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Words of Wisdom

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Advanced degrees

Is a PhD necessary or a waste of time? Would I be better off having the years of work experience instead of investing those years in the degree?

If your goal is to be in academia, this is simple: a PhD is a requirement. But if you're looking to work in industry, there's more nuance to the issue. "In a lot of places, people don't get hung up on degrees and you rise to your own level," says Michael Finney, a co-founder of MJ Research who now runs Finney Capital. "I know several people who had no graduate degree at all who did just fine. But you have to be better to do that."

The PhD serves as evidence that you "have the ability to work towards a long-term goal," which can give companies more confidence in a person, Finney adds. And there's a problem with just getting a master's degree: "A number of places give master's as kind of a booby prize for people who dropped out of a PhD program," he says. If you went through a degree program with the specific aim of getting a master's, you should find a way to point that out so potential employers don't simply assume you couldn't cut the PhD, he adds.

Chris Bouton, computational biology group leader at Pfizer, says that a PhD isn't required in industry: "If you're very skilled in certain types of activities, whether it's programming or certain types of statistics, and you can demonstrate that skill time and time again, then you don't necessarily need the PhD." Still, he notes, not having it can limit your career path or make it harder to get your foot in the door.

What are the most valuable advanced degrees for this field?

Jason Liu, director of business operations at Applied Biosystems, has a PhD and an MBA — a combination that he finds very valuable and sees as a trend in the community, especially as more universities offer joint PhD/MBA programs. Having an MD/PhD or even just an MD is also very useful, he says. The MD could especially help if you have an interest in the clinical diagnostics industry, he adds.

Do companies avoid hiring PhDs for positions that are advertised as requiring a master's?

This can indeed be the case, says Angela Wallace, a recruiter with Affinity Scientific. In some cases, it's because the group leader is not a PhD, and the company might be "concerned about … having someone with a more senior degree report to them," she says. Generally, though, the situation is simply that the job itself isn't as challenging, and the company doesn't want to hire someone who will get bored quickly and leave. "They want someone who can do that job on a long-term basis," she says. "Turnover is really the biggest concern."

Are universities overproducing PhDs? Is that increasing grant competition?

"When I was in grad school 10 years ago we were already overproducing PhDs," Liu says. "I don't think the situation has changed that much." Combine that trend with the dwindling grant funding available and you've got some stiff competition on your hands, he adds.

The job search

I'm searching for my first job, and I don't have many publications. What do I do?

That's a question Wallace hears all the time, and she says often trouble arises because scientists may feel uncomfortable "selling" themselves in the job search process. It doesn't pay to play it close to the vest in these situations, she says. "If they are truly interested in the job when they walk out of the interview, they should let the interviewers know." As for a lack of publications or experience, make sure your résumé is as specific as possible, and don't assume it's safe to skip over technical details. The first pass of résumés for a job opening might be done by an HR person who doesn't have a scientific background, so you'll need to market yourself well there, too.

Anything you can do to demonstrate your skills will help, says Bouton. If you're applying for a bioinformatics position, for instance, don't just talk about the classes you've taken in that area — try your hand at building a small database or website to show potential employers that you have the ability and follow-through.

The conventional wisdom is that you get the biggest promotions and raises by changing jobs, but is that still advisable given a bad economy? What are other avenues to getting a promotion or raise?

This depends on the scientific area someone's involved in, says Wallace. There are some skill sets that are just so hard to find that people who have them can move anywhere, anytime. If you would like to stay with your employer but are hoping for a promotion, take on the burden of laying out goals that would be valuable to the organization; talk to your boss about them, and then establish them as milestones for your own development. Certain milestones should be tied to a raise or a promotion. Otherwise, it's too vague — and that makes it easy for an employer to push off these benefits. "Giving very clear expectations for time periods and milestones is definitely the most effective way to negotiate a promotion or salary increase," Wallace says.

I'm a postdoc. At what point should I be looking for a faculty position?

"You should always, in a sense, be looking," says Ken Dewar, an associate professor of human genetics at McGill University. But balance that with loyalty to your postdoc — you don't want to leave your PI high and dry by ditching early. Dewar passes on advice that has served him well in his career: "The best training for your next job is how you act in your present one," he says. This can help establish that "you do good work, you can be trusted, you do well with other people."

Is it better to be research-track at a well known institution or tenure-track at a lesser-known one?

That depends on your own career goals, says Dewar. He warns against going someplace so small that there's not a core group of scientists in your field already there; you'll need access to good people and technologies, after all. But going to a lesser-known place doesn't mean the community will lose track of you — establishing collaborations with colleagues at other institutions can help keep you connected. "I don't think you have to be from Broad, Baylor, WashU, or U Washington to be successful," he says.

How do I know when it's time to leave my job and go somewhere else?

First things first, says Wallace: ask yourself why you're thinking about leaving. A number of issues — such as feeling unchallenged or becoming interested in another aspect of business or science — may be solved simply by talking to your manager and asking for new or different responsibilities. If that doesn't work, or if you've "found that the culture or the people … is not a fit," Wallace says, then it's time to start looking for another position.

Academia v. industry

I'm in academia and would like to pursue a career in industry. Where do I start?

Make sure you highlight any work you've done where skills you've acquired would be transferable to the job you're applying for, says Wallace. If you're considering a job in drug discovery at a pharma or biotech and some of your research has involved working with drug candidates or discovery technologies, point that out.

Also, it pays to know the differences between academia and industry before you make the switch, Finney says, to avoid a "rude awakening" later. Industry scientists lack the "proprietary ownership of a project" that academics are used to; they can be moved from project to project regardless of their own interests, he says. On the bright side, he adds, industry scientists usually enjoy better hours, which can be more compatible for family life.

Liu says if you decide you want to go to industry, do it as early as possible. "From the industry standpoint," he says, "the longer you've stayed in academia, you will have a harder time to adjust to the industry setting and pace to the R&D workflow." Liu went straight from his PhD to working at a company, skipping a postdoc.

If I go to industry, is it possible to return to academia?

It may not be easy, but Bouton says he's certainly seen many people make the leap back. If you think you might want to move to academia at some point, it's always a good idea to keep publishing, "no matter whether your employer values publications or not," he says. When it's time to make the move, consider a transitional step such as a core lab, which is more industrial than academia but more academic than industry. "It's certainly easier for somebody coming out of industry to get a job at a core facility," Bouton says. Liu adds that he's seen people manage this by moving back to an academic postdoc position, and using that as a stepping-stone to the faculty path.

The business side

How do I make the transition from the research side of my organization to the business or management side?

This isn't as tough as it might seem, says Finney. Start by talking to your boss and getting someone to report to you — a lab technician, for instance, who can help with your projects. If that goes well, you'll get more reports, and soon enough it will be clear to your company whether you're good as a manager. Consider taking a management class or two at a local college, or at least pick up some books of advice from the business literature.

If you're looking to move to another area of the company, such as marketing or business development, Finney recommends asking your boss for responsibilities in that area. "If they're a good boss, they want to see you succeed and they want to help you out," he says.

ABI's Liu accomplished this by earning his MBA through a part-time program, a path he recommends to others. He says earning the degree while working was a challenge, but helped him appreciate the business lessons in a real-world setting.

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