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Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing
Where do all the flowers gone?
Long time ago
Where do all the flowers gone?
Young girls picked them everyone,
When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?
– Pete Seeger

Where do graduate students and post-docs go when they decide it’s time to leave the pipeline? And, if they’re thinking about going, how do they find a path into something new?

These questions are especially timely given all the current NIH funding issues. It’s odd, too, that we probably have the data, that is, I think we can count the number of people who’ve gotten training grants and gone through the system, but I’m not sure we know much about the people who’ve left the system and gone off the academic grid.

Okay, if they blog, we probably know about it. But the others are mysteries.

Two people have commented on different biotech workforce posts, here and here, asking about the prospects in industry for graduate students and post-docs who’ve fallen out of the scientific pipeline or perhaps veered off the science career track. I’m not certain which metaphor is more appropriate.

Janne asked, after this post, if academics could be retrained. PA asked, in the comments here, how graduate students could go about finding industrial types of jobs. I have some thoughts to share on both topics, but before I do, I’d like to hear from more people who’ve left the blackboard jungle.

If you didn’t go straight from grad school to a post-doc position or from your post-doc to an assistant professor position, where did you go after you left graduate school (or your post-doc)? What are you doing now and how did you get there?


  1. #1 Deepak
    May 28, 2008

    I went straight from grad school to a small bioinformatics startup, where I worked as a scientific programmer and then out of full time science completely into product management, business development, etc in life science software companies. Have never done an MBA, haven’t taken any formal training.

    Part of it is being in the right place at the right time. The other parts are actually liking what you do and being in an environment that allows you to learn and grow.

  2. #2 CC
    May 28, 2008

    I went from grad school to a postdoc in a mega-lab to a big-pharma research position. That was my plan when I went to the postdoc. I don’t consider it either “fallen out of the scientific pipeline” or “veered off the science career track” (or “an alternative career”) and interviewees who come in with an attitude like that don’t make a very good impression. I wouldn’t trade this for an academic lab, even without the shambles that the NIH leadership has created in recent years.

    Interestingly, in my experience the mega-lab grad students and postdocs were more likely to have their eyes on industry or VC career paths than their counterparts in quieter labs, who were much more locked into being academic lab heads in the same sub-subfield they were already working in.

  3. #3 CD
    May 28, 2008

    I actually left my post-doc position with more than a year left on my American Cancer Society grant becauseI had reached the point where the intellectual returns of academic research no longer came close to outweighing the financial and bureaucratic constraints that I was expected to accept as a post-doctoral fellow. Plus there was the observation that all of my colleagues who were 1-3 years into their academic appointments were incredibly run-down and miserable.

    So I got a job in a fairly big instrumentation and assay development company where my training as a hardcore, classical biochemist was suddenly an asset. I spend my time solving cool problems, and learning incredibly interesting things through my interactions with engineers of all types and fellow scientists. Most importantly, I am appreciated and awarded for my contributions to the company.

    I don’t consider that I have “fallen out of the scientific pipeline” or “veered off the scientific career path” at all. As a matter of fact, I resent that implication. I would argue that my overall contribution to science is greater in this position than it was likely to ever have been as a professor in academia. The instruments that I help design, build, and troubleshoot give the researchers in thousands of labs around the world new and innovative tools with which to conduct their work. Technical and scientific advances that I make here have demonstrable and positive effects on the scientific community on a much grander scale than if I had set up my own lab and studied one corner of the biological picture.

    I am not saying that an academic position is more or less important than an industrial one by any stretch of the imagination. I just think it is important that people recognize that there is more than one (i.e. academic) way to contribute to the advancement of science.

  4. #4 VCD
    May 28, 2008

    I have read various estimates that roughly 2/3 to 3/4 of science grad students go on to positions outside of academia. Most are ill-equipped when venturing outside the ivory towers. I knew during my post-doc that I was more interested in the business side of science than the lab. During this time, I had several friends who moved to industry and I increased my contact base through them. The easiest way to make the move was to use my bench skills to get in the door of a small biotech as a scientist. I then moved to a second company as a more senior scientist but got downsized as the company ran out of money.

    At this point, I decided that if I wanted to make the full transition and return to industry in a more business role, I needed better tools. I went back to school part-time for an MBA and then got a position at a university tech-transfer office. Through contacts and good timing, I was then offered my current job as director of operations in a university spin-off company.

    Moving beyond the academic bench is never easy, regardless of whether you have a PhD or not. You have to step out of your usual environment and can’t rely on your immediate network. I’ve learned a lot along the way and refined my approach at every step.

    If you’re looking at a different field, be it patent law, technical writing or finance, try talking to as many people in the field as possible. Use your network and all available resources (professional associations, alumni societies, networking sites) to find people that are willing to talk to you about how they made the transition. Don’t ask for a job; that will just shut most people down right away. Most people like to talk about themselves, you just have to approach them in a non-threatening manner.

    Once you have decided what direction you want to take, find a way to set yourself apart from the crowd. Take a few classes, go to seminars and workshops. Or go all the way and get another diploma. Not only will you expand your knowledge base, you will expand your network as well, which is crucial. There are many, many scientists looking for a different career track, so you have to give prospective employers a good reason to take a chance on you. Patent law is mostly about law, not biology or chemistry, venture capital or stock analysis is mostly about finance not science, so give yourself the tools to make the transition!

  5. #5 Sandra Porter
    May 28, 2008

    CD and CC: I used the “pipeline” language mostly because of the things I’ve read lately about NIH funding woes (here), here, and here. I agree with you there are many paths and it wasn’t my intent to imply that one path is better than any other.

    My own path has been more of the accidental type. I had decided to leave my post-doc position and was looking for a job to bring in cash until I found another, and somehow found myself teaching full-time. Life takes strange twists.

  6. #6 techne
    May 28, 2008

    I third CC and CD. I went from grad school to postdoc to science policy (I’ll be starting a AAAS science policy fellowship this fall). This was my career plan since my second year of grad school and I’ve worked towards this goal ever since, so it’s not an “alternative” to me.

    I am starting to get annoyed by the perception in some scientific circles that an academic professorship is the normal outcome. Look at the language used: I am a dropout, one who has lost my way, one taking an alternative path, a nontraditional person bucking convention. None of these reflect that I have been on track for the career I wanted the whole time.

  7. #7 tguy
    May 28, 2008

    After I left grad school, without completing the program, I found work doing computer and IT type jobs. The odd class here & there coupled with what I already knew by virtue of having to troubleshoot my learning curve made the transition easy enough. It lets me use my problem-solving and curiosity. Somehow the stakes don’t seem as great as when in academic life – an illusion because more people depend directly on my work now. Something about grad school made me nearly go crazy with stress. I think some people can handle science and that type of reasoning fine but don’t fit the academic research culture.

  8. #8 bigTom
    May 28, 2008

    I has left the pipeline without the degree. Struggled for a while, but ended up in computational science and supercomputing. I do sometimes regret having missed out on doing actual research myself, although I’m sure I’ve made better money with less tress than I would have had I stayed in the pipeline. A lot of one’s career, is a sort of semidirected random walk, jumping upon the opportunities that present themself. Hopefully one is lucky enough to be presented an opportunity that matches ones particular constellation of skills and abilities. I feel very fortunate that that happened to me, as I think the odds of that happening are actually fairly low.

  9. #9 biochemist
    May 29, 2008

    I agree with other commentators that the “fallen out of the pipeline” language is a disservice to the many useful and intellectually challenging applications of scientific training outside of academia. I went from my postdoc to biopharmaceutical manufacturing and am now making a transition to technology commercialization/business development.

    Making medicine and seeing it go out to patients is a huge thrill and requires the team effort of many types of talented people. Commercialization requires the skills described by others in finance and intellectual property as well as an energetic and encouraging attitude.

    It is time for the academic community to catch up on training people to take on these roles rather than treating the work and the people like it is a consolation prize.

    I am working right now as a mentor to an intern finishing their doctoral research with an industrial internship. This is a requirement of their degree program – what a great idea. I wish it had been a requirement in my program.

  10. #10 Sandra Porter
    May 29, 2008

    As biochemist says:

    It is time for the academic community to catch up on training people to take on these roles rather than treating the work and the people like it is a consolation prize.

    Well put!

  11. #11 CC
    May 29, 2008

    It is time for the academic community to catch up on training people to take on these roles rather than treating the work and the people like it is a consolation prize.

    Particularly since they’re not consolation prizes anymore, and encouraging naive youngsters to think that if their job search falls through they can just waltz into Merck and start collecting a check is completely irresponsible.

  12. #12 Sandra Porter
    May 29, 2008

    CC – I totally agree. See this.

  13. #13 TomJoe
    May 29, 2008

    Upon finishing graduate school, I took a post-doc in a government agency. I turned that, two years later, into a full-time position as a research microbiologist at a different but related, government agency. While the funding for a government lab isn’t as great as it would be if I were good at writing grants (which I’ve never done, and probably never will … to the degree of academics at any rate), it allows me to purchase a steady stream of equipment, reagents, and services to keep the data coming in and getting several peer-reviewed publications a year.

  14. #14 Lora
    May 31, 2008

    My husband largely put me through my undergrad years. After I finished the BSc, I went to work as a tech so that he could go to school. Then when he finally finished school, I went back to grad school with four years of industrial experience and a couple of publications.

    I was about a year into my PhD program when I had reached a serious communications breakdown with my adviser. That’s probably the understatement of the year, but let’s just say that I learned that I should never, ever work with new investigators because I am just not interested in that sort of upward management. And money was starting to be a moderately annoying issue. I can’t tolerate financial insecurity. The Ramen noodles thing, it’s important. I’m not a martyr on the altar of Science, I believe in a living wage.

    I looked around for other labs in the department, other labs in other departments, and other schools. And while I was at it, I threw some resumes out to a few industry positions where they specifically offered tuition reimbursement and flexible scheduling as part of the compensation.

    I got offers from two other labs, both in other departments but the same university. The TA coordinator offered to hire me as a tech until I found something I really wanted. I talked for hours to a couple of my committee folks, who thought I should be an engineer of some sort. Then I got a few industry interviews from the jobs with flex-time and tuition reimbursement, which I sort of half-assed off the cuff and didn’t really study for. Surprisingly, one of these came through with a job offer that was more money than most of my grad school professors made. I could buy and sell a couple of my undergrad profs, for sure.

    I took the industry job, which in fact was not the best job in the whole wide world, but it wasn’t the worst either and it paid for any science-related tuition anywhere local. In Boston, there’s a lot of local universities to choose from. That enabled me to take part-time classes on a sort of leisurely basis, get to know different departments, different schools, examine my options in depth. Which I’m still doing, because the engineering thing some of my committee guys suggested wasn’t the best option for me either–but at least I had the chance to find that out in a fairly easy and stress-free fashion.

    I like my job a lot. The position where I originally started wasn’t that great in terms of actual working conditions, but it was awesome for networking and building a reputation in the company. I transferred to the best campus and what is possibly the best job ever, two years later: drug discovery research. So, yeah, I cure cancer 😛 With the most expensive and very best toys known to molecular biology. And I maintain a pretty good standard of living: I’ve got a big house, a reliable car, a dog, a swimming pool. Three publications in the works for this year, conferences paid for by the company. Way, way better than the more, uh, traditional methods of “doing science.”

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