Career Quagmire: Solutions Welcome

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Career Quagmire: Solutions Welcome

Postby Nate W. » Sun Jan 24, 2016 10:39 pm

Dear Forum,

This forum has always given sage advice. I could use the forum’s help on a problem:

I maybe have unintentionally shot myself in the foot. If you look at my background, it appears by paper that I am scientist with a high level of technical expertise. I have first author papers, pre-doctoral travel awards, teaching experience, and even industry experience in drug development. I have managed labs and held scientist or technical positions at great organizations. My experience in academia also includes collaborations with medical affairs teams whereby we would characterize compounds in support of basic research and clinical trials. However, there is one problem. I only have a MS.

My goal has been to get an alternative track position on the business side of the life sciences. Thus, I have focused on patent agent, VC, MSL, and reagent/diagnostics sales positions. However, when I am interviewed, often managers ask "Why didn't you get a PhD?" and seem disappointed in my response. There seems to be a credibility gap in my background. I have too much experience and don’t have the requisite degree to match that experience. For reagent sales positions, my background is often viewed too technical but lacking the credibility of a doctoral degree that is often required for medical affairs positions. The medical affairs field is very myopic in how it views experienced candidates with non-D degrees for MSL positions. Patent prosecution firms are often staffed with numerous JD/PhDs. Despite my best efforts to distinguish myself based on my accomplishments, it appears that managers just ignore my experiences. The focus is often directed towards not having a PhD.

In order address this problem such that my experiences are viewed more holistically, I have asked the program where I got a MS to extend my degree to a PhD. Essentially, I am asking them if I can start where I left off in my MS. However, there are some complications. To understand the program’s concerns about this proposal, I must explain a few points. When my PI left a prominent East coast medical school, I followed him to a medical school in the SW where I was his lab manager. I had developed my own research projects and discovered several novel phenotypes in a transgenic mouse. This project allowed me to gain admissions into a neighboring University’s graduate program in the life sciences. It is a small department with about 15 faculty members. The program allowed me to keep my job and use my projects at work as my dissertation. I took my coursework at the neighboring University where I was assigned a thesis advisor. My PI was a committee member. This worked well until 2012. I published two first author papers and won a ASCB travel award. Also, I finished half the credit hours in classes for a PhD and presented my dissertation successfully.

As I finished up my dissertation and talked with prospective employers, I discovered that there was still going to be a credibility gap in my background if I graduated with a MS. While I was completing graduate school, my thesis advisor was not granted tenure. My PI and supervisor left the medical school for an administrative position elsewhere. Further, the medical school cut its operating budget by 25%. So I asked the graduate program in late 2012 about extending graduate school for a PhD. Despite their willingness to help, I was informed the graduate program had financial problems and they didn’t know where they would place me since my thesis advisor was going to leave.

The truth about why I don’t have a PhD is difficult to answer. Many faculty members have had to replace their R01 grants with R15 grants. All graduate students are funded by TAs paid for by the graduate school. No students are paid off grants and TAs are limited. Ever since I graduated in late 2012, this has been the financial state of the department. Since graduating, I have struggled with how perspective employers have viewed my background and can’t find a reasonable solution. So again, I have reached out to the program again to see if there was a solution. Since there are limited TAs, many faculty members want to maximize the use of their TAs. A PhD would only require 3-4 more classes and maybe a preliminary exam. The problematic issue would be my dissertation in a new lab. I sense that some faculty members want to ensure any graduate student stays a full 4-6 years since TAs are limited. In order to address the financial concerns, I have offered to self-fund my living expenses. However, many faculty members have mixed feelings about an attenuated PhD.

Their concerns are mostly financial and have nothing to do with my qualifications. What faculty members are going to agree to this attenuated PhD given the limited number of TAs? Is the graduate school going to give you credit for the classes taken so far? Is this fair to those PhD students in the program? These are just a few questions raised. The other problem is that many faculty members don’t understand how competitive alternative track positions are; whereby a premium is placed on academic credentials not experience. They don’t get the whole D-degree issue in medical affairs and think the issue is downright silly. Many faculty members in this program have a limited understanding of the job market outside of academia. Based on my experiences, it appears that given the glut of PhDs there is little satisficing in how candidates are viewed by biotech employers. I wished I could move pass this issue and have employers view my candidacy more holistically.

DX, Dustin, and Dick can you offer your thoughts. I know you have expertise in these areas where I am trying to compete. DX, I would like to send you an email offline about a job proposal in medical affairs/technical sales in the diagnostics space.
Nate W.
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Re: Career Quagmire: Solutions Welcome

Postby Dave Walker » Mon Jan 25, 2016 10:25 am

Hi Nate,

Sorry to hear about your issues. However, I'm sure we can all attest that we've seen folks with worse credentials get to the "business side of the life sciences." If you don't think your resume will speak enough for itself, then you have to do the talking via networking, informational interviews and etc. This is the one thing I have seen in common with most successful people.

Also, I think some "business side of science" jobs are easier to break in than others. Are you serious about sales? I'm sending you a Private Message about this area with some information.
"The single factor that differentiates Nobel laureates from other scientists is training with another Nobel laureate." -- Sol Snyder
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Re: Career Quagmire: Solutions Welcome

Postby Craig B. » Mon Jan 25, 2016 11:09 am


Reading your story, I don't know how much you "shot yourself in the foot." It seems like there was a real convergence of bad situations--PI not getting tenure, departmental funding collapsing, etc--that "forced" you into finishing with a masters.

If you're getting interviews for the type of position you want, you have to be doing something right. I suspect once you break into industry and start accumulating years of experience that the degree issue would fade away.

Would finishing your PhD help? Maybe, but it isn't necessarily a golden ticket in its own right. Given the troubles of your former department and that you're already offering to support yourself, would it be unrealistic to start looking at other schools in other cities? Departments may not be terribly interested in an abbreviated PhDs, but perhaps you could find a mentor take you in their lab for a few years? Even then, I can't say whether it is worth the time and effort to get the title when you seem close to finding a job as-is.
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Re: Career Quagmire: Solutions Welcome

Postby Dick Woodward » Mon Jan 25, 2016 11:34 am


Don't know what Dave Walker PM'd you, but I would take it seriously - he knows whereof he speaks.

If you are truly interested in sales (a great way to get started on the business side of things, by the way), the PhD is absolutely not necessary. Nice to have, but the hiring manager will be more interested in your personal skills and "train-ability" than in how many papers you have published. From what you describe, your scientific background is quite sufficient for all of the sales positions that I am familiar with, including the ones that have a lot of PhDs running around.

Once you get into that first business position, your academic credential will matter less than your track record of success. There will be some positions that you won't qualify for - VP of R&D or certain medical affairs positions, for example - but on the business side, I don't know of too many positions where the PhD is required.

If you are asked about why you did not get a PhD, keep it simple. Say something like "The details are complicated, but it involves my PI failing to obtain tenure and leaving for a non-lab position at the same time that the program ran into financial issues and was unable to support me any further. It just was not feasible for me to continue." If they press you, you can tell them the additional details, but they probably won't. The reason that they are asking is that the MS is often seen as a "failure degree" - what they give a student who flunks out of the PhD program. I am confident that once they see that this is not the case, and you were unable to get the PhD as a result of events beyond your control, this will cease to be a problem.

Best of luck to you - keep us posted as to your success.

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Re: Career Quagmire: Solutions Welcome

Postby D.X. » Wed Jan 27, 2016 4:31 am

Hi Nate,

Happy to receive a PM from you. Just bare in mind, I may be late in resonse as after today i will have a few things to address that will take me basically off-line - but I'll try to respond if urgent.

Regarding your quagmire, only comment i will add is that maybe you're looking for Jobs where non having a PhD is a competitive disadvantage. You're playing in fields where entry and eventual Progression will be difficult. You are putting Investment in paths that are giving you Little Returns. Why so focused on Patent law or MSL?

As mentioned before, there are plenty of careers that are accessible without a PhD and can expose you to your Areas of interest. For example what is it about Medical Affairs entices you? Have you considered there are other places you can do those activities outside a Pharmaceutical Company, such as 3rd Party Medical Communcation firms. They are always looking for entry Level Medical Writers and Content Generators (where you start) and in a relatively short period of time you can grow in that area - be it account Manager where you would have contact with the Client (the pharma Company) and KOLs - you would get some valuable skill sets and have Access to a vast field where not having a PhD won't be so limiting - 3rd Party Service Providers. Client Service skills is a great skill set to have.

I'm ex-US now, and being in Medical Affairs is risky if one doesn't have a MD. I was growing nicely, had great exposure, but I was at a Point where my PhD was a competitive disadvantage - So why should I bother and stress myself out to compete with MDs? Waste of my time and resources. So I found something else for now - Marketing. Here having a PhD is a competitive Advantage - I still use my scientific mindset, my Med Aff experience, and I'm not spending my time competiting with MDs - in fact, i'm not doing Medical Affairs, but in my role their activites are integrated into my strategic direction (i am the Brand Lead). So now, I can Play in a different area where I'm now competitive, i dont' have to worry about no MD, MD, or PhD - waste of time. I too, despite my experience (and mind you Medical Lead) got the feed back with other Jobs that went something like "yeah...but...." why should I deal with that? waste of time and energy.

So my recomendation, expand your playing field - stop playing in Areas where your Investment of time finds you limited Returns. I would even questions doing a PhD at this Point per your Situation..why? There is so much out there. When I contemplated leaving my PhD with just the MS, I found Jobs in Technology Ventures (with Job offer), Consulting (with Job offer) and medical writing (with Job offer). But at the end of the day do what makes you happy. Maybe its a time for you to revalute. I've learning in recent years corporate is not for me, i Need to re-evaluate - so maybe you have time to do that now.

Anyways - Good luck!

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Re: Career Quagmire: Solutions Welcome

Postby Dustin Levy » Thu Jan 28, 2016 11:17 am

Dick Woodward wrote:Nate:

If you are asked about why you did not get a PhD, keep it simple.


Agree absolutely with keeping this answer simple, concise, and if at all possible, tell it as if getting just an M.S. was a good thing for you. Your goal during the interview should be to get off of this topic as quickly as you can. For example, focus the discussion on what you did learn and accomplish during your studies, both technical and non-technical. I suspect one of your strengths is persistence and dealing with adversity, something all Ph.D.s learn - you just learned it in a different way. By shifting the discussion to those types of traits, you can get back to an offensive position instead of the being on the defensive.

D.X.'s advice is also spot on. Focusing your job search on roles where a lack of a Ph.D. will not put you at a competitive disadvantage is an excellent strategy.
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Re: Career Quagmire: Solutions Welcome

Postby Kevin Foley » Thu Jan 28, 2016 4:30 pm


I agree with two of the points made above:

1) You don't need to explain anything. You wanted a MS, you got an MS, end of story. There is no reason to go into whether or not you were in an actual PhD program in person or on your CV.

2) If, as you say, you have been getting interviews (phone or in person?), then clearly you ARE qualified. No hiring manager is going to waste time interviewing candidates who are not qualified on paper for the job.

So, if you really have been getting interviews, then I think you should be focusing on how to sell yourself better during these interviews. The most qualified candidate often doesn't get the job. The candidate who does the best job of explaining how they will bring value to the organization and solve the hiring manager's problem usually gets the job.

You've surely heard the old adage about how you should apply for jobs where you are at least a 60% match with the required qualifications? That's because 60% beats 80% if you do a good job selling yourself.

Every hiring manager has a problem to solve, or they wouldn't be trying to hire someone. Your challenge is to figure out what the problem is (often the job description doesn't really say what it is), and then position yourself so that it is clear to the hiring manager that you can solve this problem.

If you can do that, you'll get hired.

The good news is a lot of your competition is not very good at selling themselves. So if you improve your interviewing skills, you should have a very good chance of landing a position. And while you are at it, upping your networking game would undoubtedly also pay dividends.

I'm not going to comment on the finishing your PhD idea, other than to say that in my experience going back to school is rarely a solution (getting an MBA is the classic example). But it is a very good way to delay getting on with your career and life.

Best of luck...
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Re: Career Quagmire: Solutions Welcome

Postby Nate W. » Tue Feb 02, 2016 2:26 am

Thanks for everyone's response. If my network and prospective employers replied the way members of this forum responded, my job search would be much easier! I'll respond to all comments in time. Let me address Kevin's comments first:

Kevin Foley wrote:Nate,

I agree with two of the points made above:

1) You don't need to explain anything. You wanted a MS, you got an MS, end of story. There is no reason to go into whether or not you were in an actual PhD program in person or on your CV.

2) If, as you say, you have been getting interviews (phone or in person?), then clearly you ARE qualified. No hiring manager is going to waste time interviewing candidates who are not qualified on paper for the job.

Best of luck...

I agree with you completely. My qualifications should stand on their own merits and be considered holistically with or w/o the PhD. It is what it is. However, it is asked often and probably asked as a slight to my qualifications. I have thick skin and just ignore it. Personally, I get sick in tried of it and want managers to focus on my experience and real qualifications.

The distinction between a MS and PhD with my qualifications is trivial.
If my graduate program allows me to continue on, how is 4 more classes and an extra paper going to make me more qualified for any of these opportunities I have sought. Of note, I have also taken 33 hours of graduate classes in pharmacology while working as a lab manager before graduate school. So, I have more graduate credits in the life sciences and papers than most newly minted PhDs. Plus, you add in the years of industry experience and collaborations, you would think I would be ideally suited for entry level positions and competitive with most any MS or new minted PhD students in these fields.

On my resume, I list my education last because I want the manager to focus on my experience first. However, the question comes up often. I get the impression managers seem disappointed. If the question is asked, most often the interview will go nowhere nor will the contact help with referrals if it is an informational interview. The only possibilities that I can think of are:

1) The manager thinks I didn't pass my preliminaries and flunked out.
2) The manager thinks my experience doesn't match my educational credentials.
3) The manager doesn't believe I deserve an opportunity given the glut of PhDs.
4) The manager thinks all PhDs are always more qualified than anyone with a MS regardless anything else.

Often managers will not tell me these things if they are a concern; you are often left in the dark. So, how I am going to distinguish myself from a glut of PhDs, especially if there is a possible bias towards the more academically credentialed. I feel caught between having too much experience and not enough academic degrees (or at a high enough level). I am happy to provide a resume to Dave Walker or DX, if they are willing to critique it. I think they will be able to see the dilemma I face.

I also agree with you on trying to sell yourself more effectively and understand the needs of the manager. Oddly, most of my interviews in the last year have dealt mostly with behavioral and questions related to fit, not technical questions. I haven't had a technically rigorous interview in the last five years. In the last year, I have had 2 reagent sales interviews, 2 MSL interviews, one VC, and 2 patent specialist interviews. These interviews have only come through assertive networking and cold calling. I have numerous phone interviews and informational interviews. Online applications yield nothing but useless discussion with recruiters about positions I am not qualified for.

Locally, this is a small biotech job market and people are reluctant to help others unless you know the manager as a friend. Plus, positions are found through word of mouth and relationships, not objective measured decisions based on qualifications. This is how I lost out on the VC position; the manager liked my qualifications and told me she would consider it but then she hired a newly minted PhD for an intern position 4 months later. She had a consultant business development background and a PhD assistant evaluating the technology. Most likely, she was blowing sunshine my way. I don't know if I can do a more effective sales presentation with some of the managers here that do life science work. Especially, they if can't be honest with people.

Frankly, I don't know what I am qualified for and what managers are willing to consider anymore.

Given my experiences in the last year, the glut of PhDs has made managers so unreasonably strident in how they evaluate candidates.

If you had the opportunity to discuss these problems with a friend and former collaborator who is an executive VP and Senior Director at a major Pharma company, what would you focus on?

If relevant to his needs, would you ask him about a fellowship and collaboration to help pay for my graduate education?
Nate W.
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Re: Career Quagmire: Solutions Welcome

Postby Parker » Wed Feb 03, 2016 4:38 am

Hi Nate,

You could stop at MSc, you could get a PhD, or you could do two or three 5-year postdocs and not get a real job until you are 50. I think you are over thinking this. Hiring managers ask because they are curious about your background and want to get to know you. You are probably overthinking this and answering a trivial question in a way that's raising red flags. Be confident about your choices.

I chose to stop at PhD and not do an academic postdoc. I'm sure I learned a few more things than if I had stopped at MSc, I would have learned a few things had I done a postdoc. But not sure how much extra mileage I would have gotten. Anyways I chose not to continue with an academic postdoc and to instead got more relevant work experience on the job, because I thought that was more valuable. I was often asked at job interviews why I stopped at PhD and chose not to do an academic postdoc. The thing is the jobs I was applying for did not require postdoc experience since none of them were lab bench positions. But they asked this question anyways. I don't know why they asked this but they were probably curious or maybe wanted to make conversation. It's not a bad question to ask. It doesn't matter why they asked. I had passed their qualifications checklist. They must have liked something about me to interview me. Otherwise they wouldn't have bothered. Now I could have panicked and thought "oh the hiring manager wants someone with tons of postdoc experience, I don't have any postdoc experience, I must seem unqualified, I will never get this job, it's not even my fault that I didn't do a postdoc, the PI I wanted to work with didn't get tenure, fellowships are competitive, etc etc". Instead I chose to answer like this:
"I felt my graduate training gave me the breadth of scientific knowledge and expertise to transition to the next stage of my career and I felt like it was more worthwhile for me to get more actual work experience close to the field I wanted to work in instead of doing an academic postdoc". Maybe you are finding it hard to see things this way now because you wanted to do a PhD and it didn't happen. Maybe you feel like you are in a quagmire. But you have to think strategically. Don't think about shoulda coulda woulda. There are certain advantages to not doing a PhD. Capitalize on those and don't dwell on alternative scenarios.
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Re: Career Quagmire: Solutions Welcome

Postby Nate W. » Wed Feb 03, 2016 12:05 pm

Dave Walker wrote:Hi Nate,

Sorry to hear about your issues. However, I'm sure we can all attest that we've seen folks with worse credentials get to the "business side of the life sciences." If you don't think your resume will speak enough for itself, then you have to do the talking via networking, informational interviews and etc. This is the one thing I have seen in common with most successful people.

Also, I think some "business side of science" jobs are easier to break in than others. Are you serious about sales? I'm sending you a Private Message about this area with some information.

Dave, thanks for your response. I got your private message and will respond soon. I have spend most of my time networking and informational interviews. At times, this can be difficult to just get someone to respond. For example, I was referred for a licensing associate position by a colleague. Two days before the position was posted I was told to talk with the VP of Technology that oversees the group by another colleague of the VP. Three weeks later, I haven't heard anything from the VP and my referral hasn't even acknowledged whether he has forwarded my resume.

I am interested in Sales but would prefer to sell to hospitals, especially in this territory. There is only one major academic research account (i.e. a medical school) and the rest of the accounts are rather minor. I have had two interviews for capital equipment and reagent sales that sell only to academic research settings. The reagent sales accounts in this area are valued between 500K-1.2 M. Comparable accounts in NC, VA, MD, and DC are valued much higher. Plus, there have been major cuts in the operating budget and research funding at this key account.

However, this state and region has numerous hospitals and medical centers. So, there are many MSL positions advertised locally. Much more than regent sales positions. Also, my background is often viewed as too technical for many reagent sales positions and the D-degree issue often is problematic for a MSL position.

I do have an idea that I am working on in the diagnostics space. A hybrid technical sales MSL position in diagnostics. I'll send you a private email about it soon.
Nate W.
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