From the Bench to the Office: Advice for Graduate Students Considering Leaving Academia
Pictured: Hands of person writing with pen and paper/iStock, Poike
Beware, fellow scientist, for what I am about to tell you might convince you to alter the course of your scientific and professional career. My name is Ignacio Guerrero-Ros, and I describe myself as “a PhD turned science communicator,” a phrase attributable to one of my mentors, Juliette Gorson.
If I could send a letter to my younger self, offering some advice about my professional future, I might have avoided some tough and stressful decisions. Since that isn’t possible, I hope that this letter can reach current PhD students, who, like my past self, find themselves wondering about a potential future professional career outside of academia.
First, a bit about me: As far back as I can remember, I have always been intrigued by nature and considered medicine the most fascinating subject. My scientific journey started with a bachelor of science in biotechnology from Universidad Francisco de Vitoria, in my birth town of Madrid, Spain, followed by a PhD in biomedical sciences with a focus on immunology from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.
As a young scientist, I felt confident in my choice to pursue lab research, as I felt that I would be contributing to the world by doing what I loved most. However, as I navigated my PhD program and gained practical insights into academia thanks to an incredibly supportive thesis mentor, Fernando Macian-Juan, I started questioning whether academic research was the best path for me. One critical factor was seeing the constant pressure principal investigators (PIs) are under to secure funding, regardless of their current or potentially upcoming grants. I suspected that a never-ending search for funding could hinder my passion for advancing science through curiosity rather than from the necessity to address unmet medical needs. While this might sound selfish, many advances and breakthroughs are achieved through serendipity together with curious minds. At the same time, I began to wish that my work could help patients more directly, as opposed to decades later.
Today, I find myself in a job that perfectly balances both of my passions, cutting-edge scientific advances and creative communications, in the realm of public relations for biotech and pharmaceutical companies. Here, I have the chance to work directly with scientists who are changing the world and help them materialize discoveries that can have an immediate impact on patients.
For budding scientists contemplating a career outside academia, here is my advice based on the lessons I’ve learned along the way:
Take Time to Explore the Unknown
Often, we feel tempted to stick to a job or a path just to avoid change. It’s not just the fear of potential negative outcomes that causes us discomfort; we might also miss out on valuable opportunities if they come with an element of unpredictability. However, being hesitant to explore beyond our comfort zone can limit our growth.
Just before the completion of my undergraduate studies in 2008, I had a pivotal decision to make that involved embracing the unknown: Should I pursue a PhD right away, or accept an offer of an internship in a laboratory at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City? While many of my classmates chose to do internships in Spain or neighboring countries, I flew to NYC for the first time in my life without knowing anyone or anything about the Bronx, where Einstein is located. I quickly fell in love with the culture the borough had to offer, and benefited from the mentorship of outstanding scientists. What a year to visit NYC for the first time, right? I got to experience the election of Barack Obama as the first African American president, as well as the downfall of Lehman Brothers and a worldwide economic crisis.
My time there as an intern was so fulfilling that I decided to come back to do my PhD at Einstein. I packed my bags, left for a quick PhD and never returned (except for visits). I’m now in my 15th year living in New York, and I could not be happier.
“You will never know how far you can go by staying where you are.” – Anonymous
Pictured: Guerrero-Ros (right) with Macian-Juan and members of his lab at Einstein
Let Your Best Self Shine
Another lesson that surfaced along the way was the importance of finding genuine passion within your field. You won’t excel, advance or enjoy your work if you are not passionate about it. True passion helps you become more resilient when encountering obstacles and able to face challenges through problem-solving. Not only that, but you will be doing yourself a favor in terms of your happiness and sense of purpose, finding that there are more highs and fewer lows.
During your PhD, you may find that you have a passion for a specific lab technique, managing a team, writing or presenting. In my case, I found two things I truly enjoyed: fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS) and data presentations.
My thesis focus was on how obesity and high-fat diets affect the immune system—in particular, a process called autophagy. As I learned more and more about how to use flow cytometers and perform FACS analysis, however, I was pulled into multiple collaborative projects with laboratories outside of my department, including in infectious and neurological diseases. These interactions with scientists from different departments were extremely beneficial, as they allowed me to expand the breadth of my scientific knowledge to areas such as microbiology, oncology and neuroscience.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this would become crucial in my future career in public relations for healthcare companies. That’s because the true value we scientists bring to the table in science communications is the ability to quickly adapt, learn and gain the subject matter knowledge needed to help companies in a variety of fields. Many years later, I have worked with a range of companies focused on oncology, infectious diseases, mRNA therapeutics, inflammation, neuropathies and medical devices. Having the experience of learning from other scientists proved to be an invaluable asset to securing a job and outperforming expectations.
“Do what you love, and the money will follow.”—Marsha Sinetar
Expand Your Skills
As PhDs, we are trained to become leading experts in our chosen field of research, so while we are expected to have a comprehensive understanding of science, we often dedicate five or more years to understanding and/or solving a very specific biological problem. However, many qualities and capabilities that we don’t need during grad school are required for work in industry, and leveraging the flexible schedule of PhD work to gain these can be the differentiating point that later gets you the job.
Some institutions will provide formal training opportunities or educational programs that can help PhD students broaden their skills, but PhD candidates can also pursue professional development opportunities on their own time. From online training courses to mentorship programs and network opportunities, there are many opportunities to explore other fields and better understand how our knowledge and skills might be applied beyond lab research. Asking alumni and others who’ve started their careers what they are doing now and how they got there is critical to learning what skills are more sought after and, more importantly, identifying the programs and courses that will allow you to gain them.
As I was working toward my PhD, I quickly realized that if I wanted to have any chance of moving into industry right after I graduated, I would need to find ways to showcase my skills outside of bench work. By asking fellow students who were already doing so, I found multiple opportunities to improve my writing for all audiences (not just scientists), my critical thinking skills outside of problem-solving for lab experiments and my healthcare business knowledge.
I became an intern at Einstein’s communications office and joined the Einstein Consulting Club and an organization that supports international graduate students and research fellows in STEM, among other activities. In the semester-long Fundamentals of the Bioscience Industry Program at Stony Brook University, I learned about all aspects of the bioscience industry, including market share analysis, clinical trial analysis, revenue projections, KOL interviews, patent investigation, evolving business models identifying trends and more. This was often the first thing interviewers would pick up from my resume, and it also provided me with the overall understanding of the industry that I needed to decide on the path I would eventually choose.
“Don’t limit yourself. Many people limit themselves to what they think they can do. You can go as far as your mind lets you. What you believe you can achieve.”—Mary Kay Ash
Today, many positions are being outsourced, cut or revamped, making it especially difficult to believe that anybody’s job is completely safe. By being creative and forward-thinking, you will grow in your organization and become an authority on a particular subject, and thus indispensable. To excel at your job, you must go beyond the job description and your assigned responsibilities, demonstrating that you are ready for the next level (or promotion).
I am currently an assistant vice president at Russo Partners, a boutique strategic communications firm that offers media and investor relations support with expertise in biotech, pharma, sports medicine, digital health and medical devices. How did I get so far in the mere six years since I started my first communications job? In short, by doing more than what was assigned to me. When I first started, I had little knowledge of what public relations entailed, how to work with the media or what the best practices in strategic communications were. I learned a lot from my peers, but early on I also went above our usual modus operandi and expanded our PR services with creative ideas, including social media management and connecting with what would become one of the most popular media streams in today’s world: podcasts.
“To be irreplaceable, one must be different.”—Coco Chanel
Taking the Plunge
Surprisingly, a 2010 report by The Royal Society showed that only about one person in 200 who earns a PhD in science eventually goes on to become a professor. Leaving academia is very much the norm, so why do some individuals find it so difficult to break out and find success elsewhere? In some cases, people don’t have a good idea of what they can achieve outside of the lab, while others fear stepping outside their comfort zone, and, in a few cases, PhDs feel external pressure to continue their work in academia after years of investment in the field. I know the feeling associated with the latter, as I could see the initial disappointment on my family’s faces when I broke the news to them that I would not pursue a career in academia. However, they eventually understood that I was doing what I thought was best for me and basing my decision on logic and reasoning rather than fleeting emotions.
Once a PhD starts working at the first job outside of academia, it becomes obvious that we are better prepared than we might initially have imagined. Success will come if you pursue your passions and work hard to meet your goals in life. Understanding those goals might be the most difficult part, as learning about yourself can take time and will only happen if you follow your instincts.
Even if you aren’t certain of the path you’ll take after graduation, it is never too early to start planning for the possibility of pursuing an industry career. Earning a PhD is sometimes erroneously perceived as a choice that leads down just one path: academia. Yet my PhD work enabled me to learn a multitude of skills and gain the scientific knowledge that would power my career. At the same time, it is not a good decision to pursue a PhD if you don’t have a passion for lab work, as a PhD program will test your patience and love of science again and again.
Some final things to keep in mind:
- You have more potential than you might think.
- Do one thing every day that scares you. It will help you get out of your comfort zone.
- Don’t waste time comparing yourself to others. Sometimes you are behind, sometimes you are ahead, but remember, the race is long, and in the end, is only with yourself.
- Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I met during my PhD didn’t know what they wanted to do with their life at 22, and some of the most interesting people I know today still don’t.
Maybe you’ll pursue a career in academia, maybe you won’t, maybe you’ll become a successful PI or the CEO of an innovative company, maybe you will win a Nobel Prize or be on the cover of TIME magazine. Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. You make choices and do your best, and so does everybody else.
Ignacio Guerrero-Ros, PhD, is an assistant vice president at Russo Partners, a boutique, strategic communications firm that offers media and investor relations support with expertise in biotech, pharma, sports medicine, digital health, and medical devices. Follow him on LinkedIn or reach him at Ignacio.Guerrero-Ros@russopartnersllc.com.