Jennifer Hobbs, PhD
Graduation Year: 2006
Advisor: Rundell, Mary
Current Position: University Secretary and Senior Vice President for Administration and Chief of Staff, The New School
Jennifer Hobbs, PhD, grew up in the Chicago area and did her undergraduate degree at Loyola University in Chicago before joining the IGP/DGP in 2001. In the DGP, she worked with Dr. Gerald Soff in the Department of Medicine, Division of Hematology/Oncology. Jen next did a postdoc at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital before returning to Northwestern. Back at Northwestern, Jen progressed through several positions, starting as a research associate and then research advisor at the Northwestern Brain Tumor Institute. From there, Jen became the Director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs in 2011 and added Senior Director of the Training Grant Support Office to her growing responsibilities in 2013 before being promoted to Assistant Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Training and Development in 2015. In 2017, Jen moved to Emory University to become Chief of Staff and Vice Provost. She is currently the Senior Vice President, University Secretary, and Chief of Staff at The New School in New York City.
Jen recently joined us as a speaker in the My Journey as a Scientist series hosted by the DGP and BioProfessionals, where she reflected on her journey through her career thus far. There were a number of themes that Jen touched on throughout her wide-ranging talk describing how she has found success and satisfaction in her professional life.
Your PhD prepares you for more than just bench work. Jen says that she uses her PhD training all the time—just not the way you might think. For example, how do you know how to ask the right questions? In the context of strategic planning or considering process change that impact programs or even whole institutions, Jen says her training helped inform her strategy of stepping back to ask, “What is the big picture that we are trying to address?” or “What is the real underlying question?”. She also learned how to tell a story in a compelling way to make someone want to fund it. Those are grant writing skills—and they are the same skills she uses to develop new initiatives and programs for the university or external organizations to invest in.
On finding opportunities. Peers and colleagues have been important in opening up opportunities throughout Jen’s career. While in her postdoc, she was contacted by a former colleague at Northwestern, who invited her to join their lab meeting and give a talk about the work she did while at Northwestern. Eventually, that person reached out again when they were launching the Brain Tumor Institute with an opportunity for Jen. She emphasizes how important it is to build connections and maintain relationships with your mentors, including your peer mentors. In addition, Jen advocated for continuing to think about how to position yourself for new opportunities. What goals can you set that will move you forward in your career? How can your work have an impact? Use your work to build your network and make your case for the next step.
Small decisions can inform your big decisions. She also encouraged students to reflect on the small decisions they are already making—in particular, where do you enjoy spending your time? Jen reflected that when she was making the move from more of a research space to a full-time administrative role, she already had one foot out the door without even necessarily realizing it. She enjoyed making new connections and building programs, and she was putting a lot of her energy into those types of efforts already. Reflecting on where you spend your energy can give you a lot of insight into what you really want to do. Jen also encouraged students to think about the full impact of what they are doing, or will be doing. For example, she doesn’t spend much time any more with individual students or trainees, but she has the opportunity to impact the training experience for many students and trainees at the institutions she has worked.
Difficult decisions and conversations are inevitable. Some decisions seem so monumental in the moment—Jen talked about her decision to leave her postdoc to join the Northwestern Brain Tumor Institute and then her decision to leave that institute to move into a fully administrative role at The Graduate School. Leaving her postdoc felt like such a big, hard decision. Although she had accomplished most of the goals she set for her postdoctoral training, she hadn’t yet accomplished a big one—she didn’t have a publication, and, at the time, that felt like a failure. But this was an amazing opportunity for her, and she knew it may not come again. Looking back, that feeling of failure may have been more of a perception of the expectations of others than her own feelings. In the end, although it was a really hard decision to make, that particular “failure” never held her back. Jen also touched on having difficult conversations—for example, about leaving a job. Be prepared for those conversations, and anticipate they might be hard, even with people you have a good relationship with. Those people might not know the full context of your situation and they might not agree with your rationale for some decisions, but you can communicate as clearly as possible and do the best you can by them.
Jen noted that looking at her career path, you might think she had a plan the whole time, but she didn’t. Instead, she took opportunities when they arose, and she took some risks. The administrative path turned out to be a great fit for her skill set, her interests, and her ability to make an impact. What seems key to Jen’s successful career trajectory – and importantly, her satisfaction with it – is that along the way and especially at critical decision-making points she took her time to carefully reflect on the things she enjoyed doing and saw value in doing. She understood what aspects of her current work were meaningful and satisfying to her and followed the opportunities that let her expand her skills and impact with exciting new challenges.