The Tables Have Turned

It was around this time last year that I was preparing to defend my doctoral thesis, going to job interviews, presenting at conferences, and trying to decide on a career path that I could embark on. As I wrote in my first Next Wave article, I was deciding between continuing along the academic path--doing a postdoc and applying for faculty positions--and moving over into industry and accepting a research or management position there.

Academia or Industry?

On the one side, I was attracted to the freedom and challenges of academia but was daunted by the prospect of juggling so many tasks: writing grants, hiring and mentoring students, developing and teaching courses, publishing papers, devising research themes and experiments, buying and stocking up a fully functional lab, and managing academia-related politics. On the other side, industry's financial rewards, ready-made, fully equipped labs, and different growth potentials were particularly appealing.

More importantly, in industry I wouldn't have to immediately draft grants, obtain salary awards, hire students, equip a lab, and conceive of different research plans. I could work within an established system, bring my own set of ideas and skills, and grow from there. I felt hesitant to pick either path, as the options seemed so decisive and permanent. I was afraid of closing doors prematurely.

So I interviewed extensively, within both academia and industry. I was wined and dined, and I listened attentively to the advice of many professors, postdocs, scientists, and businesspeople. I ended up thoroughly muddled. My academic interviews confirmed my preconceptions: I would indeed be juggling and mastering multiple tasks, writing grants, teaching, mentoring, and administering.

My industrial interviews provided some new revelations. Although in industry I would be working in a functional system, one that wouldn't require me to build a fully-equipped and funded lab from scratch, I felt some reluctance to be part of the compartmentalised organisation that was so necessary for efficient management. I felt it was somewhat confining to someone who had become accustomed to the academic laissez-faire approach of undertaking multiple areas of research and developing multiple expertise. My interviewing experiences only increased my uncertainty of the advantages and disadvantages of both paths. After 6 months of intense thinking and frequent vacillation, I was no closer to a decision than when I had started.

Taking the Middle Road

In the end, I decided to take the middle road; neither academia nor industry, but a non-profit, non-governmental organisation that maintained close links to academia, government, and industry. As with many jobs, I found out about this position through some of my contacts, as it was advertised largely by word-of-mouth. The position required the person to liaise among academia, industry, and government on funding, research, and administrative issues. They required someone who was comfortable and knowledgeable on all fronts, could communicate well, and would provide a common thread among these different fronts. My combination of academic knowledge, communication skills, and relevant industrial experience made me uniquely qualified.

I was offered a research management position, which kept me connected with academia. I was able to attend scientific conferences, meet with academics, and discuss the latest research efforts. At the same time, I was also able to interface with industry. As part of my new position, I was involved in developing partnerships with different biotechnology companies, and I started making new contacts.

The organisation was also beginning to get involved in commercialising certain technologies, and I soon found myself exposed to different business development models. I started attending conferences such as BioFinance in Toronto that catered to academics, venture capitalists, investment bankers, lawyers, health-care professionals, and business people alike in order to keep up with the latest developments in the biotechnology industry.

As part of my job, I also found myself working with government representatives and learning more about various regulatory frameworks. This opened a whole new world of policies, ethics, and law that I had not been aware of. I was grateful for the opportunity to learn about and participate in this new field.

My middle-of-the-road career choice gives me a broader view of the different career prospects in my field. But in addition, I have also gained in-depth exposure to the intricacies and complexities of each field. My interactions with colleagues have given me a better understanding of the commitment and effort it takes to be an academic. I have new respect for biotech industries trying to develop, test, and commercialise new technologies or products. I am sensitive to the tremendous research, discussion, communication, and negotiation efforts it requires to develop policies. My experience in this position will serve me well, should I choose in the future to navigate my way through academia, industry, or government.

Giving Advice, Not Just Taking It

I soon found that my access to different career streams--academia, industry, and government--prompted other students in my research field to ask me questions. The tables had turned, and instead of asking for career advice, I was now providing it. I was happy to provide this advice, some of it recycled from what I had been told during my search. It occurred to me that a formal career panel would be useful way to answer and air some of the questions and dilemmas.

At a scientific conference that I developed for the non-profit organisation, I decided to put together a career panel to address some of the questions. The conference focused on the latest scientific developments and was attended by investigators, graduate students, and postdocs. However, one day at the conference was devoted to exclusively to student presentations and activities, and this seemed a perfect opportunity to conduct such a panel. Panel members consisted of representatives from the biotech industry, technology transfer, academia, a start-up company, and of course, a non-profit organisation. I even had a panellist who spoke about alternate careers: He was developing business, networking, and computing solutions for academia and industry in biotechnology.

The panellists were extremely articulate and presented their career paths and what had brought them to their present jobs. They spoke quite frankly of the advantages and disadvantages of their respective positions, the skill-sets required, and what they most enjoyed about their work. Many of the panellists chartered their career courses as well, speaking of the day when they had been at crossroads themselves, wondering which road to go down. The many diversions and detours each of the panellists had taken were impressive. In very few cases had the panellists ended up in the same career as they had begun in. In fact, if the panellists had one thing in common, it seemed that they were all unafraid of seizing new opportunities and challenges. They had all, it seemed, forged brave, new paths for themselves, and in all cases they seemed content and glad of their decisions.

Listening to the panellists answer questions from the audience, I realised that, like them, I had forged my own path. Unwilling to compromise between two seemingly opposed paths, each with its own attractions and impediments, I had chosen to have both. Although the non-profit position is far from a conventional choice for a scientist, it appears to be working for me. It is teaching me new things about all sides of my field of study. And while my career is evolving through various detours and side-steps, at the end of the day I believe we make all our career choices work for us--there is no right or wrong answer.

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