Three Pieces of Advice that have Shaped my Career
It's been 8 years since I defended my PhD and jumped into biotech. I then spent 6 years at Epic Sciences where I was part of a jazz band of senior scientists that did the heavy lifting to produce the AR-V7 Nucleus Detect product that is distributed by Exact Sciences. We took it all the way from product concept, through CLIA & CAP, clinical validations, launch, and Medicare reimbursement. During the pandemic I switched jobs and landed at Foundation Medicine. Things are going really well and I could not be more thrilled with my job and career.
Along the way I've written about Key Lessons and Insights from moving into the biotech realm. I've had the opportunity to do more and more mentoring along the way, and I wanted to again sit down and consolidate a few pieces of career advice for a broader audience. This advice is not necessarily valuable for everyone, and everyone's experiences are going to be unique, but at this point I wanted to share a few things I've learned in hopes they might be of help for my younger scientific siblings.
It's hard to find motivated help
Every week we are alive for 168 hours. If one subtracts 7-8 hours for sleep, we're roughly left at about 115 hours. A 40-hour work week is 35% of your time. That's a lot! For many of us, we might spend additional time outside of that working or thinking about work. The happiest people in life have a sense of meaning and purpose. These two threads tied together make a compelling case to put considerable effort into finding a career and job that can help provide this sense of meaning and purpose. The Japanese have distilled this elegantly with their concept of Ikigai:
(image source: Forbes)
Finding such a path can sound like nirvana, and at the same time, incredibly daunting. So here's a hack: It's hard to find motivated help. This advice was given to me by Brendan Eckelman about 10 years ago. Brendan is a serial entrepreneur in the biotech space, and was kind enough to serve on a career panel for PhD students in my program. He mentioned that he had built several teams over his career, and the thing that he looks for more than anything is motivation and drive: does the candidate believe in the vision, the mission, and potential? He claimed that he values this so much that if someone approached him out of the blue with these characteristics he would consider creating a job for them, to literally just hire said person, then find a role.
I took this advice seriously when applying to companies out of my PhD program. One company I approached was Epic Sciences; at the time a ~50 person startup just coming out of stealth mode. I literally emailed the head of HR (after figuring out the email convention and guessing her email address) and informed her that there was no job listed perfect for me, but that I'd love to get involved with the growing company, that I believed in the potential of the technology and vision. A few weeks later I was asked to come on site informational interview, met several leaders in the company, and applied to a role in Biopharma Partnerships with the understanding that I would transition to a Translational Research team they were planning to build out. I was hired, and 7 months later I transitioned and never looked back. I had years of tremendous growth, learning, and fun, made some lifelong friends and had some of the best years of my life so far.
While many good things often come to an end, the jazz band of senior scientists at Epic eventually started going their separate ways, and it was time for me to do so as well. Again applying this advice, I contacted folks in Clinical Development at Foundation Medicine cold via LinkedIn, not knowing anyone. I told them I liked their work, felt that I could make impacts, and found myself speaking with folks who similarly deeply cared about the mission of helping patients with technology. I was connected with the then-head of Clinical Development, learned that an existing job posting was flexible for leveling and could be modified (from Scientist to Principal Scientist) and I applied. Two months later I was starting my new job, and it's been a fantastic journey since.
If you have a job or job role that you seek, that will bring you closer to Ikigai, don't sit around and wait for it. Seek it out. The environment might be eagerly waiting for you!
Friends & Family > Career > Job
This piece of advice comes from Martha Weckel, a 30-year veteran of the San Diego biotech realm. She's worked for companies big and small, directed large teams, and helped launch products such as PSA testing for prostate cancer!
Her advice: friends & family come first, then your career, then your job. The first part is intuitive, but never hurts to re-iterate. The second part was something I had not properly considered at the time: the distinction between job and career. Career is something you build, to which a job can contribute. Career is something you take with you. Career is part of your legacy. A good job will feed into your career. At best, a bad job doesn't add; at worst, a bad job detracts! Carefully evaluating how one's job feeds into career is a very powerful exercise to periodically re-visit.
When to have enough
Seneca, the famous Stoic Roman philosopher, once asserted that poverty isn't necessarily having less, but wanting more. Making reference to Alexander the Great, one of the most powerful people of antiquity, Seneca claimed that despite having his vast empire and more material possessions than anyone on Earth at the time that Alexander was quite impoverished, because even that was not enough for him! Half a world away, Lao Tzu once claimed: for one to know when they have enough is to be wealthy beyond measure. Similarly, Siddhartha the Buddha taught that the source of all unhappiness is craving more.
While I'm not enough of a student of ancient cultures to tie together any novel insights, these acknowledgements demonstrate that the struggle *of* success, not just *for* success has existed between the ears of many great humans throughout our history.
Do I have a solution to this ancient problem? No way! But, in recent years especially I've come to be weary of some of "success" for success's sake. It's enabled me to be able to more thoughtfully consider the next steps in my career: job roles, responsibilities, titles, etc. It's also helped me better appreciate what I already have in life, and while it's healthy to constantly strive for improvement, that focusing on the end result really robs one of the ability to enjoy the present. The process is more important than the result, the journey more important than the destination. Even in my short career I've witnessed several folks I know rush toward success with such reckless abandon that they ran right past Ikigai. Don’t let this happen to you!
And with that, dear reader, I wish you years to your life, and life to your years!