My elder kid and I returned yesterday from Madison, Wisconsin where he spent a couple of days taking placement tests and becoming oriented and advised. Poor guy. He is in some danger of being pegged as a reviled “Coastie.” . Fortunately, he belongs to an uber-nerd species whose habits and nature are a far cry from the Westchester preppie ilk which has invaded Mad City like so much purple loosestrife in a Wisconsin wetland. He has legitimate claim to Cheesehead status by virtue of having been popped out of the ol’ womb at Madison General. However, he is known to wear New Zealand Ugg knock-offs around the house. Here’s a self- portrait of my spawn which he snapped when touring the campus in the fall. Guess what those machines are in the background. Hint: they are not lunar landing modules.
While my bright-eyed, bushy-haired son registered for his classes, I skipped the lectures for anxiety-ridden parents on cutting the apron strings but keeping the money ropes firmly tied. Instead, I spent a fair amount of time chatting with my former post-doctoral advisor and his lab manager, a longtime friend, then watched an impressive amount of rain fall on Campus Drive. As the Madison monsoon pounded against the windows of the break room, and we munched on Jimmy John hoagies, er, subs, I found myself surrounded by freshly minted PhDs and and near-PhDs who were eager to get the inside scoop on what it’s like to work for pharma and biotech. It was very apparent that these kids had little exposure to the experiences of scientists in the non-academic sector. I answered a lot of questions, extolled the benefits and the outright fun of working with interdisciplinary teams and various projects. I gave them a few buzzwords (“metrics of productivity,” “matrix management,” “objectives vs. results”) to use in future interviews. In my dotage, I forgot to recommend to them the following book which captures the growing pains of a start-up company and the exciting and highly competitive aspects drug discovery: The Billion Dollar Molecule: One Company’s Quest for the Perfect Drug by Barry Werth.
I was kind of taken aback at their lack of information. What the heck are you academicians telling your grad students and post-docs? I mean, tenure track at Ivied-ivory or public-land-grant-proletarian red brick towers is not The Only Way.
OK, I’ll grant you that I might be indulging in a bit of faux-outraged hyperbole in my criticism. One academic mentor iin particular, a medicinal chemist who consulted for various pharmas, offered excellent guidance to me in my career path. My postdoctoral advisor had a number of friends in the Biz, and was not adverse to his students and post-docs choosing the non-academic path, but he knew little about what it’s like to work in the pharma/biotech milieu. That’s understandable. I guess it really falls to lab alumni like me to come back, dish the corporate dirt, and become a node in these students’ and post-docs’ nascent network. And it was enjoyable to hang out with the kids while University Ave became a temporary river.