Building Bridges Between the Lab and Your Next Career

Nearly a third of all Ph.D. graduates decide to switch from careers in the lab to careers in business, law, journalism, or teaching. Many of these "alternative" careers are, in fact, still highly scientific. Yet making the move from a lab to an office is a daunting task that rarely is easy to accomplish or prepare for. Alternative career moves require not only finding the right job, environment, and people to work with, but also convincing those people that your years of bench work have relevance to their needs in the office.

A typical graduate and postdoc experience rarely involves training in non-scientific skills. Even grant writing, presentations, and lab management, skills inherent to a lab's success, are only now beginning to be addressed by training programs. Skills such as financial management, strategic planning, writing for a lay audience, interpretation of patent law, and management of people are rarely taught by graduate programs or mentors, but these skills are exactly what will be needed for a career outside the lab.

Gaining these skills, however, is a challenge even for those willing to commit the time and effort to embarking in new, uncertain career directions. Internships that allow the tentative exploration of a new career are well suited for bridging the experience gap. Ideally, an internship experience should allow scientists to learn new skills while getting a taste of the career they are considering. Because a career change is a major life-changing event, an internship is as much about convincing yourself that it is the right thing to do as it is about obtaining the skills and lingo to convince employers to hire you. Yet obtaining an internship is not an easy task. Employers must be willing to invest the time and energy to train you in a different field, knowing that you'll be using most of those skills somewhere else.

The Penn Biotech Group

The Penn Biotech Group (PBG) was formed to meet exactly this need for hands-on experience. PBG was formed in 2000 by students and postdocs at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine and Wharton Business School with the mission of providing its members exposure to the biotechnology industry through practical experiences and academic opportunities. PBG was established to provide opportunities to its members to take those first steps towards a new career.

By its very nature, biotechnology is multidisciplinary. The industry is based on science but is intertwined with business, law, and medicine. Biotechnology thus forms a catalyst for bringing together students and postdocs from across disciplines, with common interests in the biotechnology industry. In its first year, PBG membership included more than 100 students and postdocs campus wide, including students from the schools of biomedical graduate studies, medicine, law, business, and engineering.

Last year, PBG activities included consulting projects with local biotechnology companies, seminar hosting, developing connections with other biotech networks, catalyzing the formation of three business-plan teams--including the one that won the 2001 Wharton Business Plan Competition--and organizing regular practice sessions for members applying for management consulting positions. (Several students now work for leading consulting companies such as McKinsey and Booz-Allen.) In addition to those activities, this year's activities include hosting a journal club--in which cross-disciplinary teams present a company and its technology from both the science and business perspectives--a bioterrorism information event, developing a series of primers to introduce scientists to basic concepts in business and business students to basic concepts in science, and consulting projects to provide that elusive on-the-job experience.

The Port of Technology

The University of Pennsylvania offers a number of important resources for students and postdocs interested in biotechnology, with twelve graduate and professional schools, top-ranked business and medical schools, and an innovative postdoctoral training program that is now being emulated elsewhere. However, training designed to propel scientists into alternative careers is ideally based within the industries themselves rather than in academia, simply because those working in industry know their own needs best.

For these reasons, PBG has aligned itself with the Port of Technology (the Port), a biotech and information-technology business incubator located near the University of Pennsylvania. The Port has helped start more than 30 companies, ranging from biotechnology and bioinformatics companies to dot-com and software companies. The Port was formed in 1999 as part of the University City Science Center, one of the nation's oldest and largest research parks. Its mission is to provide resources to entrepreneurs and scientists to help them commercialize their technologies, build their companies, and create success stories in the Philadelphia region. The Port provides mentoring and advisory services, access to funding sources, a network of business relationships, and infrastructure for starting a company. For life-science companies, it also provides configurable laboratory space, hundreds of thousands of dollars of shared laboratory equipment, and a unique "Innovation Lab" that even provides access to small equipment and reagents, helping early-stage companies bridge that critical gap between late-stage academic research and early-stage product development.

PBG has partnered with the Port and life-science startups within it to provide projects for PBG members interested in gaining hands-on experience. Tim Maclachlan, a postdoc at Penn who participated in one consulting project with Port company Plantgenix last year, said of the experience, "It really was something completely different from bench-top research. Rather than looking at scientific ideas in a technical sense, we were forced to consider them in a business mindset and how feasible it would be in bringing them to the marketplace." Port President and CEO Jill Felix says of PBG, "Penn Biotech Group has been able to add knowledge to both the Port and Port companies that otherwise might not have access to this kind of intellectual capital. We're pleased to be able to work with the students and postdocs, and hope that we're making a contribution to training the next generation of life-science entrepreneurs and executives in this region."

Getting That Internship

Technology transfer offices, law firms, venture capital firms, economic development authorities, and biotechnology companies with scarce resources or close ties to universities are all organizations that can offer such an experience.

What can you do to improve your chances of earning an internship? Do your homework. Learn about the organization and the people you are dealing with, and focus on the problems they are facing and how you can help solve them. Keep in mind that your internship may be as much work for them as for you. Try to convince them that you can make it worth their effort, then follow through. Peter Stiegler, a postdoc who worked for the Port of Technology compiling a venture capital database, and soon after was hired by Ingenix, a Philadelphia-based contract research organization, says "Working at the Port definitely helped me make the transition from the lab to where I am now. I was able to go into interviews knowing some of the business language and talk about something other than just lab work."

Most of all, a positive internship is designed to provide you a glimpse of the career that you are thinking of pursuing. It provides some actual training, but mostly it helps you and your future employers to know what you are getting into. A large part of many internships will simply be adapting to a different culture and different motivations. For some, an internship may offer the opportunity to lead a project and manage people--an experience simple in concept but that possibly is one of the most difficult and valuable experiences of an internship. As you get the internship you are looking for and then go out and get the job you've been wanting, don't forget to help the other students and postdocs following in your footsteps. In addition to the obvious benefit of helping individuals build their resumes to launch into new positions, internships are helping PBG members forge the beginning of a network among each other and throughout biotechnology organizations.

Sudeesha Kunjibettu is a postdoctoral fellow at the Wistar Institute, University of Pennsylvania Campus, Philadelphia and co-president of Penn Biotech Group. He can be contacted at:

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