Transitioning from academia to an industrial position involves meticulous thinking and planning. In other words, a candidate must exploit all the resources that their academic environment provides them and use them to their advantage for a successful progression into industry. Sarmistha Ray-Saha, a Senior Biochemist at Siemens Healthcare, NY, obliged to share her transition journey with academic professionals at the NYC-PhD CSG Coffee Chat held in February 2017.
Moving across continents
Sarmistha pursued her undergraduate education in Chemistry at the University of Calcutta (CU). But as it is with many students, Sarmistha was confused about the next step. As she would put it, “I had no clue what to do post Bachelor’s. Should I follow the herd?” Since she loved biology (which she still does), Sarmistha decided to explore the field of Biotechnology for her Master’s at the GCGEB in CU. The program was incredibly well designed and structured, introducing students (some for the first time) to a world beyond academia. The department proactively organized regular visits to various research institutes in Kolkata. Students were given the opportunity to participate hands-on in the lab, all the while interacting with scientists in highly applied fields of research.
Truly speaking, my Master’s was the most formative in taking me beyond my books and unravelling what biology, technology, research and the outside world is about.
“Truly speaking, my Master’s was the most formative in taking me beyond my books and unravelling what biology, technology, research and the outside world is about.” Pursuing a PhD was undoubtedly the appropriate next step. She credits her training at the GCGEB, and NCBS, Bangalore (where she was a JRF) for her eventual acceptance into the MB&B PhD program at Yale University.
Academic roller coaster
Sarmistha thoroughly enjoyed her PhD, however somehow felt isolated. “I would be in my own little corner and would worry about the actual impact of my work with respect to the society.” The feeling of uncertainty with the outcome of an experiment after investing a credible amount of time slowly grew up on her. “When I started my PhD, I had the thought that I would become a professor one day to truly contribute back. I have tremendous respect for university professors, their dedication towards research and their ability to manage laboratories, all the while mentoring students and helping them earn their degree. Two to three years later, I started realizing that it may not be where my aspirations lie. I would like to pursue science within a team and stay in the realm of wet-lab biochemistry and biophysics. Also, in order to pursue a faculty position, I would have had to produce more high-end publications to stand level with the many deserving candidates.” It was time for Sarmistha to explore options that could propel her career into industry.
If a career in industry was what Sarmistha wished to pursue, it was elemental for her to understand how industries that operate within the scientific domain function. Importantly, one must also learn how to present themselves. Yale University provides a great informational resource regarding career development for its graduate students and postdocs. “I attended presentations by company representatives, career forums, writing workshops and what not. After a certain length of time I could use the newly gained knowledge to write my own resume, cover letter and present myself. I’ll always be indebted to Yale for providing access to such resources.”
Subsequently, Sarmistha started handing over her resumes to the company representatives who’d visit Yale, “We’ll get in touch”, they’d say. It never happened. “It was clear that my resume was not where it needed to be to get noticed.” But the presentations were invaluable. Sarmistha learned about the background of the company professionals, the divisions they work in and the company itself.
One thought nevertheless bothered her, “If others could transition, why not me?” As with many, sometimes it does creep in within us that we as PhD graduates could satisfy the role of a technician in a company. This is not the right thought. If one wants to be a technician, then the transition should probably be made right after undergraduate studies. PhDs are mostly over qualified for such roles. This is what most recruiters would say. A company will likely not want to underpay a PhD. However, most career forums will discuss how PhDs can only be over qualified in the field they are in, but not so if there is a career shift.
So, do not be disheartened if you are not able to transition post-PhD, you can do so after your postdoc. However, network extensively from the start or during your PhD. A solid network is an important part of the industrial job search process, post-PhD.
Many companies do require that PhD graduates undergo a postdoctoral training. Earning a PhD demonstrates one’s capability to execute a project. A postdoctoral tenure highlights that one can do so independently. For companies, this is an important skill! And realistically put, postdoctoral training does lend maturity and confidence in scientific thinking and analytical reasoning by building upon skills learned in graduate school. “So, do not be disheartened if you are not able to transition post-PhD, you can do so after your postdoc. However, network extensively from the start or during your PhD. A solid network is an important part of the industrial job search process, post-PhD”, Sarmistha chips in.
Since Sarmistha realized that a postdoctoral term would be valuable, she chose to move into more of an applied field – GPCR research at the Rockefeller University. “Yale had provided me the foundation for transition. My postdoctoral term gave me enough time to develop myself, foray into new research projects, troubleshoot, mature further and develop new contacts.”
A small typo, a wrong punctuation or a misaligned paragraph can close doors for the application review process.
“I was at a resume and cover letter writing workshop where I connected with a postdoctoral services representative from Duke University“, Sarmistha recalls. “She was extremely helpful, provided suggestions and that too selflessly!” Sarmistha realized, which we too should realize, the importance of presentation. A small typo, a wrong punctuation or a misaligned paragraph can close doors for the application review process. One must be very critical of their own write-ups.
Sarmistha found the job advertisement while searching through job links. However, she wanted to learn a bit more about the advertised position before the application. Sarmistha got in touch with a coworker who had a LinkedIn connection at Siemens Healthcare. This connection bore fruit, and the Siemens professional agreed to an informational interview. In this context, it is good to expand the connections in LinkedIn as much as possible. Any contact made during forums, network sessions, trainings etc. can be a connection even if there was no personal meeting, simply by extending an invitation with details of the meeting venue.
The informational interview
An informational interview represents talking/meeting someone who’s in a position that the applicant is interested in or randomly meeting someone who’s in a job that the candidate aspires to be in the future. It’s about understanding the roles that a particular job entails in a broader sense, without probing too much (for instance asking questions pertaining to vacancies). The interview should be leveraged to learn about a day at work, or the feasibility of working from home for that particular job etc. Being too specific during an informational interview makes people uncomfortable. One session should not run more than 20-30 minutes.
Job descriptions are a great tool to learn about skill sets a particular position demands. It’s imperative to write cover letters and resume specific to the ad of interest, hence providing a better hit on the resume scanning software.
This was not Sarmistha’s first informational interview. She prepared her questions well in advance. Having started her timer right on call, she was ready to wrap up at the 25min mark. The person on the other end reiterated specific points in the job description that are important to the applicant’s skill set. Sarmistha went back to the job ad and read between the lines. “Job descriptions are a great tool to learn about skill sets a particular position demands. It’s imperative to write cover letters and resume specific to the ad of interest, hence providing a better hit on the resume scanning software.”
Take home message
“Be proactive. List your contacts, go to the company page, do informational interviews. Some job advertisements may not directly list your technical enterprise, but terminologies can easily overlap. Careful reading of the description is very important! Be grateful to the rigorous graduate training and postdoctoral research that have honed your analytical skills, and leverage those in your job interview. All those years of research are invaluable for you to develop into who you are.”
Finding the best fit is vital, as in, giving a thought about the kind of work that will keep you happy.
“There are some other aspects of the industrial environment one must meticulously consider. Finding the best fit is vital, as in, giving a thought about the kind of work that will keep you happy. For ex. consider whether a job that entails a lot of conversation and less bench job would suit you or vice versa; or would you prefer a profession that involves dressing in suits vs. casuals.” Do a personal evaluation, and be honest to yourself.
A job in a company may not allow a lot of freedom to conduct research at will. Such a scenario may not suit those who are comfortable pursuing their own scientific goals. Some companies run wellness programs or workshops where an employee is given the opportunity to develop skills like leadership and communication. Participation in these groups allow for constant growth above and beyond the assigned job.
An industrial profession will challenge you periodically. You will have to prove your worth time and again.
“An industrial profession will challenge you periodically. You will have to prove your worth time and again.” This, along with the nature of the work, keeps Sarmistha motivated. Since she works on assay development, Sarmistha looks forward to the day when her products will be used in clinics or hospitals.
Sarmistha’s multidisciplinary journey has kindled her understanding towards signaling pathways in diseased states. Her interests overlap exploring protein diagnostics and therapeutics, from conception to assaying. Sarmistha also actively participates in science communication, teaching and outreach activities, as an avenue of bringing awareness about human health in this biotech era.