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September 4, 2002
Leaving the Bench for a Corporate Perch

By Mary Dillon Johnson from the Chronicle of Higher Education

Once science Ph.D.'s have made the decision to leave academic science for the business world, they face a host of questions: Do you have to do a postdoc? Should you get an M.B.A.? Do you need business experience? And if so, how do you get it when you're working in the lab all the time? The stories that follow should answer some of your questions and illustrate a few of the paths to career options popular with science Ph.D.'s.

A Career in the Biotechnology Business via Consulting

Jenny Rooke's first big career move after earning a Ph.D. in genetics was to spend three years as an associate for the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. That experience led her to pursue work on the business side of science: She is now the senior manager of business development at U.S. Genomics, where her job entails strategy development (what products to make and offer) and partnerships (what alliances to form including academic research collaborations).

A physics major as an undergraduate, Rooke pursued her deep interest in genetics as a graduate student at Yale University. But after a few years, she felt that the learning curve had flattened. "I couldn't imagine life devoted to one fraction of one scientific problem when there's so much else that is interesting," she says.

She began to explore her options, while still in graduate school. She worked for the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine as a student editor and looked into science editing as a career. She also considered patent law, investment banking, and filmmaking. When McKinsey came to campus, she attended their presentation but initially wasn't interested. However, after reading Richard Bolles's classic career book What Color Is Your Parachute? she more precisely assessed her skills and interests and found a close match with the way McKinsey had described management consulting: intellectually challenging problem solving, a new project every few months, teamwork with people of high caliber. The next time McKinsey came to Yale, Rooke applied and was offered a position.

Rooke spent three years at McKinsey gaining valuable experience about many aspects of business. What she had not anticipated was that she still had an overriding interest in genomics. "My desire to get out of the lab confounded my level of interest in the field," she says. What drove her out of the academy was the execution of science, not the subject matter. And so she began to search for a position that would employ both her technical knowledge and her business skills and experience. She searched for -- and found in U.S. Genomics -- a small, early-stage genomics company that she felt had a reasonable bid to shape the industry. Her path from Ph.D. to business development took just over three years.

A Career in Business Directly from Academic Research

After earning a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the State University of New York at Buffalo and completing a postdoc at a university medical school, Cynthia Green took a job as a research scientist at CuraGen Corporation, a biotechnology firm. Two and a half years later she moved to the marketing department and is now manager of market research.

Green had an eye on the business world from the very start. Her original goal had been to get a master's degree in science and an M.B.A. When she was hired as a research scientist at CuraGen, it was not a conventional position. She was hired to help collaborations in drug discovery, and she worked with computers, running experiments from her desktop instead of in a laboratory. For Green, part of the allure of doing research at CuraGen was that the company was so technologically advanced. After two and a half years in collaborative research, she felt ready for new challenges and sought out people to talk to in business development and in marketing. She notes that making a switch is easier in a small, growing company than in a large, established one. Even so, she says, she took the initiative to move -- no one would have come to her and asked in what other areas she might consider working.

A Career in Finance via Internships

A recent Ph.D. in the biomedical sciences -- I'll call him "Ivy" because he came from an Ivy league university and asked to remain anonymous -- worked extremely hard through graduate school, combining multiple internships with his demanding academic schedule. Because of that, it took him somewhat longer to get his degree, but he did not want to be one of those Ph.D.'s who are "clueless about what they really want to do and start looking around a couple of months before getting the degree."

After his first few years in graduate school, he realized that academic research was not for him, and he began to think creatively about how to apply his interest in science to a different area that would bring him more intellectual stimulation and would be financially rewarding. He sent his résumé out broadly to lots of companies, and it was mainly ignored. Finally, he got lucky. The person in charge of hiring for a technology consulting firm had a Ph.D. and valued Ivy's graduate-school training. This led to his first internship.

Next he lined up a management-consulting internship in order to gain experience thinking strategically about business problems. But within a few months, he realized -- much like Ms. Rooke -- that he wasn't interested in working on a project for just any company. His field of interest was science -- biology, biotechnology, medicine. Through a friend he got a part-time position with a small investment bank focusing on life sciences and biotechnology, and there he learned about finance -- complementing his continuing academic focus on the hard sciences.

After he completed his Ph.D., Ivy could have stayed at the investment bank, but he decided to explore more options. Through personal connections he learned of companies that were recruiting at the graduate level and contacted them directly. A venture capital firm that had failed to find an appropriate candidate through their M.B.A. recruitment liked Ivy because he had a strong science background and some business savvy. He has been there over a year in a job that involves looking at new companies, technologies, and investment opportunities, making an investment in a company, and afterward, spending time working with the company on strategy.

To Get an M.B.A or Not To Get an M.B.A.

If the present job climate continues, a Ph.D. may not be enough. You may find you need a Ph.D. plus an M.B.A. or plus business knowledge and experience you gathered on your own -- considerably more experience than just reading a finance text or auditing an accounting class.

Ms. Green is currently taking courses towards an M.B.A. through a part-time program she attends while she continues to work at CuraGen. She believes it will give her added credibility and offer her training in areas where she lacks experience.

For one Ph.D. in plant molecular biology who works for a company with a large practice in pharmaceutical-focused consulting, earning an M.B.A. helped him land the job. He had earned his Ph.D. at a university outside the United States. Making the move from overseas to the U.S. business world seemed too big a step. So he did a postdoc in medical molecular biology in the United States and then went to business school here. He saw the M.B.A. as "a clear opportunity to gain appropriate background" in order to be considered by the highest caliber of strategic-consulting firms.

Jenny Rooke and Ivy, on the other hand, changed careers without adding on a business degree, but they both had business experience.

The Moral of the Story

There are two aspects of these stories I want to highlight for science Ph.D.'s.

Ivy's story is a perfect illustration of the value of doing things in graduate school outside your research. As he said, "If I had not stuck my neck out and done the things I did in grad school, there's no way I would have gotten my job straight out of school."

His case may be extreme -- he spent every morning working at internships and every afternoon and much of the night in the lab, and he enrolled in a couple of business courses (finance and accounting). The Ph.D. in plant molecular biology who added an M.B.A. to his credentials headed a large student organization in grad school. Ms. Rooke worked as a student science editor. You can get experience in other career areas or get leadership and team experience through student or community activities and organizations. The point is: Do something that can fit with your lab schedule, that you enjoy, and that will increase your job flexibility or bring you closer to your career goals.

The second lesson concerns the importance of developing good communications skills.

Ms. Green couldn't have made her move from research science to marketing without good communication skills. Ms. Rooke wouldn't have gotten the job at McKinsey, which helped her get the job she has now. The importance of communications skills may be overlooked by science graduate students as irrelevant to the work of the laboratory. But if there is only one secret to the success of scientists who move out of the academic laboratory, it is good communications skills. Take every opportunity to practice and improve these skills. If you can get teaching experience, that's an excellent opportunity right there.

Some final words from Ivy: "People need to be creative and aggressive in their job search." I couldn't agree more.

Mary Dillon Johnson, who has a Ph.D. in English from the University of California at Berkeley, is director of graduate career services at Yale University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.