Taken for Granted: Doing Something Different With Your Science

New American science Ph.D.s emerge from graduate school with a degree, expertise they hope will appeal to journal editors, funding agencies, and hiring committees, and often thousands of dollars of debt left over from their undergraduate days. The postdoc appointment that typically follows rarely allows them to pay down that debt. So why would anyone

Because, says Mark Brown, a Ph.D. pharmacologist who took that unconventional step, the additional year of study provides "tools to move into industry and make an immediate contribution" to a company, and to do so at "a substantial increase in income" over what he might otherwise have earned.

If we really believe in what we research, if we believe there's a benefit, we need to try to get it to market so people will stop reinventing the wheel and wasting grad student after grad student doing the same things.

--Claudia Lee

Brown is one of a handful of scientists who thus far have received a Postdoctoral Professional Masters (PPM) degree from the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences in Claremont, California. The newly accredited program, the first of its kind anywhere, is a version of the professional science master's degree programs for college graduates now proliferating across the country. The PPM is designed to prepare scientists who already have Ph.D.s to "pursue senior management positions within the life sciences industry or embark on entrepreneurial ventures ... to commercialize technologies developed in laboratories," says the Web site of the specialized graduate school, a component of the highly regarded Claremont University Consortium. Science Careers spoke to three of the program's four alumni.*

Early last month, Brown joined Claremont BioSolutions of Upland, California, a producer of molecular diagnostic devices, as a product-development scientist. He says he will be "working in the science part and also involved in the business side of things." Like all PPM graduates to date, Brown had his job lined up before graduation, says KGI's President Sheldon Schuster. "If it hadn't been for coming to KGI," Brown said, "I would never have been here at this company."

Worth the cost?

Perhaps he wouldn't have, but if he were resourceful, he would have ended up some place just as good. That's the opinion privately expressed by some critics of the program. People smart and disciplined enough to earn doctorates in science should not need a yearlong, full-time program costing $25,000 to make the transition from academia to industry. They can, proponents of this view maintain, learn the requisite material much more cheaply in lectures, seminars, or online courses during their postdoc years. And anyway, these critics argue, shouldn't employers foot the bill for such vocational training?

Molecular biologist Jennifer Woo, a fellow alumna, laughs out loud at the first suggestions. "In academia you think, 'Oh, I can learn about XYZ,' " she says. "I could have taken up a business book and learned about the biotech business. ... But I couldn't talk with professors who are actually in the biotech business; I couldn't interact with people on the [KGI] Advisory Council who started their own companies." Keck maintains close ties with people in its industry. Four dozen leaders of large and small companies serve on Keck's Advisory Council, many of whom are regular visitors to the Keck campus where they often speak with students. No book, Woo says, could have landed her an internship in the regulatory and clinical department of the biopharmaceutical company Regeneron, where she now has a permanent position in regulatory affairs.

The PPM program, Schuster says, doesn't provide students just an academic grounding in business. It immerses them in the culture of industry, which differs markedly from that of academe. Industry "has a completely different language, a completely different structure," agrees Brown. To really learn the culture, "you actually have to jump in and understand it from a gut level, you actually have to participate in it."

KGI provides that opportunity by building much of its program around large, yearlong team projects that resemble projects common in industry, Schuster explains. Students with a range of backgrounds, expertise, and responsibilities work together on a common task. "A team will take a big project and work at it from a bunch of different angles and have a definitive goal at the end that will either be success or failure," he says. The academic research labs where PPM students trained in science, on the other hand, "rarely work as teams." Scientists in academe, he says, work independently on parts of problems and take independent credit for their contributions. They're not teams of interdependent partners "working toward a common goal," he says.

The PPM degree, Schuster continues, prepares students for the particular rhythms of industrial work. "It's a very different atmosphere. ... You have to understand that in business there are very definitive time lines. ... Scientists also need to relearn the art" -- which, he says, many have forgotten since undergraduate days -- "of balancing a whole bunch of different kinds of things that are going on at once."

Shouldn't companies be providing such training? "Not in this economy, not even close," Schuster says. "They don't have time to train you, and looking at the job market, they don't need to train you" because they can easily find people who already have the training they're looking for. Scientists who seek industrial jobs, he believes, need to assume that today the burden of preparing for industry rests with the applicant rather than the employer.

A broader view of science

An equally crucial part of KGI's program, says bioengineer Claudia Lee, a PPM graduate now heading technology development for Maven Biotechnologies of Pasadena, California, is the broad orientation to business that it provides. Having pursued the PPM part time while employed at UVP, a bioimaging company in nearby Upland, Lee already has several years of industrial experience.

What Keck's PPM teaches, Lee says, is how to turn scientific innovation into useful products. "I invented something that became a product," she explains, "and the accounting department was hunting me down about how to calculate the amount of chemical used in my product. Before I went to accounting class, I really didn't understand why they have to know this. It doesn't sound at all interesting, a waste of time. ... Then I realized, wait a minute, if I don't spend the time to give them correct information, inventory management will be screwed up. We won't be able to provide my product at a reasonable quality because I'm not helping them to get the inventory managed at an acceptable quality." Scientists who don't understand such matters -- and it is difficult, she says, to get the full picture on one's own -- may "make a mistake ... and pay for it with their career."

The PPM "gives you the business background, it gives you the network," Brown says. "And that network is invaluable for not only getting your initial job" but for moving up in later years.

Economies of scale

The three scientists Science Careers spoke with share something beyond their satisfaction with the PPM program: a desire, as Woo puts it, to see their science "get out to patients," to have "actual impact" on human welfare in the real world. Industry, they agree, is the way to accomplish that. During her graduate work, Lee "came up with inventions that have important applications in a few fields," she says. Making them available to advance research, however, requires bringing them to market. She realized this when she received multiple offers of postdoc appointments from principal investigators who asked, "Can you build the same microscope you've built in grad school for me? It's not available on the market."

Duplicating that effort as a postdoc would have wasted her time, Lee says. "I want to make sure that everyone who needs this microscope gets one and then move on to other things." That meant learning how to commercialize a product, she says. "If we really believe in what we research, if we believe there's a benefit, we need to try to get it to market so people will stop reinventing the wheel and wasting grad student after grad student doing the same things."

Accomplishing this also requires overcoming academia's "stereotypical view of biotech and pharma as being evil, the dark side," says Woo. Schuster agrees. "You get faculty saying, 'You're giving up science,' " by entering industry, he says. "We [at KGI] argue very, very strongly that nothing could be further from the truth. You're not giving up science at all. You're just doing something different with it."

The KGI program is "for a select group," Schuster says, "who realize they have to invest in using [their] science in a different way. This is a way to take your science and have it benefit society in a very direct kind of way, and ... to take your career to a different level."

All three scientists Science Careers spoke to are now pursuing their interests at jobs that pay in the "high five figures to start" and provide "benefits -- health insurance, vacation, and retirement -- and [probably] a bonus and stock," Schuster notes. He declines to give specifics about personal pay packages but indicates that starting at $80,000 or more is not unheard of. "I think [the PPM] is an excellent investment," he says.

*The fourth alumnus, the one we didn't speak to, is a KGI employee.

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