From Research to Customer Support Specialist--A Journey to the (not so) Dark Side


Some people are lucky enough to figure out what they want to do with their lives from an early stage in their education. For the rest of us, these decisions involve a constant wrestle with uncertainty. I definitely fit into the latter category. Doctor? Pilot? Engineer? Scientist? In the end, I thought I'd try to cover all bases and enrolled in a combined science/engineering bachelor's degree at Monash University in Melbourne. But I quickly found engineering to be too dry and mathematical so, almost by default, I found myself studying (and enjoying) the biological sciences. One thing led to another and it seemed logical to follow the basic degree with an honours year--but a PhD as well? Maybe later, but it was time to earn some money so I took up a position at the CSIRO Australian Animal Health Laboratory, a government research institute in nearby Geelong. Two years later I was ready to return to Melbourne and was offered the opportunity to enrol in a part-time PhD while working full time. Seven years further on and I had my PhD, as well as a lot of experience and quite a few grey hairs!

In the early days, I was typical of your bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young researcher. Perhaps not quite as driven as some, but nevertheless enthusiastic enough to convince many (including myself) that I had the potential to succeed in the competitive research environment. These were fun times--DNA cloning and sequencing were still at the forefront of molecular biology techniques, and expertise in either was highly regarded. Since then, of course, sequencing technologies have advanced to the point that scientists have been replaced by all-in-one kits and highly automated instruments. As a result scientists are being taught to follow protocols and use formulae rather than understand fundamental principles. I've always enjoyed trying to retrain them!

After completing my PhD, I continued to work in the same lab for a couple of years, developing more project management skills, before I was given the opportunity to join a small research lab at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Institute in Melbourne. The project leader was well established, and we had collaborated during my PhD. We set about investigating the mechanisms of breast cancer metastasis using a mouse model that had recently been developed in the lab. I was the only postdoc, but there was a pair of PhD students, a couple of technical assistants, and three research assistants. It was a new area of research for me so I had lots of new techniques to learn and lots of reading to do, but I was employed on a well-funded 3-year grant which meant, among other things, that I could travel to several international conferences. However, the time came when we had to think about submitting for continued support. I wrote fellowship applications to the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) and to the U.S. Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program--and was lucky enough to be awarded the latter.

Meanwhile, the lab was expanding. As "senior postdoc" I had settled rather comfortably into the role of deputy and was enjoying developing my people and project management skills. I found these to be very satisfying and rewarding responsibilities, but they took away from the requirements of my own project.

Working in a research lab has a lot going for it. The most compelling draw card is the freedom to think and to move, and great value should be placed upon these facets of the academic environment. Anyone driven enough to complete a PhD and pursue a scientific research career must have at least some desire to direct their own destiny. And herein lays one of the biggest downsides to academic research: Do a PhD and it is expected that you will follow the traditional postdoctoral pathway to an independent research position, ultimately establishing your own research program. But to successfully manage research projects requires scientific initiative, bench skills, grant-writing skills, people management skills, and above all the ability to publish well and consistently. There is no doubt that it takes a great deal of talent and dedication to succeed in each of these areas. In my experience, though, many young scientists would prefer a more intermediate level of independence and responsibility, but such opportunities are often limited or transient.

While I enjoyed working in the lab and mentoring students and other researchers, it was clear to me that I was not a sufficiently productive scientist to expect a long and happy career in academic research. Indeed, there seemed to be plenty of much more skilful and dedicated scientists who were already struggling to survive from year to year. I didn't want to be in that sort of position, to have my own future and that of others depending on the whim of the next grant review board. So, I thought about what I liked and disliked about research and after considering numerous options--commercial R&D, clinical research, regulatory affairs, project management, intellectual property--tried to come up with some alternatives. All of these options offered better money than academia, but the downsides included lack of freedom, lack of variety, and/or the prospect of living in front of a computer monitor.

The notion that I might enjoy a position in technical support was first floated by someone already in that role with whom I had developed a friendly professional relationship. We had met when she came into our lab to conduct training for a real-time PCR instrument we purchased from Applied Biosystems. Her title was field applications specialist and her role involved training customers to operate the company's range of DNA analysis equipment, assisting with assay development and technical support. She seemed to enjoy her job, although there was also a lot of travelling involved--her territory covered half of Australia! I enjoyed travelling, had considerable experience in the technologies (or at least I thought I did), and I like teaching people and passing on scientific expertise, so it seemed like a good fit. She encouraged me to consider a position that was about to be advertised, but as it turned out the decision was made to make the placement in Sydney-800 km away!

When another position became available, it turned out to be my contact's--she had left to work for a local manufacturer of real-time PCR equipment ("head hunting" is a common event in the industry). As I had previously expressed interest in a position at the company, I was contacted by the customer support manager and asked if I was interested in applying for the position. The position title was now customer support specialist scientific applications. I quickly submitted an updated resume and was invited in for an interview a few days later.

There are many Web sites that are very helpful with interview techniques and tips on answering the obvious questions such as "why do want this position?" and "why should we employ you?" After much reading and thought, I turned up at the interview suitably dressed, but nevertheless a little nervous as it had been many years since I'd had a formal interview. The modern style of corporate interview, however, turned out to be much more behaviour- and experience-based than I remembered, requiring that I provide examples of how I dealt with a variety of circumstances. The questions concentrated on personal interactions rather than technical knowledge, which they presumably already knew I had, so it was obvious that I had to emphasize my ability to communicate. A lot of attention was also given to the potential problems associated with regular (and not so regular) travelling. After more than two gruelling hours, I was given a brief tour of the company site and introduced to some of the staff, many of whom I had met previously through my dealings with the company. The next day I was offered the job, subject to salary/contract negotiations. The base salary turned out to be approximately equal to what I had been getting in research, but on top of that there were performance-based bonuses and the prospect of either a substantial car allowance or a fully maintained company car.

It was a difficult decision to leave the cancer institute. The comfort zone of research, the students halfway through their projects, the supervisor to whom I felt indebted due to many years of support, and the friends I had made all represented good reasons to stay put. However, my biggest concern was whether I would get enough satisfaction from my new career. I was used to supervising half a dozen people and working together with many more. In my new role, I would have no one reporting to me. The opposite in fact--I would be the one doing the reporting, a definite shift in the balance of influence and responsibility. On the other side of the ledger were career prospects, better remuneration, and losing my animal dissection skills.

I've been in the job for 4 months now, and it has certainly been a challenge. I've had to learn a lot in a short period of time. And there's no mucking around in industry: If you don't know something, read the manual, find the right people to learn from, and then get out there and give it a go. The good news is that the processes are in place to help you out, and you are rewarded for the efforts you make. Still, it will be a while yet before I'm comfortable with the job, particularly in some of the applications areas. The travel has been considerable and although I enjoy the constant change of scenery, I can see how it might cause problems for people who are family oriented or have other dependents. I also get a lot of satisfaction from training the customers, but it can be quite tiring having a small group (usually four or five people) hanging on your every word and watching your every move (at least I hope they are). The equipment can be very expensive so it is important to make sure the customer has a good understanding of how to operate and maintain it. However, it is satisfying to leave a happy customer--completing a job is all too rare an experience in research (at least in my experience!).

Although customer training is the primary responsibility of my job and the reason I'm on the road a lot, I am also involved in technical support, so at the end of the day and sometimes during the day, I have to check in with the office and read and answer e-mails and phone messages. Most of the time this is not too onerous because we have technical support staff in the office as well, a staff that I join when I'm not travelling. There's a reasonable amount of accounting to be done for both time and expenses, so I spend some of the time I'm in the office taking care of these administrative tasks. Otherwise, I use the time to study up on areas of weakness, prepare documents for future training, follow up on previous training sites, and take customer enquiries. The substance of those customer enquiries never ceases to amaze me. For example, one customer demonstrated good technical skills by her ability to achieve a very nice looking standard curve, but poor scientific skills when she asked if she really needed to repeat it every time she performed an assay. I congratulated her on the former, but disappointed her on the latter, diplomatically of course. On the other hand, there are many people pushing the technologies to their limits and it is a real challenge keeping pace with them.

When they're pondering the merits of a career change, most people give some consideration to the thoughts of others. I was given considerable support from the people I consulted before I took the plunge, but I'm sure there are others that think I took a downward step or am wasting my talent and training. I don't see it that way. I left the lab primarily to pursue a career that offered opportunities for advancement, which certainly exist in this industry. Obviously a lot depends on the company structure and the financial environment, but there are numerous examples of people starting in technical support and progressing through to product management, marketing, and then upper management.

Was I right to leave the lab? Definitely. Is this the right career for me? It feels like it, but ask me in another 12 months--I'll have a better sense then.

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