By Nidhi Ruy
Graduate students and postdocs in biological and life sciences face a daunting career landscape. The path from earning a PhD to securing a career in science is far from straightforward. Currently, less than 15% of postdocs with PhDs in biological sciences find themselves in tenured faculty positions within 6 years of earning their degrees. So what are the remaining 85% of highly educated and highly capable scientists to do?
Many were able to find answers to some of their career concerns on Thursday, January 10, 2013 as Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, The Rockefeller University, and Weill Cornell Medical College jointly hosted a Tri-Institutional Career Symposium. The event took place at Memorial and focused on career options for science PhDs.
The day was organized into five broad areas of interest; each one included short talks by presenters and concluded with a panel discussion, through which audience members were able to voice their questions and concerns. The varying backgrounds of the panelists allowed for multiple perspectives in response to audience queries.
I found the general advice and encouragement from various presenters to be more useful than any field-specific advice, and have included summaries by topic following these six tips to provide a full sense of the breadth of career possibilities for PhD trained scientists.
1. NETWORK NETWORK NETWORK
While the sessions and talks were well run and well attended, it was the opportunity for casual interactions during the networking breaks that job seekers found most valuable. During these informal interactions is where you could learn what speakers really thought of their work, how hiring actually happens, and perhaps most crucially, if they are currently seeking new talent. As an added bonus, networking receptions provided an opportunity to exchange contact information with various professionals. By doing this, current and future job seekers could secure contacts that may provide valuable referrals and guide their resumes into the right hands should an opportunity present itself. This is NOT something that will happen if you quickly go around collecting as many business cards as possible to seemingly “expand” your network. It requires genuine interaction, the kind that will lead to someone remembering you down the line and maintaining a willingness to help you out in the future whether it is with career advice, a connection, or a job direct referral.
2. Develop Dual Use Skills
John Timmer of ARS Technica wisely suggested that graduate students should develop “dual use” skills while still in lab. These include writing and editing, computer programming, and web design, to name a few. He also suggested taking part in activities that will have a broader impact in the community. Taking part in educational outreach through tutoring, mentoring, or volunteering in afterschool programs is an excellent way to broaden your experience and hone your teaching skills at the same time.
3. Find Something You Enjoy
If you are making a transition out of academia, make sure when you leave the bench for something that you enjoy. Sean Rooney of Health Science Communications said once he left the bench he’s “Never looked back.” Many of the presenters conveyed the same sentiment for their respective professions. So make sure you are not just making a change, but that you are making the right change for you and your future. Leaving the bench does not necessarily mean less work, or less stress. In fact, presenters did not sugarcoat their new vocations. For many, the work hours were longer, deadlines are real, and there are multiple simultaneous projects to juggle. But, all found their current fields more personally satisfying.
4. Be a People Person
While conducting research in the lab, you may get away with working entirely independently and make brilliant discoveries without interacting with the world outside of your Petri dish. (I actually disagree that this is the case, but perhaps it’s possible). In any other field, however, whether it be consulting, journalism, or biotechnology research, chances are you will need to function as part of a team. And before you even have the opportunity to work as part of that team, you will have to win people over during an interview. You have to convince them to give you the opportunity in the first place. So make people feel comfortable. Listen when others are speaking. Ask questions to show that you are paying attention and interested. And when you do speak, make sure you add value to the conversation.
5. Trust People and Take Advice
During the panel discussion on Technology Commercialization, one audience member asked the panel what to do if you have a great idea and are worried that someone will steal it if you discuss it with them. Melinda Thomas, Entrepreneur in Residence at NYC Tech Connect, bluntly ensured him that “Nobody will steal your idea.” Perhaps the question was planted as Thomas had blogged about that very concern the previous day. She advised that it is much wiser to share your idea and get feedback than to keep it to yourself. Starting a company is hard (and expensive!). Making it successful is even harder. An idea is just a starting point, so don’t be so fearful that someone will develop a multi-million dollar company from your idea the second you open your mouth. That said, take advantage of your university’s tech transfer office to patent your intellectual property. Then discuss your thoughts with colleagues for feedback and venture capitalists for startup funds!
6. Career Stability is Different from Job Stability
Thomas also advised us, “Don’t look for job stability, look for career stability.” With changes in technology, advances in medicine, and political changes that will no doubt have a lasting impact on how healthcare is provided, employment opportunities will continue to be dynamic. Make sure that regardless of your current position, you continue to develop professionally and add new abilities to your skill set. Keep up with current trends or you will risk becoming obsolete in any field. Meera Mani of McKinsey&Company exclaimed that with broad scale reform eminent, now is a “very exciting time to be in healthcare.” But how can we keep up with all the changes, and what should we focus on? Mani speculated that Biosimilars and Biologics will be hot topics in regulatory affairs in the coming years. She advises scientists interested in consulting to read the Wall Street Journal and The Economist (both of which have technology sections), and to be resourceful and have conversations directly with the experts that surround you while you are still at universities.
Overall, I found the day to be informative and inspiring. There is no shortage of possibilities of what you can be with a PhD. It is up to you to evaluate your own skills and interests, explore the possibilities, and go out and make it happen!
Read on for specifics in each field…
The session included presentations from two assistant professors. The first speaker, Matt Evans, was from Mount Sinai, a primarily research focused medical institute. The second, Nathalia Holtzman, was from Queens College where undergraduate education is the main focus.
Christine Ponder, Associate Director of Postdoctoral Affairs at New York University then spoke of the Administrative side of research, and to round out the session, Kathryn Anderson, Chair of the Developmental Biology Program at the host institution, Sloan Kettering, spoke about the academic hiring process.
Non-profit and Science Communication
John Timmer, Chief Science Editor for ARS Technica, talked about pursuing a career in science journalism. At a time when newspaper sales are on the decline, he warned that the field may be stressful and unstable, may require working freelance, but with some luck (and more importantly love for what you do) you can make it, as he did.
Marie Bao, Editor at Developmental Cell, part of Cell Publishing, talked about life as a scientific journal editor. Marlowe Tessmer, Editor of the Journal of Experimental Medicine of the Rockefeller University Press, also shared her experience in the field.
Finally, Sean Rooney of Health Science Communications talked about the field of medical communications, distinguishing it from science journalism and advertising. He described that medical communications companies advise pharma companies on how to best educate and inform their customers about the benefits and risks of new therapies. Essentially, they derive economic data from scientific and clinical data and advice on how to best present it to various target audiences.
Industry – Pharma and Biotech Careers
Three scientists from various industry positions spoke of their moves from academic research to conducting research in industry settings and gave advice to help with the transition. We heard from Kurt Reynertson, a Senior Scientist at Johnson & Johnson, Pallavi Sachdev, a Senior Clinical Research Scientist at Eisai Pharma based in NJ, and Courtney Williams, a Scientist at Regeneron.
Also included in the panel was Anastacia Berzat, the Scientific Program Manager of training programs at Novartis, based in Cambridge, MA. She discussed opportunities for postdocs at Novartis and the various support services her office provides for their training.
Technology Commercialization Careers
Eric Vieira, Science Practice Leader for the Entrepreneurship Lab NYC, talked about new opportunities for those interested in starting biotech companies in NYC and the resources available for their support. Melinda Thomas, Entrepreneur in Residence at NYC Tech Connect, also offered advice for budding entrepreneurs. She suggested learning the vocabulary of business. To do this she advised against entering an MBA program, and suggested to instead take one course each in marketing, accounting, and finance, and team up with the right people.
John Murray, an associate Attorney at Tannenbaum Helpern LLP, talked about how having a PhD helped him get ahead as a patent attorney. The PhD distinguished him from other JDs. But he warned that law school is expensive, and the job market is tight, so go to a top law school and do well; don’t forget that your GPA will always matter!
To end the session, Stelios Papadopoulos told us about how his PhD landed him in a successful career on Wall Street. After realizing that being a wet lab scientist was not for him, Papadopoulous became obsessed with biotech and acquiring information about new technologies. Unlike other areas of business, investment banking does require an MBA, which he earned, and subsequently went on to found Exelixis, a biopharmaceutical company specializing in cancer therapeutics.
Consulting and Business Careers
Jason Park, of BCG and Meera Mani of McKinsey&Company detailed for us what working at two of the world’s largest consulting firms entails and what it takes to be successful in the application and interview process.
Jan-Philipp Kruse, a Manager at Catenion, a Berlin based management consulting firm specializing in the pharmaceutical and medical product industries, enjoys the analytical and intellectually challenging nature of his work. Kruse noted that Catenion is currently expanding its NYC office which is located in the Chrysler Building, so look out for new opportunities!
Finally, Caryn Trbovic, a Regulatory Associate at Target Health Inc., told us about regulatory affairs writing. Trbovic reinforced a theme of the day that writing is a highly valued skill, and urged the audience to develop a repertoire of writing samples. Working as a Regulatory Associate requires an advanced degree or a Regulatory Affairs Certificate. The certification is not necessary for PhDs, but joining a group such as the Regulatory Affairs Professional Society (RAPS) may help to increase your visibility in the field and put you in touch with potential employers.
These views are the work of individual authors, do not necessarily represent the views and opinions The Rockefeller University, and are not approved or endorsed by The Rockefeller University.
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