NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Profile 11 – Senior Consultant

This is the eleventh in a series of profiles about recent NIH postdocs who have found an array of jobs, from academia to industry to communications and beyond, in the U.S. and abroad. What do they do now, and how did they get there? What challenges did they face, and what advice do they have? Read on to find out.

Name: Rebecca Dunfee

Current position: Senior consultant, Booz Allen Hamilton

Location: Arlington, VA

Time in current position: 2 months

Postdoc: How pandemic influenza interacts with the host antiviral response, with Jeffery Taubenberger at NIAID

My story: Up until about 7 months ago, I thought I was going to be an academic researcher running my own lab. I had been a postdoc for 3 ½ years then and I knew I would have to start looking for a job in the summer. I knew I wouldn’t be competitive for an academic position because I had almost no publications or abstracts at that point from my postdoc, having switched topics between my Ph.D. and my postdoc in a field that became highly competitive. I didn’t want to do another postdoc. So I considered other career options, such as science policy.

I wasn’t really thinking of consulting. I thought in consulting you work tons of hours and don’t do anything interesting. Then OITE had its annual career symposium. I’d always gone to the academic sessions in those events, but this time I tried different ones. In the consulting session, the presenter said it’s really about problem-solving. That was a revelation for me. It was exactly the kind of things I like to do. I started considering consulting as a career path.

How I got my job: OITE had its career fair in June. I thought, I’ll just go and see what sort of companies are there and pass out some resumés. I really didn’t think I’d get a phone call. That’s not how it’s supposed to happen. You’re supposed to know somebody who knows somebody. But [Booz Allen Hamilton] called 1 month later and said they’d like to interview me. We had a phone interview. Three weeks after that they set up an in-person interview. Then they offered me the job.

When I got the first call, I was still making the decision to go into consulting. The phone interview was scheduled quickly, so there was not a lot of time to prepare and I was not really ready for some of the questions. When they called me back to ask to do the in-person, I realized I’d done pretty well. Then I talked to people in consulting about what they do every day. To me, it sounded like a lot of fun.

I say just throw your resumé out there and see what bites. Fashion it and get it out there. One person could look at it and say, “That’s who we want.”

Making the choice: I didn’t expect to find something so quickly, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I had some friends who were consultants so I had a ballpark idea of what the firm should be offering, and it was competitive. I thought, in a year if I decide it’s not for me, I can go back and do another postdoc and I won’t have lost anything. It was perfect timing. My lab was pretty big but funding was drying up, and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to finish my research before my postdoc ended. I had a few projects I passed on to people.

Day-to-day: It depends on the client, what needs to be done and when it needs to be done. Some is very related to my background in virology—talking about detecting viruses that might be out in the environment or how to assess a biological threat. A lot of my day is spent answering emails. Some is editing other people’s grant proposals. A lot of writing, ranging from slide presentations to short criteria to classify a grant and, as needed, writing white papers. I helped with a meeting and did everything from running a mic around to talking to poster presenters about what they’d found since last year.

The upside: Almost everyone in my office has a Ph.D., and that’s unusual in a consulting firm. That appealed to me. It’s still a bit of an academic feel, being surrounded by smart scientists, but it’s a different environment. The money is also very good. It’s a revelation, coming from a postdoc position, that your time is actually worth money!

Adjustments: There are two things I’m still finding it hard to adjust to. One is time recording. Every day, we have to accurately account for our time because we’re tracking client hours. You can’t spend 15 minutes checking Gmail because that’s not recorded at the end of the day. As a postdoc, you only pay attention to time that specifically when it’s something like your reaction has to incubate for 1 hour, during which time you can do whatever you want.

The other thing is marketing. In science, you kind of market yourself in trying to convince people to give you business (money to do your science). Consulting was a little bit of a cultural transition. Now I’m marketing myself and my firm to get repeat business or new business with current clients. And I had to get used to calling myself an expert. It’s not like in science, where you have to have done your Ph.D. in some narrow subject to call yourself an expert on it. I don’t need to know as much as I think I do to call myself one now.

Essential skills: You have to be able to deal with people well. After I was hired, I asked what made those of us they had chosen stand out. They said, “You have social skills.” During my interviews, every single person asked how I dealt with difficult people. You have to try to convince people to take your point of view on a solution, but you also have to know when to back off. Also, you need to be adaptable and flexible, because what you think you’re going to do in the morning is not always what you end up doing. Being organized and good at time management. Being an analytical thinker. A lot of the time, you’re looking at science you’re not totally familiar with and you have to identify the problem. Being creative. Sometimes your client will say they want it a certain way but if you think about it and come up with a creative solution, it might be better for the problem and for the client.

A path in hindsight: In the lab, I was already a little bit of a consultant. People would come to me with problems and I would help them come up with solutions. About academia, what I actually liked was teaching students—leading students to a solution. I like thinking about problems. A lot of consulting is problem-solving, and lot of it is science-based. There is almost a teaching component to it.

Beyond the lab: I had done a lot of non-lab stuff [that prepared me well for this kind of position], even though I hadn’t set out to do it specifically for consulting. One month after I started at the NIH, I got involved with the Sister Science Club and ended up kind of running it. I learned how to set up meetings, bring in speakers and set a strategic plan. I became active in Felcom. I served on an advisory board for NIAID’s Office of Training and Diversity. I helped organize seminars and announce awards. I learned a lot of different skills. It helped me learn time management because I was doing all this on top of my research. I also got practice in communicating with different groups. I saw projects go from nothing to something concrete.

I think you should do as much as you can outside the lab. It builds your skills and network and resumé.

What’s next: It’s a little hard to say right now because I only recently started. I’m going to try to get up and running and see how I like this. There are some people who’ve worked here who now work for the client, or who’ve started their own company, or who work for other contracting firms. We’ll see what happens.

Rebecca can be contacted through the OITE alumni database.