This past Monday, April 29th, students and post-docs, eager to learn more about careers outside of academia, had the opportunity to hear from, and question, panelist who have successfully harnessed their PhD experience to excel in non-academic careers. The event, hosted by the Genetics Training Grant, brought together panelists from several different fields, including scientific publishing, pharmaceutical research, consulting, and intellectual property law. The panelists were Priya Budde, Reviews Editor, The Journal of Cell Biology; Sadanand Vodala, Research Scientist, ARIAD Pharmaceuticals; Derek Buhl, Principal Scientist, Pfizer Neuroscience; Peter Bak, Consultant, Back Bay Life Science Advisors; and John Garvey, Partner, K&L Gates LLP. Each panelist spoke about their background in academia, how they made the transition to their current position, and fielded numerous questions from the audience both during the panel and at the networking lunch that followed.
The panelists gave the audience a sense of what their specific careers entail, and how skills they had acquired during their PhDs were highly relevant to their current work. Some of the transferable skills mentioned included critical thinking and the ability to quickly synthesize information and distill what is most important and interesting about a given scientific finding. These skills enabled them to be highly effective in their jobs, whether efficiently evaluating scientific manuscripts as an editor, or determining the crux of a client’s research as a consultant or intellectual property lawyer.
Having completed their transition from academia to the business world, panelists were able to highlight some of key cultural and practical differences associated with working in a profit-driven industry. While Derek described his lab at Pfizer as largely mimicking an academic environment (minus the need to perpetually write grants), he and other panelists noted that, unlike academia, business evaluations are based almost exclusively on having achieved specific pre-determined goals. On the upside, for those who exceed expectations in business, there are lots of opportunities to move up the ladder. Other differences that panelists encountered in their non-academic professions included firmer deadlines, higher dressing standards, and less flexible hours.
While the majority of the discussion was specific to the panelists’ career paths, much of the advice applied to career searches in general. The importance of good networking was emphasized. Job seekers were encouraged to make the most of their networks – and their network’s network as well. Each panelist explained how he or she had acquired their job through a combination of effective networking, being proactive, and in some cases, luck. Panelists were quick to point out, though, that time and effort invested were positively correlated with “luck.”
Panelists stressed that effective networking required quickly following through with contacts, and being prepared to impress key contacts with excellent questions that demonstrate your research on a given company. They encouraged the audience to be proactive, and if needed persistent, in reaching out to people whose work they find interesting. Several panelists also emphasized the benefits of acquiring job-related experience. They noted this was a good way to both boost your resume and get a better sense of whether a given profession is the right fit for you. For example, John Garvey recommended joining a consulting or biotech club, and/or taking a business class. Getting involved in job-related activities is also excellent ways to establish good contacts for networking.
Overall the panelist presented several attractive alternatives to a traditional academic career. By carefully analyzing his or her personality, strengths, and working style, each of them had found a rewarding career that effectively utilized their scientific background/training. Priya, the editor, described how she enjoyed being able to see where scientific fields are going and staying up to date with the latest scientific breakthroughs. Derek, the pharmaceutical researcher, explained how it was gratifying for him to be working directly to develop drugs that could benefit people. John, the lawyer, explained how his work solving business problems was important because it helped provide pharmaceutical companies with the financial resources to bring new life-saving drugs to market. The general take-home message from all of the panelists was that, using the right career strategies, one can effectively use one’s PhD as a launching point to successfully pursue many different avenues outside of academia. Those interested in getting a better sense of what career might be a good fit for them are encouraged to visit http://myidp.sciencecareers.org and fill out the survey.