Tooling Up: Two Choke Points

CREDIT: Kelly Krause, AAAS

Career planning is important; we all know that. It's something I write about frequently.

The problem that many people run into when they pick a job that sounds interesting is that there's no direct path.

For some people, the career plan itself is a source of motivation; it gets them off their butts and out doing the things they need to do to get the job they want.

But for others, the plan and its execution -- doing all the little things necessary to move from a graduate degree or postdoc to a job in industry -- is intimidating. It works against them. They freeze up and get stuck, or they can't get started.

"Sure, I've got a plan. I know I'd like to be in a business development or technology transfer career in a few years," one academic scientist, whom I'll call Annie, told me recently. "All I seem to be able to accomplish is an occasional application to a company on the Internet. No one appears to take any notice of me because I haven't got the right experience mix for even an entry-level job in my field of choice."

When I spoke to Annie, her frustration was running high. She had gathered a mountain of information, but she was stuck. She didn't know what to do. I advised her to step back and defocus. When she did that, she realized that her job search faced two main obstacles, not 200. I call them choke points.

Those same two choke points separate many academia-based job seekers from careers they aspire to on the business side of science. Many of those job seekers become frustrated because they try -- and fail -- to squeeze through both of those choke points at once.

Don't choke

Let's say you're finishing your Ph.D., or finished it within the past couple of years, and you've looked closely at the jobs people do in industry. Perhaps you've decided to pursue a career in business development (BD). Or maybe it is regulatory affairs or manufacturing operations. Scientists in these areas need a very good understanding of bench science, but they don't do research anymore.

As an example, BD specialists collaborate with scientists at other companies and institutions or develop plans to attract resources from larger entities for research and development collaborations. They are out front in a company, driving new partnerships, licensing new technologies, and setting the course for the growth of the business. It's a cool job for some because it uses the Ph.D. and involves you with people, and with business, in situations where the transactions are all science-based.

What are the major hurdles between you and a job in many of these careers? There are two: the academia-to-industry transition and the science-to-business transition. These transitions are related, but they are distinct.

If you find yourself paralyzed by an overly complex long-term plan, try focusing on the next choke point. Once you've cleared it, you can move on toward the next one and start planning for it.

The first choke point

The problem that many people run into when they pick a job that sounds interesting is that there's no direct path. You have to take one step at a time.

The first step is to remove the stigma that many industry hiring managers attach to academic scientists. You do this by building a bridge between your work in academia and what they are looking for in industry. Here are your options:

- When it comes to postdocs, you may have already said "enough is enough" -- and that can be a good attitude. But you should recognize that an industry postdoc is a good way to glide past this tough choke point. These postdocs are short and introduce you to the culture of industry. You'll make a lot of new contacts -- a whole new branch for your network -- who can assist you when your job search resumes.

- Take courses at a local college -- a community college is fine -- on topics such as good manufacturing practices or biomanufacturing processes, or literally anything that is done in industry, even if it doesn't seem to fit your plan. Take a certificate course in regulatory affairs or a couple of semesters of "finance for the nonfinancial executive." Even if it's not closely related to where you want to end up, it will separate you from the mass of job seekers.

- Participate in trade shows and meetings such as those sponsored by the Biotechnology Industry Organization or other industry groups and network like crazy. Organizers of these conferences often have postdoc volunteers working the meeting rooms to assist presenters with slides or at the registration table to sign people in. I know people who have gotten passes to $700 meetings simply by asking and claiming postdoc poverty.

- Here's a piece of advice I haven't offered in a while: Seek temporary work with a scientific staffing company. The economy is inching back up, and companies are adding staff, but they're doing it tentatively by hiring temps. So take a 6-month job on a contract, even if it is ho-hum work that you could do in your sleep. Do your job well and make a point of getting along with people. Just getting experience in -- and a good recommendation from -- a company has value.

It's never a good idea to take a compromise job that will hurt you in the long run, like a B.S./M.S. position if you are a Ph.D. That's too much of a compromise. But, when landing that first industry gig, be a little flexible. A person looking for a career in regulatory affairs or business development can start out with a job in an assay-development group on the biomanufacturing floor or in a temp-staffing company running quality-control tests. You'll find work that inspires you no matter where you start out. It's nothing more than a way to get past this nasty choke point and align the stars for your second transition. This isn't a time to be picky.

But be careful: Don't get stuck after this first transition. You don't want to find yourself 4 years later still working for a temp company or running assays in a quality-control job. Once you've got that first bit of industry experience on your curriculum vitae, you need to start bridging that next choke point, the science-to-business transition.

The science-to-business transition

This one is much easier than the first. Once you have some industry experience -- just a year or two to break down that culture barrier and show what you can do -- you'll have access to a new type of networking contact. Instead of a big, broad networking campaign -- the kind we discuss often here at Science Careers -- this will be internal networking.

Get to know the people in the regulatory affairs group. Network with the people in business development. Ask about their jobs. Show interest, help out where you can, and volunteer to assist on special projects. Networking is good in any context, but it's especially effective within an organization you already work for.

Most science-to-business career moves occur in the company you're already employed in. It is much, much easier than finding a new job with another company.

First things first, second things second

Many people attempt to jump over both transitions at once by moving directly from academia into their ideal job. It doesn't work. It creates frustration. First, make the leap into industry. Then seek the job you really want to be doing.

Annie still hasn't bridged her first choke point, but she has reinvigorated her job search by setting aside that long-term career plan to concentrate solely on breaking down the doors to industry. Now it's only a matter of time.

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