Building a successful career in the biotechnology industry
is really just a series of transitions from one role to another. But the devil
is in the details—when to make a change, how to create opportunities and who
can be your champion as you pivot. So how do you navigate these factors to keep
your career goals on course?
I recently attended a symposium (presented by the University of Wisconsin Master of Science in Biotechnology Program, of which I’m an alum) that addressed this topic through the lens of one individual with a storied career in the industry. Bob Weiland currently serves on the Board of Directors for CymaBay Therapeutics. He has held various roles, from sales and marketing to operations and strategy, within large, established companies (Abbot, Baxter, Takeda) and smaller ones (Pacira Pharmacueticals). He drew on this wide-ranging experience to provide advice to professionals at all career stages.
Bob began the talk by declaring that there will be points in
your career when you reach a “hard spot” and will need to transition, whether
to a new role, company or even industry, to meet your career goals. He
suggested a good starting point is simply to be thinking about making a change.
But in the same breath he emphasized, “What are you doing about it?” He
identified four distinct actions that you can take to ensure role changes and
career transitions support your professional growth and development.
A recent PNAS article tracked the careers of
scientists in three different fields based on research paper authorship. They
found that, over a 50-year span, there was a dramatic reduction in how long
scientists remained in each field, which they termed “survivability.” More than
half of the scientists that started out in the 1960s published in their field
for an average of 35 years, while about half of scientists starting in the
2010s published in their field for an average of 5 years1. Tracked academic
researchers were classified into three categories: transients (authors who had
only one publication during their career), dropouts (authors who stopped
publishing at various career levels), and full-career scientists (authors who continue
to publish in the field). Overall, the data showed that there are an increasing
number of transients that contribute to scientific papers. Thus, the authors of
the PNAS article concluded that the demographics
in those academic fields are shifting toward scientists who leave the field
quickly. The observed increase in the number of scientists who are temporarily
in academia makes sense, given the number of PhDs relative to the limited
number of faculty positions and permanent staff scientist roles. However, the
terms “survivability,” “transients,” and “dropouts” give the impression that
leaving academia means that these scientists have ended their career or failed.
This post could easily start out as an ode to ’90s alternative music (of which I’m a huge fan). That new and totally different sound (a la Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Nirvana, etc.) in the 1990s eventually made its way into the mainstream as it gained popularity. (I have to say that I got a shock when I recently heard some Pearl Jam on “classic rock” radio stations. But I digress…)
Why isn’t the same true for science career paths? Science careers outside of academia are still referred to as “alternative.” In a previous post, I highlighted statistics from a 2012 NIH report that found that only 20% of recent life sciences Ph.D.’s go on to become faculty members1. That means that 80% of recent life sciences Ph.D.’s took the “alternative” path. It seems like the academic path could now be viewed as the alternative to the mainstream, but somehow there’s an underlying stigma associated with straying from a path which few can travel down successfully.
For this posting, I had promised to include some commentary on ACTION.
What can someone pursuing a doctorate in the biosciences DO during that time to widen the possibilities of employment in the future? In general, the process of obtaining the doctorate has been criticized for taking too long and not doing enough to prepare students for what they will do when they graduate. Considering these criticisms, it seems wrong to create additional check-boxes on the student to-do list leading up to graduation. Therefore, these things are not in addition to what is already expected, but are instead the same things that are already happening re-focused. Continue reading “Broaden Your Horizons While Pursuing Your Doctorate—You Will Be Glad You Did”
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