Input/insights on a second career move post-PhD?
I’d appreciate everyone’s wizened perspectives on a potential next career move.
Received my PhD nearly 3 years ago with a couple first author publications in a very high-impact journal. Looked at postdoc positions and was excited by the potential to pursue more independent research and learn new skills. However, I was also interested in careers outside academia, discouraged by the opportunity costs of postdocs, and the endless cycle of grant writing and admin duties that awaits assistant professors. That did not seem to be a good fit.
Instead, I joined a very small biotech startup (heavy on tech/data science) that is doing some fascinating things and which is now in a field considered fairly “hot”. I executed successfully on some critical projects and ended up being promoted and now running the day-to-day of our tiny team. I've learned a lot and enjoy many of the entrepreneurial aspects of a small startup, however it’s not completely scratching an itch for building and running my own group/research. Being a tiny startup, the main hurdle is just fighting to stay afloat for another quarter.
Without trying to sound completely naive, are there positions - other than academic PI - that would enable one to build a group and pursue research with more time and flexibility than in small industry? Would I be at a severe disadvantage without a postdoc?
Thanks for keeping the forum alive!
Thanks for coming around. Your story is a bit unique. You've found a way to move, without doing a postdoc, into industry, and then showed your "stuff" and moved up the ladder quickly. Those are all good things!
Yes -- moving to a larger firm would give you more of an opportunity to stretch your management muscles and take on more research leadership. But it would still be research directed to an end . . . you can not be in industry and just pursue any course of research. Your post doesn't say that, but I think part of what you are saying is that you'd like a better license to develop your own ideas and so forth. While the best place for pure "run with my own ideas" is academia, you could certainly have more input into the direction your team goes if you were in a larger company. It doesn't have to be a Fortune 500 sized firm, either.
The whole "I didn't get a postdoc" issue is minimized when you've had good examples, as you apparently do, of leading others in an R&D environment. You can bankroll that into another job with a bigger company -- that's my recommendation.
Sometimes very small companies just don't have the horsepower to go down the track further and become a bigger entity. Your company could be acquired, which may not be a bad thing for your career, or you could find another place to enjoy science and leadership. You may find an occasional hiring manager who's going to think you should have done a postdoc (because he or she did) but that's going to be minimized with good examples of your work from your present company.
Good luck and let us know how it turns out!
Dave Jensen, Founder and Moderator
Bio Careers Forum
As Dave says research in industry is usually and should be directed towards a specific target. There are examples of pharma companies having research teams doing more "free" research but these are getting fewer when companies are looking at cutting costs and what they are getting for their money.
I think that the freedom to operate comes more from your position with the company than the size of the company. Sure a larger company has more money to spend but may often also have more fixed structures and definitions about what a certain group or department should be doing. I have been at startups in which I have been responsible for the company R&D with a very big freedom in chosing what to do, as long as the end goal was to finish development of the the products we were working on. In my case I am convinced that the route to getting to having that type or responsibility was shorter through startups then it would have been if I would have joined a larger company earlier.
As for doing a postdoc my opinion is that a postdoc shows that you can be productive without your PhD supervisor and when doing something slightly different. It serves as a part of the entry ticket to industry but if you found another way in I woudlnt bother about going back unless you are sure that you want to change to an academic career and also in that case I would think carefully about if that is the correct path.
While the best place for pure "run with my own ideas" is academia, you could certainly have more input into the direction your team goes if you were in a larger company. It doesn't have to be a Fortune 500 sized firm, either.
I have been at startups in which I have been responsible for the company R&D with a very big freedom in chosing what to do, as long as the end goal was to finish development of the the products we were working on.
Thanks Dave and PG for the insights. You hit on exactly what I'm looking to understand, even if I didn't ask it directly. That there is a degree of flexibility and ability to build a group and pursue research at larger startups/biotech/pharma, given that it's targeted towards a structured goal or product.
At medium/large biotech and pharma, is that a path that can be transitioned from R&D group leader to a position of making bigger picture decisions? Or is that transition more difficult to make if you're not coming from more of the business side?
PG, could I ask about your experience in directing R&D at a startup? How did their size and funding level impact or influence your ability to direct the R&D towards the end goal(s)? My experience is from that of a "bootstrapped" startup, so would be interested to hear your perspective.
Start-ups always have a lack of cash and need to be careful how they spend it. On the other hand if you have a leading R&D role you are probably the one in the Company that has the best knowledge and understanding about what is needed to take the idea that the Company has to market.
Being "bootstrapped" also means that the company cant afford to add staff to fill all roles that a larger company will have which can actually increase your area of responsibility. In the startups that I have worked for it was primarily my responsibility as head of R&D to work with outside Consultants and take responsibility also for intellectual property, regulatory, quality, clinical studies etc to fulfill all of those roles that the Companies did not have their own staff to fill. R&D also held responsibility for QC, helping to set up manufacturing etc. In this type of role you get a lot of responsibility and the board of directors and CEO will usually take your advise seriously.
The limitation in start-ups is usually the fact that they are small. They only need one person to lead the R&D efforts and then maybe a couple of Project leaders or lower level managers. This means that the probability for advancement in a start-up is limited since one of these very few people need to leave the company for a position to open up. On the other hand if the opportunity opens up you can advance to a level of responsibility that would require several career steps in a larger company.