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Alt. Scientific Career Path #2: Clin. Research Coordinator-> Content Specialist [Jillian Weeks, PhD]

Updated: Oct 8, 2021

Hey Jillian! Thank you for agreeing to do this interview with Strik3 :)

First, it would be helpful to walk me through your background. What is your current job title and how long have you been working there?

I’m a Content Specialist at CG Life, it’s a life sciences/biotech-focused marketing agency in Chicago. I started here at the end of April 2021, so it’s a pretty new role!

In terms of my background, I finished my Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of Pittsburgh in May 2020 and moved to Chicago soon after.

I got to have the very fun experience of searching for my first “adult” job during the pandemic, but was able to start my position at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern in August 2020.

Ok, I have so many questions! First, would you mind sharing what inspired your move from Northwestern to CG Life?

So, coming out of grad school, I really wasn’t too sold on any one path-- I just knew I didn’t want to continue in academia. I secured the clinical research position, knowing that was at least something different that I figured I’d like, but I had been in contact with a few people from CG Life for a while. In spring 2021, the stars kind of aligned and they had an open position and asked me to apply, so I figured I’d take the plunge. The fit seemed a little better for me, since it’s a job with more creativity and variety.

I’m glad you’ve landed in a position you’re happy with :) I think not being “sold on any one path” is a feeling sooo many grad students and post-docs can relate to. It’s a scary feeling but also freeing if you keep an open mind and are able to explore a bit!

So, if you don’t mind going back to the Clinical Research Coordinator role you previously had at Northwestern, can you explain what you did on a daily basis?

As a Clinical Research Coordinator, I was kind of a liaison between the sponsor and study particpants on clinical trials. I was working on the Leukemia clinical trials team and was responsible for about 8 trials in the Cancer Center.

On a daily basis, I was managing informed consent for potential participants and getting everything together to have them enroll on a study, and then basically arranged all of their visits for the study: scheduling, making sure data are collected properly and ultimately entered, communicating with providers about what procedures are needed, and answering participant questions.

Got it. That is similar to my experience as Clinical Research Coordinator. It’s a very patient-facing and, while it may require some scientific understanding, you’re not doing much scientific design. So I can understand why you were craving some more creativity. Speaking of, what’s your day-to-day like in your current role?

I’m on the Content team for CG Life, so we are focused on creating the more “meaty” content marketing materials for clients, such as blog pieces, white papers, e-books, and more. The team is made of ex-scientists and science journalists, so we’re able to bring a solid foundation of knowledge to creating content for clients in biotech and life sciences. My day-to-day is a lot of writing and editing, as well as calls with clients and members of my team about content planning and strategy.

Wow that sounds so cool! I love the idea of scientists and journalists working together. Does CG Life have a marketing team that you work with, or does your team also handle marketing? Also, what therapeutic areas does CG Life focus on?

So, yes and no. We are largely guided by other teams within the organization (i.e. Brand Strategy, Paid Media, Account Management) in the nitty-gritty of marketing, but we’re a really collaborative agency, so our hands are definitely in that pot.

In terms of focus, CG Life is pretty broad-- we work with clients that make new preclinically-focused lab technologies and research tools, as well as clinical research platforms, disease advocacy groups, diagnostics companies, and some medical devices. It’s really all over the place, which makes it exciting!

What is / was your work schedule like for both jobs?

The CRC role was a pretty consistent 9-5, Monday through Friday schedule (unless a patient had a really early visit I needed to attend).

For my current role, I have a little more flexibility in making my own schedule since my work is largely project-based. I work from home 3 days a week, so outside of times that I have meetings scheduled, I can largely just write when I’d like.

It’s great to have so much flexibility and to be able to work from home!

Anyway, you mentioned you weren’t set on one specific path coming out of grad school, so I’m curious about what led you to become interested in clinical research coordination and, now, scientific communication?

Clinical research coordination seemed like a rewarding job that I’d find interesting (my dissertation research was with rats, and I was DESPERATE to work with humans in some capacity), plus there were a lot of positions since Chicago has a number of university hospitals. I’d been interested in scientific communication for a while but that felt a little more nebulous in terms of finding a job. I love talking to people about science and finding creative ways to break down complex scientific topics, and I was really excited to do something where I’d still be learning about new topics often.

That sounds like scientific communication is perfect for you then! What is / was the most difficult part of each of your jobs?

The CRC job was, at times, emotionally challenging-- the study participants I worked with were really sick, and leukemia is devastating. It was really tough to see patients struggle and stressful to try to make sure everything on my end went as well as possible so their treatment wouldn’t be compromised.

For my current job, it’s probably writer’s block. Sometimes it’s tough to just make myself sit down and just write SOMETHING on a project, even if it’s not great at first.

Yes, I can relate to the emotional drainage from working with study participants who are sick and have been going through a lot of stress! It certainly was not something I could do long-term. Writer’s block seems to get us all, whether it’s for a grant or, in my job, a technical review, it’s interesting to consider it from a scientific communications perspective!

What is / was the best part of each of your jobs?

It was really awesome to see participants start to do well on a trial, or go into remission or even finish up a trial entirely.

At CG Life, I just really love my team and the company culture-- it’s a fun place to work and everyone is great. I have a lot of fun throwing ideas around with my coworkers, and it’s really satisfying to finish a piece that I feel good about.

Wow, that must have been a truly rewarding feeling with the study participants! And I agree, being part of a fun team can really make a difficult job manageable :)

What advice do you have for somebody who is interested in pursuing either clinical research or scientific communication after graduate school?

Don’t be afraid to reach out to people to network or learn more about the job. I connected with CG Life because I messaged a Content Specialist on LinkedIn who also was fresh from a Ph.D. program and asked about his path and his experience, and that snowballed into him introducing me to more people at the agency and ultimately becoming his coworker! I think for any job out of grad school, try not to overthink it or worry about it being a “perfect fit”. It’s normal not to know exactly what job you want because it’s hard to really know a job until you go and do it!

That’s great advice! I totally agree, sometimes, taking a risk, especially with your first job out of grad school or post-doc can be so rewarding, even if it’s not in your specific area of experience. Once you start, you’ll get good at it, and eventually love it! Which leads me into my next question: how important is it for somebody’s background/experience in grad school to match the Therapeutic Area of the clinical research or scientific communication jobs they apply for?

From my limited experience, not that important, actually. I really didn’t know anything about leukemia when I started my job as a CRC, and at CG Life, I’m writing about something different every day. Your real value as a Ph.D. is your ability to learn things and think critically about them, so you’re more flexible than you might think.

I sound like a broken record, but I agree completely with your idea of “real value” being able to learn and think critically as a Ph.D.

What are the key “transferable skills” necessary for somebody who wants to work in clinical research coordination and in scientific communication?

For clinical research, organization and attention to detail were really critical, as you’re dealing with pretty complex protocols and want to maintain data integrity as much as possible. For scientific communication, writing, researching topics efficiently, and self-motivation seem like they’ve been the most important.

Yes, I can second the attention to detail. I always felt like I ran through things with a fine-toothed comb and then, upon second review, I would find an error! Facepalm. Ok, last question: are there any other tips or words of wisdom you want to provide to Strik3’s community?

Don’t feel bad if you don’t want to continue in academia, and don’t feel bad if you don’t know your next step or the one after that. For me, it was so disorienting to not have a clear next step for the first time in my life, but I now realize how freeing that could be too.

Good advice! It’s so important for students and post-docs to realize that there’s an entire world out there besides academics where they can be intellectually satisfied and contribute to the field. I can also relate to that disorientation of not knowing what’s next for the first time. One of my friends laughed at me because I was experiencing that 6 years later than most people who went straight into a job right after college, haha!

But it seems like you’ve found a fabulous niche for yourself, Jillian, and I thank you so much for your time and wise words!!! :)

Always happy to share!

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