Celia Fernandez: Transitions Out of Academia
The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the course of six months, Yeonwoo Lebovitz, Anthony Franchini, Megan Duffy, and Celia Fernandez will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back at the beginning of March for a new cohort of bloggers!
Current position: Postdoctoral Research Fellow studying Cell & Molecular Neurobiology
Program start date: November 2015
Institution: The University of Chicago
When I started writing this blog six months ago, I had hoped to share my perspective of the classic academic scientist who had always ignored careers outside a university setting, but was just starting to peer into the outside world. My intention was to take down the stigma of looking at careers beyond the bench, and provide reassurance that the mere act of considering the alternatives doesn’t mean “giving up” on science. In the end, I’m still not quite committed to leaving academia; rather, I am committed to educating myself as much as possible on all the careers that are available to me now that I have my Ph.D. I’m taking concrete actions toward that goal: in addition to attending career development/exploration seminars, I’m enrolled in another pedagogy workshop this quarter, in which I’ll design my own course and will have the exciting opportunity to give a lecture to an undergraduate class. I’m also applying for a part-time internship at my university’s tech transfer office to learn how discoveries in the lab are commercialized into tangible products that improve people’s lives.
I also want to learn more about careers in the biotechnology/pharmaceutical industry, and I’m keeping in close contact with my colleagues who have made the leap from academia to industry. My good friend, Chris Bradley, Ph.D., is a Product Development Director for Lattice Biologics, a company that focuses on cellular therapies and tissue engineering. I was lucky enough to cross paths with Dr. Bradley when we worked together in the same lab: I was a bright-eyed, naïve technician and he was a battle-worn postdoctoral scholar. He made science cool, and had a big influence on my decision to pursue the Ph.D. For my final blog, I wanted to get his perspective on making the transition out of academia and into industry.
Dr. Bradley completed four different postdocs in very different fields: regulation of gene expression at the protein synthesis level, cancer chemoprevention and DNA repair, proteomics, and virology and nucleocytoplasmic transport. Working in so many diverse biomedical fields “prepared me for being able to grasp and internalize brand new fields,” says Dr. Bradley. “It forced me to become a self-taught learner on command.” While he certainly possesses an impressive expertise in a variety of specializations, his current role as a manager means he “no longer has the time or focus to dig into the depth of a scientific question.” He needs to fulfill a variety of roles, solve problems rapidly and make smart decisions that address the company’s goals, leaving little time to work in detail on one particular aspect of their research and development. “However, I have the luxury of increasing the breadth of my scientific knowledge. I am constantly learning more about the end uses of our products on the clinical side, and the intricacies of the industry within which we operate.”
As someone who has only ever seen the research enterprise from the laboratory, I was curious what a typical day looks like for someone working at a company. Do you still do experiments? If not, what else do you do? “A typical day in my world currently involves a more holistic approach than my life as a research postdoc in academia,” says Dr. Bradley. Although he manages the research side of things, he needs to be in constant communication with the other sides of the company, such as HR, manufacturing, quality control, finance, and sales, “because what I do as the head of research can impact their department, and vice versa.” For example, “I constantly check with shipping to make sure our cold supply chain is properly maintained, as it is critical to the quality of our products. I also interface with manufacturing constantly. I make sure that they can provide me with reagents for my product development efforts, and they share with me any pressing issues that I might be able to address. I also interact with the sales force and clients, providing technical support, but also for cementing those important relationships with potential clients. I am the face of the company when it comes to the science, so I lead visiting investors, clients, distributors, vendors, and medical professionals on tours of our facility so they can get a sense of everything we do.” This echoes what I’ve heard from two other friends who have gone on to jobs in industry; you get to do many different things to move a project forward, while still retaining your status as a specialist in your particular field of study.
I was curious to know what kind of skills he learned during his Ph.D. that help him in his current position, besides the basic technical things like PCR and Western blotting. “Mining the published scientific literature to understand the new technologies I work with. Grant writing and literature review skills have played into my patent writing nowadays, since I am the main generator of our growing intellectual property portfolio.” Similar to a Principal Investigator in an academic lab, Dr. Bradley manages two scientists that work on projects critical to the company’s short-term and long-term goals, “which, like academia, still involve collaborations, applying for grants, preparing publications or conference presentations. I do all of the ordering and make sure they have the tools they need to keep their experiments moving forward.”
But even for academic scientists, there are skills you learn outside of bench work and grant writing that are critical to success. As a postdoc, Dr. Bradley got involved with a variety of postdoc social groups to meet and interact with other scientists. His “love of interaction with people” has helped him develop an ability to communicate with the many different players involved in the company’s success.
As someone who knows next to nothing about career growth outside of the academic track, I wanted to know what his opportunities were for growth. Because the company he works for is relatively new, it is “constantly redefining itself. We recently went public, which opened a lot of doors to investment and growth. We develop new products that open new markets.” With the growth of the company comes the exciting opportunity to grow with it. “I’ve developed relationships with academic labs that crave industry partners and a path to commercialization. I’ve been instrumental in connecting with medical professionals who serve on our Scientific Advisory Board who, as Key Opinion Leaders in various fields, help and guide us in our product development, clinical studies, and marketing efforts. I think it’s only a matter of time before I will be able to ascend to the role of Chief Scientific Officer, at least, that’s one of many dreams.” So there’s definitely upward trajectory, and it sounds like he’s developing a broader range of skills that could be applied to different, non R&D roles in his current company or any other company if he so chooses.
For me, the major draw of academic research is the intellectual stimulation and personal fulfillment. And while he isn’t necessarily spending as much time at the bench these days, Dr. Bradley finds his job personally rewarding and fulfilling. “I get to handle important decision-making, and I think I make good ones,” he says. “My job also has so many different facets and challenges, so I’m rarely bored. It satisfies my need to newness and ‘climbing mountains.’ There is always a problem to be solved, a battle to be waged, and important projects to build.” And with so much personal fulfillment, there’s also balance. “I have a better life/work balance than I can ever remember (as a grad student or postdoc),” says Dr. Bradley.
His passion for his current position is clear. So how did he land such an amazing job? “Good networking and maintaining contacts with old friends.” Another theme I keep hearing over and over: stay in touch with old colleagues and stay open to the possibilities.
So are there any downsides? “What I least like is the real-world snags and hiccups that can slow down progress. It requires tremendous patience sometimes to deal with an unresponsive vendor, or a delay of game when you’re ready to strike.” The same (or worse) could also be said of bench work. “I guess it’s not the worst problem in the world to have if otherwise all cylinders are firing,” Dr. Bradley concedes. “The good thing is that I’m thrilled to constantly be revving the engine, and I’m enjoying the ride!”
It gave me a lot of hope to interview Dr. Bradley and my other industry friends about life on the other side, and to realize that life can be much bigger than the signaling assay I’m toiling away at, or the fellowship I’m struggling to get funded. I’m hopeful that, even if I choose to stay in academia, I’ll be informed enough to make the right decision for me.
I hope that sharing my experiences has been helpful for others in a similar situation. Thanks for reading!