From STEM PhD to Federal Consulting: An Interview with Josh

How in the world did Josh go from a PhD in cell and molecular biology to a job in federal consulting for The Tauri Group? As you can probably imagine, he had quite a few options on the table. Here at MC, we had the pleasure of recently interviewing Josh and asking him how he’s navigated his interesting career path, and how consulting was a great place for his passions and skills to collide. Read on to find out how Josh found clarity with what he wanted out of a long-term career, while still being able to indulge his varied interests. Whether you’re an undergrad, in an MBA or PhD program, or a savvy experienced hire, Josh’s exciting story will inspire you to take the next step in your career!

Hi Josh, how are you doing today?

I’m doing great, thank you.

Tell me a bit about your background.

Well, I grew up in Bethesda, MD, and attended the University of Vermont in Burlington, VT for – BS (finance), MS (nutritional sciences), and PhD (cell and molecular biology). Once I graduated with my Bachelor’s, I was a financial analyst by day and managed a bar a few nights per week. I also played rugby for the University of Vermont and played for the local Burlington men’s club team.

A year after graduation, my rugby career started to show promise and I quit my analyst job to focus on training and competing. As luck would have it, I was able to take an ownership role at the bar I was managing. This provided me with a steady income, a flexible schedule to travel and train and also helped me tap into my “inner entrepreneur” (I have started three businesses since this experience). For the next few years I played rugby at the national and international levels, while owning this bar.

Once I graduated with my PhD, I was awarded a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship and moved to the DC area for two years. After that, I moved to Portland, OR andnworked for the medical device company Medtronic as a field scientist. In this job I managed investigator initiated clinical trials, scientific messaging and key opinion leader development. Most recently, I’m a Program Manager for a government consulting company called The Tauri Group and I have been working in government consulting for the past 7 years.

You didn’t have a traditional career path – how in the world did you decide rationally that it was a good idea to get your Ph.D.?

I often tell people, “You could have put a gun to my head and told me I’d have a PhD one day and I would have said you are crazy.”  Even to this day, it is not something that I ever had a strong desire to achieve. A few years after I graduated with my Bachelor’s I felt that I could do more with my life than just play rugby and own a bar.

The University of Vermont had a strong sports nutrition program and I decided to go back to school and learn how to be a better athlete. I applied to the program and was not only accepted, but they offered me a teaching fellowship that covered tuition and provided a stipend.

While I was fully engaged in playing rugby and running my bar at night, I had to give this a shot. My coursework was very informative and my research was in exercise physiology where I compared the fitness benefits of snowshoeing versus running. I was in Vermont and there was lots of snow! It was one of the first studies conducted on the newer, lightweight snowshoes and was cited in over 100 lay journals.

My priorities in life were 1) playing rugby, 2) owning a bar and 3) school. To be honest with you, school was something I did during the day because I had free time. Once I received my MS, I was offered a similar teaching fellowship to study for my PhD and I figured, why not?

My PhD program was in Cell and Molecular biology and I was a fish out of water. I had never taken physics, genetics, microbiology, organic chemistry etc… and I had never touched a pipette, grew cells in a hood or run a gel of any kind. It was a struggle for me. At the end of my second year, the lease expired to my bar and one year later I did my final international rugby tour.

The parts of my life that I enjoyed most were gone and all I had was a degree awaiting me that I never really wanted in the first place. After many chats with my advisor, I agreed to stay and I poured myself into finishing my research and graduating. My determination is strong and I was the first one in my class to graduate. One of my biggest motivators to graduate quickly was that I intended to apply for the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship and I needed to successfully defend my dissertation before the application deadline.

Tell me a bit more about the AAAS fellowship you won, and how that worked. Did you get more than 1 offer? How did you decide?

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of all people. It is frequently recognized as the organization that publishes the journal Science.

Each year the AAAS offer competitive Science & Technology Policy Fellowships that provide opportunities for scientists and engineers to learn first-hand about policymaking while contributing their knowledge and analytical skills in the federal policy realm. “AAAS Fellows” are placed in Congress and Executive Branch agencies and departments.

I applied to work in Congress, the NIH and the Department of Defense (DoD). I was selected to interview at both the NIH and the DoD and subsequently was offered positions in both organizations. I chose to work for the DoD because the projects available were more diverse and interesting to me.

I had a dual appointment and worked for the Undersecretary of Defense for Laboratories and Basic Sciences in the Pentagon and I also worked for the Army Research Office. It was an incredible experience to see how federal policy is created and to play an active role in managing DoD science programs.

When did you first stumble upon the field of government consulting? What did you discover about it?

I learned about government consulting when I started interviewing for jobs near the completion of my AAAS Fellowship. Government contracting and consulting are common career fields for all disciplines of education in the DC/VA/MD region due to its close proximity to the federal government infrastructure.

I had several contingent hire offers from Science & Technology focused consulting companies, but instead took a job with the medical device company, Medtronic.  A few years later I was recruited for a position by one of the government consulting companies who had previously made me a contingent offer. At that time, I found it to be a great fit for my skills, experience and interests so I chose to move back to the east coast and take the position.

I gravitated to government consulting because the career rewards candidates who want to apply their technical skills in a business capacity. I have little desire to work in academia or a lab, but I still wanted a career that values my technical training.

Government consulting is a fantastic career path for people who can manage relationships, think strategically, are strong communicators and who enjoy solving challenging problems that will have an impact on federal policy. And, while many jobs are concentrated in the DC region, positions are available all over the country and for all education levels and disciplines.

Tell me about your work as a government consultant.

I work in the area of therapeutic/vaccine development for the Department of Defense (DoD). The warfighter/soldier has different medical needs than the general public and most big pharma companies don’t invest in these types of treatments due to low profit margins. Thus, the DoD will contract with companies to develop novel therapeutics and vaccines specific to the service member’s needs.

Most of my career has been managing teams of scientists, financial and risk analysts, and contracting specialists who work side by side with DoD personnel in their mission of medical product development for our service members. In a nutshell, we help the government manage the risk, cost, schedule and performance of their contracts with drug/vaccine development companies.  

What makes this work even more challenging, and exciting, is that many of the medical products under development cannot be tested for efficacy on humans and must seek FDA approval through the FDA Animal Rule.

Presently, I am working with a DoD program that is contracting with a company to build and operate a drug/vaccine manufacturing facility. I never thought I would be going on construction site visits to monitor progress from a green field to a fully operational manufacturing facility, but that is part of what makes this career so interesting.   

When was the ah-hah moment – when you realized what a great gig government consulting is?

To my surprise, I experienced rapid career progression once I started working at The Tauri Group. Part of this was luck, but much of it was due to the fact that my skills, experience and interests align quite well with government consulting work. I started out as a technical analyst and progressed to a deputy team leader, team leader, deputy program manager and then to program manager – all within my first three years at the company.

My “ah-hah” moment probably came when I was promoted to team leader and had over 30 direct reports. This was an incredibly challenging position, but also quite rewarding because I was able to incorporate the skills and experiences I had acquired thus far in my career to be successful and help my clients. Government consulting is a fantastic career for job seekers in nearly any degree field who are motivated to solve problems, think strategically, build and manage relationships and work as part of a team.

Tell me about STEM Career Services and what it does.

STEM Career Services specializes in working with science, technology, engineering and math graduates and postdocs who are looking to start a career outside of the academic/laboratory environment. We offer career counselling, workshops and job placement services.

Our most common workshop is titled, “Introduction to Government Consulting” where we do a full-day immersion course about the career field of government consulting.  Course graduates have a significant competitive advantage when applying for positions by learning about:

– The importance of STEM-trained candidates in government consulting

– A “day in the life” of a government consultant (no day is ever the same)

– Where to look for government consulting jobs

– Crafting a government consulting resume and preparing for job interviews

– Qualifying for a security clearance

– Transferring academic/industry skills to those of a government consultant

– And, the importance of building relationships and maintaining client trust

Lastly, what makes STEM Career Services unique is that our career counselors are not typical “career coaches” who run a business by telling clients how to find jobs in their desired career field. Instead, our mentors are full-time professionals employed in a variety of STEM professions who have chosen to join our mentoring panel because they want to share their expertise with people looking for career assistance.

We followed the same career path as our clients, earned our BS, MS and PhDs in STEM fields and successfully found jobs outside of academia. Our goal is to share this experience with our clients and help them find the most rewarding, challenging and exciting careers in government consulting; the biotech, pharmaceutical and medical device industries, federal government and nonprofits.

What are 3 key insights you wish every STEM professional could know about government consulting?

1) Be suitable for your audience; the government consulting hiring process is very different than management consulting. There’s no “hiring season” to follow, no case studies to prepare for, and frequently, candidates are hired to fill a specific position for an ongoing contract. Thus, the recruitment-to-hiring phase can often be quite fast.

2) The ability to develop a strong relationship with your client and earn their trust is critical to job success. Most government consulting contracts are long-term (often multi-year), so having a strong relationship with a client can lead to sustained job security and improved performance.

3) Not all government consulting jobs require a security clearance. This career path is suitable for citizens and noncitizens of the USA. Talking with experts who understand the security clearance process can help candidates determine which government consulting jobs they may qualify for and will help them be more strategic in their job search.

Thanks so much for sharing your insights and experiences, Josh!

Filed Under: Federal Consulting