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From academia to pharma: the career journey of a PhD graduate

Dr Neelam Shah

Thinking of making the transition from academia to industry? Read this!

Below, Dr Neelam Shah, who is the Vaccines Medical Affairs Associate at GSK Australia, shares her experience of going from a PhD to working in the pharmaceutical industry…

While studying and working in academia during my PhD, it became clear to me that there
was a gap from “bench to bedside”.

As someone who is motivated by contributing to improving health outcomes for patients, it
has been important for me to align my work with this purpose. My focus on improving the
lives of patients made me eager to gain insights into the pharmaceutical industry.

However, the reality is that defining and exploring career pathways beyond academia can be a challenge – in part due to the lack of industry job opportunities for those of us with an
academic research background.

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Something missing

My passion for research was what energised me to move to Australia in 2014 to pursue my
PhD in Structural Biology at Monash University. This was a big leap, especially as a mum of
a two-year-old boy at the time. I vividly remember juggling extensive research hours with
childcare amidst a variety of experiments in the lab.

As I continued my studies, my academic research profile grew rapidly with publications in
peer-reviewed journals, presentations at national and international conferences, and
research collaborations. I taught undergraduate students of Biochemistry and Medicine part-time as a Teaching Associate which further added to my academic skillset.

However, there was something missing.

I was always coming back to the gap between “bench-to-bedside” but wasn’t any clearer on my career goals post-PhD. I had a desire to transition into industry, but the thought of applying for an industry role was stifled by the extensive time commitment and evolving – often challenging – needs of my research commitments.

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Overcoming challenges

In 2017, the third year of my PhD, I was fortunate to participate in the IMNIS (Industry
Mentoring Network in STEM) MedTech-Pharma program, an industry-led initiative providing
mentoring to PhD students. This was a wonderful opportunity to engage with stakeholders in industry to learn more about clinical research.

I had casually applied for a few Clinical Research Associate positions, but the selection
criteria were near impossible to fulfill as purely a science researcher.

I consider myself a successful scientist who is deeply invested in her research, guided by a
strong passion for science. Which is why, post-PhD, I continued in academia as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow for a period of three years. However, academia has always
been somewhat volatile regardless, with research jobs so heavily dependent on grants and
government funding systems.

As an early career researcher, it leaves you in a perpetual state of uncertainty and
frustration. I understood why academic researchers felt isolated from cross-functional collaboration and the combined pressures of potentially expiring contracts each year and job security.

In early 2020, I returned to work after six months of maternity leave with a clearer goal of
what was next in my career. However, the COVID-19 pandemic made for an uncertain job
market. There didn’t seem to be many industry opportunities or, at least, I was unaware of
any potential roles for early career researchers wanting to pivot into an industry role.

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A new opportunity

I then came across the GSK Australia Graduate Researcher Program, part of MTPConnect’s
Research Exchange and Development within Industry (REDI) initiative. I applied and was
delighted to be one of six successful early career researchers.

This was the industry opportunity I was looking for – one where I could get my foot in the
door to build a deeper understanding of the pharmaceutical industry as well as the
development and commercialisation of medicines and vaccines, all whilst making
contributions to improve outcomes for patients.

The program gives early career researchers, like me, a chance to build new industry
capabilities while leveraging our scientific expertise in a diverse and collaborative

As a Vaccines Medical Affairs Associate at GSK Australia, I have had the privilege of:

  • Building my professional skillset
  • Working across different medical portfolios (like Meningococcal and Shingles) and
    pipeline assets for RSV
  • Engaging and liaising with diverse, cross-functional stakeholders
  • Planning and implementing medical educational projects for healthcare professionals
  • Conducting systemic literature research for evidence synthesis relevant to exciting
    pipeline assets
  • Leading GSK Australia’s dossier submission for ATAGI (Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation) Industry Day 2022. This was a monumental achievement in my first six months with GSK.
  • Leading GSK-led Vaccine Virtual Days 2022 in Australia
  • Presenting to the GSK Australia Leadership Team, alongside fellow Graduate Researcher Dr Anushi Rajapaksa. We shared perspectives about industry on behalf our program cohort, and how industry could leverage the scientific expertise of early career researchers through stronger collaboration between academia and industry.

My journey into industry has been anything but linear. However, the GSK Australia Graduate Researcher Program has offered me the chance to close that “bench-to-bedside” gap that, at times, felt impossible for an early career researcher to traverse.

Inspired by Dr Neelam Shah’s study and career path? Check out more graduate stories and advice on our Graduate Options hub.

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One Response

  1. As someone who is motivated by contributing to improving health outcomes for patients, it
    has been important for me to align my work with this purpose. My focus on improving the
    lives of patients made me eager to gain insights into the pharmaceutical industry.

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