A Postdoc in Transition: Experiences and Lessons Learned Along the Way
A POSTDOC IN TRANSITION:
EXPERIENCES AND LEASONS LEARNED ALONG THE WAY
Contributed by Adam | September 2013
The following is an account of my experiences, successes, and failures, from my ongoing attempt to transition out of academic science. In this regard, I also invite people to read an article written by Dr. Brian Postdoc titled, “The Academic Fight Club.” This article is a nice overview of the academic landscape and the challenges facing new PhDs. It also highlights that less than 15% of PhDs in the biological sciences will end up with tenure-track positions within 6 years of graduating. Thus, assuming you’re in the other 85%, it is necessary to prepare yourself for the non-academic world. This seems like a daunting task; but I can assure you, you already have many of the skills and know-how to make the transition. You just have to step away from the bench and talk to the people all around you. I’m now a second year postdoc on the edge of making my transition out of academia. How did I get here and what happened along the way?
My story begins in undergrad when I was a human biology major and chemistry minor. I wanted to teach and thus applied for the education program. Unfortunately, I was denied a spot and temporarily set adrift. I decided to talk with a biology professor with whom I already had a good relationship. He suggested I try honors research in his lab. I immediately fell in love with the problem solving and discovery associated with research. I therefore applied to graduate school and began my PhD work in cancer biology at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW).
At MCW my love of research only grew and I had dreams of leading my own lab. My mentor was an energetic person, who devoted her life to research. She lived and breathed science and loved every moment of it. Over time, I began to question whether I could equal that same enthusiasm which seemed so critical for success.
"I also became disillusioned with the behind the scenes politics in regards to funding, tenure, and hiring."
Did I really want to spend every year, month, and week worried about funding and whether I’d have a job? What I once thought was a stable career, wasn’t so stable anymore and far less glamorous than I originally thought. This was a wakeup call. Thus, while in my 4th year of graduate school, I began actively searching out other career options.
CAREER SEARCH AND NETWORKING:
Through a combination of internet searching and career oriented seminars at MCW I was introduced to many different careers in industry, scientific writing, sales, technology transfer, and patent law. Patent law sparked my interest, but I still had to learn more about the profession and figure out how to get my foot in the door. It’s the age old question; how do you gain the experience to get the job, without a job in that field?
This is when I received my first real introduction to a basic business term, networking. Networking is a buzz word. Put simply, it is a fancy word for talking to people. It’s a basic idea; talk with people in your field of interest, get to know them, and let them know your interests.
"I truly believe that people overwhelmingly want to help, but they can’t offer you advice, new contacts, or even a job, if they don’t know who you are and what your interests are."
With this in mind, I attended a networking event held at MCW and sponsored by Bioforward. At this event, there was an opening presentation after which the attendees were left to eat, drink, mingle, and network. It would be disingenuous to say that I wasn’t nervous and scared. I remember not knowing how to begin; a fish lost at sea. So, I just joined another group’s conversation. Eventually, I was able to introduce myself and took the opportunity to express why I was there and my goals. By engaging in conversation and expressing my interests, I was eventually introduced to one of MCW’s technology transfer professionals. It all snowballed from there. In due time, I met all of the technology professionals at MCW and the adjacent Blood Research Institute. One individual even set me up with an informational interview at a local law firm, which I am still in contact with today. I also had success sending emails to local law firms looking for informational interviews. It’s amazing how many people are willing to help and talk about their profession. Through these interactions, I also became acquainted with a lawyer who works with many of the patents at MCW. All of this happened just by talking to people, “networking.”
POSTDOC WITH A PURPOSE:
The conversations I had helped paint a clear picture of the road ahead and the necessary skills and experiences I would need to make a transition from the bench to business. By this time I was scientifically ready to graduate from MCW, but not ready to transition out of academia.
"Therefore, it was critical for me to find a postdoc position that would both expand my scientific knowledge, but also give me transferable experiences."
Fortunately, I found a wonderful postdoctoral position with a project in drug discovery and the potential to patent the identified drugs. It’s worth noting that this position was not initially posted and the investigator came to me when he heard of my interests and ambitions; again highlighting the importance of networking.
"From the beginning, I made my goals and interests well known with my new boss. He understood and was willing to help."
I’ve had some great experiences in this lab and my project has grown and evolved since I began. I’ve worked on drug discovery, developed high through-put screens, and collaborated with organic and medicinal chemists at local institutions.
I also knew that writing was a critical skill that I needed to improve upon. Therefore, I set out to write three different independent grants in my first year in the lab. Although I have yet to receive one of these grants, the latest one is by far my best work and I’m currently waiting to hear back. Obtaining one of these grants will not only fund my research, but also demonstrate the persuasive writing skills necessary in patent law. Also, if I had a change of heart and wanted to stay in academia, I would have the necessary funding to get me started.
In addition to these activities, I also started consulting with a postdoc-led consulting group, Postdoc Industry Consultants (PICO). Our mission is to provide research-based, actionable business recommendations on key projects for biotechnology and pharmaceutical firms. I’m now on my second project and have conducted competitive market analysis, written an SBIR grant, and I’m currently working on developing a comprehensive business plan.
"Through PICO, I’ve received amazing exposure to business professionals, terms, ideas, and thought processes. More importantly, my network has grown exponentially."
PICO also had money to send me to a business development conference. So I attended the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) annual conference, which was a great experience. I met many lawyers and tech transfer professionals at this conference, furthered my knowledge in the field, and grew my network.
It should be highlighted that PICO is completely organized and run by postdocs. Amazingly, the group has grown from 4 to 16 people in the 2.5 years of its existence. As a group, we have consulted with 14 small to medium sized businesses and conducted 25 projects. Previous consultants have obtained jobs outside of academia in both industry and patent law. Many more are currently applying for paid consulting jobs.
"Groups like PICO are a great way for postdocs to obtain real business experience while still working as a fellow. You can even do this yourself. Get to know a PI who has a start-up, let him/her know your interests, and offer your services (your brain) in exchange for the chance to interact with business professionals. As proof of principle, due to the fact that many people at MCW know my interests, I’ve had investigators come to me looking to see if I was interested in helping them out."
Finally, the last part of my multifaceted approach to a career change is to take the Patent Bar exam. I’ve been studying over the summer and will be taking the exam in early October. If I pass, I will have all of the necessary credentials and experiences to make me a competitive patent agent applicant.
MAKE A PLAN:
I think the best advice I can give to other postdocs is to identify your interests, develop a plan, and act on it. Before I started my postdoc, I made a list of all the experiences I wanted to obtain with the end goal of transitioning to industry or patent law in mind. The list included, grant writing, scientific publications, drug discovery, consulting, business conferences, networking, and the Patent Bar.
"Having a list will help focus your efforts and minimize wasted time."
Lastly, as a PhD, you have incredible problem solving skills, writing ability, and technical knowledge that are all applicable to the business world. You just have to network and present those skills as desired attributes in a resume or in an interview.
"Create your own luck by putting yourself in a position to be lucky."
I understand that there are many different ways to transition out of academia and therefore I’d love to hear about your experiences and advice. I also welcome any comments or questions below. Good luck to everyone trying to make the same transition. Cheers!
About our guest contributor:
Adam J. Gastonguay, PhD is a cancer biologist by training. Adam received his bachelors in human biology from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and attended Graduate school at the Medical College of Wisconsin, receiving his PhD in pharmacology and toxicology. Currently, Adam is a postdoctoral fellow at the Children’s Research Institute in Milwaukee Wisconsin conducting drug discovery-based research focused on the treatment of childhood vascular diseases. In addition to his research, Adam is part of a team of biotech consultants, Postdoc Industry Consultants (PICO). PICO is a postdoc-led group which provides research-based, actionable business recommendations on key projects for biotechnology and pharmaceutical firms. When Adam is not in the lab or consulting, you can find him camping, backpacking, skiing, running, gardening; basically doing anything outdoors.