This job’s for you: 9 researcher-proven tips for scientists seeking a new career

January 06, 2015
By Jeff Hansen and Matt Windsor
In a recent "New Careers for Today's Scientists" seminar, UAB alumni and other panelists explained how to find success in private-sector science.

97aa066dcc42404e7602768333af5659 LNewly minted postdoc Theresa Ramos, Ph.D., (left) followed her passion for helping people into a new venture with mentor Scott Barnum, Ph.D. (right). The researchers have partnered with startup company Kypha Inc. on the development of a rapid diagnostic device for meningitis and other conditions. Ramos is now UAB’s first “corporate postdoctoral fellow” and holds the title of Postdoctoral Entrepreneur at Kypha. “I was able to write my own contract with Kypha because I knew what I wanted to do,” Ramos said.

The worried questions from postdoctoral fellows and graduate students mount, as they see opportunities for academic research positions continue to shrink. They ask:

  • What can I do with my career?
  • Do I have to do academic research?
  • Will my relatively narrow postdoctoral experience limit my options in industry?
  • What kind of industry job am I qualified for?
  • Should I get an MBA?
  • What if I don’t know what I want to do?

Joel Dobbs, Pharm.D., MPH, promised answers to all of these questions at a recent seminar co-sponsored by UAB’s Office of Postdoctoral Education (OPE) and Collat School of Business. Titled “The Business of Science,” it was the second in a series of networking events organized by the OPE around the theme of “New Careers for Today’s Scientists.”

“Positions in academia are decreasing,” said Dobbs, the entrepreneurship executive-in-residence at the Collat School of Business. “But that doesn’t mean the avenues for Ph.D.s are limited.”

That is the message of each of the “New Careers” events, which were designed to help UAB postdoctoral scientists, graduate students and undergraduates explore the wide range of career options outside the academy. “Informing you about opportunities is at the forefront of what we want to do,” said Lisa Schwiebert, Ph.D., associate dean for postdoctoral education. [Learn more about the seminar series here.

Look Small

Dobbs’ own career began when a buddy suggested he join a small North Carolina pharmaceutical company called Glaxo Inc., which later went “from nothing to the largest in the world.” As a retired senior-level executive, Dobbs brings perspective from a variety of life science, pharmaceutical, biotechnology and health care enterprises, with revenues from $38 million to $13 billion.

Dobbs has seen people with doctoral degrees act in nearly every role on the R&D side of corporate business; but given the current landscape of pharmaceutical research, he had this take-home message for today’s young researchers: “When you are looking for career options, look at small companies.”

The next seminar in the “New Careers for Today’s Scientists” series will explore opportunities in public policy, nonprofit organizations and government. It is scheduled for Friday, March 6, 2015, at noon in Heritage Hall, Room 106.

Dobbs explained that the golden age of antibiotics for pharmaceutical companies from the 1940s to the 1960s was followed by stable growth in the 1970s and 1980s. When changing economic forces in the 1990s slowed the growth of pharmaceutical companies, they turned to a disruptive strategy called “Merge and Purge” in an effort to maintain increasing profits. Major acquisitions were followed by cutbacks, job losses and large initial write-offs.

With ever-increasing R&D costs and a poor drug-development batting average – where only two of every 10 approved medications manage to recoup their development costs – a new pharmaceutical ecosystem has now appeared, Dobbs said. Today, a core pharmaceutical company is surrounded by, and connected with, a host of smaller, satellite companies that manage research, product development, drug trials and more for the core company. This is where the opportunities are for job candidates with Ph.D.s today, Dobbs said.

Begin Today

Dobbs told attendees they should take four steps right away to start their career transitions:

1.Know your strengths. Start by cataloguing your strengths, which can be your intrinsic “calling” and your developed or acquired strengths, Dobbs said. He recommended Strengths Finder, by Tom Rath, as a helpful resource for this inner search.

2. Do the “ideal job” exercise. Next, think about your ideal job and write it down, said Dobbs. This will prepare you to seize an unexpected opportunity that fits your ideal job. As business guru Peter Drucker said, “Opportunity comes over the transom.”

3. Know your value proposition. This is a concise statement that tells how you can add value to a company, which is the chief thing every employer wants to know, Dobbs explained. For guidance, he recommended the site businessmodelyou.com.

4. Do the “ideal life” exercise. Finally, pick a target age, Dobbs said, and then write down the answer to this question: “If my life turns out perfectly by that age, how would I describe it?”

Dobbs then turned the seminar over to five mid-career or younger panelists with doctorates. Their job was to answer all those questions initially posed by Dobbs, and other questions from the audience, drawing on their distinct and divergent careers in business.

The panelists shared candid thoughts on what it takes to succeed in private-sector science careers. Each had earned a doctorate in the life sciences before moving into the business world. All agreed that that educational investment was an “absolutely no-regret decision,” in the words of panelist Michael Baffi, Ph.D., MBA — and an asset that opened up many potential job opportunities.

Business of Science illus

Crucial Conversations

Here are five tips for success from the speakers:

1. Explore your options. Baffi, who earned his doctorate in cell biology at UAB, now leads the corporate strategy function at Life Technologies. After he made the decision to seek a career beyond the lab, Baffi said, “I looked at everything.” He considered becoming a patent agent, an FBI scientist and an Army postdoc. But he credits UAB’s Business Certificate in Life Sciences Entrepreneurship program with helping him find his focus. The program includes required courses in Business Planning, Understanding the Biotech Industry and Innovation. Those classes, and the mentorship of Collat School of Business associate professor Doug Ayers, Ph.D., inspired Baffi to pursue an MBA from MIT — “another no-regret decision,” he said.

2. Follow your passion. “You have to identify your passion and ask yourself how you can get there,” said Theresa Ramos, Ph.D. “Your passion will lead you to your purpose.” As she was finishing her doctorate in microbiology at UAB, Ramos said she realized that despite her success as a basic scientist, she wanted to help people in a more tangible way. So she joined UAB microbiology professor Scott Barnum, Ph.D., in a venture to produce a new diagnostic device for bacterial meningitis. That led to a partnership with St. Louis-based medical device startup Kypha Inc. Ramos is now UAB’s first “corporate postdoctoral fellow” and holds the title of Postdoctoral Entrepreneur at Kypha.  “I was able to write my own contract with Kypha because I knew what I wanted to do,” Ramos said.

3. Be willing to stretch. Echoing Dobbs’ advice, several panelists recommended that attendees look into jobs at startup companies. Working at a startup certainly brings stress and sleepless nights, acknowledged Joseph Garner, Ph.D., CEO of Birmingham-based startup Soluble Therapeutics. “If you have a low-risk profile, startups may not be your thing,” he said. But the trade-off is that “there is a tremendous amount of opportunity,” Garner added. “You will definitely be asked to step outside your comfort zone” and take on jobs you have never done before, he said — but that is also a great way to accelerate a career track.

Renata Hawthorne, Ph.D., director of Scientific Affairs at Evonik Corporation’s Birmingham Laboratories unit, agreed. Before joining Evonik, which is developing medical devices and technology in its new Birmingham office, Hawthorne worked at startup BioCryst Pharmaceuticals, a UAB spin-off company. “I had to wear many hats and I was forced to do things I didn’t have a clue about,” Hawthorne said. “But the nice thing is you get to build the team that is moving that company along and making it a success.”

4. Sell yourself. Networking, in person and online, is the key to finding opportunities, the panelists noted. “You have to be incredibly proactive,” said Garner. “You’ve got to get yourself out there as much as you can.” Job-seekers should always have an “elevator speech” prepared, he advised — a 30-second to two-minute summary of who they are and what value they can offer. Garner’s challenge to potential new hires: “You tell me why I need to hire you.”

“You have to tell a story in a strategic fashion about what you have to offer,” said Tina McKeon, Ph.D., J.D. McKeon earned her doctorate in neurobiology at UAB and completed two postdoc positions before animal allergies forced her to leave the lab. She went to law school at Emory University and is now a registered patent attorney focusing on patent prosecution, intellectual property strategy and IP portfolio management for universities, research institutions and corporations. Her doctoral training, coupled with her law degree, means “I know the questions to ask,” McKeon said.

5. Get to the point. Although the 15-page CV (curriculum vitae) is the standard in science, the panelists stressed that a succinct resume — two pages at most, and preferably one — is crucial in applying for jobs in the business world. “The important thing is selling yourself in a positive way,” said Hawthorne. “You want to offer a complete, concise picture of what you’ve accomplished in the lab, including any special techniques you may have developed. You want to have that one sentence that can catch someone’s eye.”

More Information

UAB’s Ph.D. Careers site offers self-assessments, a job-search toolkit, advice on additional career tracks and a schedule of upcoming events. 

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