Postdoctoral Researcher Session – Mid-Atlantic Career Opportunities
- Steven M. Ferguson, CLP, NIH Office of Tech Transfer
- Stephen Auvil, Executive Vice President, Programs, Maryland Technology Development Corp. (TEDCO)
- David Ihrie, Chief Technology Officer, Center for Innovative Technology (CIT)
- Omar Mencin, DBA, Senior Director of Investments, Investment Group, Ben Franklin Technology Partners
- Randy Ribaudo, Ph.D., Co-Founder of SciPhD; and ex-NIH and ex-Celera
Whether it’s an industry or government job, or whatever it is you want next, there’s a lot of things you can do as a graduate student. The first is making sure that you know what the career options are available to you. And there’s a lot of resources out there to really figure out career options.
Once you understand the career options that are out there, it’s gaining the credentials that you need in order to be a competitive candidate. So sometimes that means getting some leadership experience, so joining the committee for your postdoc or grad student organization or volunteering to lead the journal club for your department or doing some kind of above and beyond your science, doing some kinds of things like that to make sure that you’re gaining team skills and leadership skills that that complement the research skills that you’re getting in your labs.
Networking is very important, and it doesn’t have to be this scary horrible thing that you have to do. It’s really just having good conversations with people and asking good questions. So for example, in an informational interview. ask what’s on their to-do list both long-term and short-term projects, because that gives you a really good view of what those that job does on a day to day basis.
And then the last one that I really wanted to point out is something that many of us are struggling with is that to realize that everyone’s struggling during the pandemic. To think about next steps, struggling with worrying about whether they’re getting enough work done. You can’t get into the research labs as much as you would like to and so is that going to hurt your long term career outcomes. And I want to assure you that everyone’s in the same boat. And everyone’s getting jobs. So, it’s okay if your research is slower than you want it to be. Take care of yourself. Take care of your resilience. Take care of your wellness and make sure that you’re ready for the next step. So it’s gaining career knowledge, gaining good credentials, and leadership skills. Build your networks and take care of yourself.
QUESTION: So many scientists that currently work in academic and federal laboratories will need to be thinking about careers in industry. So what are some of the key skill sets that biotech and pharma companies look for when they bring in new scientists into their companies?
The first thing that they look for is, do you know the science? So you’re going to have to make sure that you convince them that you understand the nuances of the science, the pathways that are involved in the kinds of work that they’re doing. I know many hiring managers who run oncology divisions of major pharmaceutical companies, and what they’ll tell you is, I don’t have time to train a scientist on the science they need to know. That’s 10 years of your life or you’ve learned that and they can’t train somebody for that. They do have experts who can train you on a particular assay, a particular technical skill that you don’t have, they don’t worry about that so much, but that is only the first step in your candidacy for a job. First, establish that you know what they’re doing.
The next thing they tell you in the same breath is, once I know that they know the science, there is no way that I’m going to welcome them into my group, my high functioning team, unless they also have the business and social skills that are necessary to integrate well into that environment and this is where a lot of people fail. The notion that your science is enough to get you the job is just not true, it is in some ways the most important for technical jobs because it’s your ticket to be considered. But these people who run divisions in biotech and pharmaceutical companies and related kinds of organizations, spend an inordinate amount of time building what they call a high-performing team, a team that can meet deadlines. You have a tremendous amount of pressure from upper management to deliver projects and products on time to satisfy investors, to satisfy corporate objectives. So they have to know that you can work in this cross-functional environment, that you’re a good listener, you’re not a dominant person, that you can work with other people, you can be deferential, you can take constructive criticism, you can give constructive criticism in a way that is empathetic.
There is a whole wide variety of business and social behaviors that you have to be able to demonstrate. During the interview process and even on your cover letter and targeted resume that show that you can be a good contributing team member, because the worst thing that can happen is that you poison that team dynamic, because that can really slow down a team.
QUESTION: How can postdocs and other scientists connect up with TEDCO funding companies, and what are some of the other TEDCO programs and resources that might be relevant for early stage.
TEDCO was created by the state of Maryland, and it’s funded by the state of Maryland. Its goal is to support entrepreneurs and to support the innovation ecosystem. We do that through a variety of ways including supporting technology transfer, supporting entrepreneurs by providing resources, and then also providing funding to help companies grow, primarily in the state of Maryland. So as a postdoc, you can start a company, or we can try to connect you with one. It’s about networking. We currently don’t have sort of a formal matching program where we can match scientists with other scientists or scientists with business folks to try to build tools around that for companies.
Another thing I would recommend is talk to your colleagues if you’re interested in starting a company or you’re interested in getting engaged with another company. Let folks know. If you keep it to yourself then nothing’s going to happen.
So if you’re a postdoc in one of the major research universities in Maryland or in a federal lab, we have funding programs available. We also have entrepreneurial support programs. We have things like networking advisors so a lot of entrepreneurs, they get out and they think the first thing I need is money but they also need advice. We’ve got a startup orientation where you can get online and ask questions and learn about what does it take to become an entrepreneur. And, we also have a lot of online resources for folks as well.
QUESTION: What does the Center for Innovative Technology offer in terms of career opportunities for early stage scientists?
In many ways, CIT is the equivalent in Virginia to what TEDCO is in Maryland. We’re an extension of the state government and operate as not-for-profit. We run grant programs for university researchers and so forth. We connect with the entrepreneurial community and make equity investments in early stage companies.
I think a good way to get involved in various programs in Virginia…there are a number of different clusters so if we’re looking at Northern Virginia, certainly the Inova healthcare system has very active program, and we make investments there. In Richmond, we work with VCU, and there’s a cluster of innovation and funding sources, going around there. Similarly, in Charlottesville, the University of Virginia is very active and many of our companies come out of that area,
Don’t be afraid to explore sort of adjacent industries. Everybody likes to focus on their specific verticals or specific areas of scientific expertise, and in a lot of ways those skills translate into different areas that you might not think of.
QUESTION: The Philadelphia/New Jersey area has always been an active one for both pharma and tech. What opportunities do you see with Ben Franklin funded companies in the region for new scientists and what kind of advice or suggestions might you give.
We are a Pennsylvania-wide organization, Ben Franklin Technology Partners. We’re economic development in our mission but we operate like a venture capital fund investor. We’re very active. We do anywhere from 25 to 40 deals a year. We have a portfolio that is similar to what TEDCO has, around 200. That’s about 50% in the healthcare and digital health what we call sort of healthcare IT types of companies and then the rest of it is kind of between…different types of technology companies. region. We partner very closely with local universities here. We’re very close to University of Pennsylvania and Drexel. We work with the Drexel Culture Center. We have a wide range of investments between $25K and $50,000, up to a million. Most of ours come in around $200,000. On the early stage, I would say we’re probably one of the most active here in this region. We make a lot of connections to angel investment groups and venture capital companies.
QUESTION: What is the value of having grad students and postdocs exposed to entrepreneurship and commercialization training, and having these folks have it early in their career rather than waiting?
At NIH’s graduate school, we have programs and a couple classes. One is business development for scientists.
We have a program at CIT where students pretend they’re a startup company that is licensing the technology and they have to put together a business plan and do a pitch meeting to ask for funding. We’ve had students work with CIT and end up working with other granting agencies or end up actually part of the biotech community. So, being part of the training and exposure gives you some different role models and different career pathways where you proceed as a scientist, rather than just assuming that you’re going to be an academic professor.
I had a class on the business aspects, and we talked about the time value of money, the net present value and that sort of thing. These things were very basic to business folks, but as somebody who never had any business classes I always thought this is really relevant stuff. Getting exposure to entrepreneurship training is really the nuts and bolts of business. It’s not the full MBA but it’s the basics of business. I’d venture to say that if you’re not going into academia, you’re going to want to understand a little about the business the industry.
QUESTION: In terms of development, what are things that people shouldn’t do or what are some career pitfalls?
Number one, not doing career development. Like waiting for the last six months and then hoping you’re just going to land a job. So start preparing. You don’t have to do a lot your first year as a postdoc but start building your network, like one or two people that year. Think about a visit with a career counselor or something like that.
Another thing we’ve seen that is detrimental is that folks stay in labs that don’t support them. So if you’re in a lab that’s just not working for you, find some support to move labs, so that you’re not feeling trapped. Also, publishing at least something during your postdoc years is very important. And then the last one. There are so many, so many resources out there on how to build a resume…use them.
Identify jobs that you’re really excited about and develop a targeted resume that really speaks to that job. Identify the skills that you’re good at and gain accomplishments for those skills. Identify the skills that you’re not particularly good at and work with an outside the lab to try and find those abilities to gain those experiences and accomplishments.