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Have PhD, Will Travel


I'm sure you have all found yourselves in this situation: You are busily working in the lab and suddenly, an unknown person shows up at your door. They introduce themselves as a sales rep from some company that you either don't care about or have never heard of. You think to yourself, "Oh no, what's he going to try and sell me now?" and "How can I get out of here?" You get rid of the person as soon as you can and think to yourself, "Boy, I'd hate to have that job."

At least, that's what I used to think as a PhD student. But now I find myself filling the shoes of the dreaded sales representative ? and I love it! Why the change of heart, and how did I end up here?

Well, I started off on a fairly traditional route. I did my PhD in molecular and developmental neurobiology at the University of Toronto, and completed it in just over 5 years. With seven first-author publications, I thought I would be in a good position to become a professor back in Toronto after a quick postdoc in the United States. I was offered a great opportunity at Brown University in Rhode Island and started there a week after I graduated, in March 1996.

I was quickly promoted to the non-tenure-track position of assistant professor of research. The problem was, of course, that this was a contract job and I would need to look for my job of choice--a tenure-track position--soon. After 2 years at Brown, I had co-authored a couple papers, but I had not made the highly desired first-author spot. At the rate I was going, I figured I would need at least another 5 years to generate enough publications in high-ranking journals to give me any hope of being able to choose where to start my own lab. Even then, I would have to count on a lot of luck and endure many 70-hour weeks in the lab. My wife and I both wanted to move back to Canada and start a family, but the chances of getting an academic position in Canada seemed as likely as winning the lottery.

There had to be another answer. The choice, in my mind, was between academia and starting a new path in business. The idea of getting into business had always been percolating inside me. When I started graduate studies, I had ideas of doing an MBA to complement my graduate degree. In addition, our family owns a business, so I understand some of the risks and rewards compared to academia. Therefore, the idea of switching from academia into business was easier for me than most, I think. The only question I had, really, was whether I would be throwing away my training by moving into business.

I soon learned I could use the skills I had developed, as the level of science in many biotech companies is very advanced. Virtually all of these companies are linked to academic institutions through collaborations, sponsorships, and common interests.

Biotech companies looked like a good way for scientists to excel in nonacademic careers. After a little investigating, I discovered that these types of companies were hungry for scientists and offered many nice benefits, such as 40- to 50-hour weeks, higher salaries, paid vacations, and medical, dental, and pension plans. Some even offered stock options.

I finally settled into a product management position at a well-respected molecular biology company in Boston, called MJ Research, Incorporated. MJ Research makes and sells laboratory instruments such as thermal cyclers, sequencers, and real-time quantitative systems. In addition, they sell a wide range of plastics and some newly developed DNA polymerases. The company's thermal cyclers were used by every major genome centre during the sequencing of the human genome and were most recently used by the BC Cancer Agency during the sequencing of the SARS virus.

The job at MJ Research was challenging and it allowed me to use many of the skills that I had developed in academia. For example, I was running lab experiments to make sure our products could live up to their claims. I was also giving talks, organising workshops, writing documents, and interacting with leading academics across the continent. This was all great experience, but I wasn't getting a good sense of my place in the company; I felt like I was being pulled in various directions without any real understanding of why. I think most graduate students become accustomed to running their experiments their way and having more control over their day-to-day activities than they typically would in another job. In order to gain this independence, I knew that I would need to move up in the company. What I didn't realize at the time was that I really wanted to have a role in establishing the overall direction of the company. The main thing holding me back was a lack of experience.

What became very clear to me during my tenure in product management was the need to understand the customers that the company serves; only then I would be in a good position to suggest changes in the company's operations. And the only way to truly understand the customer was to move into a sales position. You need to know how your customer thinks, as well as how to sell to them. Most of the top managers in biotech companies have some sales experience. It was clear if you wanted to be in upper management in large or small companies, you would need to know how to sell. In some industries, top managers have MBA degrees, but in biotechnology, it seems to be more important to have the science background than anything else--it's easier to teach a scientist how to run a business than teach a businessperson how to think like a scientist. Others in the company also suggested that I switch to sales if I wanted more promotion or growth opportunities.

Moving into sales turned out to be a fairly easy transition, as I had great mentors with a lot of management and business experience to guide me. I quickly learned that listening to the customer is the most important part of my interaction with them. It's my job to help the customer figure out what products will best suit their research needs, and in many cases, we work hand-in-hand with the researcher to design experiments that reduce time and cost.

Not surprisingly, a job in sales involves a great deal of travel and knocking on doors. The sales territory I took over was the entire country of Canada. This, to me, seemed like an impossible job. I traveled from one end of the country to the other talking about our products. You always find customers that are simply not interested in talking or listening to you, and that's fine. But it is very rewarding when you find new customers that didn't know a certain technology existed, and you have a chance to teach them something that will have a very real impact on their research.

The first year in sales was definitely the hardest, especially on my wife and family. Yet I was very successful and was soon made the sole representative of MJ Instrument Sales Co., a company, headquartered in Toronto, that was created to serve as a sales agent for MJ Research Products in Canada.

Travel is always an issue when you have a young family, but over time my travel schedule has become much more manageable. Customers now know and trust me, and many issues and questions can be dealt with over the phone instead of person-to-person. As our business has grown over the last 4 years, we have hired three additional sales staff in the Canadian office, which also means that we can offer our customers a higher level of support. But the pressures on my time were worth it: My wife and I have realized our goal of moving back to Toronto and now we are close to those people that mean the most to us, our family.

I have transitioned into more of a management-type of position, as a big part of my job now is training and managing the other sales reps in Canada. At the same time, I have the flexibility to work with other biotech companies that are trying to break into the Canadian market with complementary products. I also work with some very talented marketing people in the Boston office to increase awareness of their products in Canada, and with scientists at MJ Bioworks, Inc., a research company that works to solve some technological hurdles in the industry. For example, we just launched a new DNA polymerase, PHUSION, that incorporates technology developed at MJ Bioworks. PHUSION is both extremely fast and extremely accurate, and with it we can now amplify the entire 28 Kb genome of the SARS virus with zero errors in under 4 hours, instead of 1 day with multiple errors. Our R&D efforts, when combined with attendance at industry conferences, allow us to remain up-to-date with the latest technologies and trends in science. As a result, we are viewed by the research community not only as sales people, but also as scientists who can provide valuable input into the client's research.

The move from academia to the business world was not all smooth sailing by any means. My former advisers were not very supportive. And I had assumed that once I left academia there would be no returning to it. But while I think this is largely true for people in my position, I've been asked on occasion to apply for academic positions across the country. It seems that some universities are realizing that they will have to develop more industry- and job-based skills among their faculty to keep up with the rapidly evolving technologies in science. However, I can honestly say I'm very happy with my decision, both intellectually and financially, and wouldn't give up what I have now for a life in academia. I would encourage those of you thinking about switching from academia to business to think about sales. It will give you an above-average salary and options to move into product management, sales support, customer service, product development, and even biotech research. If you have a PhD or a master's degree and you have sales experience, your career path will broaden more than you can imagine.