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GenomeWeb Feature: Careers for Researchers Beyond Academia

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – There comes a time for many researchers — and it can be during graduate school, while a postdoc, or even later in their careers — when they realize that academia is not quite for them. It might be because they have a broad interest in science that they want to embrace or because competing for increasingly smaller slices of the grant pie has become wearisome.

According to a report put together by the Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group at the National Institutes of Health last June, fewer than half of the biomedical PhDs who trained in the US enter academia. Much of the other 57 percent still work, though, in science or science-related fields. About 30 percent of US-trained PhDs work in industry, both in research and non-research capacities, and, while about 18 percent of US-trained PhDs are no longer researchers, many of them have jobs where such a background is necessary.

"There are a lot of different ways to be successful," Sara Cullinan, the deputy editor of the American Journal of Human Genetics, said. "If you are not happy running a research program, you are not going to be successful, so you should find something that will make you happy."

There are a number of career options for PhD scientists, even outside of academia — industry, academic journals, patent law, or government could all beckon, among scores of others. While people working in these fields apply their scientific background in different ways, certain traits are common, including being able to work in teams as well as having good communication skills, and, of course, it helps to be highly motivated.

Industrial Approach

Many researchers looking to move on from academia turn to see what industry has to offer. Tina Hambuch, a staff scientist at Illumina who directs their professional service group, said she was not necessarily looking to leave academia, she was just curious about the opportunities in industry.

"It wasn't something that I was planning on, leaving academia, but I certainly recognized that there weren't necessarily the kinds of opportunities to be successful in academia that would allow everybody to stay in it," she said. "And there definitely were also some things about academia that were less attractive to me. Industry offered some opportunities to … work in a more collaborative, team-oriented environment, rather than having to be on your own, running a lab, getting your grants, all by yourself."

To make the switch, she said she searched for companies that were in line with her focus, finding positions first at Ambry Genetics and then at Illumina. Hambuch added that her manager helped ease her transition by clearly laying out what was expected of her and where she fit into the company. Paul Bianchi, the senior vice president of human resources at Illumina, added that the company offers an orientation process to acclimate new hires to company life and their place in it.

Life in industry, Hambuch said, has many parallels to life in academia. There is a process to develop projects that she said is strikingly like applying for a grant; it just goes by a different name, in this case, project development process. "I'd say the biggest difference in terms of what my normal day looks like is that I have lot more interaction with other people these days," she said.

And because of that, she added, communication skills are important for people looking to work in industry, as is being able to see the big picture. Additionally, she said, being motivated and "being able to actually take a project from start to finish — 'finish' can look a little different in industry than it does in academia, but there still is a finish and it is defined and so being able to get to that point is important."

Marshaling Manuscripts

Another place to which PhD scientists head, to put their scientific skills to use outside of research, is to a journal.

Cullinan, from AJHG, recalled reading once in Science about alternative careers as a journal editor, and it just stuck in her head, even as she pursued a postdoc. "Instead of narrowing my interests onto one thing that I thought I was going to develop a research program on, I actually became even more interested in everything," she said of her postdoc time.

Cullinan was doing her postdoc in Boston, where Cell Press and a Nature editorial office are located, and she kept a look out for any openings there. She added that she didn't know too much about being a journal editor when she did interview for a position, though she had spoken to a few editors at meetings. Nevertheless, she said she felt confident it was a job she could do and would like.

"The idea that someone would pay me to sit around and think about science and not do it was kind of cool," she said.

And most of her day is now spent thinking about science. Cullinan reads and evaluates manuscripts as they come in, determining if they are a good fit with her journal and whether or not they should go out for peer review. If the manuscript is going to go out for review, she finds reviewers and organizes that process.

"At some point, you make a decision, and if [the manuscript] is going to be revised, you tell the authors: here are the reviewer's comments, here are also things that I would like you to do or things that production would like you to do, " she said. "And then you wait and sometime later the manuscript comes back and although you may remember it, you have to re-read it again, probably a couple of times, to see what they've done, and maybe it needs to be reviewed again."

With so many moving parts, organization and time management are key skills for journal editors to have, she said, adding that the day can quickly become long if the editor isn't focused.

At the same time, being able to communicate well is also important. "I don't think you have to be an extrovert, but you do have to able to speak with and enjoy speaking with other people," Cullinan said, adding that "in addition to the day-to-day email and phone calls with authors and reviewers, we do go to meetings, and you are there not only to learn about the science, but to represent the journal."

The Legal Path

After a little more schooling, researchers with PhDs could go into patent law.

When Janis Fraser, now a principal attorney at Fish & Richardson in Boston, was working on her dissertation, she realized that she liked doing the literature research and writing about the science. Later, a friend suggested that she might be interested in patent law, which she then pursued.

"I get to use my science every day, and I am still a science geek — it's still my soul — but I am not hunched over a bench dripping things into tubes and having experiments sometimes work and sometimes not work," Fraser said. "Instead, I get to learn about the science, which is really the exciting thing for me."

But to be an attorney, law school is a must. David Lu, who has a PhD, is taking the technology specialist path. By day, he works at Lando & Anastasi, also a Boston law firm, helping to draft patent applications. At night, though, he attends law school classes. This way, the firms have attorneys with backgrounds in science and the scientists become trained in the law.

"It's a horrible amount of work," added Fraser, who went to law school full-time, adding that it is "a very attractive route to someone who has the stomach for all that work." But, she added, people who have already taken seven or so years to receive their PhD may not want to put off a career, and a salary, for another three years.

Patent attorneys early in their careers, like Lu, draft patent applications as well as responses to the United States Patent and Trademark Office and possibly even foreign patent offices. He works with clients in the personalized medicine and genomics areas. "The learning curve at the beginning is really steep, so you have to learn a lot of things very quickly," he said.

Fraser, who is further along in her career, oversees newer attorneys who draft patent applications, advises clients, and argues with the patent office.

"Once the patent office gets hold of [the application] and comes back with this rejection, saying, 'Here's why your invention isn't patentable,' and gives all the reasons, then that's the real challenge," Fraser said.

Her role then is to convince the patent examiner that the invention is patentable. "So there's delving into the scientific literature to find factual evidence that shows that the examiners' assumptions are wrong and using legal arguments to say the examiner is misinterpreting the law and should be applying the law in this way instead of that way," she added. "That's a lot of fun and a big challenge, too."

As patent lawyers spend a lot of time drafting applications and responses as well as working with clients, being a good writer and having good interpersonal skills is important, both Fraser and Lu said.

"You don't have to know anything about law before you get started — you get trained in the law — but you do have to already come to it as an excellent writer and have a deep understanding of science and scientific principles and logic," Fraser said. "You have to be able to craft persuasive arguments that go from A to B to C to D in logical way, inexorably leading the reader to the conclusion you want them to come to."

Directing Funding

Researchers who are a little further along in their careers could consider becoming a program director at a funding agency. At the US National Science Foundation, most program directors have spent about six years running their own research program, though there are other positions at such agencies for people with different levels of experience.

Jane Silverthorne became a program director at NSF — she is now the director of the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems — after serving on a review panel, though not without a little prodding.

After the panel, that division director came up to her and said that she thought that Silverthorne would make a good program director and asked if she would be interested. "And I said what everybody always says when we ask them that, which is: 'I'd love to, but just not right now,'" Silverthorne said.

That director then asked her the following year as well, and when Silverthorne put her off again, the director said she would continue to call her. "That's exactly what she did, and one day I said yes," Silverthorne added. "I came here for a year and I never left."

Many program directors at NSF are academic researchers that are on loan from their home institution for a period of time, but others are in permanent positions. That reliance on academia and that "structure also gives NSF a unique feel from other government agencies," noted Lily Whiteman, the senior public affairs officer at NSF.

When Silverthorne moved into a permanent position, she oversaw the plant genome research program. "I came to NSF for the opportunity to run that program and get a better sense of how NSF works," she said. As a permanent program director she gave up the opportunity to run her own research program, "but what you get in return is the opportunity to help shape a whole field and help support other people's research and help their programs thrive," she added.

Panels at NSF are advisory; it's the program director that makes funding recommendations in conjunction with the division director. "It ensures that the scientific expert is actually recommending the funding, and then the division director will look at some of the other issues along with the program director, for example, ensuring that we have a balance in the awards that we are making with regards to science and demographics and geographical area, and so on," Silverthorne said.

As program directors work with division directors and panels, the ability to work as part of a team is an important trait for a program director to have, as is being a good listener and not being afraid to take risks.

"A very important role a program director can play is in looking at scientific opportunities and recognizing an area that is nascent, potentially transformative … and being willing to make some kind of investment in that, to give it a chance to demonstrate whether in fact it can do that," Silverthorne added.

If leaving academia and going into a new field seems a bit daunting, keep in mind that many people in those fields have been through a similar process.

"When you are in the lab and you are having these thoughts, your colleagues are not, and so it is kind of this semi-private thing going on in your head," AJHG's Cullinan said. "You go and you work and, if you are some place like Nature or Science or Cell Press, everyone else that you work with went through the same thing, and you find people that you have a lot in common with even beyond the fact that you all have science training."

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