From lab to desk; academia to industry

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Donny Wong gained a Ph.D. in biological sciences in 2003. He is now senior director of metabolic disorders at Decision Resources. Below he shares his advice on how to navigate that move between a career in academia and a career in industry.lab1

“Toward the end of graduate school, I began looking for a job in management consulting, since that industry was actively recruiting Ph.D.’s and I knew very little else about other nonacademic career options. What I was really looking for was something on the interface of the scientific and commercial worlds that would tap into the analytical skills and scientific knowledge that I had gained during graduate school. I explored my options in management consulting, in boutique health-care consulting firms, and in the realm of licensing, intellectual property, and patent law.

Although I thought I knew a lot about the health-care industry before joining my company, I had never heard of this particular segment of the pharmaceutical industry before. To me, “market research” meant telephone polls during election cycles, or focus groups behind one-way mirrors where customers discuss why they like their favorite breakfast cereals.However, like any other business, the pharmaceutical industry needs to thoroughly understand who its customers are, how its products are used, how those products compare to the competition, and what new challenges the company might face. At cocktail parties, I jokingly tell people that my job is fortune telling—and that’s really not too far off from what I do on a day-to-day basis. I identify trends and create forecast models for new drugs based on the hidden meanings behind clinical-trial results.Despite the fact that my Ph.D. was somewhat oncology-related (I studied the enzymes involved in the repair of damaged DNA), I had to swallow my pride and lose my status as an “expert” in my field when I started at the company as a research analyst. My first task was to write a syndicated report on the obesity drug market, of which I knew absolutely nothing. Writing that report was like writing my Ph.D. thesis all over again.

A Ph.D. isn’t necessary for my job, but many of the transitional skills I learned in graduate school (i.e., project management) and the understanding I acquired there of the language of science and medicine were a huge help in getting me up to speed quickly.

I now manage a team of 10 analysts who write their own reports. In my role, I still get to wear my “professor hat”: I guide the research of the analysts working on my team, question their assumptions, improve the rigor of their analysis, and mentor them on their own journeys from bench to desk. But instead of publishing papers in academic journals, we publish research reports for the pharmaceutical industry. And instead of lecturing to classrooms full of students, we give presentations to client teams. All in all, I would summarize my company, with its corporate yet collegial feel, as being an interesting bridge between the academic and commercial worlds.

Now that I have spent time on both sides of the company’s doors, as both a job seeker and a hiring manager, I have seen what works and what doesn’t work for those seeking to get a foot through the doors of my segment of the pharmaceutical industry. It is my hope to impart some of that insight to Ph.D.’s looking to transition from academe to the commercial world.

So here are my top tips about finding a job outside academia:

Swallow your pride. Having a Ph.D. means you are knowledgeable about a specific topic and can produce original research. But it doesn’t make you necessarily smarter than non-Ph.D. holders. And certainly, a Ph.D. is not necessary for most jobs, including my own. Although having a Ph.D. in a relevant disease area is a big plus when we make hiring decisions, there is just as much value in having relevant industry experience, or functional experience from working in market research or as a medical writer.I don’t regret for a second the years I spent in graduate school, and having a Ph.D. still carries significant gravitas when interacting with clients.

Be persistent. I was rejected twice by my company. The first time, I submitted my résumé at a career fair and, two weeks later, received a polite e-mail saying “thanks, but no thanks.” So I continued my search. A few months later, I went to a different career fair while at the tail end of writing my dissertation, visited the company’s booth, and submitted my résumé again.  In addition to several face-to-face meetings, I also had to complete a writing test. I thought I was a shoe-in for the job, which would have involved working on the company’s new line of syndicated reports. After a month of waiting for the elusive offer letter, the hiring manager called to explain to me that while I was the top candidate for the position, there was a hiring freeze until the company could see if the new product line was profitable. Ultimately, it wasn’t, and the position was eliminated.Many months later, I sent the vice president of the company an e-mail asking if there were any other positions for which they could use someone with my qualifications. He invited me to lunch to discuss options. When I arrived, unbeknownst to me, he had arranged a full day of interviews, including a meeting with the same hiring manager who had sent me a rejection letter half a year earlier. She subsequently hired me.

Be clear about your reasons for leaving academia. As a hiring manager, I am always keen to learn why candidates are quitting academia. I want to see that they understand the full reality of what it means to turn their backs on half a decade (or more) of rigorous training, and to no longer utilize any of the technical skills they have learned.
Too often, I see candidates apply just to explore options, without a clear reason of why they want to move to a nonacademic environment.It is my job to hire people who will succeed and thrive in my company’s environment. And you cannot do so if you are hesitant about stepping out of the ivory tower, or are constantly looking back over your shoulder at the life you had, rather than looking forward. So I probe for both the “push” factors that are motivating job candidates to leave the bench, and also the “pull” factors about why they are interested in my industry or my company. If either factor is unclear, or if I see telltale signs—such as the ubiquitous lists of laboratory skills that show up on academic CVs—then I know that the candidates aren’t quite ready to step into the nonacademic world.

Work on your verbal and written communication skills. Those are important skills in the academic world, but they are critical in the business world, where everyone must work in a team environment. In my line of work, we must speak with clients and physicians on a regular basis, and we are in the business of writing reports and selling our insights to our clients. That’s why we have every candidate complete both a writing test and a presentation-skills test. And that’s also why I reject so many applications solely on the basis of poor grammar on a cover letter or typos on a CV. Attention to detail is another key marker of success. I evaluate verbal communication skills during face-to-face interviews, where I not only gauge the thoughtfulness of a candidate’s response but also look for eye contact, enthusiasm, confidence, and grace under pressure.

Do your homework. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to thoroughly do your research when applying for a job. Even before you interview, you should have a reasonable understanding of the company and the position you are applying for. Tailor your cover letter and CV to specifically highlight how your expertise and skills match the company’s expectations for the role. On the hiring side, I probably look at a minimum of 50 CV for each job opening. Of those, I reject probably 75 percent right off the bat, due to typos or poor grammar, or because it was apparent that the candidate recycled the résumé in an effort to cast as wide a net as possible (and unfortunately, such services as Monster.com or LinkedIn make applying for jobs as simple as clicking a button).Many cover letters and CV I receive highlight laboratory skills, but unfortunately my company has little use of PCR or protein purification skills, no matter how much of an expert you are on the latest technologies. One candidate did tailor her application enough to get an interview but was rejected after she made the mistake of asking us where we keep our labs (with a Google search she should have learned that we have none).By the way, there is nothing wrong with a functional CV if you don’t have significant work experience. But just remember to make the functions relevant to the job you are seeking. Too many academics feel the need to list every single skill and achievement they have ever accomplished in their lifetime.Don’t apply until you are ready to start working. Job ads are placed to fill specific openings, and most companies are in a hurry to fill those positions. In the business world, time is more valuable than money (in contrast to the lab, where it feels like you have all the time in the world, but very little money).

Network, network, network. My final piece of advice: Use your network as much as possible. Reach out to classmates, friends, friends of friends. Tap into your university’s alumni networks. Many people out there have successfully transitioned into nonacademic jobs and are willing to help you find your ideal position or share strategies. I can personally count at least five people who I have helped to bring into my company. Some of them were classmates, others were strangers from my university who reached out to me looking for career options. We didn’t necessarily have job openings when they first got in touch with me, but oftentimes those folks became the first ones I contacted when I learned of openings.Instead of your subject-specific knowledge or technical skills, it is your university network of students, postdocs, and alumni that will be one of the most valuable things that you take from your time in graduate school.”

  • The Chronicle of Higher Education, 22.03.2013. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.
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