Putting The "In" in Industry: Top Tips for a Successful Transition


By Esther Cooke, PhD


The plight of early career researchers was magnified last month (October 2016) by demoralizing news features in Nature entitled “Young scientists under pressure,” and “Young, talented and fed-up....” New research shows that annual increases in science-related doctorates, coupled with flat-lining or faltering funding opportunities and full-time faculty positions, is creating stiffer competition and lower success rates for young scientists in academia. Unsurprisingly, more and more PhDs are exploring alternative avenues, notably within pharmaceutical/biotechnology companies.

Vice President of Diagnostic Development at Illumina, Karen Gutekunst, PhD shared insights with the Scripps Consulting Club on how to successfully flee to pharma.

Gutekunst completed her doctorate in molecular genetics at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her first whiff of R&D in industry came from a headhunt call about a job in New Jersey. Although not ready to leave Atlanta, Gutekunst liked the idea of applying “tech” to real medical problems. She landed her first industry position at Roche and stayed with the company for 18 years, working in project management, development, and regulatory affairs. She then spent two years with Clarient before landing her current job. During the workshop, Gutekunst reflected on personal experiences to highlight key pieces of advice for grad students and postdocs considering a similar path:


  1. Be open to possibilities. We often hold back from opportunities because they don’t fully satisfy our criteria, or for FOMO – that is, fear of missing out – on the “perfect” job that could be just around the corner. Gutekunst advises to keep an open mind: “Don’t be afraid to branch out, as no decision you make is forever.” New opportunities will present, and things will happen in the future that you can't plan for. It's all good experience (even the application process) and could be an important step towards that dream job. To be successful in industry, Gutekunst admits, “You have to be willing to change direction on the fly.” Adaptability is a must.


  1. Broaden your skillset. Don’t be an out-and-out lab rat. Gutekunst emphasizes that transferable skills are just as important as research skills. “You need to be a well-rounded person to grow and succeed in industry. It's not just about how smart you are,” she says. All of the applicants will be smart, so it comes down to how well you will fit in with the culture. Unlike academia, where for the most part you work independently on your own project, research in an industrial setting is much more collaborative – people work together for the good of the company. Look for creative ways to demonstrate communication skills, leadership and project management skills, problem solving ability, and teamwork.


  1. Learn the lingo. Familiarize yourself with insiders’ jargon and acronyms that you might run into during interviews, such as GLP, GMP and GCP (good laboratory, manufacturing and clinical practices, respectively). Gain an understanding of company frameworks and the processes of production, development, and life cycle management, bearing in mind that these may differ between small and large companies. Gutekunst suggests that you tailor your research: “If you're interested in marketing, understand what product requirements are and why they're important.” Once you’ve mastered the language, speak it with passion – you’ll need to be able to convince someone to give you a job!


  1. Network, network, network. This one gets drummed into us all of the time, and that's because it really is important. “You never know what might come of a conversation,” says Gutekunst. Maintain good relations with your colleagues and collaborators, attend conferences, join clubs and societies, and get stuck into professional networking sites like LinkedIn. Be proactive in asking questions and reaching out to people; be willing to stick your neck out. Made connections already? Hold on to them! Speaking from experience, Gutekunst adds, “Connections lead to random phone calls, and random phone calls lead to jobs.”


  1. Don't wait! When asked about the best time to make the transition, Gutekunst responds, “If you want to go into industry, I'd try to get in as quickly as you can.” The earlier you are in your career, the easier it is to get over the hump of academic stereotypes. It comes back to adaptability; employers are looking for candidates who will adjust quickly to their way of doing things, i.e. before the rhythms of academic research become ingrained. If you’re sure it’s the right direction, don’t wait for that next paper or fellowship – you’ll always put one more hurdle in front of you. Work with what you have, and get in!


  1. Believe in yourself. It's as simple as that. Have confidence and don’t be intimidated!A career in industry is absolutely attainable for academic PhDs, but a smooth transition requires careful planning and consideration, with some gumption and flexibility thrown in the mix. Check with your graduate students or postdoc services office for more information and resources. If you’re struggling to make the call, the most important thing is to trust your instincts and strive to do what you love - you'll be happier!


Pen that looks like a circuit board, lying on notepaper

So You Want to Be a… Technical Copywriter

By Sally Burn, PhD

In this week’s edition of Scizzle’s post-PhD career series we talk to Colm O’Regan about being a freelance Technical Copywriter. Colm trained in the physical sciences - which makes a welcome change from our usual biology-centric focus – and came to our attention when he commented on one of our previous interviews on LinkedIn. We were so intrigued by his job title that we just had to get the lowdown on his career! If you also happen to have an interesting post-PhD job, please reach out to us – we’d love to hear from you. Just connect with Sally Burn via her LinkedIn. Colm can also be contacted via his LinkedIn or by email.


Hi Colm, so what does a Technical Copywriter do?

I write marketing communications and content for scientific companies. This means any material a science company uses to promote its products. These range from white papers, technical/scientific articles, landing pages, advertisements, application notes and case studies. Many science companies put out a wide range of marketing collateral and this stuff needs to be written. They’ll do a lot of it internally, but often they’ll outsource it to a writer like me to take some of the pressure off. Specific responsibilities include: marketing my services, making contact with potential buyers (typically marketing managers), talking to these buyers on the phone to ascertain their needs, making an offer, writing proposals, doing the actual writing, following up constantly, bookkeeping etc.


How did you get to where you are now?

I enjoyed science in school, particularly chemistry and physics. Chemistry was always my favorite subject so I continued studying that in university in Ireland. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. After my degree, I didn’t want to get a job in a chemical plant or a pharmaceutical company, which seemed to be the typical route most of my classmates were following. By the time I finished my third year, I had developed a strong interest in nanotechnology and materials science. So when I was offered a PhD in materials science at the same university, I jumped at the chance. After that, I went on to do a postdoc at the National University of Singapore. The research was focused on using electron microscopy to study dendrite growth in battery systems. However, by the end of this, I realized that working for someone else was not something I wanted to spend my life doing. Even if it was in academia which, admittedly, can be quite cushy. I had always enjoyed writing so after spending many months trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I found that marketing writing for science companies seemed to be the best choice.


What are the key skills or experience needed for this job?

You don’t need much in the way of experience from a skills point of view, as most of it you can learn on the job. That said, any relevant background you have will be helpful. For example, if you’re targeting a specific industry such as biotechnology, a degree, masters or PhD in biotech will be a huge advantage. It will set you apart from other writers targeting biotech companies. You know the technology, the field, and the industry, and will probably have hands on experience with many of the scientific instruments you’ll be writing about. Companies value this and you’ll be able to command higher fees. The main skill I got from my PhD and postdoc was the ability to research effectively (I mean look up papers, documents, articles etc. pertaining to my field) and keep persevering when things get tough. Anybody doing a PhD project knows that it’s three and a half years of crap followed by six months of good things happening. When you’re in your second year, your 150th experiment in a row has failed and you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, it can be disheartening. That perseverance and ability to tough it out is critical when going out on your own.


What would be your advice to a PhD wanting a job similar to yours?

Anybody wanting to do this job (or start a freelancing business in general) should know that it’ll probably take twice as long, cost twice as much and be twice as difficult as you initially anticipated. I know this isn’t exactly encouraging, but if you come into this knowing what to expect, then you’re already ahead of the game. I definitely thought it was going to be easier than it is. So the first thing someone needs to do is market themselves and their services like crazy. Estimate how much marketing you need to do, double it… and then go do that. I didn’t do enough marketing in my first year (and the marketing I did was the wrong kind). Ultimately, the people who are successful think of themselves as marketers of the services they provide (in my case, marketing communications writing for scientific companies), rather than doers of that particular service.


What are the top three things on your To Do list right now?

Usually, my to-do-list involves marketing. Right now, the list includes launching a direct mail effort (sending letters through the mail to promote my services), finishing writing a proposal for a project, and following up on a previous project that I finished recently (I do this a lot)


What are your favorite – and least favorite – parts of the job?

Least favorite part right now is the inconsistent paycheck. Some months you have work, others you don’t. Invariably, this comes down to consistent marketing. When you let up on the marketing, your income takes a hit. My favorite part is working to my own schedule, and not a schedule set by someone else.


Is there anything you miss about academia?  What was the most challenging aspect of moving from academia to your current job?"

One of the things I enjoyed most about academia is the relaxed working atmosphere. Specifically, it’s not a typical nine to five job, so there’s nobody checking up on work hours. As long as you do the work, it’s fine. So that was a big plus. I was also lucky to work in a fun lab with a lot of great people. Now, I work on my own so I sometimes miss the interactions of working in a research group. The most challenging aspect of moving into freelance work is being your own boss. You’re responsible for every single aspect of the business. From marketing, selling, doing the work, bookkeeping, to running the business. If you slip up on anything (marketing in particular), the business as a whole takes a hit. It takes some getting used to. You definitely need to develop good habits (getting up early, not wasting an hour scanning your Facebook feed), improve your productivity and have the discipline to work and market the business when you need to. Which is most of the time.


How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?

In terms of marketing writing for scientific firms, I guess It really is a buyer’s market due to the sheer number of people going out on their own and starting businesses. Over the last decade, copywriting has been actively promoted as a business opportunity by several organizations. This has prompted more and more people to start freelance copywriting. Though admittedly, you don’t see many science graduates and researchers doing this, but that could change over the next decade. Copywriting in general is sure to become more and more popular, so narrowing down your specialty and focusing on a particular industry will be even more important than it is today.


And finally: In the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would a technical copywriter bring to the table?

Well, if the remaining living scientists ever discovered a cure for people turning into zombies, a technical copywriter would be the one helping to promote it!


Like a walk in the woods, entrepreneurship is about exploring first-hand all life has to offer

Life of a scientist as an entrepreneur

By Padideh Kamali-Zare, PhD

It has been almost a year since I started my journey as an entrepreneur, after being a scientist for almost a decade. Such a change in my career path felt a bit unusual in the beginning, but soon I found a lot of similarities between the two paths. I quickly noticed that I am actually still continuing the same path, only exploring different aspects of it. A path I initially feared to step in soon became a joyful journey I now cherish every day. Through interacting with a lot of scientists and entrepreneurs, I came to realize that the entrepreneurial spirit adds an enriching dimension to a scientist’s world.

As a scientist, one has a passion for uncovering the mysteries of nature and discovering the truth (mechanisms underlying events) through scientific methodology. This methodology famously relies on testing hypotheses, and developing new tools to do it accurately. Over the centuries, this methodology has become a steadfast tradition. As such, everyday work as a scientist becomes a routine job very quickly. This limits the freedom, flexibility and independent thinking of a scientist. However, I always thought of science not as a job, but as a lifestyle. Science, through critical thinking, changes how one views the world, questions everyday life events, and addresses them by gathering evidence and applying them towards gaining a higher wisdom. These skills are invaluable assets in the entrepreneurial world.

The entrepreneurial mind, very much like the scientific mind, functions by questioning, hypothesizing and testing. The coordinate system of the two is identical and the valuation of ideas is reflected through vigorous testing of the initial hypotheses. What is different is the human component, which is much more prominent in the entrepreneurial world. In the end, people are the users of our products. They should see the value of our work and be willing to use it in their everyday life. If you are a scientist with good interpersonal and communication skills who also likes to promote scientific innovation through people and for people, you are already an entrepreneur.

Exploring the world as a passionate, dedicated scientist is like driving around in nature while listening to music and having brainy conversations with friends riding in the car with you. Entrepreneurship, on the other hand, is like stopping by the roadside, getting out of the car, getting some fresh air, hearing the ocean waves, walking to the woods, and exploring, first-hand, all that life has to offer. Life as an entrepreneur is much more flexible and creative than that of a scientist in the modern world. The entrepreneurial journey modifies itself every step of the way and never becomes routine. As an entrepreneur, you learn things from everyone, not just people around you or in your particular field of research. As a scientist, you find yourself constantly zooming in on a highly specialized and narrowed down subject, while as an entrepreneur you zoom out and see things from above, you see the big picture, and you focus on the impact your work can have on the world. No matter how long or how short, entrepreneurship is a fulfilling, growing experience of a lifetime.

The Uncertain Life of an Academic Scientist: Do We Quit or Do We Evolve?


By Lori Bystrom, PhD


I always thought I was meant to be scientist, even if I did not entirely understand what a scientist was as a kid. I loved to create, design, and understand how things worked. I also aspired to invent something; if I was not making some invisible potion to cure laughitis, I was imagining some kind of creation to make the bad monsters go away that were haunting my room.


Today, as I think about my next experiments in the lab (i.e., how can I selectively eliminate the cancer monsters?), I also wonder how much longer I can last as a scientist. If I continue along the academic path, do I have a sustainable future? Grants are hard to come by and tenure-track positions are few. Moreover, the amount of time you put into the work is not always rewarded sufficiently. As many postdoctoral researchers know, our salaries are often less than our peers who have bachelor's degrees. Essentially, we invested lots of research time and got little return on our investment.


This dissatisfaction with academia is common feeling among many scientists in the academic world. This is apparent in the numerous blogs or articles by PhD graduates, postdoctoral researchers, and those who are lucky enough to begin tenure-track positions.


Although there is obviously a problem in academia right now, I do not think we have to stop being the scientists we once aspired to become. It is always good to know when to quit a specific job; however I think we can also adapt to the situation and evolve as a scientist either inside or outside of academia. Being a scientist today is not the same as being a scientist 20 years ago. There may be more PhDs to compete with than in the past, as well as more funding issues, but we also have new technology (e.g. the internet) that we can use to our advantage.

My experiences as a graduate student and postdoctoral researcher have made me view science much differently than I did as a kid or even since I began graduate school. There are several things that I have learned that may help academic scientists evolve and adapt to the current scientific environment.


1. Think outside the box

There are more than just government grants out there. If you are applying for such grants you have to realize that being smart and a good scientist is not always enough. What makes you special from the rest? You need to find that and emphasize that. I know my diverse scientific background has helped me obtain several grants. Find your niche. Explore unique types of grants.



2. Look beyond academia

Academia is not for everyone. A study by the American Institute of Research has shown that 61% of STEM PhDs pursue non-academic careers. There are jobs in science communication, science outreach, science education, science policy, industry, and the list goes on. There are many resources out there that explore life beyond academia. It may take a while but I have seen many people procure these kinds of jobs even after a long stint as a postdoctoral researcher. It is also possible that some people may even return to academia (one of my collaborators did this) or partner up with academic institutions after their experience outside academia.


3. Advertise your research

Get yourself connected and network with people at science events and even non-science events. Get the word out there. You never know who may be interested. This may not only make you feel good about your work, but it may also be beneficial to you in the future, whether you stay in academia or not. This may be one useful resource.


4. Collaborate

Start your own projects with other people you would like to collaborate with either at your institution or elsewhere. If your PI resists then explain how this could strengthen your research proposal and help you get funded. In fact, many grants require collaborations. Moreover, collaborations with industry or within academia may also lead you to other jobs in the future.


5. Continue your education

Gain expertise in a new field that might help you expand upon your research ideas. Ultimately, this may help you obtain more grants or find new job opportunities. You can do this by using tuition allowances you receive from grants or your institution. There are also online courses or MOOCs such as coursera  or workshops available at various institutions that you can take for minimal costs.


6. Start something new

Whether you start a bakery, a brewery, a science start-up, or anything that you are passionate about -- you can still be a scientist. Many of the skills you acquired as a scientist (e.g., management, writing, etc.) will come in handy, and you can always use Scizzle to keep up with the science you care about.


Overall, I think if we want to continue to be scientists we can, but we need to utilize the technology that is available to us, keep our options open, and be mindful of both the current state of academia and what is beyond the academic world. Whatever we choose we have to continue to evolve.