “That’s right. I can’t tell you how many letters I’ve gotten where people start by saying, I remember seeing you talk at such and such event, before launching into their ask. That’s far better than cold-calling by just sending a resume, because it gives us a connection point first.”
Stambuli and Herrera then returned to the challenges that first-generation college students face, this time as it applies to networking.
Stambuli’s father was a barber, and his mom stayed at home and raised five children. Both had a high-school education. For him, the hardest thing about networking and applying for jobs was knowing what people really did in their positions. He said graduates need not arrive at interviews as perfect applicants, but they should do due diligence about people and areas, and set up networking meetings with people and ask them about their work, then ask what path they need to take to get there.
Herrera had no professionals in her family either, and had no direction or vision in college, just a hunch that she loved science. While working in the lab of CMBN Professor Mark Gluck as an undergraduate, she realized at some point that she’d taken over the operations of his lab without having done research.
“Professor Gluck said to me, ‘You like the science but have an aptitude for business.’ It's those types of experiences that teach you your interests. So, when opportunities come up, take advantage of them, because success is learning about yourself.”
Gaydos then added another perspective to networking by recalling an intern he recently mentored. She had been exposed to just a single area during her internship, but she took it upon herself to network with other interns to learn about other areas and was put in touch with Gaydos about his regulatory work.
"She kept her ears open as she interned to migrate to a different place within the company,” Gaydos said. “It pays to be proactive.”
The hourlong event was successful by all measures, with students coming away with a clear sense of how to navigate hurdles they previously had seen as insurmountable, said Serrano, especially first-generation students.
Patricia Margulies, Assistant Dean for Development for SASN, who helped recruit the alumni for this event, expressed her gratitude toward the panelists afterward as well.
“Most alumni are very willing to give back and understand that it is important to offer insights into various careers and how to transition from college to the work world,” she said. "Our alumni enjoy connecting with current students and often establish informal mentoring relationships as a result of these career panels. We are so lucky to have wonderful alums as part of the SASN family.”