From Environmental Microbiologist to Talent Development Consultant: Q&A with Dr. Jennifer Groh

July 12, 2017

Eleanor Jennings interviews Dr. Jennifer Groh.  Dr. Groh is a Talent Development Consultant (TDC) at Caterpillar Inc. in Lafayette, IN.  Caterpillar is a Fortune 50 company whose products help develop infrastructure, energy and natural resource assets.  Dr. Groh describes how she chose each stage of her professional development and provides advice for those looking to follow a similar pathway.

Thanks for allowing ASM to interview you, Dr. Groh. Can you please provide a brief summary of your career path, starting with where you went to graduate school?

JG: I went to the University of Oklahoma in Norman, OK where I received a Ph.D. in environmental microbiology, an interest which I developed during my undergraduate studies.  I was intrigued by the various ways bacteria could help to lessen the negative impact of pollutants in the environment. While considering what I wanted to do after graduation, I realized that I greatly appreciated the world of higher education with its freedom of thought and emphasis on continued growth and learning. However, I didn't necessarily want a faculty position.

I wanted a position that bridged my experience as a scientist with the desire to help students have an easier time than I had with linking their passions and interests with a STEM career. This brought me back to Purdue, where I did my undergraduate degree, and also closer to family for both me and my husband. I held two positions at Purdue: first as the Graduate Programs Coordinator for the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering (BME) and then as the Associate Director for the Women in Engineering Program (WIEP).

How did you choose your line of work while at Purdue?  What attracted you to these positions?   

JG: During graduate school, I grappled with confidence issues. I also unknowingly succumbed to the unconscious bias that builds up over the years for underrepresented groups (e.g., while many biology-related departments at the time would have 50% female graduate students, there might only be 1-2 female professors as role models). As a result, I think I steered away from the non-academic career path for Ph.Ds. Also, I was motivated to help students come to realizations about their future career paths in a more straightforward way than I had. Thus, it made sense to look for positions in higher education.

I did some informational interviewing to identify possible positions and hoped to get my "foot in the door" somewhere in this career pathway. In BME, I worked with faculty and graduate students. However, in the WIEP position, I had a larger impact and interacted with many people such as, pre-college students, influential adults (parents, after school providers, etc.), undergraduate students, and Purdue engineering alumni.  

During this time, I wore many hats: mentor, advisor, supervisor, instructor, grant writer, and researcher. The research was in social science, specifically focusing on the impact of coaching on the retention of female engineering students. While working for WIEP, I attended a preconference workshop on coaching, and as a result, brought coaching into nearly every facet of my work. I also obtained a coaching certification and started the Purdue Coaching Community for faculty, staff, and students.

Then you left academia! What made you decide to do that, and why did you pick your current position?

JG: Yes! I guess it goes back to my ongoing desires to "make a difference" combined with seeking the "path less traveled." In October 2016, I left Purdue to join a unique opportunity at Caterpillar, where I could put into practice the theories I learned about recruitment and retention of underrepresented groups in STEM-related fields in academia. Also by joining a global company, I had endless opportunities to hold various positions both in the US and abroad. Some positions that I could eventually move into from my current role were a division-level TDC role or corporate-level roles related to succession planning, diversity & inclusion initiatives, and organizational development consulting (change agent/advocate).

How did your microbiology/academic background help prepare you for your current position?

JG: What a great question! It has been a very challenging change and it relates back to pursuing my Ph.D.  The grit and resilience necessary to "stick it out" during the tough days of graduate school applies to this type of transition. Just like in graduate school and my subsequent career transitions, I remember it taking at least a year to feel like I belong and having an impact.  My colleagues who have also changed jobs, affirm this happens to them as well.  Currently, I'm in that delicate first year but about halfway through!

Just as during my graduate work, sometimes it is tough and I don't feel like I'm able to apply my strengths and pursue all my interests at once. During these times, I remind myself that I am collecting experiences and everything that happens, each and every day at work, is an experience from which I can learn and grow. That certainly sounds like my approach when conducting experiments back in graduate school! The other benefit I have seen from my academic background is my power of observation coupled with a drive to make things better. I take copious notes on all that is new to me and integrate this "data" in ways that might present a unique or more efficient solution or approach. Sounds like science to me!

What types of criteria (location, looking for new challenges, etc.) did you use when choosing your current position?  

JG: In general, I rarely ever know exactly where I want to go as I pursue a path of fulfillment. Consistently though, I want to "make a difference" and take the "road less traveled". I am always looking for new things to learn about myself, a culture, a system, the people involved, and so forth.

In having made several position changes, I now see the common denominators are: 1) I start to sense that a plateau is approaching, in terms of what new things there are to learn in my current position and 2) it just so happens that a door is opening somewhere else through networks I have cultivated along my journey.

Finally, although my latest career change didn't involve relocating, my husband and I are open to moving in the future, especially to Caterpillar locations in the UK, Germany, or Switzerland. A part of my decision to move to a global company like Caterpillar was to move to other countries in the future.

What advice would you have for somebody currently getting a graduate degree in Microbiology, who may not know exactly what they want to do when it's time to get a "real" job?  

JG: I think two key components are to know yourself as best you can and to let others know of your interests. In the former, know your preferred work styles, strengths, and how you like to be shown appreciation/recognition. Some great inventories for these are self-assessments such as a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, StrengthsFinder, and Love Language. Myers-Briggs is about how you perceive the world around you and make decisions. StrengthsFinder assesses your talent themes that drive your behavior and impact performance. Your Love Language is how you like to be shown appreciation and how you show appreciation for others. In addition, ask people who are close to you for feedback on these same topics. They might share wonderful things about you that you didn't realize!  And for introverts like me, one of the best books I found to help me embrace my authentic self was "The Introvert Advantage" by Marti Olsen Laney.

Above, you mentioned the importance of your professional network, and this is something that we hear about over and over. As somebody who has successfully made a major career shift, what advice do you have for graduate students, regarding building their professional network?  

JG: Always let others know of your interests. This allows you to both make real connections with people (which makes us happy!) and also to expand your network. You never know who knows someone, who knows someone else, doing the kind of work you seek. Follow up with an informational interview to learn more about that work and discover if it fits your future vision of self or not.   

Everyone knows it's important to balance your work and personal life. What helps you do this?  What do you like to do when you are away from work?

JG: Being in the same job for an extended period of time helps. I achieved the best work-life balance when I worked for WIEP for 7 years. I became very comfortable with who I was and the work I was doing and the stability lent itself well for work-life integration. In the transition to my new position, I lost some of that balance/integration as I still settle into my new role.

One particular challenge that I now see is that, like most scientists, I'm an introvert. However, I'm now in a pretty extroverted field (Human Resources), so I'm trying to find ways to recharge daily in this new setting.  I anticipate that this is going to be different than how I recharged myself in academia. I know I'll figure it out — it may take patience, self-forgiveness, mental fortitude, and flexibility - all factors that are needed for graduate school!

Outside of work, I like to do year-round outdoor activities like hiking, camping, and skiing with my husband and German shepherd. Our favorite get-away is the 52 acres land we own in Southern Indiana, which has forested hills, streams, and limestone outcroppings. There I play out my childhood dreams of being a wildlife biologist by identifying flora and fauna to my heart's content and even working with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to improve the habitat for wildlife (biodiversity!).

Author: Eleanor Jennings

Eleanor Jennings
Dr. Eleanor Jennings is a Principal Microbiologist at Parsons Corporation.