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The Applications Scientist Career Track


Many grad students and postdocs are missing a key step in their career plan, and it makes them uncomfortable. Some of them know, for example, that they want to be in business development or regulatory affairs instead of at the bench, but they don't know how to get from here to there.

True, a detailed career plan isn't always necessary; serendipity affects all of us, especially in our early years. Sometimes things miraculously fall into place. Yet having the first couple of steps clearly visualized is important; if you don't have a path laid out clearly in your mind, your chance of reaching your goal is diminished.

Do you see yourself in a business-leadership role 5 years from now, but don't see how to get from your Ph.D. or postdoc to that desired future?

In this month's Tooling Up, I am going to highlight a very useful link -- a job category that some scientists have found eases the transition to industry, including to non-research positions. The job, "Applications Scientist," is one of the best stepping stones from the bench to a range of opportunities in industry.

Single vs. multi-step career transitions

Some goals can be reached by continuing on the path you are already on. It's entirely possible for a biochemist to proceed directly to industry research and development work, if the candidate is working in an appropriate research field and has a strong record. Moving from bench to bench, academic to industrial, can be done in a single step. But some transitions -- like the move from research to the business side of scientific industry -- usually require at least two steps. That makes the transition much harder to envision and to orchestrate.

When I ask an experienced industry person in marketing, tech transfer, regulatory affairs, or operations management how they made their transition from academia, more than three-quarters will tell me about their stint at the bench. Most industry employees with advanced science degrees spend their first few years in industry doing what they did in academia: cranking out science. That's because companies typically hire you to do what you're doing right now, or something very close. They don't hire you because you have the words "business development" written into your objective statement. What reason would they have for thinking you'd be good at that? These senior staffers go on to tell me that their grand career plan kicked in later, when they were offered a position in a new area of the company, away from the bench.

But not everyone wants to wade through several more years of shake flasks and pipettors, in hopes that serendipity and networking will eventually lead to where they want to be. Many are more comfortable taking steps -- now -- that keep their options open but help them move toward the career they want to end up in.

Applications and support positions offer a diversity of work experiences

"Applications scientists" provide support to customers of companies in the laboratory equipment, reagents, or lab-services industry. "There are a lot of different jobs that qualify as 'support,' " says Dr. Peter Herzer, who just left Eppendorf after 3 years as an applications scientist.

When technical inquiries from customers can't be met by telephone and e-mail tech-support teams, they escalate to applications scientists. "Especially when they require lab work, an applications scientist speaks with the customer and can go so far as to test samples or specific applications," Herzer continues. Herzer has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Rutgers University; such high-level credentials are common among applications scientists, and often are necessary for dealing with the complexity of modern research tools.

Applications people, Herzer says, can be either in the lab or in the field. In the lab, applications scientists tend to have more hands-on experience and often a higher education level than the front-line technical support staff. Their training -- and the labs they have at their disposal -- enables them to approach customer problems in a more sophisticated way. The field applications scientist (often referred to by the acronym FAS) works in the field, helping customers do their own work and working on collaborative projects. They also provide training, set up equipment, and deliver presentations and product demonstrations at customer sites and conferences.

"Field applications scientists troubleshoot via phone and e-mail as well, but they do have a significant amount of travel expected of them because much of what they do is face-to-face with the customer," Herzer continues, raising an aspect of the job -- travel -- that can be either a plus or a minus. Few people travel more than field applications scientists.

Patricia Bresnahan, who has a Ph.D. in cell biology, is currently a senior marketing manager for flow cytometry systems at Life Technologies. She spent several years in applications scientist roles before moving on to marketing and business. She looks back at her days in applications support fondly. "Some people absolutely love the travel, and they stay on in field applications scientist positions rather than moving over to a corporate job," Bresnahan says. "If you have kids, it helps to have a stay-at-home spouse."

Requirements for an applications scientist position

Applications-scientist jobs are a bit unusual in that their educational requirements can be all over the board, depending upon the product or service involved and how fast a person can come up to speed in the use and training of that product. But the extra skills that Ph.D.s bring can add a lot of value; it is not uncommon now for applications scientist positions to require a PhD, or at least prefer one. Bresnahan took her first applications job after two postdocs; her seniority allowed her to enter industry with a higher salary than many other applications scientists.

"My postdoctoral experience and the Ph.D. were actually very helpful, despite the fact that the job specs did not require it," Bresnahan says. "My job required me to train internal sales staff and also customers, so I gave technical seminars to support sales. I found that my previous experience in giving talks at conferences helped a great deal. I also edited training manuals, and the writing skills I picked up in my Ph.D. were important. Of course, interpersonal skills are a must-have for the FAS -- especially taking blunt criticism, an area for which graduate school trains you very well," Bresnahan says with a laugh.

Bresnahan says critical thinking skills are also essential, because application scientists need to be able to troubleshoot problems systematically and to make a logical story out of complex relationships between technology (software/instrumentation) and applications (reagents/biology/chemistry). Bresnahan probes deeply in hiring interviews to determine how -- and how well -- a candidate thinks through problems.

It helps to be extroverted, to enjoy meeting new people, and to be even-tempered, she says. "I look for good technical abilities, but also those interpersonal skills and even a candidate's sensitivity to cultural differences. I like to ask a candidate if they have ever worked in a service industry. ... I did catering before graduate school, and that was good experience working under stress and timelines."

Moving beyond applications support

Both Herzer and Bresnahan agreed with my central theme: that this position can be a unique game-changer for the person wanting to move into a variety of "non-bench" positions, away from the bench. "I've seen a lot of FASs move into sales because of their relationship with the sales force," Herzer says. Field application scientists who want to stay in the field sometimes move to the sales force because the salary and commission packages salespeople earn, particularly M.S. and Ph.D.-level sales reps, are considerably higher than salaries for many other science-related career choices.

Furthermore, "there are always applications people moving into product management and marketing." Product-management jobs are a logical move up for an FAS, since knowledge of an area of research, combined with a business perspective, prepares applications scientists for the challenges of bringing new concepts to market and providing the resulting products with the support they need to succeed. Herzer and Bresnahan have also seen applications scientists move back into the lab as R&D staff. In short, opportunities beyond an applications scientist post are diverse and accessible thanks to the wide range of skills, challenges, and experiences the work provides.

If you've got a two-step career change coming, put this kind of position at the top of your list.

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