Where will you go after your PhD/postdoc?

At all stages of our careers we should ask ourselves:  Am I where I want to be?  Where do I see myself in the short term and in the long term?  What do I need to do to accomplish these goals?  Am I on the right path?  Am I setting realistic goals based on my current situation?

Self-evaluation is the most important tool you have to find your path. Many students enter graduate school with the desire to become a tenure-track independent investigator at a research-intensive university. This was my case as well, and during my graduate and postgraduate training I worked toward that goal. I had a pretty good publication record from graduate school, and from my postdoctorate I have a couple of publications and I am working on finishing a few more. While my record is good, in this environment it is not sufficient to apply for a competitive position at a research-intensive institution. In addition I am restricted geographically, which makes finding faculty jobs even harder. But even if all conditions were perfect I am not sure I would want to follow that path: the funding environment is worrisome and I want to have a more direct and immediate impact on human health… but how?

While researching to identify what my options are, I learned that nowadays only a minority of PhD graduates (<10%) can expect to find positions as tenure-track faculty in research-intensive universities, and that at least 84% of current PhD graduates need to find alternative careers, which include staff research scientist positions in both academia and industry (1-4) and see Figs. 1-2 in  (5). Starting here I will use the preferred term: “non-academic careers.”

There is a stigma in academia about non-academic career paths. Although they represent a significant fraction of employment options they are looked down upon by postdocs themselves and senior academics, mostly due to a lack of career awareness. Mentors and departments still “strongly encourage academic research careers while being less encouraging of other career paths” (6). While this attitude is not as bad as it was a few decades ago, this must change!

It is understandably in the best interest of mentors, faculty and universities to show they have trained students and postdocs who become university professors and, more importantly, highly distinguished faculty (e.g., obtaining membership to the National Academy of Sciences, or winning prizes such as the Lasker and Nobel). However, departments and mentors should appreciate the challenging employment environment and strive to be unbiased regarding non-academic career paths. “Such strong encouragement of academic careers may be dysfunctional if it exacerbates labor market imbalances or creates stress for students who feel that their career aspirations do not live up to the expectations of their advisors“(6). Thankfully, many PhD programs and Universities are now exposing graduate students and postdocs to non-academic career paths.

Importantly, shifting careers does not mean failure or defeat. I like Daniel Lametti’s argument on the subject published in his article Is a science PhD a waste of time? (7): “You might argue that if I leave academia to, say, teach high school or become a journalist, I’ve wasted my laboratory training. This argument is ridiculous. Since the PhD’s inception in 18th century Germany, the product of a doctoral education has been a dissertation – a body of research that, in a small way, moves a field forward. There’s nothing wrong with contributing to science and then moving on. The work won’t disappear. Dissertations are published, and doctorates last a lifetime.”  I would also add that the skills you gain in your PhD are valuable and go with you wherever you go.

I have divided this blog post in five sections. The first section explores the evolution of the biomedical science job market with an emphasis on the “faculty vs. other” dichotomy. The purpose of this section is to open eyes to what the vast majority of PhD scientists are facing, and to reemphasize the need to self-evaluate, set goals, and adjust plans to fit the personal/family needs: what I call the evolving dream. In the next three sections I describe how to identify your transferable skills and market yourself, the resources I have found useful to find new career opportunities, and the huge importance of networking to craft your job-hunting team. I then finish with a few concluding remarks.

A 40 year view of the employment outlook for biomedical scientists

For the Science and Engineering PhD population, during the past three decades (1980-2011) the number of full-time tenured, tenure-track and non-tenure faculty positions has shrunk, the number of part time faculty positions has plateaued, and in recent years the number of available positions in pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries has also decreased; yet the number of awarded PhDs during this period rose exponentially; see Fig 1 in (3), United States figure in (8), andFig 3-4 in (9). Paula Stephan, professor Georgia State University and member of The National Bureau of Economic Research, analyzed NSF data on an overlapping 30 year period (1973-2006) on the job outcomes of PhDs five or six years after obtaining their doctorate degree; see Fig 7 in (10) and slide 17 in (11).

For biomedical sciences, in the period between 1993 and 2010, “the number of U.S.-educated doctorate holders in the biomedical sciences” significantly increased ~1.7 fold “to nearly 180,000. Over this same time, the proportion employed in academia declined (58% to 51%) as did the proportion employed in tenure or tenure-track positions (35% to 26%) despite the fact that both increased in absolute number. The proportion of U.S.-educated doctorates who reported research (basic or applied) as their primary or secondary work activity also declined in the education sector (from 75% to 70%). In contrast, the proportion of biomedical sciences doctorates employed in the business sector rose (from 31% to 39%). The majority of the increase in the business sector was driven by those whose jobs did not involve research as their primary or secondary work activity. The proportion of biomedical sciences doctorates reporting that they are employed in jobs closely related to their doctoral degree has declined over this same time (from 68% to 60%), whereas the proportion employed in jobs “somewhat” related to their doctorate has increased (from 24% to 32%)” (12). Importantly, the fraction of PhDs unemployed, working part-time or as a stay-at-home parents has increased by about 2 fold; see Fig 7 in (10) and slide 17 in (11).

Fig 1. Comparative analysis of the population in 2013 vs. 2003. Above solid line. The PhD population increased by ~26% = 35,541 PhDs. Below solid line. Percentage of the new population dedicated to the indicated categories. Data obtained from the NSF Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System (13). The percent for each category out of the total PhD population in 2013 is indicated on the right. See text for 2013 PhD population numbers for each category.

Fig 1. Comparative analysis of the population in 2013 vs. 2003. Above solid line. The PhD population increased by ~26% = 35,541 PhDs. Below solid line. Percentage of the new population dedicated to the indicated categories. Data obtained from the NSF Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System (13). The percent for each category out of the total PhD population in 2013 is indicated on the right. See text for 2013 PhD population numbers for each category.

To further extend these reports, I compared census data on graduate and postgraduate employment between the years 2003 and 2013 (Fig 1).

In the last decade, total number of PhDs increased by ~26% (35,541 PhDs) to a total of 172,139 PhDs (13). If employment increases were to follow the rate of population growth, then all employment sectors should see a ~26% increase. Indeed this was the case for two categories: out of the workforce PhDs (stay at home parents and part time employees) with a ~24% increase to a total of ~19,500 PhDs; and management and administration with a ~27% increase to a total of ~27,000 PhDs. The only positive change in PhD employment was a ~30% increase in teaching to a total of ~25,000 PhDs (including K-12 on up, but excluding research-intensive universities). Troubling changes in PhD employment include a ~50% increase in non-science related occupations (e.g., transportation, culinary field, or construction) to a total of ~22,000 PhDs; and a significant ~1.6 fold increase in unemployment to a total of ~4,000 PhDs  (Fig 1) .

Importantly, the total number of PhDs engaged in research and development (R&D; all positions in both industry and academia) increased only by ~19% to a total of 72,409 PhDs; which reflects a continued trend in decline (see paragraph preceding Fig 1). Moreover, when looking more in depth at the 2010-2013 transition ) (13)I observed that the number of biological and medical PhDs in science careers decreased by ~4%. These positions include jobs in academia (both faculty and staff scientist) and industry; and the categories include medical scientists, biochemists, biophysicists and biological scientists (e.g., botanists, ecologists, zoologists). This indicates that in recent years PhDs are moving away from research and development positions (Fig 1) .

Indeed, this has been also shown in a couple of recent survey-driven studies examining the career preferences of junior biomedical scientists in more detail. One study followed students during training  in the 2007-2012 period (2), and the other study collected all data in 2009 (6). In both studies, the authors found that the career pathway interests of graduate students changed significantly between starting and finishing their degree. Important changes were observed for a decrease of interest in both teaching-intensive faculty positions (small change), and research-intensive faculty positions (large change). The opposite was found for interest in non-academic research positions (including industry, pharma, biotech, government or startup), and non-research careers (including consulting, policy, scientific writing, technology transfer or business (2,6).

Current estimates indicate that there is approximately only one tenure-track position in the US for every 6.3 PhD graduates (1). This means that 84% of today’s PhD graduates need to pursue careers other than tenure-track faculty positions at research-intensive institutions. Having said that, the employment perspective does not appear to be so gloomy:

A recent study reports a decrease in the biomedical postdoctoral population of ~5% between 2010 and 2013, indicating that PhDs are exploring positions outside of academia, and suggesting we may be reaching the end of the exponential period of biomedical PhD/postdoctoral population expansion (14). However, this could also reflect a decrease in availability of postdoctoral positions due to reduced NIH funding across the board.

And the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects a ~20% increase in total employment in the biomedical sciences for the 2010-2020 decade (15). If the current trends in PhD employment continue, this suggests that by the end of the decade the vast majority of the PhD population would be employed outside of academic/industry research institutions (it was ~40% on 2013).

Clearly the real “alternative career” is pursuing tenure-track faculty positions at research-intensive institutions.

All in all, these statistics are enlightening about the reality PhDs are encountering when trying to find their next position. The challenge we face is to prevent an increase in the unemployment rate and to reduce the shift to non-science related careers paths (e.g., construction, …). Both goals should be attainable in the near future: we should dedicate resources to advertise the reality of employment and remuneration for PhDs in biomedical sciences, we should expose graduate students and postdocs to all employment opportunities beyond academia, and encourage them to engage in internships and make timely and informed employment decisions. Also discussed in (16) and (17).

As graduate students and postdocs, we should periodically pry ourselves away from the bench, papers and presentations to also attend career development seminars to learn which are other available career paths, and then incorporate this knowledge with our own progress, goals, skills, interests and values when deciding on our next career step (see Skill Inventory Matrix and My IDP in following two sections). Engaging in these activities should also benefit those wishing to remain in science. For example, preparing for a career in consulting will give students/postdocs new tools to tackle scientific problems and write better grants (anecdotal).

On transferable skills and self-marketing

Whether you are staying in academia or not, it is very useful to determine what your skill set is. This can also help you identify skills you should improve on or acquire, e.g., management skills to effectively run a laboratory (including conflict resolution and budget managing among many).

Because we are immersed in our research, we often do not realize the valuable skills we have developed. In the book Networking for Nerds (18), Alaina Levine describes the use of the Skill Inventory Matrix to identify strengths and weaknesses, as well as its use to help define which career path to pursue. To help identify what these seemly intangible transferable skills are, below I assembled a list to help guide you to identify your own set. The credit goes to the sources I used (18-22).

  1.    experience:
  • jobs, research/teaching assistantships, committee assignments,
  • College and University academic societies, competitions,
  • extracurricular activities: fund raising/management, newspapers, policy, family commitments
  • computer literacy: office packages, presentation software, programming skills (e.g., C++, java, perl, mySQL)
  1.    personal characteristics that define how you operate:
  • your values
  • detail-oriented vs. results-driven
  • disciplined and self-reliant
  • risk taker
  • ability to work effectively under pressure to meet deadlines
  • ability to quickly learn/acquire new skills (quick study)
  • ability to work with limited supervision (independence)
  1.    technical skills:
  • scientific:  research methodologies; experimental design; data collection, management and analysis; …
  • use of laboratory equipment: confocal microscopy, analytical centrifugation, …
  • knowledge of statistics
  • specialized packages for data management: SPSS, Ingenuity Pathway Analysis, FiJi, Imaris, …
  1.    analysis and problem solving skills:
  • critical appraisal of literature, critical thinker
  • problem solver:   define a problem, postulate and test hypotheses, and summarize conclusions
  • identify sources of information/experiments to address problems
  • design, apply and analyze surveys
  • ability to manage large datasets, including sorting and evaluating data
  • ability to defend independent conclusions
  • application of basic principles in a wider context
  1.    business skills:
  • project management:  manage (a) project(s) from beginning to end, ability to maintain flexibility
  • identify and prioritize tasks, determine realistic timeline for completion of tasks
  • teamwork, ability to delegate, negotiation skills, and diplomacy
  • inventory control, risk management and safety assessment
  • effective grant writing
  • event planning and management (e.g., Gordon Research Conference/Seminar, local scientific meeting)
  1.    leadership:
  • conduct meetings or facilitate group discussions, motivate others to complete projects
  • collaborate on projects, mentor and train lab-mates, respond well to feedback
  • conflict resolution, creative problem solving, team building, strategic thinking
  1.    soft skills:
  • organize and orally communicate ideas clearly and to peers and lay people
  • ability to prepare concise and logically-written materials: specify the length (abstract, book,…)
  • ability to debate issues in a collegiate manner with peers and supervisors
  • ability to use logical argument to persuade others
  • ability to speak/translate other languages (e.g., careers in law, education, or mass communication)

The next thing to do is to assign love/hate qualifiers to each one (18-22). This is crucial when tailoring your resume and cover letter, and when preparing for job interviews. These tools will help effectively market yourself as the best possible job candidate, as well as help categorize (from best to worst match) all potential job opportunities. Once you have defined the position(s) you are interested in you have to market and sell yourself. For most of us PhDs, self-marketing is distressing; yet, you should become comfortable talking about yourself and asking/accepting networking favors that may push your applications to the top of the pile.

When applying, it is important to research the position(s) you are interested in, not just reading the original posting(s). This also applies to when you are planning to create your own job. You have to read about the company, its financial data (especially when going into finance or consulting), its history (if relevant), its values, the people in the work group you might join, any videos published on YouTube or elsewhere (e.g., interviews with CEOs, TED talks), and any publication coming out from the group and company. Also, rely on your network, LinkedIn, Facebook and Google.

In addition, you have to research the market and identify the competition. This is easier when applied to a product, but a bit harder when applied to your vision. For example, I am interested in commercialization of science. Briefly my options are: 1) offices of technology development; 2) family office, angel network, or venture capital firm needing expertise in biomedical field to make informed decisions; 3) officer at a US Patent and Trademark Office; 4) law firm working on patenting and intellectual property; or 5) create my own job. I lean toward options 1, 2 and 5. Not many options are open in family offices, angel network/venture capital firms and the competition is fierce. There are 5 offices of technology development in the area and I need an internship to support my application (working on it) and there are few openings.

I decided that creating a consulting service to aid university technology transfer offices, private investment offices and startups would be the way to go. This idea is not novel(3), but has not been put into effect in the area, there is a clear demand (determined during many networking interactions), and we have a trained/in-training group that should deliver. Also, this idea is very appealing to me for many reasons: it includes what I want to do, it allows me to be involved in student and postdoc training, and gives me experience in creating and leading a new organization. Still, I keep looking and categorizing options using my Skill Inventory Matrix (18).

And finally, when applying make sure to include keywords related to the posting, look at your Skill Inventory Matrix and pull the relevant information out. And in your cover letter be sure to briefly describe examples. This is best done by intentionally leaving questions for the interviewer to ask you. In short, sell your best qualities and experiences fitting the job.

Learning about other career paths

I think this could be divided in three subsections: know yourself, do your research, and plan your path.

To get to know yourself I have three suggestions. The first one I read on LinkedIn and lost the reference (sorry); the author suggested asking different people to describe you in 20 words. The second one is to take the Gallup Strengths andMyers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) assessments. And the last one is to use the My IDP website (see below). Together these tools should help identify abilities, qualities, strengths and weaknesses to populate the Skill Inventory Matrix (18). There is plenty of information on both tests online so I will not further describe them or their outputs. The 20 questions approach is self explanatory and both insightful and humbling.

Next, the research. This part should come easy to us PhDs, it involves reading A LOT about different career paths. There are plenty of websites and books published on the subject. I enjoyed the book Career Options for Biomedical Scientists (23), and I have also extensively used LinkedIn’s PhD Careers Outside of Academia, The Versatile PhDInside Higher EdBioCareers blogMy IDP website (see below), and –of course– Google. What matters is to compare the employment paths you think you may like with your values, the lifestyle you expect to lead, and with your Skill Inventory Matrix.

The last part in this section is planning your trajectory. Here, the best advice I have is to follow an IDP,  Individual Development Plan (24), and I suggest using the Science Careers My IDP website. This great resource takes into consideration your skills, your interests, your values, and your expected-lifestyle to suggest a list of options categorized by probability match, along with several links to informational resources. In addition, the website helps you set goals, implement your plan, and encourages you to go out and gain first hand experience at suggested jobs to sort them into “good idea” or “bad idea.”  The problem is, however, that the website does not help find where and how to gain such experience. This is why mentors and networking are so important.

Network, network and network to find new opportunities and mentors

We do not accomplish anything in a void. We need to assemble our job-search team. Mine is composed of:

  • my wife and family, who provide support, guidance and encouragement;
  • my postdoctoral mentor, who has been supportive and helpful both at the bench and away from it;
  • my contact at the Graduate Career Development office who helped me focus on my goals and interests, inspired me to network to find/create my dream position, and pointed out new opportunities;
  • and my business mentor whom I met through networking and has been helping me by pointing out opportunities, introducing me to new contacts and being a sounding board for ideas.

Why is networking important?  It can open the door to unknown opportunities both in making new contacts and finding positions. Alaina Levine, author of Networking for Nerds (a suggested read), estimates that about 90% of the “job market is clandestine,” meaning that “it is accessed only through networking and reputation management activities” (18).

So, what is networking?  In Levine’s words: “Networking entails providing authentic and genuine information for and between both parties so that you both can contribute value to each other’s projects and interests […] you have to tell people about what you do and the value you can provide them so they understand how an alliance could be mutually beneficial […]  Remember, everyone has problems that need solutions.“  You should “offer to be of assistance even if you don’t immediately see a potential return on investment” (18). Such assistance could be a collaboration, direct contribution, suggest a contact they do not know or have not thought of, introducing people, other… This strategy should also be useful when you are applying/interviewing for a position: ask yourself “what can I bring to the company” and emphasize it. In other words, demonstrate value and knowledge about the company while marketing your relevant qualities.

The initial mistake most people make (I made) is to approach people in a one-sided manner. The communication cannot be only about your interests. “If you approach networking expecting your contact to offer you a job, you will likely be disappointed—most contacts will not know of current or planned openings“ (25). In addition, this may cause potential contacts to shy away from interacting with you again because you are only interested in yourself. “Instead, try to meet people who can offer advice for your search, answer questions about career choices and provide you with the names of more contacts who may be able to help you get further along in the process of finding a job. They can give you a closer look at the practical aspects of their own jobs and provide details that you may find critical when deciding where to apply“ (25). Once you make a close contact, you may ask for suggestions on how to improve your resume, how to fill any voids your application, and who else to contact to further pursue your interests. Among these close contacts you may find new mentors.

How to network?  This is the topic covered by whole books (18), and several online blog posts and articles. I will summarize what I understand to be most important, but caution the reader that I am by no means an expert.

Craft brief and powerful introductions

The elevator pitch is used to effectively and concisely introduce yourself (26-28). Crafting one requires self-evaluation and concisely writing and practicing (over and over) how to deliver this speech in a short period of time (typically 30 seconds), and to do it in a way that interests people and avoids jargon. This pitch should stick to the big picture and hopefully contain a memorable story.

Most times, however, pitches are not appropriate. Therefore, it is important to craft different versions of your introductions to match different audiences , CEO vs. CFO vs. Nobel Laureate), different situations (e.g., elevator, airplane, dinning table, church, playground), different individuals (depending background and common interests), or to fit available time (elevator vs. networking event vs. airplane).

I do not have an elevator pitch; I am wordy (have you noticed?). I wrote the following examples on the fly based on past networking experiences. They need perfecting; yet, I hope they provide an idea of how to tailor introductions depending on your target audience.

When introducing myself to scientists at Conferences I would say: “Hi, my name is Andrés Lorente, and I am a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Melanie Cobb, where we study protein signaling networks. I work on elucidating the crosstalk between calcium and with no lysine [K] WNK signaling pathways, and the role of the WNK pathway in non-canonical pathways, namely cancer. To this end, I am also characterizing novel WNK kinase inhibitors for use in the clinic. What you mentioned in your talk about [add here] interests me because [add here]“… and then go from there. This introduction did not explain my findings, leading to an easy question. This can be shortened to fit context, time, common research goals, …

When addressing middle-school students at an outreach event, I would say: “Hi, my name is Andrés Lorente, and I am a scientist at UT Southwestern Medical Center. My goal here today is to show you how important lipids are for life. Lipids are fatty molecules that cells use to define themselves: what is in and what is out, it is like your skin. But lipids do much more than that, and understanding [briefly go into disease, lab findings and drug discovery].”  Here, my goal is to go to task, not spend much time on myself.

When addressing adults at family events or at the playground, I would say: [begin here chatting about the kids, easy in, then] “Hi, my name is Andrés Lorente, and I am a cell biologist. My research goal is to gain a better understanding of how cells operate in health and disease. Currently, I am working on identifying the role of a molecular switch, called kinases, in progression of different cancer phenotypes. At present, I am also characterizing kinase inhibitors, one of which shows promise for potential use in the clinic.”  Again, I tailor to fit my audience.

And lastly, when addressing a CEO at a networking event I would say: “Hi, my name is Andrés Lorente, and I am a cancer biologist at UT Southwestern Medical Center. I am currently involved in the characterization of novel kinase inhibitors, some of which have shown promise for potential use in the clinic. Toward the future, however, I am looking to transition to the business of science because I want to have a more direct/immediate impact on human health. To this effect I am currently leading the foundation of a new graduate student and postdoc driven consulting group to provide low cost consulting services to universities and the startup community in the Dallas / Fort Worth area. I approached you because [option 1: I am interested in learning how you got to be where you are; option 2: I believe our consulting group could bring value to your company], [and then add more here].“  Here I have two hooks: what I am doing in research and my involvement with this new consulting group. Again, there are variations that depend on whether the CEO has scientific background, whether the company is working on cancer drug development, or whether instead of a CEO I am approaching an Angel Investor. Tailoring is always necessary.

    1. Identify people you are interested in meeting and who may either provide relevant information on your job search or refer you to others who can. Look at your inner circle first: family, outside friends, church and career development offices; and use LinkedIn to identify people in universities and societies you belong to.
    2. Ask your network for help reaching out to people: introductions work better than sending cold emails.
    3. Research the background of the people you are interested in meeting. This helps in many ways: it provides an easier way to establish initial contact and shows both knowledge of their environment and sincere interest in who they are and what they do. Not surprisingly, people respond really well to this approach.
    4. Be honest about who you are and what your value is: “Your productivity in your field and profession must be sustained at high levels in order to“ (18) be valuable to your contacts.
    5. When making connections be sure to show “sincere interest in his or her work and advice” (24). Here a listener may do better than a talker, but participating in monologues does not lead to establishment of connections.
    6. Questions to ask. Again, the credit goes to the sources I used (18, 29-30).
      • What do you like/dislike most about your work?
      • What are your primary job responsibilities?
      • What are the toughest problems and decisions you handle?
      • Can you tell me about your career path and how it led you where you are?
      • What experience did you have to gain in order to get your job?
      • What do you wish you had known about your position/field before you started?
      • What type of professional and personal skills does it take to succeed at this type of work?

Just as importantly as making new contacts, you should nurture your network by sending thank you notes (better if handwritten), following up with your contacts to update them on your progress, and continually showing sincere interest in their work and advice.

In conclusion

Get to know yourself through 20 questions and/or Gallup Strengths and/or MBTI® assessments; identify your transferable skills using a Skill Inventory Matrix (18) or similar tool; self-evaluate using tools like the Science Careers My IDP website; and keep learning about different career paths by reading books/online resources and attending career development seminars.

Whether your goal is to stay in academia to pursue a tenure track position, become a (staff) research scientist in academia or industry, or branch out into a non-academic career, these tools should help identify where you are and what you need to learn or improve, trace a path to follow, and help market yourself effectively to a prospective employer. Also irrespective of the path you want to follow, network, network, and network. The more you network, the better off you will be in terms of available options and mentoring relationships.

And most importantly, persevere, keep plugging away, do not give up, and always, like at the bench, have a backup plan in place.


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About the Author:

Andrés is interested in contributing to our understanding and treatment of human disease. Andrés has worked at the bench for 16+ years (3 in industry), and is now interested in transitioning to a technology transfer, research management or science communication position. Andrés obtained his B.S. in Microbiology from the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia, and then joined CorpoGen, one of the leading non-profit biotechnology centers for scientific research and development in Colombia. Andrés did his graduate studies in the laboratory of Charles Barlowe at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, studying the role of lipids and proteins in vesicular membrane transport. He then moved to UT Southwestern Medical Center to do postdoctoral research in the laboratory of Helen Yin. Currently Andrés is in the laboratory of Melanie Cobb studying the crosstalk between calcium and the osmotic-stress With no lysine[K] (WNK) kinase pathways, as well as characterizing novel WNK pathway inhibitors with potential use in cancer treatment.