Do you find the long postdoctoral training daunting? Maybe you are still intrigued by science but now hope to do the type of research that immediately impacts patients’ well-being? Or perhaps you are excited by the prospect of being in a dynamic environment where you get to be the person to get an idea off the ground? If you answered yes to any of the above, you may be well-suited to a scientific career in industry, perhaps at a start-up or early stage biotech company. But what are the steps you would need to take to actually make the leap from a PhD position at the bench to a scientific career in industry?
Dr. Thirumahal (Thiru) Selvanantham, an alumna of the Department of Immunology who was jointly supervised by Drs. Dana Philpott and Thierry Mallevaey, made the leap and became an industry scientist in January 2015, 6 months following her PhD defence. She is currently a Senior Scientist at Firefly Diagnostics, an Ohio-based pharmacogenetics diagnostics start-up company. The company offers genetic assisted prescribing tests, mainly for single nucleotide polymorphisms in genes encoding liver metabolic enzymes.
I had the opportunity to have a one-on-one with Thiru over the phone, closely examining the many steps that took her from the bench in Toronto to a company in Ohio. One of the first questions I asked was how she came across this job opportunity in the first place – did networking actually help? “It was through informal networking. It was a friend from grad school who worked for the company and invited me to apply,” said Thiru. “Informal and formal networking is so important: it provides an opportunity to meet career allies and learn company goals.” Networking is more than just the initial attempt to land a job; it is an ongoing process, gradually evolving to help strengthen existing relationships and forge new ones. As Thiru put it, she and her friend “became better friends by working together.”
When asked if any training at the bench or through professional development courses prepared her for this job, she admitted that “the following advice has been repeated a lot but is very true.” She believes that “the peripheral/accessory skills you learn during grad school (presenting and defending your work, meeting fellow researchers at conferences) are so important and applicable to business.” Our departmental graduate professional development (GPD) course was a “great introduction in presenting [the students’] academic work in an industry context.” Other professional development courses – such as those provided through the UofT Career Services – also “offer a Job Shadowing program that matches students with industry partners,” allowing students to “spend a day shadowing professionals” and providing an opportunity for informational interviews.
What does it mean to be a “senior scientist” in a start-up pharmacogenetics diagnostics company? What is the routine like? “Routine in a start-up? That’s an oxymoron,” Thiru mused. “Early on, my responsibilities were to carry out test troubleshooting. Then validating the test according to CMS-CLIA guidelines, under the supervision of the lab director. Throughout this development, I was also responsible for lab operations. [As one of the first employees,] I literally helped form the lab from just benches and instruments to patient testing. More recently, I am responsible for training new personnel, ensuring the test is running within set parameters, and developing new projects.”
Given the scope of these responsibilities, it seems that there would be a steep learning curve. When asked what she found most challenging at the beginning, Thiru replied, “Knowing exactly what to do day-to-day was tough but I learned to prioritize projects; what needs to be done immediately and what can be postponed.” This lack of infrastructure at a start-up company was also “tough” since “unlike a university, there is no IT department, no HR and no mail room.” Despite the challenges early on, Thiru discovered that what she initially found most challenging “is now the most rewarding” because she loves “working on new and evolving projects, which is almost like a PhD.” But there are differences between her PhD and her current position. It “has much tighter timelines and is driven by cost and time much more than academia.” Additionally, since she works in clinical diagnostics, it also has “tighter regulations than an R&D university lab.” When asked what she sees beyond her current success, into the next 2, 5, and 10 years, Thiru said that she would like to grow with the company, take on more responsibilities, and develop “new tests in response to market needs.”
So what wisdom does Thiru have for current PhD students? Now that she has been at her position for a while, she realizes the importance of negotiation, something not addressed during her PhD: “Grad students learn to discuss and defend their scientific work. However, it’s also very important to negotiate projects and responsibilities. An understanding of what is expected of you and what you should provide is key to completing a project.” Furthermore, Thiru believes that students should “break the ivory tower mentality” and “pursue projects and work outside of grad school.” If one lesson is to be taken from her successful transition, having an open mind to new challenges and opportunities in industry, both during and after a PhD, seems to be crucial to a successful scientific career in the biotech industry.
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