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Life after a PhD: alternatives to academia

Written by Guest Author on in the category VC Views with the tags , , .


Having finished a PhD in life sciences can often leave you wondering: what’s next? The classic question is often “academia or industry?”, with a lot of preconceptions made about both career paths. In this vc-views article, I’ve drawn on both my personal experience, having made the transition from PhD student to industry member recently, as well as recent publications about the pros and cons of working in academia and industry.

This article was guest authored by Rishabh Chawla from V-Bio Ventures.

The last few miles on the path to a PhD in the life sciences are often paved with anxiety for the future. You think: “Sure, it was fun at times, but was it worth all the effort and sacrifice? What if I hadn’t lost so much time stubbornly completing that experiment that never worked out? Is this really what I want to keep doing in the long term?”

Bleak prospects for PhD graduates?

These kinds of introspections are illustrated in a paper published just last year in Nature Biotechnology. The study, titled ‘Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education’, showed how the pressure in academia has resulted in “strikingly high rates of anxiety and depression” amongst graduate students (Evans et al.  2018).

Exacerbating the stress are overwhelmingly poor odds when it comes to academic employment opportunities for graduating PhD students. The number of PhD students in biological sciences has increased by 83% over the past 10 years, yet current graduates have only a 12.8% chance to attain academic positions in the USA (Larson et al. 2013).

With the odds stacked against them, many are starting to consider positions in industry. However, PhD students often doubt their ability to obtain an industry position due to undervaluing their own skills and knowledge. This perception is exacerbated by a lack of support from peers and supervisors, who often portray industry as “the dark side” of research.

Academia and Industry: not so different after all

For the sake of student sanity, we must all remind ourselves that the similarities between academia and industry outweigh the differences. Though the mindset and training may differ, the science and quality of research remains the same. Where academia focuses on novel discoveries and high impact publications, research in the life sciences industry focuses on the market need.

There are of course some basic differences in how research is conducted. The pace is much faster in industry, as there are often many people relying on your work to move forward with their own. In an academic system you are often more isolated, responsible only for your own project. This means that, contrary to the general perception of secrecy, there is often more teamwork in industry than in academia.
PhD skills are key to industry success

As I’ve mentioned, most PhDs perceive the world outside of academia as alien and unpromising. Having spent their science career to-date within the confines of academia, they often believe their PhD degree and academic training wouldn’t hold any value in the life science industry. The reality is that PhD graduates are highly sought after in the life science industry due to their knowledge and comprehensive understanding of how to conduct good quality research. Moreover, upon graduation PhD students end up possessing a range of desirable skills, including:

1) Persistence: To earn a PhD, all graduate students need to work through a project from start to finish, making them very persistent and focused on the end goal.

2) Versatility: In the life science industry it is important for team members to be flexible. Often a novel approach or a change in strategy is needed, requiring you to let go your old ideas and come up with a new plan of attack. It is all about resilience, being able to recover from a setback, something every PhD student has to learn during their graduate research project.

3) Problem solving/Analytical capabilities: If a PhD could be summarised in two lines, they may well be: ‘the ability to identify the problem and find the best possible solution, while analysing all the available data’. The life sciences industry needs people trained in identifying potential roadblocks and providing innovative solutions.

4) Effective communication: During their graduate studies, PhD students have to develop a range of communication skills. From scientific writing for peer-reviewed journals, to presenting their complex experiments in a concise manner at international conferences and group meetings, these different tasks all helps them hone their ability to communicate, which is a key component of success in a business environment.

Setting yourself up for a smooth transition

PhD graduates who want to transition to a job in the life science industry need to be proactive. To initiate such a move, they need to first make an informed decision about the right direction for them, personally. Some steps I would suggest you consider, before taking the plunge, include:

1) Do your homework: University career services and job fairs are great places to understand the skill sets required for different job opportunities and to think about your likes and dislikes before trying to identify what’s a good fit for you.

2) Network: Identify professionals in different fields and contact them to understand about their work. You can find people easily through either your personal network or LinkedIn, but it is important to bear in mind that you are only approaching them to learn about their work (not for an actual position or job). This is useful for learning first-hand about a person’s views on industry, especially if they have also transitioned from academia to industry, and to check whether it might be appealing to you. It can also provide you with information as to which required skills and experience you might be lacking.

3) Take a course: Taking online courses, eg. on websites such as Coursera, can be a great way to learn more about the life science industry while simultaneously improving your professional skills and learning about different subjects such as finance, economics or communications.

4) Complete an internship: Internships are great opportunities to break into a field and learn about it at an accelerated pace.  You can do multiple internships in different fields to help you make an informed decision about your professional future.

5) Participate in rotational programs: Many companies such as Merck, Novartis etc. provide  PhD graduates with the opportunity to enrol in two-year rotational programs. Throughout the programs, participants work in different departments and get to learn how a pharmaceutical company functions, as a whole. This can be extremely useful for graduates who are still undecided about their career path.

For all PhD students and soon to be graduates, there are so many opportunities in the life sciences industry. Business development, equity research, consulting, venture capital, medical science liaison; the list goes on! So, get out of the lab and go exploring. Your next big adventure might just be on the light side, in the life sciences industry!

References

Evans TM, Bira L, Gastelum JB, Weiss LT, Vanderford NL. Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nat Biotechnol. 2018 Mar 6;36(3):282-284 doi: 10.1038/nbt.4089. PubMed PMID: 29509732.

Larson RC, Ghaffarzadegan N, Xue Y. Too Many PhD Graduates or Too Few Academic Job Openings: The Basic Reproductive Number R(0) in Academia. Syst Res Behav Sci. 2014 Nov-Dec;31(6):745-750. PubMed PMID: 25642132

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