Last November, I successfully completed the transition from basic research to technology transfer. As opposed to worn out t-shirts and jeans, I now have an entirely new wardrobe with clothing classified as “business casual.” To date, the most common question I received is how it feels to leave science. But I wonder, have I really left science?
About a decade ago, I enrolled in graduate school to pursue my passion in scientific research. I was particularly drawn to molecular genetics and hence joined a lab to study the RNAi pathway and heterochromatin regulation using Drosophila as a model. When I completed my doctoral degree, I came to yet another crossroad, not different from the one I experienced at the end of high school, but with significantly fewer options. I was considering between continuing with postdoctoral training that will prepare me for a career in academia and the so-called “alternative careers.”
Eventually, I decided that my passion in science trumped the bleak future in academia and proceeded with my postdoctoral training.
Career transition often takes time, lots of patience, and much effort. It can take years to develop new skills and fully transition into a new field. It is a process instead of a switch. In my case, it is difficult to identify the precise turning point, but it took about 3 years for the whole process.
Since the early days of graduate school, I attended a diverse variety of seminars and workshops that were not directly related to molecular genetics due to my inherent curiosity. Among them, the most memorable and most inspiring was by Tina Seelig. She was invited to the business school to give a talk about her new book.
She is a passionate professor at Stanford University who founded E-corner, which is an entrepreneurship program at the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. E-corner invites successful entrepreneurs, many of whom are Stanford alumni, to talk about their quest in entrepreneurship and makes the sessions available on podcast. I was intrigued. As I tune in to the podcast week after week, my interest in entrepreneurship grew.
Later, I attended another event at the university. It was a research and technology showcase at the eye institute for fundraising. Despite the many years spent at the university, I was rather unfamiliar with most of the professors who presented their work because genetics studies in Drosophila are merely remotely related to laser technology for eyesight correction.
However, I then had an epiphany. The purpose of scientific research is to find answers and explanations to understand our world better. Eventually, the knowledge gained from years of research at the laboratories can be applied in a variety of solutions to humanity’s problems. Consequently, I began to look at my research project in a different light, looking into its application far into the future.
Towards the end of my PhD training, I met a CEO of a venture capital firm based in New York State. Over cocktails, we started chatting about general topics like the weather and fitness.
When asked about my plans after the completion of my degree, I explained that my passion is in science and therefore I would be applying for postdoctoral positions. Just like the majority of graduate students, I aspire to teach at a university many years later and eventually lead a research group of my own. Just like the majority, I thought a postdoctoral position in either academia or industry is the natural, or even required next step.
I then added that it might be far-fetched, but even Drosophila genetics can lead to applications in the real world and that, ultimately, I would like to utilize scientific knowledge to benefit society. She nodded and asked if I knew what technology transfer was. I had no idea at the time. She consequently introduced me to the Director of the Office of Technology Transfer of the university, who then offered me an opportunity for an internship. That was the beginning of my journey in technology transfer.
During my postdoctoral training, it became much clearer that academic jobs are dwindling and that “alternative” careers are gradually becoming mainstream. Fortunately, I kept up my learning by volunteering at the technology transfer office at the institute and consequently landed my current position.
I am often asked to describe the reasons for leaving science. But in my opinion, I have not left science. I only left the wet bench and the laboratory. I am currently still reading scientific articles on a regular basis and constantly using my research experience to navigate the biotech field. In addition, I am constantly working with faculty members, understanding their projects in order to bring the projects to the path of technology commercialization. My education and research training, supplemented with constant learning in business and patent law, constitute the core of my strength as a technology transfer specialist.
Therefore, I urge graduate students and postdocs to take the time to explore what is outside of the lab and the university, particularly because it is no longer sufficient to do a second, or a third postdoc to land a job in academia. And, contrary to popular belief, “alternative” careers can be fulfilling and very exciting as well.