Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences
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James Dolan, PhD

Graduation Year: 2008
Advisor: Leis
Current Position: Director, Navigant

James Dolan graduated from the Integrated Graduate Program (now known as the DGP) at Northwestern in 2008.  A Chicago native, he got his undergraduate degree in microbiology at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.  At Northwestern, he worked with Dr. Jonathan Leis in the Department of Microbiology-Immunology, where he studied the HIV-1 virus.  James is currently a Director in the Life Sciences Strategy Practice at Navigant, a management consulting firm based in Chicago.

What made you want to go to graduate school?

It was a combination of factors. I had a perception of limited career opportunities with just an undergraduate degree in microbiology and lots of curiosity based on my undergraduate lab experience at the University of Illinois.  These interests, combined with a central ethic from my parents to achieve the highest level of education you can before joining the workforce, led me to explore graduate school. I entered graduate school expecting to conduct research aimed at novel questions and push the boundaries of our collective knowledge, but I knew I didn’t want to be an academic after graduation. My interests were more at the interface of science and something else, but there was a lot of learning to define what the “something else” would ultimately be.

What brought you to Northwestern and the IGP/DGP?

Northwestern and the IGP for me was a perfect combination of exposure to diverse scientific disciplines packaged in an integrated program, with clinical exposure and some translational science. Aside from the academics, I was also driven by the fact that the school is in my favorite city in the world, had top-notch and personable faculty, and great culture among the graduate students.

What did you study in graduate school?

My thesis research was focused on retroviral replication mechanisms and characterizing the third enzyme of HIV to be a drug target. My publications were ultimately based on research into HIV-1 integrase (three other projects failed!).

What was your first job outside of academia, and how did you get it?

My first job outside academia was for Navigant (a management and strategy expert-based consulting firm). I got the job through networking and exploring a variety of different types and sized consulting firms to find one that was a fit for me. I didn’t want to get away from science, so it was easy for me to quickly rule out a generalist environment. Once that was clear, I did a lot of exploring the spectrum of firms out there, ranging from large public to small private and boutique. Serendipity smiled on me when I was connected to a small team based out of New York that was looking for people like me. It’s been an interesting experience, as I’m still with the same firm.

What is your current position?  

I’m now a Director at Navigant and lead the Chicago team for our Practice. There are ~200 consultants in our Life Sciences practice globally, with ~20 based out of our global headquarters in Chicago. I have responsibility for the development of the team, whose experiences range from straight out of undergrad to seasoned industry veterans with more than 15 years of experience.  We work with local and global life sciences clients to support a variety of key business challenges, primarily focused on late development and commercialization of products. Day-to-day for consulting is highly variable, but I suppose that’s the most consistent part. There could be all-day workshops that I’m facilitating, or marathon conference call days, or days when I just work on writing reports or engaging proactively in my network to build and maintain relationships that have been cultivated since I began consulting.

How did Northwestern prepare you for your current career?

The multidisciplinary nature of the program was the biggest benefit for me. Having access to experts in a variety of clinically relevant domains that are also now emerging in the Life Sciences industry, as well as thought leaders in diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, HIV, oncology, and more, really expanded my grasp of the clinical science arena. The regular speaker series and involvement of graduate students in identifying expert speakers was also impactful. Lastly, the resources and institutional support that began for students exploring non-academic careers certainly helped, and auditing courses in other schools like the Kellogg School of Management was really impactful for me as well.

What other experiences brought you to your current position?

In undergrad I took a variety of other non-science electives, and the ones that benefitted me most were the Entrepreneurship, Economics, Business Writing, and Computer Sciences courses.

What advice would you give to current students interested in pursuing a career similar to yours?

Start networking as soon as you can, start to read and get informed about trends in the Life Sciences industry (Wall Street Journal, New England Journal of Medicine, and even the daily BIO newsletter, which is free, can be helpful), and prepare for the case interview process. Most consulting firms apply some form of case interview, and it’s a test of the problem-solving skills and logic needed to be successful in consulting.

Do you have any final advice for current graduate students?

The final bit of advice I have is to be curious. The scientific area that you’re currently studying is not likely to be the same in five years, and there are new domains that are emerging with the pace of discovery and technological advancement that are intensely exciting, such as immuno-oncology, CRISPR, and the microbiome. All of these platforms may ultimately impact society, but how and when remain to be determined. And we should all expect more exciting discoveries in the years to come. The responsibility lies in all of us to maintain the curiosity, ask questions, accept the limitations of our own knowledge and still push the frontiers of understanding. Whatever your career path ultimately turns out to be, there is no ending for learning opportunities and the power that curiosity will enable for you in your careers.

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