By Adebanke Fagbemi, Ph.D., Prescient Life Sciences
My path to graduate school was a lot like that of many other Ph.D. students. After completing my master’s program, I found myself at a crossroads not knowing exactly what I wanted to do next. So I continue my schooling and started on my Ph.D. This was almost a default option for me, as I honestly hadn’t put a lot of thought into where I wanted to be ten years down the line.
During my first two years in the Ph.D. program, I found classes challenging and was preoccupied with deciding what lab to join, leaving little time to ponder on long-term career goals. However, as often happens, by my third and fourth year of graduate school, frustrations set in. Failed experiments, even failed projects, are par for the course during your Ph.D. training, and it is usually somewhere around this time that many students begin to reconsider whether or not they want to do academic research long-term. It takes a certain type of personality to absorb the constant failures in the lab and use them as motivation to go on. The more I battled with failed experiments, the less I wanted to be in the lab. My main motivation for the last few years became “finish my Ph.D.” Quitting was not an option (but don’t think I didn’t consider it!), and I made up my mind that whatever it took, I was going to get that degree! At this point it became apparent that a career at the bench (academic or industry) was not for me. I love science, but I had to find a way to stay in science without being at the bench. It was a tough decision because I knew that once I left the bench, there would be no going back.
The Ph.D. program I was in did not prepare students for any careers other than an academic one. Luckily for me, I learned about a Certificate Course offered at Stony Brook University Center for Biotechnology that is geared towards graduate students and post-docs looking for “non-traditional careers” in the bioscience industry. Some colleagues in my lab had taken the course and raved about it, so I applied and took it in the spring semester of my fifth year as a Ph.D. student. It was exactly what I needed and at the right time! The Fundamentals of the Bioscience Industry (FOBI) course introduced me to scientists working in industry, all of whom had graduate degrees, and had gone on career paths divergent from the traditional route. They included patent lawyers, regulatory affairs professionals, industry research scientists, and others, and it showed me that a Ph.D. really opened up a world of possibilities. I began to explore careers in patent law, medical communications and consulting, but decided early on to leave my options open pending when I got my first job. Landing your first job outside of academia requires non-academic research experience which can be gained either through internships or becoming involved in graduate student organizations. I opted for an internship where I conducted some patent research for one of my course advisors from the FOBI program. This gave me some real world experience in the field of patent law and something to talk about during job interviews.
I received a lot of encouragement from my colleagues for my decision to pursue a career outside of academia. I was also lucky in that my Ph.D. advisor was very supportive of my pursuits, allowing me to take the FOBI certificate course (his permission was required), and supporting me in any activities that usurped my time in the lab. Not all students are so lucky, however once the decision is made, I strongly encourage a student to do what it takes to get their career in the direction they need to go. After all, it is your life and you have to take control of it.
Upon completing my Ph.D., I began searching for jobs in a number of different fields including patent law, medical writing, and consulting. What I found attractive about these career options was the opportunity to work in many different therapy areas concurrently. My current position is at a pharmaceutical consulting firm working as a research analyst. We consult to pharmaceutical and biotech companies, giving them advice on clinical, regulatory and commercial strategy. A day on the job could involve working on an oncology drug in the morning, a women’s health device in the early afternoon, and a neurological disease late in the day. I find my job exciting and stimulating, and particularly enjoy taking up new projects and learning about a new disease area/drug. With this new career comes a new set of challenges, the most significant of which is time management. In academia you tend to have time to conduct research at your own pace, even when your PI is anxious to get a paper published, or you’re worried about getting scooped. This is not the case in the business world where I hardly ever have enough time to do things I would like. I had to learn to manage my time well in order to work effectively and efficiently under time constraints. Another challenge I’ve faced is learning to work as part of a team and managing other people. Most graduate students learn “people management” skills through mentoring lower-level lab members, but I still found it to be quite challenging to manage people who have a direct impact on my work. This was a skill I had to develop during the early stages of my industry career.
I enjoy my new career and am very satisfied with my decision to move from academia into industry. These days, I believe that with a Ph.D. degree and some industry experience, my career options are unlimited. While I have no idea what the future holds, I’m looking forward to it. Now when I’m asked, “With everything you’ve been through in getting a Ph.D and knowing what you know now, would you do it again?” My answer is a definitive “YES!”