NIH Alumni: Where Are They Now? Profile 5 – Research Scientist at Johnson & Johnson

Name: Elizabeth Rex

Current position: Research scientist at Johnson & Johnson

Location: San Diego, CA

Time in current position: 4 months

Postdoc: Molecular neuropharmacology of dopamine receptors with David Sibley at NINDS

My story: When I came to NINDS, I didn’t know what I was going to do [for a career]. I thought it would all be unveiled with time. Looking back, I should have had more “career intellect.”

I knew I didn’t want to go into academia. Figuring out what I did want was the hard part. I knew I needed to get closer to helping people. I wanted to get more into drug discovery. Pharma was in line with my interests. It was more big-picture; okay, so you have the target, but what happens after that, how does it go down the pipeline, at what point does it get to the patient, how is it helping them, what went wrong, what works. The other thing is that funding was being cut. This was 2007, and the market was crashing. I had colleagues with their own labs who were struggling. It wasn’t an environment where I could thrive.

Job search in a nutshell: One and a half years out of completing my term, I knew I needed to look for jobs. I started going to seminars through OITE and going on informational interviews. Then I got more serious. I did a ton of reading. I did more extensive job searches and tapped into every connection I could find, even if there was no position immediately available. That included things like mixers and roundtables after work. I had connections with a lot of embassies through the Visiting Fellows program. I used Fogarty. I worked with people who were in the medical field outside the NIH for additional perspective on my CV and so forth.

The thing is not to feel embarrassed but to let people know you’re looking for a job. Don’t cross over into hounding, but mention it in conversation. You just need that one person who will put in the word for you.

Challenges for a non-citizen: I wasn’t a citizen, and I wasn’t a green card holder. That puts another whole dimension on the job search. I had a J1 visa and tried to change my status to H1B. It’s very challenging because you’re only there to train for a certain amount of time (5 years) and then you need to go back to your home country for 2 years (although that can be waivered in some countries). You need to get someone to sponsor you. It all takes time. You really need to get up to speed as soon as possible about what you need to do.

Visa status is not a mark against us, but there are some companies and science organizations that won’t sponsor you. You need to take that into account when you’re looking at jobs. There will be a disclosure at the bottom of the job description if it’s open to U.S. citizens only. If not, it needs to be brought up at some point during the interview. NIH being in DC, the majority of positions require permanent residency or U.S. citizenship. The likelihood is you’ll have to relocate. I cast a wide net. I was willing to move to wherever the best job was.

It was a huge hurdle for me, to be perfectly honest. You aren’t just up against people who want to do the job you’re interested in, but people who are citizens and who have experience. I learned that you have to really tailor your CV to what the job requirements are. The experience you don’t have, you look for what you can substitute. For example, if they were looking for people-management and team skills, I may not have done that as part of my job, but I was co-chair for the Visiting Fellows Committee, organizing events and teams. I didn’t mention visa status until the interview. Usually it comes up with HR. At the end of the interview I would say something like, “Oh, I wanted to let you know, is this a problem, is the company willing to sponsor?” Usually, unless they’ve disclosed otherwise, it’s not issue.

Stepping stone: I was getting interviews but not job offers. The answer was invariably that the other person had industry experience. So I ended up doing a second postdoc in industry at Eli Lilly. It was a completely different line of research, using techniques I’d never used before. The postdoc did three main things for me: it gave me industry experience, it added new techniques to my resume, and it involved a company that was ready and willing to sponsor my visa.

How I got my job: A colleague of mine from back at the NIH received a job announcement through a recruiter. She didn’t want it, but she thought it was a good fit for me and forwarded it to me. It was a great fit. I contacted the recruiter, and within a week I was set up for a phone interview.

Day-to-day: There are a lot more team meetings and a lot more projects. Just about every project that needs a drug crosses my desk. I’ve got an incredible amount of diversity. I like the collaborative nature of the work. I’m still doing bench science, and there’s freedom to look for collaborations outside industry.

What’s next: I’ll probably take more of a management route, away from the bench. I am very interested in the managerial side of pharma.

Elizabeth can be contacted through the OITE alumni database.