Alumni Spotlight: Shana Topp (04C, 09G)

Shana Topp. Photo provided by Shana Topp.
Shana Topp. Photo provided by Shana Topp.

Shana Topp is an Emory Super Alum. Inspired by the research experience she began as an undergraduate in the Gallivan Group in 2002, Topp stayed at Emory for her doctorate, which she received in 2009. After completing a post-doctoral fellowship with Prof. Carolyn Bertozzi at University of California-Berkeley, Topp shifted her focus away from chemistry research to pursue a job with The Boston Consulting Group.

Like many entering graduate students, Topp started her doctoral program without a clear sense of her career trajectory. Though she began exploring different options during graduate school, she graduated thinking she would stay in academia. During the two and half years of her post-doc, she continued learning about different professional paths, taking advantage of Berkeley’s proximity to biotech companies, and talking with peers about their own job searches. While thinking about how to narrow the focus of her research for academic job applications, Topp realized it was strategic thinking rather than the benchwork she found most fulfilling, and she wanted a job with broader scope and variation in content.

This realization led her to pursue consulting. She was attracted to the rate at which consultants work on new projects, often in entirely new industries, gain new clients, and rotate teams. The opportunity to experience working with such a broad range of businesses and intellectual challenges excited Topp. She joined The Boston Consulting Group in August 2012 where she works with clients who have identified particular problems or areas of focus they want to improve or change. Though business and consulting communication differ significantly from scientific communication, Topp recognizes important similarities in her new work environment. The processes of analysis and problem solving bear many similarities to those used in chemistry research: being able to take an ambiguous problem and break it down into manageable pieces to approach from various perspectives.

Shana became more aware of the ways in which graduate school had prepared her for a range of careers after gaining some distance from her specific PhD research projects. Though Topp will work with some healthcare and pharmaceutical clients (to whom she can bring unique subject knowledge) she finds the process of determining recommendations for companies quite similar to solving scientific problems. The primary difference is the pace at which these decisions are made. Business teams do not consider every single option; rather, they choose the most feasible and focus their attention without second-guessing. This observation has led Topp to wonder how quickly people could finish their PhDs if this model were used in the academy. Of course, perfectionism would have to find a new home.

When asked what she would tell herself as a beginning graduate student, given her experiences of the last few years, Topp’s words of wisdom stem from the realities and results of her job search. She emphasizes the importance of networking and finding avenues for meeting people and learning about different career options whenever possible. Particularly at scientific meetings, where conversations focus on the science, there are also occasions for gaining insight and exposure to different paths. The more information you have about different professional directions, the easier it is to identify priorities and goals for the future and the more likely you are to find career options to explore and/or pursue.