From the Bench to Online Marketing – Advice for Ph.D. Students Considering Careers Outside of Research
Author: Aaron Tooley, Ph.D.
In 2007, I graduated from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) with my Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences (BMS). Today, I run my own media company that produces resources/websites for students researching graduate programs. This blog post is intended for Ph.D. students who may be experiencing something similar to what I went through during my time in graduate school, and for those interested in exploring careers outside of research.
My story began well before I started the BMS program at UCSF. For my undergraduate degree, I completed a B.A. in Molecular and Cell Biology (MCB) from UC Berkeley. The majority of the courses I took were in the sciences, and most of my electives were research credits. I took as few liberal arts classes as I could. I worked in a lab for over half of my bachelor’s degree and published two first author papers about my research. I knew I was going to get my Ph.D., I was certain I wanted to be a professor, and I planned to one day run my own lab.
To be honest, I am not sure exactly when I lost my passion for bench science. I know it happened around my third year in graduate school and I know it was a result of several factors. First, there was cross-contamination that resulted in losing over a year’s worth of work. Second, I honestly lost sight of the big picture. I didn’t see how the work I was doing was going to help anyone. Finally, living in San Francisco on a limited stipend was not easy, and the thought of doing something similar for a postdoc was not something I was interested in doing.
With all of that said, I have absolutely no regrets about finishing my Ph.D. I had considered leaving my program with a Masters (we called it the Masters of Shame), and I had consulted career counselors at UCSF and former professors at Berkeley about the decision. I got advice on both sides, and to this day, I am glad I finished. No one can take that accomplishment away from me. It is something I have been asked about in numerous interviews and is always a good conversation starter.
Career Attempt #1 – Management Consulting
While I was completing my Ph.D., I had made the decision that I wanted to go into consulting. McKinsey & Company would present on campus, and at the time, they actively hired Ph.D. graduates (according to their website they still recruit professionals who are in the process of completing or have earned an advanced degree). I do not recall the other large consulting firms doing presentations on campus, although they might now. To prepare for the interviews, I bought numerous case study books and had spent hours reviewing case studies and practicing answering math questions quickly in my head. I have always been comfortable with math, but it had been a while since I had to solve math-related questions on the spot without a calculator or computer.
It was a multipart interview process that included written tests and in-person interviews; I went through the interview process twice. In my last attempt, I made it to round two, which involved three in-person interviews. They decided not to bring me in for round three but provided feedback I could work on for the future. I can honestly say, it was not until several years later that I fully understood the feedback. Now, looking back on the experience, the feedback was completely valid.
I can still recall the phone conversation and where I was standing when it happened. The person who called me actually laughed a little when he was giving me the feedback. They recommended I travel more (I can also laugh about it now). I needed to see more of the world, and I needed to gain more experience working in a business environment. He said my analytics skills were fine, I had done well on the case studies, but they didn’t trust that I could sit in front of a client and give them advice.
At the time, I was confused. How was I supposed to get business experience? I was a graduate student; they knew I was a graduate student. I was spending 60+ hours a week in the lab. Looking back on the situation many years later, it was not about traveling more; it was about perception and confidence.
In total, I had spent the previous ~10 years studying molecular & cell biology, biomedical science, and immunology; for the last five to six years of that I had sat in the same chair at the same bench and had talked to the same five to ten people every day. I was almost 30 and still felt like I was 23 years old. I had gotten older physically, but had not matured mentally. I could talk to scientists fine, I could give scientific presentations fine, but when I spoke to the people who interviewed me, I was intimidated and lacked confidence.
For students who do not plan on pursuing a research career after graduate school, I recommend getting experience outside the lab, especially for students who do not have a lot of professional experience. Whether that means joining an organization on campus, volunteering with an organization off-campus, or reaching out to alumni to ask them for advice, work on your interpersonal skills. It is something I still work on to this day.
In addition, just like conducting research, learn from every piece of data, or in this case advice, even if you do not fully understand it at the time. I do not regret interviewing at McKinsey, and to this day, the feedback I received drives me. It is part of the chip I carry with me on my shoulder. It has made me a better professional.
Key takeaway: Get feedback whenever and wherever you can, and think about it critically to learn how you can improve.
My Journey from Research to Online Marketing and Web Production
After the interview process for McKinsey, I decided to focus on finishing my Ph.D. before worrying about what was next. After graduating, I spent two months applying for jobs. I applied for marketing positions in biotech, analyst positions at research firms– as long as it was not research I applied.
My first job after graduate school came through a personal connection. I knew one of the founders of Biocompare, an online buyer’s guide for laboratory reagents and equipment. While I knew nothing about content editing, or what search engine optimization (SEO) involved, they hired me. They wanted me to ensure the terminology on the website matched how scientists searched for products online. Although the title and pay were not what I wanted or expected with my degree, I decided to take the job. I knew it would open the door to other opportunities and allow me to learn new skills. I also knew it would give me some much-needed experience working in a business environment.
I spent approximately three years working at CompareNetworks, the parent company of Biocompare. I started as a content editor and when I left, I was the Director of New Markets. I went from uploading product information to researching and launching new websites for the company. I took every project the company gave me. I attended industry conferences whenever there was an opportunity. I worked hard to become an expert at SEO.
My advice for scientists interested in leaving research: don’t be afraid to take an entry-level position. Changing careers is not easy; getting your foot in the door is essential. Work hard, make it so they have to give you more responsibilities, the promotions and salary increases will come. Learn everything you can and if there are opportunities to attend conferences go to them. Justify to your boss why attending them will help the company.
Today, there are online courses, nano-degrees, and online certificate programs; they are in everything from marketing to analytics to science writing and communication—these are ways to expand your knowledge and skill set that were not as prevalent ten years ago. Lynda.com, edX, Coursera, and Udacity all offer online courses and training. Many associations also offer training courses. For example, The Association of Clinical Research Professionals offers an Introduction to Clinical Trials, and the Society for Technical Communication offers webinars and other online training courses. Some of these associations have non-member prices while others require you to join (some associations have reduced fees for students). Online courses are also a great way to learn about different careers, especially if you are not sure what you want to do after graduate school.
For students considering careers outside of research, I recommend talking to people. Whenever a product manager comes to your lab, whenever you see a sales rep or technical specialist at a conference, talk to them. Take them out for coffee. Use that opportunity to learn how they got started and what they like or dislike about their positions. When I was applying for jobs, I never thought to reach out to the product managers I interacted with in the lab. For some products, you may already be a specialist.
Key takeaway: Talk to as many people as you can about potential career options, and know that it is never too late to start building a strong professional network.
Advice for Launching Your Own Business
I left CompareNetworks to work in a more competitive space. I wanted to test my theories of SEO and web production in larger markets in which there was more competition. I went to work for a large media company that created websites for education and financial services. I ultimately stayed at that company for three years before joining a company that provided online program management services to institutions of higher education. For personal reasons, I only stayed at that company for a short time before I decided to launch my own business.
In 2013, I launched acgtMedia, LLC, a niche media company that creates education-based websites designed to help students research graduate programs. My first child had just arrived and I knew if I did not start my business then I might never do it, and I felt I needed a new challenge. I launched my company with a minimal investment and I did everything myself. I developed the site using WordPress even though I had no programming experience. I Googled everything.
I also wrote my own content, and asked my wife to edit. I was told my style of content would never work. I signed clients on my own even though I had no sales training. I was told that I would never be able to sign clients; I was told I was too rough around the edges—I used that to drive me. Every person who said I could not do it just added to the chip on my shoulder, the same chip that had been there since McKinsey.
In July, I will have been running my business for six years. We are still a small niche publishing company, it is myself and two editors, and I now outsource web development. I still pull data and I still write and edit content. We currently manage websites for students researching Master’s in Communication programs and Doctorate of Education programs. We strive to create the best content on the web in those fields. We use extensive research to create resources that do not exist elsewhere. For example, we have the most comprehensive list of online master’s in communication programs on the web. I spend months collecting data for sites and love creating something from nothing. In addition, you can not beat the flexibility of running your own business.
My advice for people considering launching their own business is to find your niche and outcompete everyone else. Create something of value for your customers. I always think back to that famous line from the movie Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” My only change would be: “If you build it well, they will come.” Know your data, and let your data speak for itself. Go out of your way to make a lasting impression. And learn from every experience you can.
Key takeaway: Use your background in research to find your niche and create something great.
Careers for Ph.D. Graduates
My final advice to Ph.D. students who may be in a similar situation to the one I was in: if you no longer want to do research, don’t feel obligated to keep doing it. I know there can be a stigma around leaving academia. My graduate class was 10 students (if I remember correctly) and two of our classmates did not finish the program. Of the remaining eight, three now manage their own research labs at institutions, two went into industry, one became a teaching professor, one works in policy and program management, and I build websites.
I know other biomedical science graduates from UCSF that went into consulting, medical communications, medical writing, regulatory affairs, and medical affairs. I also know molecular and cell biology majors that went into clinical research.
Key takeaway: There are plenty of opportunities outside of bench science, so take your time and find your new career path.
Aaron Tooley, Ph.D.
Graduate of the Biomedical Sciences program at the University of California, San Francisco. I now manage my own niche media company in the San Francisco Bay Area.