After a two-year stint as a high-school biology / chemistry teacher (at an acclaimed high school in Fullerton, CA called Troy, right at the time it was developing a STEM magnet curriculum which was right in my wheelhouse, so to speak), I was ready to go back to school way-back-when to get into ‘real biology’ and the ‘biotechnology revolution’. Fast forward twenty years or so, and it now has been a balance – about 10 years of behind the bench research (mainly in cancer immunology) and about 10 years of working for different life science vendors in different commercial roles.
What advice would I give an aspiring post-doc or laboratory manager or bench technician or scientist who is looking into a career shift? Just a few things come to mind, and I’ve boiled it down to three.
The first thing is a good assessment of where your particular skill-set lies. What Color Is Your Parachute? is a perennial favorite for this kind of exercise (and an eye-opener for me in graduate school), and a few years ago I took an assessment called Strengths Finder 2.0 which was also accurate, although IMHO not particularly eye-opening. At a prior employer, the DISC assessment was remarkable in its usefulness as a model of personality and work style, worth looking into. (Sorry, no link to a book as it was shared in the context of a corporate training.) And once you have that information, determine exactly where in a business or corporation you would best fit? Would it be in a customer-facing role, such as field-support, marketing or sales? Would it be in R&D, knowing full-well that a customer facing role is the absolutely last thing on earth you would be interested in doing? Or perhaps something different like legal or operations? (Legal involving perhaps going back to get a law degree.)
This can be the most difficult of all, as we do not see ourselves as others see us, and the truth is often somewhere between the two. The determination of what you are uniquely suitable for is not a static thing, and often discovered through a long process of introspection and data-gathering, which periodically needs to be redone, and is frankly a lot of work. But the ‘Parachute’ exercises were relevatory to me personally, as I knew that I loved to teach and communicate, that I loved to learn and implement what I had just learned, and that I loved to solve different kinds of problems and have a certain unpredictability and uncertainty in my day. All traits that served me well in my teaching career, my time in the lab, and now for the past 10+ years working for different companies.
The second is to start with a Big Company, and whereever you start work hard to define your ‘to-go’ area of excellence. A Big Company can be whatever fits your definition of it, in the vendor research tools space I’ve read that there are some 300-odd companies of various sizes. Thermo-Fisher (TMO) is $11.7B, LIFE is $3.7B in revenue, Sigma-Aldrich (SIAL) is $2.7B, BioRad (BIO) is $2.0B, QIAGEN (QGEN) is $1.0B, Illumina (ILMN) is $1.0B as well. That’s the life science vendor space (there are others like BD and GE Healthcare that have a lot of other business wrapped up in it, and could be mentioned here too, but you get the point). If you have another market segment (say BioPharma, or Healthcare, or CRO’s) you’ll see the same dynamic of many companies that compete, from Big Companies to small companies to startups, and frankly the best place to start is Big Company.
Why? You’ll get to understand very clearly how things work in this particular Big Company, you’ll have a well-defined role that you can excel and shine in, and lastly it is a great place to establish and build your personal network of sponsors, mentors and colleagues who happen to become your friends. (It may go without saying, but if many of the great people you work with happen to become good friends, it can be good for many things, not the least of which is your sanity when things turn less-than-sane, which they sometimes do.)
And what if you have an itch to start the Startup to Take Over the World, or to join Small Specialized Niche Company? Two or three years in you will have that opportunity, if you wish to do so, but you need to fully understand the Big Company culture and processes firsthand.
And lastly (thirdly) – spend the extra time and effort in the beginning of the corporate life to be that ever-so-slightly better, faster, and higher quality than your peers, whoever they may be. You develop good habits that accrete over time. It is like the effect of taking $100, and compounding the interest at 3% over 30 years, and coming up with $242.73, a 242% increase. Think of your additional efforts over time like that 3% compounding interest – after 10 or 15 years people will look at you like you are extremely fortunate, but rather you say like Seneca the Roman Philosopher, ‘Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.’