Career Profile – Jessica Harding

Dr Jessica Harding

Research Fellow

Degree #1: Bachelor of Biomedical Science + Honours (2010)
Degree #2: PhD (Epidemiology) (2016)

Dr Jessica Harding graduated from a Bachelor of Biomedical Science (Hons) in 2010. She heard about a Research Assistant position via contacts from her Honours work, and secured the job after boldly inviting the contact out for a coffee, to introduce herself properly and make an impression. Jessica developed a fantastic working relationship with her new supervisor, who eventually became her PhD supervisor, and introduced Jessica to her current employer, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA.

Jessica’s advice to new graduates is to network, be open to opportunities, be strategic, and when considering a job or PhD, remember that working relationships are important and go both ways. You are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you.

What's your current role?

I’m a Research Fellow in the Division of Diabetes Translation, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, USA. I am an epidemiologist, which means I investigate diseases at a population level. I find out about the causes of diseases, how common they are, and how we can reduce or even stop them. I can apply my training to almost any disease you can think of, but I currently focus on diabetes.

My overarching goal is to understand how and why diabetes affects different sub-groups of the population differently, and why the risk for developing diabetes has increased in recent times.

What are some of the day-to-day tasks that your job involves?

Day to day, I have a (standing) desk job. I contribute to scientific knowledge through my research, which often involves using specialised software to analyse large data sets, as well as writing – and re-writing, and sometimes re-re-writing – manuscripts. I also constantly learn by reading new scientific papers and regularly attending scientific seminars. I use meetings with my colleagues and the seminars as an opportunity to network with peers, which can result in new ideas for research and funding.

In addition, there are some noteworthy highs that happen: a scientific discovery, an accepted publication, an invitation to present your work at a conference or to interview for radio/newspaper/TV, a grant being funded, or simply an analysis that doesn’t come back saying ‘error’.

The CDC sounds amazing. How did you end up working overseas?

Networking! During my PhD, I attended as many conferences, seminars and workshops that I could. I always attended the social functions associated with these events, even on my own. It made me a familiar face with some senior people in my field.

Towards the end of my PhD, I reached out to many of the people I met, asking about employment opportunities overseas. I also applied for several fellowships. Though I was offered several positions, none of them were the right fit for me, so I took a government role instead.

Not long afterwards, my former PhD supervisor invited me to a dinner party she was hosting for some visiting academics from the CDC. They mentioned an upcoming Research Fellow position and the timing, location, supervisors and salary all aligned with what I was after. I applied the next week, and the rest is history.

Working overseas is a great opportunity both professionally and personally. It allows you to work with a new group in a new environment and hopefully learn some new skills that will be an asset when (and if) you return home. I think that anything that makes you a little nervous, you should do. Moving overseas allows you to experience a new culture, make new friends from around the world, and learn a little more about yourself along the way.

Back when you first graduated, could you see a clear career path?

Definitely not. During my undergraduate studies, I was convinced research was not the path I was going to take. But my interests changed over time, and the opportunities I’ve followed have led me here, and for now, I’m happy. Although I still can’t tell you where I want to be in five years! I think that’s true of most of us. And I think that’s okay.

How did you get your foot in the door with your first job in public health?

It was a Research Assistant position at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute. The Institute is co-located with Monash Public Health and Preventive Medicine, which is where I did my honours, and news of the vacancy travelled down the grapevine to me.

I directly contacted the person in the job ad and asked for a coffee meeting, which she accepted. I wanted her to know who I was before she read my application. I’ve done this with every job since, where possible, and it helps to set you apart. I applied for the job, interviewed, and was excited to then be offered the position.

What inspired you to do your PhD?

During my stint as a Research Assistant, I realised that if I wanted to forge my own career in science, I wouldn’t get far without a PhD. A PhD tells employers you can problem-solve, write well, present with confidence, network, and that you are self-directed. PhD graduates tend to be ambitious, motivated and committed. These are invaluable skills for any career, not just science.

What was your PhD topic and why did you choose that?

My topic was diabetes and cancer: are people with diabetes more likely to get cancer (and what types) compared to people without diabetes?

I knew I wanted to do a PhD in epidemiology and chronic disease. But beyond that, I was flexible on the topic. My supervisor won a large grant to explore associations between diabetes and cancer using large linked datasets in Australia. And it was this work that morphed into my PhD.

I didn’t choose this topic because of a personal passion, I chose it because I had a great supervisor and working environment. To me, that was more important and was going to be more pivotal to my success than the specific topic of my PhD.

What did you do between PhD graduation and getting the CDC job?

My first job was as an epidemiologist in the Health Intelligence Unit of the Victorian Department of Health. In this role, I conducted research to quantify the health status of Victorians and guide policy decisions.

I’ve also been a teaching associate with Monash Public Health and Preventive Medicine for many years. Strangely, I have learnt more about epidemiology, statistics and research methods through teaching these concepts than I ever would by just reading about them. Most importantly, however, I really enjoying teaching and working with students.

What do you enjoy most about working in public health?

It takes a whole of population approach to tackling problems like obesity and diabetes. We look for solutions for the entire population, not just individuals.

What advice would you give to students in their final year of a public health bachelor degree?

  • Be strategic.
  • Keep your options open, and say yes to things, especially if you don’t have a clear pathway mapped out. Each opportunity opens another door.
  • Network.
  • Set up opportunities to meet employers when going for a job.

What advice would you give to someone embarking on their PhD?

Pick a good supervisor. If you aren’t sure, ask around, and heed warnings when given! The student:supervisor relationship works both ways, so remember, you’re not the only one being interviewed.

Back that up by being strategic. Set up opportunities, network, attend conferences, engage in extra-curricular activities (ie. sit on committees, teach (also a good source of income)), and most importantly, publish as many papers as you can.