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Pin Drop: Alumni Employer Proactive Worldwide Visits Campus

Posted by on Tuesday, July 13, 2021 in Announcements .

This article was originally published in the 2018-2019 Annual Report. 

By Justine Sinnaeve, Graduate Student

In March, Vanderbilt alumni Travis Smith, PhD; Aaron Derdowski, PhD; and Erik Prentice, PhD, visited campus as guest speakers of the Management and Business Principles module retreat as well as to give an employer info session for current trainees.

Proactive Worldwide wants to know how job candidates have been fire-tested and how they have learned from those experiences. The good news is that the management consulting firm is all too familiar with the challenges that Vanderbilt Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows have faced and how those challenges prepare Vanderbilt University alumni for a career at Proactive Worldwide.

Vanderbilt welcomed back three alumni for an employer information session on Proactive Worldwide in March. Drs. Erik Prentice (Chief Operating Officer), Aaron Derdowski (Associate Vice President, Health Care & Life Sciences), and Travis Smith, (Associate Vice President, Health Care & Life Sciences) spoke about their current positions at Proactive Worldwide, a management consulting firm that recognizes the benefit of Ph.D. training, especially from Vanderbilt. Drs. Prentice, Derdowski, and Smith all started their careers outside of consulting but found their way to Proactive Worldwide and to a miniature Vanderbilt reunion.

Proactive Worldwide is a market and competitive intelligence consulting firm founded in 1995 on evidence-based intelligence, using primary and secondary research sources to obtain hard-to-get information to improve the position of their clients and their products in the marketplace. Over the past two decades, Proactive Worldwide has continued to excel in this arena, while adding valuable consultative interpretations on top of their hardcore research. Proactive Worldwide’s ability to interpret the research and give recommendations has expanded greatly, especially as they hire Ph.Ds. Clients, too, appreciate the expertise and careful problem solving that Proactive Worldwide employees bring to the table. Although Proactive Worldwide has primarily been hiring Ph.D. trainees into their health care and life sciences division, all three Vanderbilt alumni predict that Ph.Ds will be hired across the board as they continue to prove their versatility and added value.

Unlike other consulting firms that travel to client sites, the majority of work done at Proactive Worldwide is done virtually and remotely. This presents the largest transition obstacle for graduate students who are used to giving oral presentations in front of their slides, often with the use of a laser pointer. At Proactive Worldwide, slides have to be able to stand on their own as analysts may not be in the room with their presentations. Creating slides that can convey the information in this way, as well as voice-over audio when necessary, presents a learning curve for new hires. However, new analysts are closely mentored by more senior employees and are gradually given more and more responsibility, along with creative license. As analysts work their way up in the company, they increasingly have client-facing roles and become engagement managers.

Why, then, have Ph.D. students, and Vanderbilt students in particular, thrived at Proactive Worldwide? All three executives agree that it comes down to the training. Ph.D. students quickly learn how to tell a compelling story, how to confidently deliver information to various audiences, and how to respond to feedback and questions in a variety of settings. Because they have each experienced the rigor of Ph.D. training at Vanderbilt, they are confident in hiring additional Vanderbilt graduates as team members, knowing they will be ready to handle the demands of a job at Proactive Worldwide.

Working with Vanderbilt alumni also makes the job more fun as they are able to commiserate about graduate school and reminisce about favorite Nashville haunts and old jokes. These shared experiences give the team a level of trust and open communication that might otherwise require more intentional work. So, what does one do to join in on this fun? Dr. Derdowski says, “Step outside of your comfort zone, yesterday,” even if that means taking on a new role or responsibility in lab, trying a new sport, or speaking in front of a new crowd. Constantly pushing yourself to be in new situations that require new skills will make you ready for anything a client can throw your way. Dr. Prentice urges practicing presenting, and not necessarily just on your project! Journal clubs, lab meetings, seminars, and conferences are great opportunities, but any public speaking on any topic can similarly prepare you for a position as an analyst. Quickly reading the audience and getting comfortable not knowing all the answers, but being able to thoughtfully offer information is key to success in this role.

Over the years, Proactive Worldwide has built a strong relationship with the BRET Office of Career Development. Dr. Prentice has filmed a Beyond the Lab video and participated in the Annual Career Symposium. The relationship has been mutually beneficial as Vanderbilt Ph.D. students continue to be competitive candidates for their growing business.