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Non-Academic PhD Career Path Alumni Series Launches

October 4, 2019

The first-ever Rita B. Leahy PhD Career Series program launched this week with a panel discussion featuring alumni data scientists Vasilis Sotiris (’11 PhD, Applied Mathematics) and Sherika Sylvester (’16-17 Postdoc, Neuroscience). 

The Leahy Series was developed with support from Rita B. Leahy (’89 PhD, Civil Engineering)— whose own career path is testimony to the power of networking—to address the career development needs of our doctoral students and postdocs. Leahy’s connections, along with an unstoppable spirit of openness, took her career in directions she never could have predicted—namely working with asphalt in both academic and non-academic environments.

“It has been my experience that what one does in life is more likely the result of chance rather than choice; more madness than method,” Leahy said.  “I had to let go of the life that I had planned so that I could accept the one that was waiting for me. Keeping an open mind as to diverse employment opportunities led me to an exhilarating career - professionally and personally.”

Dean of the Graduate School Steve Fetter introduced Leahy and greeted students, noting that some of UMD’s best PhDs go into government and nonprofit careers, rather than the academy.

Sylvester and Sotiris shared their serendipitous paths to their current roles, each with backgrounds that might not translate directly to data science. Sylvester is a Lead Data Scientist for Booz Allen Hamilton, where she specializes in providing analytical support and data science solutions to problems in the life sciences and healthcare industries. Sotiris is the Director of Data Science at Cerebri AI, a successful tech start-up with investment from M12, formerly Microsoft Ventures. Cerebri AI has created a product that is fundamentally changing how customer-facing sales and success professionals can analyze the customer journey.

Soritis shared lessons learned in his path from aerospace engineering and a series of job application rejections to a transformative trip to China. Through a chance visit to Sichuan Province, Sotiris found perspective.

“It gave me time to pause, and realize that the one path I was on wasn’t the only path,” he said. 

Sotiris landed a job in the D.C. area with Lockheed Martin, where he recognized the need to hone his data skills. He enrolled in the doctoral program at Maryland, subsequently serving in consulting and leadership roles roles in the finance industry before moving on to the startup world.

Sotiris shared several lessons from his career path with students, including taking time to get to know yourself; don’t be afraid to pivot and go in the opposite direction, practice presenting complex concepts concisely, and hone communications and interpersonal skills that help in leadership positions. 

“Start building credibility early,” he said. “It is a long process to have people to trust you, and trust what you can do, and what you say. Being able to set vision, guide and inspire are not possible without credibility.” 

Sylvester, a former Meyerhoff Scholar at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, focused on mathematics, biology and chemistry as an undergraduate.  Exposure to biomedicine and machine learning during summer internships piqued her interest in a more interdisciplinary PhD program, and Weill Cornell Medicine’s systems neuroscience doctoral track.

“As I was finishing, I decided that academia was not the choice for me. Going into it, I wanted to have a lab, work with graduate students, and publish a lot of papers, but nowadays that’s just not realistic. Given the technique I use, the start-up cost for my lab would be very expensive,” said Sylvester. “Around this time, the term data science was officially coined, and it was a big buzzword on campus. A lot of my classmates who graduated before me went into data science careers, so I had a network to tap into, and the ability to take the temperature of this field and if it was for me.”

Sylvester exposed herself to concepts and people in the data science community that were not found in academia. She shadowed a class in deep learning and took online courses. When she arrived at UMD as a postdoc, Sylvester wanted to take some time to hone her skills and rebrand herself as a data scientist.

“That was challenging, because there weren’t a lot of examples that I could pull from to rebrand myself to people who were not in academia,” she said.

Sylvester designed her postdoc projects to be attractive to industry employers. She built an online portfolio and presence, tailored her resume to industry, and demonstrated her coding and data manipulation skills. She attended conferences, joined Meetup groups, and networked in region’s rich data science community, learning about projects and emerging technologies. 

She landed at Booz Allen Hamilton as a consultant where Sylvester has worked on a variety of projects for clients such as the United States Postal Service.

“In both academia and consulting, we engage the scientific process. In industry, however, everything has to have some sort of a business impact,” she said.  “As consultants, we are able to influence the client’s line of questioning. And communication is really big – in the form of reports, presentations, and interactive dashboards.” 

More than 25 in-person and online postdocs and graduate students were riveted by Sotiris and Sylvester’s winding career paths. Attendees represented STEM programs across the UMD enterprise: chemistry, economics, atmospheric and oceanic science, toxicology, information studies and more. 

“Sherika and Vasili’s stories illuminated the importance of figuring out what type of work will fit you,” said Susan Martin, Director of the Office of Professional and Career Development for doctoral students. “They also emphasized the need to actively pursue additional training, often online, for the latest programming tools and opportunities that develop communication, teamwork and leadership skills.” 

The full downloadable photos from the event can be found on The Graduate School's Flickr site.

The next of four Rita B. Leahy PhD Career Series sessions this academic year takes place Wednesday, November 20, 2019, from 4:30-6:00 PM in the University Career Center & The President’s Promise, Room 3134 of the South Wing of Hornbake.

Contact Information

The Graduate School
University of Maryland

2123 Lee Building
7809 Regents Drive
College Park, MD 20742

301-405-3644
gradschool@umd.edu