Networking

Finding the Right Fit and How to Get There

banner-copy

A busy year adjusting to a new career is evident when a blog post is more than a year overdue. This tardy post is appropriate, though, as it includes identifying an optimal career path and networking to set yourself on that path.

In November of 2015, I gave a talk at the University of Washington as part of the Bioscience Careers Seminar Series entitled, “Finding the Right Fit, and How to Get There.” The PowerPoint-free presentation focused on the three steps that in my experience, and from the experiences that have been shared with me, are essential to networking and finding a good career fit. The guidance focused on academics looking to leave academia but the principles are universal. The three general steps are:

  • Step 1: Know your community
  • Step 2: Know yourself
  • Step 3: Know the “stuff”

Step 1 includes going outside your comfort zone to broaden your contacts and advice on meeting with people for professional networking. Step 2 built on this with specific exercises to help guide your search and also a gentle suggestion to do some honest self-reflection. Step 3 refers to knowing the language and technologies or products of the field you want to enter. Some of the more specific ideas I included came from an earlier blog post: Five Networking Tips. There is also a downloading video of my entire talk available See the talk.

untitled

The meat of the talk was followed up with discussions of small vs. large companies, startups, and consulting based on my experience, my observations, and the advice I have accumulated.

However, during the question and answer session, I realized the following gaps in my knowledge: 1) potentially out of date specific information on the career track at large consulting firms (such as McKinsey) for entry-level PhDs, 2) limited information on PhD-level scientists leaving academia for banking, and 3) I have no idea if STEM PhDs that then continue on for a JD enter law firms through a different career path.

Coming back to this after a year away, it’s time to update all my information. I am reaching out to my network, but if a reader of this post has anything they would like to share, please comment below.

Additionally, I’m continuing to collect personal experiences of academic journeys out of academia, as well as tidbits of useful advice. Contributions are very welcome.

Five Networking Tips for Graduate Students and Postdocs

Metazoan signaling network

These are not the only networks (Korcsmaros, et al., PLoS ONE, 2011)

As PhDs prepare to leave the hallowed halls of academia, most are immediately confronted with the glaring fact that they have absolutely no idea how to find a job. We were told it’s all about the network, but we didn’t need to network, we were busy for the last five to ten years building all these amazing skills and now industry is going to fall over itself to recruit us, right? Perhaps, but it will be a slow fall that takes many months and a lot of pushing.

There are clear reasons for this lag that may not be obvious to the academic. First, most of your skills were developed using the cheapest, most MacGyver-ed method possible that your PI perfected 30 years ago. These methods are probably carried out on the the same equipment he used, too. This is because he refuses to admit someone developed something better in the intervening decades and he has one R01 for 15 trainees. Second, you chose your project, (insert crazy-specific thesis title that only you, your PI, and maybe one other person cares about), based on your passions and not on developing the skills that industry needs.

My thesis on IMC proteins in Toxoplasma gondii

A little casual reading…

There was no reason to consider industry, though, because you were going to be a PI, just like the 60 other students who started grad school with you and the thousands across the globe. Third, you know no one outside of academia and have no “real world” experience (pre-grad school counts very little). Even those PhDs lucky enough (or prescient enough) to work with current generation equipment and the most up-to-date methods in the sexiest fields may have trouble overcoming the lack of experience. Finally, get ready to fight the stereotype. Employers have assumptions about the PhD personality and the ability of PhDs to assimilate into cooperate culture.

PhDs increase while the number of academic positions stay the same

There are more PhDs for a stagnant number of academic positions (Schillebeeckx , et al., Nature Biotechnology, 2013)

Based on my observations, postdocs are averaging a year or more to find their first industry position. Under- or unemployment for more than a year is common. Here in the San Francisco area, many PhDs go to startups that are willing to take a risk and then find themselves jobless again within a year or two.

However, this is a hopefully and encouraging blog post! There are simple things graduate students and postdocs can do to expedite the future job search, protect against fluctuations in industry, and show themselves to be more than the stereotype. The most important is networking. It takes time, but it’s an investment that will pay off.

Increasing number of life science PhDs unemployed

The red line is on the rise. (Jordan Weissmann, The Atlantic, 2013)

Below are my top five networking tips, from one PhD to another.

  1. Attend networking events outside your comfort zone and network

Conferences and meeting in your field of expertise are important, but will not suffice. You must leave your comfort zone and diversify your connections. Start by taking a tour of events, attending several types of events hosted by different groups. Try happy hours, talks, and short courses by societies, meetups, and companies. Pick the ones that you enjoy and are most productive for your goals and then become a regular. People should start to recognize you.

In general, the events you pay for are higher quality and will bring in more people from industry. Free events draw people on a budget, i.e. graduate students, postdocs, and the unemployed. You can make great connections at these events but remember, investing in your network is investing in your future so pony up the registration fee.

At first it is ok to just show up. This is a tough first step for most people. After a few, though, don’t just grab a drink and try to blend into the wall. People are all at these events to mingle so pick a group and introduce yourself.

If this is particularly difficult, considering volunteering with a professional organization. It will provide a purpose for your interactions, will not feel like shallow small talk, and will give other members a sense of what you are like to work with, which is important for future recommendations and introductions.

  1. Talk to everyone

When out and about, make an effort to strike up conversations. You never know who is on the yoga mat next to you or in line behind you at the grocery store. This has the added benefit of making you more open and your conversational manner more natural at professional events.

For the same reasons, accept all networking meetings that your schedule and energy will allow. Prepare for meetings and come with an agenda. Be ready with enough information to engage in deeper conversations and to make efficient use of everyone’s time. At the end, “get to the next person” by asking for specific introductions to expand your network.

  1. Don’t over do it

You are now attending events and meeting with contacts and it is very easy to get overwhelmed. When I started building my network I was attending events and taking meetings everyday and sometimes twice a day. The burnout was quick and defeating. I learned my magic number is three career-building activities per week. It forces me to prioritize and allows me take full advantage of the most productive activities.

  1. Build a brand 

In order to increase networking efficiency, you need something accessible where contacts can get a sense of who you are before they meet you. It should also allow potential connections to evaluate if you are worth their time (it’s harsh but true). It’s an added bonus if this presence brings people to you.

LinkedIn is the most common first step for professional brand building, but it’s more stagnant and dry than Twitter and Facebook (see Belle Beth Cooper’s Fast Company article here).

Social media use statistics

The majority of LinkedIn users are inactive (Belle Beth Cooper, Fast Company, 2013)

To build a brand, start tweeting and making public Facebook posts based on your passions. Focus on the field you plan to build your career in and maybe a hobby or two. For example, I’m a molecular biologist interested in infectious disease, microbiomics, and next-generation sequencing, so my tweets and public posts are focused on industry news, research findings, and media related to these areas. To prove I’m still human, I toss in yoga and fitness tidbits, as well.

Blogs are an excellent tool, too. They come in all flavors and can be as focused as you desire. I use this blog to record my professional growth and share my current professional interests and thoughts. However, do keep personal and professional blogs separate. Updates on your toddler’s potty training show your humanity but do little to promote future employment.

  1. Follow up

This is the most important tip: follow up on every discussion. Your network will cease to grow if the people that make up your nodes do not feel appreciated or respected. After every event, reach out to the people you met; LinkedIn connections are the easiest. Try to include some reference to your discussion to show you were invested and not just collecting business cards.

After meetings send thoughtful thank you’s. Again, include something that shows you were engaged and internalized the conversation. Provide any additional information discussed during the meeting and ask for introductions to the next person or people.

Networking is a skill and it takes practice to get comfortable, efficient, and effective. Even if you stay in academia, with academic-industry collaborations becoming the standard a diverse network is priceless. Furthermore, the interpersonal skills you exercise through networking will translate into your personal and everyday life.

It’s a win-win investment so get out there and meet people.

OneStart Americas young entrepreneur bootcamp

              

“The most important connections will be with fellow entrepreneurs.” With these words from the Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable (OBR) founder and CEO, Daniel Perez, the intense one day Entrepreneur Bootcamp for the 35 semi-finalists in the OneStart Americas life science business plan competition opened on Saturday, February 8th at the Stanford University School of Medicine. The Bootcamp, presented by OBR and SR One, initiated the mentoring component of the competition with experts in key areas of entrepreneurship presenting to the semi-finalists in the morning and then providing one-on-one mentoring sessions and pitch feedback in the afternoon. This formal program was interwoven with casual networking throughout the day to the benefit of all attendees.

               

Matt Maurer and Jordan Epstein of Stroll Health network with OBR volunteer Laura Sasportas

OneStart is the largest biotech business plan competition in the world. For both of its two concurrent competitions, OneStart Europe and OneStart Americas, teams of life science entrepreneurs under 36 years of age apply in one of four tracks: drug discovery, medical devices, diagnostics, or health information technology. Americas entrants, who retain all intellectual property, compete for $150,000, free lab space at QB3 in San Francisco for up to one year, and business and legal support. In January, the 35 semi-finalists in the Americas competition were announced and Saturday’s Bootcamp initiated two-months of intensive mentorship for these elite entrepreneurs involving venture capitalists, pharmaceutical executives, and other entrepreneurs as they develop a comprehensive business plan.

“Ideas are cheap, it’s all about execution.” – Drug Discovery Discussion Session

“Time is your greatest risk.” – Nassim Usman

Bootcamp opened with general comments from Daniel Perez; Matthew Foy, partner at SR One; and John Daley, Stanford law student and OBR organizer of OneStart Americas, and then immediately went to the nitty-gritty of life science entrepreneurship with a “State of the Industry” presentation from Tamara Rajah, a partner with McKinsey & Company. During her talk, Rajah stressed the need for founders to focus on the patient and to disrupt markets as a means to add value.

               

Thorsten Melcher presents to Bootcamp attendees

Thorsten Melcher of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, and previously part of the “most successful biotech in Half Moon Bay,” followed up Rajah with a talk steeped in humor on “Building a Company”. Melcher cheekily apologized as he said, “I’m telling the stories in the German way, everything was horrible,” but the gravity of his advice to the eager audience was clear as he highlighted the need for the right people, the necessity of a network in fundraising, and the critical importance of execution. His sage advice on funding segued into Genentech Investment Director, Simon Greenwood’s, perspectives on raising capital. Greenwood focused on the need to create your own barriers to market entry and gave direct coaching on how to sell yourself to venture capitalists. During the question and answer, Jill Carroll, a partner at SR One, corroborated Greenwood’s advice and further emphasized the need to be first or best in class to get the dollars. Nassim Usman, CEO of Catalyst Biosciences, reinforced the timelines for funding and success introduced by Melcher and Greenwood saying, “Time is your greatest risk.” Usman was joined by Karl Handelsman, founder of Codon Capital, for a question and answer session on “Managing Failure and Risk”, where Handelsman summarized the key to successful risk management as, “Ask good questions, listen, and figure things out.”

In addition to the need to disrupt markets to add value, another theme of the day was the essentiality of the perfect pitch. Throughout the day investors, including Melcher, Handelsman, and Geenwood, put the pitch above all else, and “VCs don’t read” was heard several times, while  the value of a well-crafted executive summary was played down. Now enter the self-proclaimed, “deal killers of Silicon Valley,” Mike O’Donnell and Walter Wu of Morrison & Foerster. According to these two, lawyers do read and in their talk on “Corporate Structure and IP” they assert that as the people performing the due diligence required by venture capitalists, the greatest pitch may get you in the door, but a detailed written plan is imperative to getting the check.

“Don’t over invest in technology and under invest in biology.” – Drug Discovery Discussion Session

               

Entrepreneur panel of (from left) Foy, Daley, Perez, Iorns, Spellmeyer, Bethencourt, and Nag.

In the afternoon, audience participation drove a panel discussion on entrepreneurship including Elizabeth Iorns, cofounder and CEO of Science Exchange; David Spellmeyer, chief technology officer of Nodality; Ryan Bethencourt, CEO of Berkeley Biolabs; and Divya Nag, cofounder of Stem Cell Theranostics and founder of StartX Med. Topics included the value of accelerators, should you work with friends, how important is location, and balancing dilution with funding needs. When asked about operating in stealth mode, Bethencourt offered up the collaborative success story of Glowing Plant and Nag astutely asserted, “If you don’t share, you cut yourself off from being a better you.”

               

One-on-one mentoring sessions

The formal day concluded with discussion sessions in each of the four OneStart tracks: drug discovery, medical devices, diagnostics, and health information technology, followed by one-on-one mentoring sessions with successful entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and other experts. Each of the 35 semi-finalist teams practiced their pitch informally with a panel of investors and received immediate feedback.

“If you don’t share, you cut yourself off from being a better you.” – Divya Nag

“The most important connections will be with fellow entrepreneurs.” – Daniel Perez

               

Afternoon networking refreshments

Between sessions and during lunch, participants, speakers, mentors, and organizers ignored the rain and unusually cold Bay Area day to mingle outside sharing their ideas, commiserating over failures, cheering on successes, and forming important relationships. The networking relaxed when Bootcamp wrapped up at The Patio in Palo Alto. The response from attendees was overwhelmingly positive. Semi-finalists Jeni Lee of ViVita Technologies Inc. and Denise Lee of EpiBiome were impressed with the caliber of ideas and variety of people attending Bootcamp. They appreciated the opportunity to meet directly with investors and other entrepreneurs. PhD student, Jordan Despanie of Qairos Biopharmaceutics, enjoyed the opportunity to get advice on balancing his research with entrepreneurship and still making time for his hobby, screenwriting. Several attendees, like Luke Smith of Imani Health,  said they benefited from making contacts in the Bay Area even for things as routine as help finding housing.  

“Be prepared for the most scary and exciting time of your professional life.” – Thorsten Melcher

For the next two months, the teams will work intensively with their assigned mentor and new contacts to develop business plans. In May, the winning team will be selected from a pool of ten finalists based on criteria including innovation, impact to patient health, and quality of the business plan. It is an exciting time for these young thought leaders and exciting to get a glimpse of the future innovators of biotech.    

               

Aaron Hammach and Denise Lee of EpiBiome with Jeni Lee and Maelene Wong of ViVita

This article was originally written for the OBR Review and can be found here

Opportunities Lost: Undergraduates start building your network!

            

Earlier this month my alma mater, the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, posted “2013: A Year of Milestones” and two of the twelve milestones involved my undergraduate research advisors. My “hey I know those guys” excitement was abruptly replaced with a sense of loss. I had been given a golden opportunity in college to form a relationship with these two, but lacked the foresight to take advantage.

In my final two years of undergrad I struggled with the same question that all undergrads face, “What am I going to do?” The standard plan amongst my peers was to enter the sexy world of oil refining and specialty chemicals manufacturing and make lots of money to taunt our <insert esoteric liberal arts field> majoring friends with as they moved home with mom and dad. However, upon experiencing the specialty chemical manufacturing industry first hand as a summer intern with Albemarle, I started to question the plan and went back to school ready to give a life of research a try. (First aside: a life of research is esoteric and may lead to moving home with mom and dad too. Second aside: esoteric liberal arts majors, your network will be your best hope to avoid moving home!)

The two labs I found my way into were, first, the lab of Dr C. Grant Willson where I completed a year of research on base quenchers in semiconductor photoresist materials for my Plan II honors thesis, and second, the lab of Dr Nicholas Peppas where my research on porous polymer biomaterials became my senior engineering project. Both of these renowned researchers have won a dizzying number of awards and have produced an insane body of research, but, most importantly, they are both exemplary mentors. Looking back, through the eyes of a PhD, the amount of respect their graduate students had, and routinely expressed, for these two men is rare in the academic research. How did I take advantage of these priceless opportunities? I didn’t, not at all.

I saw Dr Willson frequently and would freeze and panic every time. I was completely incapable of forming a relationship.  Back then even the most approachable faculty members were intimidating figures of genius and authority and who was I to waste their time? In addition to the fear, part of it could have been the arrogance of youth (I don’t need anyone’s help to succeed), and part of it could have been laziness (it’s hard and I don’t have time to invest in this right now), but whatever the reasons, I did nothing to foster relationships and, when I left the labs, I did nothing to maintain the connections.

Equally riveting image from my senior project. There should be holes. There are no holes. 

In 2013, Dr Willson was awarded the Japan Prize, the engineering equivalent of a Nobel Prize, and Dr Peppas was honored with the American Society for Engineering Education’s (ASEE) highest award, the Excellence in Engineering Education Award. When I saw these announcements I was filled with pride for having been briefly associated with both these individuals, but the pride was quickly replaced with great regret at having missed my opportunity to develop a lasting relationship with either one. 

The moral, undergraduates, is build your network now! Take off the blinders of youth and look around, overcome any arrogance, any laziness, and be bold. Soon you will want to enter the work force or graduate school and both will require letters of recommendation. Who better to write them than faculty who can cite specific examples of your exceptional talent? Once at work or in graduate school, mentorship will instantly become crucial to your career. Faculty, postdocs, and graduate students want to help you, they want to form relationships with you, and they want you to succeed. It gets lonely holding office hours with yourself. I get excited every time I hear from one of the undergraduates I mentored at Boston College and would go above and beyond to help them succeed. Learn from my mistakes and go forth and conquer!