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The Anti-Five-Year-Plan


Esther Cleary '15
Esther Cleary '15

I arrived at Hamilton with the intention of majoring in Hispanic studies and becoming an educator. By the time I graduated, I completed a major in chemistry and had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do professionally. Most of my classmates in the Chem Department were pursuing medical school or a Ph.D. in chemistry — two paths that did not particularly appeal to me. Other friends of mine seemed to have “five-year plans” laid out for them as well, whether that was moving on to a graduate program or a job in industry that felt completely out of reach for me. I was simultaneously overwhelmed by the vast realm of possibilities and terrified that I wasn’t qualified enough to pursue any of them. If you similarly feel alone in your uncertainty, I’m here to reassure you that Hamilton has set you up for success whether you follow the conventional or unconventional path. 

Following what was probably the path of least resistance at the time, after graduation I took a role at EMD Serono in the medicinal chemistry group. I had taken the course Organic Synthesis Toward the Improvement of Human Health with my mentor in the Chemistry Department, Max Majireck, which sparked my interest in using chemistry to actually treat diseases. I then completed my senior thesis project with him, where the molecules I synthesized were tested on Manduca worm hearts — my first foray into the medicinal chemistry world. In my role at EMD, I took these skills even further and generated molecules to be tested in mammals — and eventually saw a molecule my team had worked on make it into human clinical trials! 

Being a bench scientist in industry has a lot of great perks. First, you get to be a part of the incredible science that is rapidly bringing new medicines to patients who previously had limited options. Second, the culture at pharma companies typically allows for a lot of ownership of your work early on. Everyone is encouraged to bring new ideas to the table and present the work that is their own. And of course, having access to the resources industry has at their disposal is pretty great — the lab at EMD was filled with automated instruments that replaced a lot of the grunt work you have to do by hand in academia. 

Although I loved my team at EMD and greatly enjoyed being part of drug discovery research, I began to realize that certain elements I craved in a career were largely missing. Bench science is largely independent work, and I was looking to be in a more collaborative environment. Mostly on a whim, I applied for a role as a pharma R&D research analyst at McKinsey & Company and soon found myself in a completely different environment. Consulting is extremely fast-paced, highly collaborative, and never short on opportunities to learn something new. While my day-to-day work is filled with Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint slides and “team problem-solving sessions,” I’ve also had the chance to see first hand how leaders in the pharma industry are approaching strategic decisions when shaping their portfolio. Looking back to graduation, I don’t think I could have ever imagined the type of work I’ve done over the past few years and would be astonished by the amount of growth I’ve undergone.

Despite this experience, I still can’t say for sure what my career will look like in the next five to 10 years. Even now I am in the process of planning my next move — but I have been able to collect data on what I like and don’t like in a work environment. Whatever comes next, I know that I am armed with both the analytical thinking and communication skills I cultivated at Hamilton, and I am looking forward to the next adventure. 

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