In this third installment of Q&A’s with recent grad-school-grads, a friend who recently defended his PhD tells how he made the transition to a small biotech startup. Read on to learn how his active involvement in programs outside his PhD helped him prepare, what he wishes he had learned during grad school, what a typical day is like for him now, and more. Be sure not to miss the last answer, where he offers quite useful advice on preparation and networking for those currently in grad school.
What did you study in your PhD program?
Bioengineering, but that doesn’t narrow things down much because of the breadth of the field. I developed biosensing platforms for studying carbohydrate-mediated bacterial adhesion. In short, many bacteria, including E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Helicobacter, are known to bind to carbohydrates that are expressed on the lining of human tissues (e.g., the gastrointestinal tract). Binding is the first step in pathogenesis, so it is important to understand the binding targets and the conditions necessary for binding to occur in order to prevent infection from these bacteria. Traditional methods for studying these interactions are laborious and do not provide the necessary throughput to make reasonable progress in the field, which is why we investigated various high-throughput biosensing platforms.
When you first started the program, did you know what you wanted to do after grad school?
Broadly, yes. Specifically, no. Coming in, I knew that I was not interested in academia. Beyond that decision, however, I had very little idea of what type of role I would want after graduate school, and I had even less of an idea of what roles might be available to me. This uncertainty of what was out there was one of the main reasons that I went to graduate school – i.e., not only as a way to further my education, but I considered it a safe vantage point from which to learn about the biotech / life science industry.
How did your career plans or goals change by the time you were finishing your PhD?
I wouldn’t say that they changed very much, but I did come out with a much better idea of the different career options that are available to me.
Were you involved in any organizations or activities while in grad school that helped lead you to where you are now?
Two in particular. First, and most formative, was my involvement with the UW Science & Engineering Business Association (SEBA). In short, SEBA gives science and engineering students an outlet to learn about the business side of their discipline through informational events, networking opportunities, and experiential learning. While the informational events were useful, I gained far more by taking full advantage of the networking opportunities and through the leadership positions that I took on within the organization, including VP of Membership and President. I continue to realize and expand upon the opportunities that my involvement with SEBA provided.
Secondly, I earned the Technology Entrepreneurship Certificate through the UW Foster School of Business, specifically the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship. This is an 18-credit certificate program that allows non-business students to take courses right along with MBAs. Through these classes, I learned the basics of starting and running a business, including marketing, strategy, fundraising, and finance.
What do you do now?
Since graduating in the summer of 2012 I have been working with a small startup company. The company was founded on research coming out of one of my advisory committee member’s labs. As can be expected working for a startup, my role in the company covers everything from bench research to product development and business strategy.
Of the skills you developed as a grad student, which are most useful to you in your current position? Which are you happy to leave behind?
Given the diversity of functions that I serve in the startup company that I work for now, I find myself using many of the skills that I developed as a graduate student, both those that were a direct result of being a researcher and those that I acquired through my extracurricular involvement. The abilities to read, interpret, and present scientific information are perhaps the most useful – all of those lab meeting powerpoint presentations were more useful than I could have imagined.
Are there any skills/tools/habits that you need in your field but didn’t develop during your grad school training?
I definitely could have used more business training, despite my efforts during graduate school to seek this out. While it is not the function of science graduate school to prepare students for this, I believe that I really would have benefited from doing an internship at some point during graduate school.
What’s a typical day for you like now?
There’s not much of a “typical day” at this point. Some days are spent working in the lab, just like grad school, other days I work from home doing market research, making data reports and business presentations, many days are a combination of both. There are still a lot of meetings too. The time commitments in a startup are demanding, so I still find myself working long days and weekends, but there is flexibility in my schedule so I’m still able to make room for a life outside of work. Sounds a lot like a graduate school schedule, doesn’t it?
What’s the best thing about your job? Do you miss anything about bench work?
The best thing about my job is that my efforts have a direct impact on the future of the company; it’s more results-oriented than research. As much as I would like to “miss” bench work, I’m still doing it, so I can’t really evaluate that right now. I will say that I miss the relative freedom to explore interesting research questions via bench work, since my time needs to be dedicated to achieving specific deliverables for the company.
Where do you see yourself going from here?
I plan to continue working with this startup company to see what we can make out of it. The technology is very promising, but there are still countless technical and business challenges that need to be addressed, so there’s still a lot up in the air. If we gain some traction and it looks promising to stay with the company, then I’ll pursue that. If not, then hopefully I will have gained some real world experience that will make me an attractive hire for another company. Regardless, I want to be in a position at the interface of science and business, possibly in technology commercialization, consulting, or product/project management. In the long term, I expect to be doing less bench work and focus more on management and business development.
Any words of wisdom for current grad students who might be interested in making a transition like yours?
A few things are clear, even though I’ve only been out of grad school for a short time.
First, no matter how busy you think you are, you’re likely to be busier and/or less flexible than you were in graduate school. Capitalize on the relative freedom you have as a graduate student, whether through extracurricular involvement or taking extra classes or finding an internship on the side.
Second, if you’re hoping to get a job in industry, any way that you can gain real world experience will help you when applying for jobs – it’s a classic chicken-egg problem, where companies want you to have business experience but somehow you need to get that first job to get that experience. If you’re able to do an internship, make the time for it and do it.
Finally, start building your network long before you think you need to because it takes a long time. One good way to do this is to get involved with student organizations that have networking and industry volunteering opportunities (at UW, SEBA was perfect for this). You can also reach out to people in the business community and ask them for an informational interview – if doing this via email (my preferred method), be sure to send the email from your university email address (i.e., it has “.edu” at the end of it). This is often referred to as your “student card,” and you should play it often. People in industry are all about helping students, but once you lose the student card, you’re going to be seen as someone who wants a job. That’s not to say people don’t like helping out in that situation, but it’s amazing who you can reach with the student card. It’s especially helpful if you’re part of a student organization looking for industry speakers for an event: “Dear [CEO of company you’re interested in], I am part of XYZ organization at XYZ University, and we are putting on an event about XYZ. I believe that you/your company would be a great addition to this event, so I am wondering if you might be available to speak to us. If you are interested, it would be great if we could meet for coffee and talk more about the event.” This approach worked for me on multiple occasions, where not only did I get a speaker for the event, but I also made a personal contact. Worst case, they don’t respond or they can’t do it, but often you’ll find that people will make time for students. Networking can be really scary, especially at first, but you’ll find that it gets easier and easier as you do it more, so don’t let nerves prevent you from doing it!