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Career Advice

Case studies give grad students a chance to tackle industry challenges

By participating in the Team Case Study program at U of T, life science graduates gain a competitive edge in the non-academic job market.

BY DAVID SEALEY, ADRIAN YUNG, CRICIA RINCHON & CHRISTINA WEHRLE | SEP 28 2020

Since 2016, approximately 180 trainees have participated in the Industry Team Case Study (ITCS) program at the University of Toronto in which teams of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows lead job simulation projects mentored by industry professionals. Trainees investigate a business or policy challenge and deliver a report or proposal to persuade a target stakeholder to follow a strategy or solution. The program was developed by the Science Career Impact Project and the Life Science Career Development Society and focuses on the biotechnology/pharmaceutical sector.

We interviewed four alumni to find out how their case studies helped them get hired.  (Yung et al, 2019. OSF Preprints). Here, we share common themes from their stories.

Self-discovery. Playing the part of an industry professional in a case study can help trainees to identify their technical skills and behavioural strengths that may help them in various roles, and to clarify their desired career path. Tracy In – who received her PhD in 2018 in immunology from the University of Toronto – said, “[…] the soft skills we gain from our PhD study are transferrable across many different industry and sectors, which gave me the confidence to seek opportunities in medical affairs.” Dr. In started her career as a medical science liaison at a multinational pharmaceutical company.


Read also: How case studies can help to smooth the academy-to-industry transition


Specialized knowledge. By engaging in mentored projects, trainees learn and apply sector-specific knowledge about tools, practices and regulations, which can enable meaningful conversations with hiring managers and, later, productivity on the job. Parco Chan – who received his Master of Science in pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Toronto in 2018 – worked on regulatory affairs and market access case studies, and shared that “a key challenge in both case studies was the steep learning curve in navigating each functional area. Each has its own ecosystem of terminology, stakeholders, and objectives that our team had to learn and become fluent with.” Mr. Chan started his career as a market access consultant to pharmaceutical companies.

Industry trends and insights. When investigating a topic, trainees learn about issues of concern to customers, regulators, and payers (all key stakeholders in the healthcare sector). Trainees uncover trends and develop insights about the field, the therapeutic and competitive landscape, and novel technologies. Nathan Rutherford – who received his Master of Science in cell and systems biology at the University of Toronto in 2018 – worked on a case study to develop federal regulations on a novel class of products. “We compared the regulatory landscape […] in four U.S. states […] and tried to see how their systems would fit into Canada’s. We wrote a white paper and made infographics that could be used to inform the public.” Mr. Rutherford started his career in regulatory affairs at a bioanalytical testing and consulting company.

Networking. Engaging with mentors and peers helps establish a community of support that can be called upon to discuss career opportunities and challenges. Mr. Chan addressed the impact of career discussions with his mentor outside the case study: “[The discussions] gave me insight and perspective on my career and target job that were valuable to me navigating my transition to industry.”

Marketing yourself effectively. In addition to the cover letter and resume, including a case study in a job application can provide evidence of skills, knowledge and experience that employers can relate to. Like all of our interviewees, Alex Sin – who received his PhD in cell and systems biology at the University of Toronto in 2017 – used his case study to get noticed. “Hiring managers have appeared impressed by my demonstration of applied skills that are not limited to academic research. Some have also expressed that they have never encountered any other applicants that make use of a portfolio to demonstrate evidence of experience.” Dr. Sin started his career in regulatory affairs in the medical division of a multinational conglomerate.

Telling compelling stories about a case study in a resume and interview – why the topic is important, actions taken to investigate and report on it, and the result of the effort – can showcase potential for future success. According to Mr. Chan, “The case study caught my interviewer’s attention when he looked at my resume. He asked me to lead him through my market access strategy. He introduced some hypothetical barriers, so I had to adapt my strategy around it in response. I think that discussion demonstrated my awareness of the field as well as my fluency in it.”

Dr. In reported a similar experience: “Hiring managers […] were intrigued and impressed with my portfolio of case studies. [… They] want to see that you are able to take initiative, seek appropriate resources, and build professional rapport with your peers (team members) and mentors to produce quality work.”

Soon-to-be graduates who acquire marketable skills, knowledge and experience can demonstrate their potential to deliver value to an organization. As an alternative or companion to an internship, a mentored case study can be a worthwhile endeavour. Conceivably, this model can be applied at any institution and focused on any sector or discipline. Even without an organized program, any individual or team can pursue a case study focused on a target career path.

We thank the many students and professionals who have volunteered to develop and engage in the ITCS program. The program has been funded by graduate and life sciences education at the faculty of medicine, and a community-engaged initiatives grant from the Centre for Community Partnerships at the University of Toronto.

David Sealey is co-founder and managing director of the Science Career Impact Project (a volunteer organization in Toronto), as well as an adjunct professor of molecular genetics at the University of Toronto. Adrian Yung is an HonBSc candidate in the faculty of arts and science at the University of Toronto. Cricia Rinchon is a former ITCS co-lead of the Life Science Career Development Society, as well as a PhD candidate at the Institute of Medical Science, University of Toronto. Christina Wehrle is director of the Science Career Impact Project. Ms. Wehrle and Dr. Sealey are employed in the pharmaceutical industry; their employer was not involved in this work.

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