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Potentially crazy (or dumb) idea about building networks and transitioning fields

PostPosted: Mon Nov 16, 2015 2:04 am
by CJB
(1) I'm nearly done my PhD in what roughly is developmental biology with a focus on gene regulation (lots of molecular genetics tricks and tools to study enhancers.) I want to switch fields somewhat. Really it's applying and extending what I learned and did during my PhD to some atypical systems for producing biologics and industrially/medicinally relevant small molecules. At first blush I'm of from a totally different field. But the problem solving approaches (both conceptual and at the bench) I learned as a PhD student appears to be exactly what the field is asking for to pushing things forward according to recent reviews and what appears to be active research at some of the leading labs in the field. These things including developing better expression systems, better transgenesis, and establishment of that new catchphrase in synthetic biology "platform strains." Maybe I'm oversimplifying, but it seems to be finding expression permissive loci, regulatory DNA that behaves usefully, and packaging it in to user friendly tools.

(2) Since I'm switching fields and model systems I'm planning on doing a brief post-doc in one of the leading labs in the field. The application package will be going out in the next few weeks. The lab is situated in a hub city for this sort of work and the university has a great biotech incubator facility for scaling up from boutique labwork to industrial quantities. By dredging publication records, lab alumni pages, and checking it against the internet archive, it looks like the lab has a nearly 100% placement rate of postdocs in to what appear to be decent industry positions and no red flags of postdocs who disappear from science to never be heard from again. Great opportunity. It also physically gets me in the right place to build my network. Most biotech jobs, as far as I can tell, are found by word of mouth and recommendations, especially at the entry level. I want to put myself smack in the middle of that.

(3) I think my choice of post-doc lab and project is a good one to build my CV towards something companies that do that sort of work would want. But, I'm not sure.

So I was considering contacting the companies I might potentially be applying to 2-3 years from now about what skills and experience I should pick up as a postdoc if I were to apply to them. Where do they think the field is going, and what potentially atypical skill sets I might want to develop. At the very least, I may make contacts early on in the very industry I'm interested in joining who may later be very useful when finally finding a "real job."

Is that totally out to lunch? Do people do that sort of thing? What approaches would you suggest?

My PI and PhD committee are very supportive, but they're of little help to me on matters involving getting a job outside of academia, so that's why I'm turning to teh interwebs.

Thanks for any and all input :)

Re: Potentially crazy (or dumb) idea about building networks and transitioning fields

PostPosted: Mon Nov 16, 2015 12:29 pm
by Craig B.
That doesn't sound "out to lunch" at all. Your goal (3) is really just "informational interviewing," and I'm sure you can find a lot of advice about how to go about it either on the forum or in the science careers archive.

Two suggestions:
1) It seems like you have a lot riding on getting your short postdoc in a specific lab. Unless you've been in regular/recent communication with the PI there and know there's an opening, come up with a plan B, C, D, etc.

2) You'd probably have a hard time cold-calling companies to try and get an informational interview, so contact people who area already in or adjacent to your network--former graduate students in your program who are in industry, alumni from your school, etc. Even if they don't work for a company you're interested in, they can give you valuable insights about transitioning to industry.

Re: Potentially crazy (or dumb) idea about building networks and transitioning fields

PostPosted: Tue Nov 17, 2015 9:55 am
by Dustin Levy

You have a better plan than I did when I was in your position.

I think it's entirely fair to connect on LinkedIn with people already working at your target companies. In your request to connect, I highly recommend you state your purpose for wanting to connect instead of using the canned "I'd like to connect..." request. Some people will ignore you, but others will remember what it was like when they were in your shoes and will pay it forward. Stay connected with those individuals periodically and they may open doors for you in the future.

Also prepare yourself to hear that many behavioral skills are desired in industry, not just research skills and experience. Lots of examples of these discussions on this forum and these core interpersonal skills (leadership, communication, time management, etc.) will be just as important as your publication record.

Best of luck!

Re: Potentially crazy (or dumb) idea about building networks and transitioning fields

PostPosted: Tue Nov 17, 2015 3:31 pm
by CJB
Thanks for the feedback. I'll look in to :informational interviewing." I understand that my approach at this time is sort of a one asset strategy, especially as I described it. I am looking at other plans as well. Some of them involve leaving the research side of science entirely. I might post on those plans later. I'm trying to balance being focused and diversifying.

Dustin, I'm wondering what qualifies as leadership or communication "points" when moving on from a post-doc to an industry position? In your experience, what would you suggest one start doing?

During my PhD I've done a bit of science outreach (e.g. volunteering with "Let's Talk Science") and I run a science related blog that generates new content on the science of one of the potential applications of what I want to do during my Post-doc (the science behind a widely used class of consumer products.) Although, I only recently started the blog as a way to genuinely broaden my horizons as I look to switch fields not just as potential CV padding... Honestly, I've noticed a lot of people suddenly create twitter accounts and re-tweet a bunch of science related stuff during the last six months of their PhD. When they get a postdoc position, the account goes dead. That seems sort of BS (biological scrap) to me. But maybe that's how the game is played.

I haven't held any official leadership positions for anything during my PhD because my institution has some weird internal politics between PIs. It seems that there are two labs from which students are allowed to sit on the graduate student association and organize the monthly student lead research presentations. Trying to start one's own journal club or association tends to cause upset and fizzle out very quickly- many have tried.

That said, I've managed anywhere between one and four undergrads as project students or summer students throughout most of my PhD. They've been productive enough that their names do rightly go on papers. My PI is very hands off with respect to the undergrads, so it really is up to the grad students to learn how to lead and mentor at least a small team of junior people. Does something like that count?

Re: Potentially crazy (or dumb) idea about building networks and transitioning fields

PostPosted: Tue Nov 17, 2015 4:25 pm
by Dustin Levy
Great topic. Let’s talk about what leadership is and isn’t. There are a lot of definitions out there, but the best I’ve heard is that leaders are people who are able to help others accomplish what they couldn’t on their own. You mention in your post that you “haven’t held any official leadership positions” during your Ph.D. studies. That’s fine, because leadership isn’t a title, it’s a behavior. You can lead from anywhere, regardless of your title or position.

Leadership isn’t doing other people’s work for them. Leadership isn’t being the smartest person in the room and giving out all of the answers. Your example of managing undergraduate students’ participation in project work could be a great one. One question I might ask in an interview would be “tell me about a mistake an undergraduate made under your watch, and how you corrected it.” If your answer indicates that you corrected it yourself and reassigned them to a new task, then you weren’t leading. If your answer indicates that you helped them understand the mistake they made, the impacts of it, helped them resolve it, and they didn’t make the same mistake again, you were leading. (My interview question is carefully worded. By asking how YOU corrected it, I’m baiting you into the first answer. The right behavior is that you don’t correct it, the undergraduate corrects it with your help).

Regarding your comments about blogging and tweeting. If you’re only doing this to “get your name out there”, that’s self-serving and I’ll pick you apart in an interview. If you’re, as you say, “broadening your horizons”, that’s better. If you’re doing it to help educate others in a field of interest to you, and people are following it, then you’re leading. You are helping people accomplish something that they couldn’t on their own.

I practiced very little leadership when I was in graduate school. I was 100% focused on getting my publications and getting out, to hell with anyone or anything that might get in the way of that. I learned some hard lessons about being too self-focused when I tried to advance my career in industry.

Finally, your leadership examples need not be connected to science at all. Employers would love to hear examples of your leadership behavior from outside of the lab too.