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The other “translational” research – from bench to business (or: you already have what it takes)

17th October 2014
By Katy Alexander

As part of Digital Science’s celebrations for Ada Lovelace Day, for the rest of October we are running a collection of blog posts featuring some of the great women that work across Digital Science and our portfolio companies.

Linda leeLinda Lee is a product manager at ReadCube, where she works on creating useful software for researchers. Before switching to tech, Linda was a scientist herself – she completed her Ph.D. in neuroscience at Columbia University, having studied learning and memory.

So you’ve spent years honing your research skills. By now, you can pipette like a pro, mix up perfect buffers, baby your cell cultures into thriving, stare sense into innumerable rows of spreadsheet data – the list of skills you’ve mastered on the scientist career ladder is a long one. But what if on your way up that ladder, you realize you’d rather be on another path altogether? Perhaps one that aligns with another passion of yours, or offers better career prospects, or simply has a less-painful project success:failure ratio?

If you’re considering a non-research career, you might be wondering what those on the outside will think of your painstakingly-acquired skills and background. Will they care that you can tail vein inject a mouse in record time? Or even that you published in a starts-with-an-N journal?

No, no they won’t really care. But they would be very interested in the other skills you have, the ones you might be underestimating. The fact is that grad school and postdoc training can teach so much more than the obvious labwork skills. When it comes time for you to pursue an alternative career, whether you succeed or not depends on how well you package and present your background – don’t undersell yourself because more likely than not, you’ve already gained much of the experience it takes to do the job.

In my previous life within the Ivory Tower, I was a neuroscientist before becoming product manager at ReadCube (a Digital Science-backed startup). Based on my experience and what I’ve learned from others, here’s a shortlist of the skills that – as a trained scientist – you already have and should emphasize. Play these up in your resume (with concrete details) and talk them up in your interviews. Research prowess and an impressive publication history are one thing; out in the “real world”, where impact factors are mere numbers, you need to show that you have the practical skills to immediately contribute or at least learn the ropes quickly.

  1. Critical analysis

Ok, so this one is a giveaway. As a scientist, you’ve obviously mastered the ability to analyze data and lots of it. But how you present this skill to others also matters. Unless it’s directly relevant to the job, it’s not that you are an expert in such-and-such analysis method/software. It’s that you can unflinchingly take heaps of data and extract meaningful, actionable information. Very likely, many of the careers you’re thinking about will require this type of analysis ability – whether it’s sifting through user statistics, financial reports or business models, critical analysis is essential. And as a scientist, you’re uniquely positioned to excel at this.

  1. Due diligence

Think of the long hours you’ve put into slogging through databases, finding and reading the necessary background literature, searching for the right reagents for your next experiment – the same preparation skills are required to make business decisions. You know how to search for and, more importantly, integrate information from many sources. You probably remember, at some point, finding several different (possibly conflicting) protocols/reports on an experiment you wanted to do. Evaluating the background context, requirements and feasibility in order to make your decisions translates to a key skill outside of the lab.

  1. Communicating results

Going through all that hard work and discovering the next big thing doesn’t mean much if you can’t communicate it properly. Whether it’s written or verbal, knowing how to clearly present information in an engaging way is absolutely essential, in and out of the lab. It essentially boils down to marketing, i.e. knowing how to “sell” your ideas and work. Contrary to some perceptions, I don’t think your work will just speak for itself – you have to do so, and skillfully, to both experts and non-experts. Unfortunately, I’ve sat through enough bad presentations to know that this is an area that’s often lacking for some scientists. If you’re not quite there yet, I can only recommend that you practice more. Nevertheless, emphasize whatever experience you do have in the job hunt – talk about the various classes taught/TA-ed and journal clubs, progress reports, conference talks, and posters presented. If you previously marketed your work well, you can probably also market yourself well, and that will go a long way in your job search.

  1. Self-motivated project management

Unless you’re early on in your research training, you are probably managing one or several major projects with a great deal of independence. From time management to minute planning for the right reagents/number of mice/facility signups/student interns/etc., it’s a lot of things to keep on top of while doing experiments and meeting deadlines. I think scientists can take this for granted, but as a group, we are generally an organized and highly self-motivated bunch. Or even if you’re not particularly organized, you managed or are managing (presumably) to get through grad school and produce research output based on some degree of self-direction. These are project management skills and are even more important outside of academia, where deadlines can be tighter and mistakes more costly. In your job search, be specific in emphasizing the scope of the projects you managed, grants you received, and goals you met.

  1. Teamwork

Related to the previous point, even though you might be the lead on your projects, as they say – no scientist is an island. The ideals of teamwork and collaboration are commonly hammered home and for good reason. This is true in research, where almost every project and paper requires concerted effort, and is similarly true outside of academia, where businesses can run smoothly only with effective teamwork. In your job hunt, make sure to point out the collaborative projects you’ve participated in and how you contributed in teams. Even more importantly, you should emphasize any people management experience. Most senior grad students and postdocs have probably mentored or managed other lab members, including technicians and junior students. Be specific with the details to convey that you are ready for managerial positions.

So if you’re contemplating a switch out of research, keep the above points in mind as you polish your resume and prepare for interviews. It’s certainly not a complete list but includes the major skills that, in my experience, scientists do not detail or emphasize enough when looking for that alternative career. As always, back things up with as much concrete detail as possible, especially if you have supporting experience from extracurricular/side job activities. You’ve invested a lot of time in your science training so far – don’t let the valuable indirect skills you’ve gained go untranslated.


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