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A transition from postdoc to industry

I recently had the chance to catch up with neuroscientist Ana Mingorance after she spoke to postdocs about her experience transitioning from academia to industry. After earning her Ph.D. and doing a postdoc, Ana went on to work in discovery research at UCB, a global biopharma company, and later founded Dracaena Consulting, a company that helps find better therapies for neurological and rare diseases. She is also the scientific director of the Dravet Syndrome Foundation, a nonprofit patient organization focused on research into the rare disease for which it is named.

In her talk, Ana zeroed in on several lessons that are critical for postdocs to think about so that they can make the best use of their time in academia and set themselves up to make the move to industry as smoothly and successfully as possible. Here are some of her pointers. 

Choose the right adviser. When Ana was deciding on a postdoc, she knew that there were a number of things she should do during that time to make the future transition to industry as easy as possible. She also knew that doing these things would be much harder if she didn’t have the support of her principal investigator (PI). Rather than leaving this to chance, she took the bull by the horns with her new prospective PI. “The day I first met my postdoc PI, I asked him a question that turned out to be decisive for my future career,” she said. “‘I want to move to industry after my postdoc,’ I told him. … ‘Would you support me?’ This question was important to me and I didn’t want any surprises later.”

“Interviews are a two-way street, so you need to use them to get a feeling of whether that PI will help you succeed,” she said. “Perhaps some readers will find my direct question too straightforward. If that’s the case, they might ask the prospective PI instead about her connections and collaborations with industry, and how she feels about her trainees going to work for a company after they graduate.”

Too many newly graduated Ph.D.s will grab up the first postdoc they can find, only thinking about their interest in the work involved and not focusing enough on how that PI’s attitudes will fit within their career plan. But choosing a supportive PI is one of the best investments you can make in your career.

Choose a project that is of interest to industry employers. If you are interested in a research position in industry, you will probably be hired for one of two types of knowledge: either because you know a disease very well or because you know a useful technique. “Ideally you’ll have both,” Ana told me. “And when you do, you’re able to package it all up into a great job talk—something that gets the attention of employers. You should be thinking about that job talk from the day you select your project.”

If you are already years into your project and it is too late to change, don’t despair. Try conducting some informational interviews with industry scientists and asking them to help you identify where your expertise will be useful within industry. After a couple of conversations with industry professionals, you’ll find out what they see in your CV and you can focus on that.

Use your university’s resources. Ana tells me that one of her best experiences from her postdoc was joining the postdoc association and getting involved in organizing a career seminar series. “This helped me learn about other people's career choices and their motivations, get a feeling for what I might like personally, and gave me a great network of informal advisers,” she told me. Listening to what others did and the mistakes they’d avoid if they could do it again is always an eye-opening experience.

More broadly, Ana recommends making sure that you get the most out of what your university has to offer. For instance, she says, “I also worked closely with our technology transfer office and got to draft two patents—an experience I didn’t enjoy at first, but that later became important to industry hiring managers.” If opportunities like Ana’s are not available in your area of interest, volunteer to make them happen! Of course, that is so much easier when you have a supportive PI.

Network to uncover opportunities. No “Tooling Up” reader needs to be reminded that networking is important. Still, when you think about how many positions are not seen publicly, you begin to realize why this is. “Positions are often created for you by people who have met you and want to bring you on board—that’s such a large percentage of Ph.D. hires,” Ana says. I would agree with her.

So, she continues, “if you are only following online advertised positions, you are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. I made sure I would talk to people from industry at every conference I attended. Because I’m rather shy, I tricked myself into talking to them by reviewing the attendees list for the conferences before the meeting and sending them an email asking them to meet over coffee. That way I was sure I wouldn’t shy away at the very last minute.”

Sure, it takes guts, but even the introvert can accomplish this. It can help to think of networking as a necessary tool for your long-term career goals, and not just in the job market.

Start looking for a job before you need one. Ana’s transition didn’t happen overnight. In fact, there were 13 months between the time she sent her first job application to the time that she received an offer. “All of my interview invitations seem to have been bunched up at the very end, so it was a very stressful process,” she says. “And a complicating factor for me is that I was doing my postdoc in Canada but looking for a job back in Europe.”

“You might find out that you can get your ideal job much sooner than I did, or perhaps you are geographically restricted so that it ends up taking you even longer. But my main lesson here was not to underestimate the unpredictability of the whole job search process. I had to learn that frustration and stress are always with you. My recommendation is that you start very early and that you have back up plans in place.”

Create luck. If luck is about being in the right place at the right time, Ana is proof that you can create luck by “getting busy,” as she calls it—in other words, by getting involved in extracurricular activities, attending conferences, and meeting people.  That’s how Ana created the circumstances that led to her job offer.

“At the end, the way I got my first job in industry was very unexpected,” she says. “I reached out to a scientist that I had met just once at a conference and asked him to help get me in touch with someone at his company to ask about potential positions. Instead, he asked an external recruiter to phone interview me for an opening—one that I was not qualified for. What my contact had done was to get me on the radar of the recruiter, even if it was for the wrong position, and that paid off.”

“A month later, that recruiter contacted me again. My target department was expanding and this person had told them that she already knew the ideal candidate. It all moved very fast. … I went from phone interview to an interview in Europe to an offer within weeks. They didn’t even wait to look for other candidates. I had landed in the hidden job market!”

In my discussion with Ana, what stood out to me is that she learned early on that people are more important to your career than techniques or specific scientific knowledge. She closed our conversation with this advice: “As scientists, we risk overestimating the importance of one more paper or a higher impact factor to our career, and underestimate the importance of having a supportive manager or casting a wide network of contacts through extracurricular activities. So my advice to make your career as easy as possible is to surround yourself with people that want to see you succeed. And, get busy to get lucky!”

with Ana Mingorance

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