From PhD to Biotech: Key Lessons and Insights
Updated: Apr 11
Back in 2014 I defended my PhD, hopped directly into the biotech startup space, and I recently celebrated my 4th year on the job here at Epic. It’s been an absolutely wild ride, hardly ever a dull moment, I and I could not imagine a better path for me. There is no shortage of fantastic minds in the biotech space, and as an industry we always need more, and sought to slightly update and re-post an older blog entry from late 2015 written for my scientific siblings looking to similarly hop into the biotech space. While my experiences are far from all-encompassing, and there are many, many paths in biotech and pharma, I wanted to make available a few distillations of my experience thus far in hopes that it might be useful to those seeking similar paths.
I have chosen five key areas and insights that were of great value to me, and continue to hold water:
1) The clinic is queen 2) Twitter is a wonderful gateway to understand biotech and pharmaceutical trends 3) LinkedIn is the de facto e-business card 4) Writing and communication skills are immensely valuable and should be practiced 5) Networking matters. It really does.
Intro (i.e. philosophical waxing)
Academic research and the biotech industry intersect not merely where medicine is practiced, but how medicine changes and progresses. Without medicine, science loses much application. Without science, medicine loses its eyesight. Modern medicine is based on what we can repeatedly observe and test, and the results have unequivocally transformed the physical well-being of humanity. The manner in which scientific knowledge turns into action requires physical vectors: drugs, tools, devices. Venerable academic traditions and contemporary scientific and technological evolution mix into a kaleidoscopic dance of research, development, and business that is biotechnology. It is this broad swath of industry from which the vectors emerge that literally change medicine. It is immensely exciting, and many young scientists seek to make the transition from academic science to the burgeoning biotechnology industry.
Freshly minted PhDs can often struggle to make the transition from the yin of academic research to the yang of biotechnology. The reasons for this phenomenon are many, and have been described eloquently elsewhere.* I defended my PhD four years ago and shortly after made the jump to biotech, and I would like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way, in hopes that this might be of use to my scientific siblings. I realize that my experience/advice is far from all-encompassing, and that it is highly biased by my personal experiences, and I do not in any way expect my experiences to completely mirror those of anyone else. However, there is a good possibility that at least some of my experiences will rhyme with those of others in similar situations. To this tune, I am sharing some of the lessons I have observed and insights gained along the way.
1) The clinic is queen
In my view, all PhD candidates should spend some time in the clinic. If one wants to improve patient lives, one has to change clinical practice. If one wants to change clinical practice, one really needs to understand clinical practice. The nuances of the clinical cannot be learned didactically.
I was very fortunate in this regard, as my PhD program was open to me taking part in the HHMI-sponsored program Med-Into-Grad. For three months I spent a large portion of my time away from the bench and in the clinic, learning the basics of pathology, attending tumor boards, shadowing oncologists, and getting to know residents and fellows. I was fortunate to be able to attend certain arenas longer, such as the Molecular Tumor Board.
Coming away from this experience, I am still amazed at how much effort is wasted in basic research, and even highly invested biotech companies, on ideas and projects that seem laughably implausible to impact patient care for reasons that become painfully obvious in the clinic.
2) Twitter is a wonderful gateway to understand biotech and pharmaceutical trends
Twitter is a fantastic platform to follow trends in research, regulation, clinical trials, and investment in biotech and pharma. It’s also a platform to create a professional, personal online footprint. A fantastic recent post on Quora by a top engineering recruiter for the likes of Facebook, Google, and Expedia listed a few things that can be done to make a candidate stand out, among them:
Include URLs for online footprints — Nuff said. And within your comfortability of course. I get it. We’ve overshared our way to a more private society, but if you’re looking to stand out, write some stuff on the Internet. Contribute to open source repositories. Demonstrate some level of domain expertise/interest outside of your 9-5.
It is best to use twitter to follow key people and organizations in the field while it is wise to post to twitter sparingly. When posting, anything other than a re-tweet should be well thought out and provide some element of originality in idea or perspective. I include my twitter handle (@RyonGraf) on my resume.
Influential scientific papers get shared frequently and ricocheted around the twittersphere. Many times I have come across said articles within my areas of discipline before pubmed! it is also a wonderful exercise to see what influential people within the field find interesting, and why. When researching or investigating something entirely new (biomarker, drug, etc) I typically do both pubmed and twitter searches as my first steps. While pubmed will have peer-reviewed research and published commentaries, twitter offers a much wider net to how people *receive* or *interpret* available research, especially in realms peripheral to the research realm. Additionally, it offers near real-time trends and developments at major scientific conferences.
Some of my personal favorites include:
General science: Matthew Herper, Virginia Hughes, Carl Zimmer, Nature News and Comment, NEJM
Specific to my field: Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology, ASCO, OncLive
Others: The Economist, The Atlantic, Nautilus Magazine
3) LinkedIn is the de facto e-business card
Rule #1 about LinkedIn: Have a nice photo (this applies to Twitter too). I know this sounds trite and shallow, but I have found this to be extremely valuable. LinkedIn is not a dating website, but many of the same rules about first e-impressions apply. A photo is worth more than 1000 words, and is a first impression for many. People DO judge others by their photo. A poor photo is worse than no photo.
Descriptions of previous work, awards, projects, publications, should be as succinct as possible. Potential employers and co-workers will be the main viewers of a profile, and they are not looking for an essay. Like a resume, it is best to leave the viewer curious for more. It is best to spend LinkedIn development time at making things succinct.
4) Writing and communication skills are immensely valuable and should be practiced
I went off the deep end in this regard, creating my science blog in February 2011. Writing about scientific topics both within and peripheral to my realm of expertise gave me an opportunity to turn esoteric into succinct, to make science relatable to a wide audience. Writing for my science blog also forced me to become more aware of societal, historical, and ethical contexts for current science topics. I found that this exercise helped me become much more fluent in conversations at social gatherings, and fed back into networking.
Crafting the occasional science tweet on Twitter forced me to practice extremely succinct communication, which is a very important skill in the biotech realm. I also enjoy writing haikus. I don’t write them about science, mind you, and I don’t post them online, but writing haikus is a similar exercise in describing a sensation, scene, or act in 17 syllables.
Higher level (responsibilities and compensation) positions require a greater breadth of knowledge scientific and peripheral. Following trends (*cough* *Twitter* *cough*) and engaging in conversations on these topics lay the foundation for upward advancement.
5) Networking matters
Networking is an overtly extroverted activity. Many scientists are not extroverted. There are two primary, practical benefits to networking as I see it:
a) Expanding the group of people one knows in similar or peripheral fields b) Improving social skills
Compared to the academic realm, projects in the biotech realm are generally larger in scope and work, and require more diverse skill sets that are best accomplished by many people at once. In other words, it is much more collaborative, and with that comes a necessity for social skills and a level of extroversion. Time spent among diverse people in diverse situations will help build the social skills not merely to help get a job, but to do a job well.
In biotech, who one knows rivals or even exceeds the importance of what one knows. From my experience, the vast majority of people at my company either found out about the job opening through someone they knew, and / or it was also the recommendation of people they knew that helped land them the job once applying. Social currency goes a long way, and it’s very hard to vet someone in an interview process. It’s much more comprehensive to additionally survey the people for whom have built up social currency with a candidate through a history of in-real-life interactions.
I want to drive the point home that networking is far more than looking for a job. At a not-so-infrequent cadence, people I peripherally know (with whom I have had very little interaction and had not built rapport) enter the job market suddenly take up an interest in building rapport with me for recommendations. Depending on the situations, I find this anything from unappealing to utterly disingenuous and fake, and sometimes leads to worse impressions than not interacting at all. I would be a lot more comfortable recommending someone for a position if I had known and worked with for years and developed a history of rapport, someone whom I had observed and could vouch for in many situations. After all, I want good people at my company, and when we open position it’s not out of charity; we need that position filled and the job conducted. To that end, I want to not only help good people I know find a good fit, but I also want my company to succeed, and I want my work environment and company culture to thrive as well. Building that social currency is very difficult to do when one *needs* a job. One can’t grow a garden when hungry, and growing a garden takes many small, constant, efforts. The same rules apply to networking; it is something to be practiced all the time.
Networking is not going to networking events, especially not “postdoc” or “grad student” networking events filled with academics. It’s best to go to events pertaining to the interests one has outside of lab. Some of the best networking I have done was at charity events, art gallery happy hours, and while cycling. In truth, any social activity shared by intelligent, successful people is where you want to be.
As I alluded to above, this requires a level of extroversion that many young scientists are not used to, and although I am very much an introvert at heart, I came to learn to be somewhat of an extroverted introvert, and learned to actually enjoy being in social situations surrounded by people I do not know. I learned to become curious about others’ stories and careers, and how they got to their current walk in life. This also allowed me to spend time with people who were in successful careers elsewhere (IT, finance, defense) and become aware of the norms of professionals in fields outside of academia.
If you’ve made it this far, read reader, it is my hope that this blog post might provide some bit of illumination. As I mentioned before, I am a far cry from a seasoned veteran of the biotech realm. That said, I will risk going out on a limb to share some of my insights thus far in hopes that they will be of use to my scientific siblings. The pace is unrelenting, the innovation is inspiring, and I jump out of bed every day excited to go to work. It is my hope that you will find the same :)
*I offer a few commentaries on the current career prospects for young PhDs in academic science: Boston Globe: Glut of postdoc researchers stirs quiet crisis in science Science Commentary: The Postdoc: A Special Kind of Hell Times of Higher Education: Too many postdocs, not enough research jobs
**also, a useful article for introverts learning extroversion: Forbes: 5 Qualities of Charismatic People