Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Panel on Alternative Careers in Science


On November 9, 2011, the BioEntrepreneurship Core at Washington University put together a panel discussion on alternative careers in science.  Panelists included Jeff Xue, Ph.D./PMC, Product Portfolio Manager at Sigma-Aldrich; Kathleen Chaffee, Ph.D., Scientific Advisor at SNR Denton Law Firm; and Mike Degenhart, Executive Vice President of Sales at MIDSCI. 

Jeff started the panel with an animated, interactive PowerPoint presentation.  He first talked about his life before becoming part of Sigma-Aldrich.  He started out in biochemistry, did his Ph.D. work on an animal model for multiple sclerosis, and studied vaccines in his post-doctoral years.  At Sigma-Aldrich, Jeff worked first in technical service and has now transitioned to SAGE Labs, a division of Sigma Life Science, which is almost like being in a start-up.  As a result, he has diverse experiences to draw from when giving the audience advice about deciding whether to go into industry.  For technical service, Jeff commented that it's a good fit for him and others who like interacting with people and don't like working with animals in the middle of the night as well as those who can withstand customers who are often rude.  He also suggested that we make an effort to get to know ourselves and our working styles before we decide; if we are willing to accept and even like the work industry bosses give us, then that sort of attitude would fit well with a job there.  Additionally, Jeff introduced us to his three different categories of industry companies to help us figure out what type of environment we might like best: 1. R&D which encompasses big pharmaceutical companies, 2. market-oriented such as Sigma-Aldrich which specialize in market-driven product production, and 3. sales which are small biotech/start-ups where the whole team is geared towards getting a product for an order.  Finally, he talked about the difference between big and small industry companies, namely that employees have less responsibility and take on more specific roles in big companies versus more responsibility and broader roles in a small one.

Kathleen spoke next about her job in patent prosecution.  She first described her diverse scientific background, which encompassed training in NMR and MRI and spanned fields in synthetic chemistry, imaging, and cancer.  She does not do litigation, but her job does include duties that patent lawyers as well as paralegals do.  She didn't have to go through law school to get her position, but she did say that a Ph.D. degree is more desirable for the job than a Master's.  Why did Kathleen choose her career?  Her main reason is the fact that she likes science and writing but not benchwork, and when she was looking for a job, her firm luckily was hiring and liked her diverse scientific background.  Perks of being in patent prosecution include the great compensation, being allowed to choose the clients she wants to work with, and the highly flexible nature of the job – meaning that she can work from anywhere as long as she reaches her target billable hours.  Kathleen described the billable hour, something very different from what she was used to in science, as billing everything you work on into a working product for the client.  Consequences of the billable hour include having to work about or more than 10 hours a day to get to the requisite billable hours and no vacation days or set working hours.  Downsides Kathleen mentioned is that she can't spend too much time doing in-depth research and learning all the details since work must be done efficiently for the billable hour and that she is expected to be available all the time for her client and has to check her Blackberry constantly.  Kathleen also agrees with Jeff that her job requires a specific personality in which you like interacting with others and making clients happy.

Last to speak was Mike, who started out as a sales rep and is currently Executive Vice President of Sales at MIDSCI.  He first talked about MIDSCI, a local, customer service-focused place that helps small companies bring their products to the marketplace through a sales channel.  His father, Larry Degenhart, started the company back in 1983.  Prior to that, he was working as a sales rep, selling incubators, but he became dissatisfied with restraints placed on his job and decided to start his own company and be his own boss.  From watching his dad go through the experience of starting his own company and his own expertise in sales, Mike gave advice on these two areas.  To start a company requires a thought-out plan, a certain drive to make it happen, gumption to get through the hard times, and passion to follow through to the end, which can be very rewarding.  A sales rep position can also be rewarding in the sense that these individuals get paid for what they do, and if they do their job well, they consequently get paid well.  Mike stressed that it's not for everybody.  Qualities for being a sales rep include good communication skills, confidence, resiliency, and tough skin.  Mike concludes that it is also imperative sales reps have the right attitude, since customers would not want to interact with sales reps with bad attitudes. 

From this panel discussion, it is clear that there are many avenues outside of the traditional academic route to consider for those who find laboratory experiments isolating or dissatisfying.  Besides the great advice each panelist gave related to his or her specific field, the general take-home message from all three panelists is that there is no consensus science background or training required.  Rather, it seems that each panelist found success by careful analysis of his or her personality and working style and then making sure a prospective job – whether it involves assisting customers in technical service, writing and learning about diverse techniques in patent prosecution, helping new products gain recognition in sales, or any other endeavor – would be a good fit personally.  

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