Start-ups for Postdocs 101B: Preparing for an Interview

We have already looked at some of the reasons for pursuing a career in a start-up company, including some significant advantages and potential disadvantages when compared with a traditional academic science career. If you have made the decision to test the waters with a start-up, what can you do to improve your chances of being hired?

There is, unfortunately, no magic secret to landing a scientific position in a start-up. An informal survey of scientists in biotechnology companies in the Toronto area revealed that many were affiliated in one way or another with their company's founding scientists, often as previous graduate students or postdoctoral fellows. For a junior scientist in this situation, the path to employment seems clear--simply ask your present boss if there is a place for you within his or her new company. Others were referred by "word of mouth" by others already within the company or by colleagues of company founders.

For those of us who are not so fortunate, what is the best route to finding a position and how can we maximize our chances of being interviewed and subsequently hired? Here are some aspects of your career that you should consider, before applying for a position.

1. Your scientific record

The person who interviews you will likely use standard academic criteria to judge your success to date. More than likely, he or she will be a founder of the company who also holds an academic position as a university faculty member, hospital senior staff scientist, or the equivalent. Here, as in academic science, a strong publication record is the best indication of your ability to succeed at scientific projects on which you have worked. Other achievements, such as scholarships and fellowships, also serve as a reflection of your past successes and future potential. Now is the time to finish submitting papers, catalogue your abstracts and presentations, and generally get the scientific part of your resume in order.

2. Project management experience

Whereas few university-trained postdocs will have managed a project in the accepted business sense, many will have supervised undergraduate or graduate students, high school volunteer students, or technicians. Take a few minutes to make a list of those you have supervised, techniques you taught them, and the deliverables that they produced and awards they achieved while under your supervision (reports, seminars, an undergraduate research project thesis, or a summer student poster award, for example). Make a special note of those who have gone on to bigger and better things in the scientific world. Be prepared to discuss and emphasize this aspect of your abilities. As projects in a new company grow in scope, it will likely be the earliest scientific hires who are called on to direct and manage the newly growing team and any previous experience at training others you can demonstrate will be of value.

3. Scientific skills required

What scientific skills you possess may be less important in a start-up than if you were applying for a position in a medium to large company, where positions typically demand very specific skill sets. However, it is certainly worthwhile investigating a new company to determine what it is doing now and what it intends to do in the future. Is it a proteomics company, where mass spectrometry experience might come in handy? Does the company use microarrays or robotics? Does it intend to perform high throughput genotyping? Even if you don't have exactly the right skills to match the company's scientific plan, it will certainly be worthwhile to review current literature and learn about the techniques it uses. Instrumentation company web sites are a useful source of application notes, descriptions of techniques, and bibliographies concerning specific experimental procedures.

4. Business experience

Training or experience in business affairs may not be of prime importance in securing a scientific position with a start-up company, but it can't hurt. Few scientists have any formal business training, so if you've got it, make sure that you mention it. A very early stage company will likely need someone to research and write project proposals for government funding agencies, scientific reports to investors, or other technical documentation with a business slant to it. In addition, you might be called on to prepare an equipment or operating budget for a new project, perhaps taking different scenarios into account (equipment purchase vs. leasing, for example). Having at least some knowledge of financial language can be helpful in these cases, particularly if you are called on to interact with nonscientific management.

The requirements expected of a new scientist in a start-up can be quite varied, particularly since most early-stage companies lack a formal management structure. In addition to the above points, it might be worth finding out about companies competing with your prospective employer, their position in the marketplace, and their successes (both scientific and financial) to date. You might research the scientific goals the start-up is trying to achieve (disease gene identification, protein structure determination, bioinformatics) and whether there are examples in the scientific literature to indicate that they are achievable. In this process, you may even determine that a different company will provide you with a better opportunity for employment. Should you decide to pursue employment in a start-up, consideration of the above points may prove helpful in both reaching, and succeeding at, the interview stage.

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