Leaving the Academic Path (and Country) to Find A Job

Many foreign students and postdocs come to the US to perform their graduate education or postdoctoral research.  The move is usually part of a larger career path the individual has mapped out for themselves.  But what happens when that plan falls apart and the passion to pursue the original plan fades?  Time to make a Plan B.  Here’s one story.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid a drawn-out corporate approval process, we spoke with a former postdoc who, like many of us, found themselves struggling with career issues.  Here’s their experience – how they dealt with the transition and where they landed.

You received your MD/PhD in Japan and then came to the US to do a postdoc.  What were your initial reasons for coming to the US?

I wanted to do research in a world class institute (MIT) and see what the top level scientists were like. I was hoping to publish good papers and have my own lab in the US.

When you came over, how long were you expecting to stay?

I was expecting to work as a postdoc for about 3-4 years. I ended up staying for 8 years. (Way over my initial plan.)

Did you anticipate following a certain career path when you started your postdoc?

Yes, I was thinking of pursuing an academic path.

When did you begin to consider alternatives to your original plan?  Why?

I began thinking about it in about my 5th year. My research was not going as I initially planned, and I didn’t feel I had published enough papers to be a competitive candidate for a faculty position.

Looking at my boss writing grants and papers all the time, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to become a PI in an academic institution.

I also wanted to do something more directly applicable to the real world (like helping patients). I felt uncomfortable writing in grants that this research would lead to a new cure, help patients, etc, when I knew that was not the purpose of this research and even if we were extremely lucky, it would take 20-30 years.

Once you realized you wanted to find a new career path, how did you go about looking for it?

The university where I was at had many seminars/workshops inviting alumni who worked in various fields. That was what got me thinking of alternative career paths in the beginning.

I also read some books recommended by various seminar speakers. Books include: Put Your Science to Work: The Take-Charge Career Guide for Scientists by Peter S. Fiske, What Color Is Your Parachute? by Richard N. Bolles, 48 Days to the Work You Love by Dave Ramsey and Dan Miller. I also read some about the pharmaceutical industry.

I then talked to my friends who were working in pharmaceutical companies. I asked them to introduce some of the people they knew who were also in the field. This was the most critical and most useful part of my job search. I got the feel for what the job was like. One of people I met recommended me to a head hunter who eventually got me the job.

Any advice for others looking to expand their career options?

Ask your friends if they know someone working in that field. Talk to people who are actually doing it to see if that job is what you are aiming for. Talking to people may eventually get you the job you want (as was my case). I’ve heard in all the seminars and read in books that networking was the key to everything. I first dreaded the thought of networking, but it was actually enjoyable since I was getting the information that I was most interested in, and most people are happy to talk about how they got to their current position.

What kind of job did you end up taking, and where?

A manager position in clinical development of a pharmaceutical company in Tokyo, Japan. I am involved in planning, managing, and making reports of clinical trials.

What has been harder to deal with in the transition- the cultural differences (US vs. Japan; academic vs. industry) or the scientific differences (basic research vs. clinical)?

Cultural differences were much harder, both in terms of US-Japan differences and academics-industry differences. Cultural differences are difficult to grasp and may not be obvious at first. On the surface, it may not appear that different, but people may not necessarily mean what they say. My advice is to go with the flow for a while and observe the people around you to see what they are really thinking. Hold your criticism (at least for a while).

What do you think are the 3 most rewarding aspects of your job?

  1. Sense of doing something that will help patients.
  2. Getting paid for the amount of work you do.
  3. Good pay and more stable life.

What do you think are the 3 most challenging parts?

  1. Not having control over what you work on. You may be asked to switch projects or positions one day, and start working on something entirely different.
  2. Getting accustomed to the company culture. This may take some time.
  3. Working with people with different goals in life. Some people are more concerned with promotion or clinging on to their jobs rather than to develop good drugs.

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Provide a roadmap for the first 6 months of your job:

First two weeks:

What you’ll be doing:

Taking training

What’s expected of you:

Just be polite

Stress level (1-10; 10 is just before having a breakdown….):

3

What to do to get through it:

Just do as you are told.

Weeks 3-4

Same as weeks 1-2. (My training went on for three months.)

Months 2-3

What you’ll be doing:

Started working on a project, first by helping others.

What’s expected of you:

Do literature research on a topic, summarize results, draft documents, attend meetings, prepare presentations, etc.

Stress level:

4-5

What to do to get through it:

Scientific part was manageable. As with anything, it takes a while to get used to new things. I just concentrated on the task at hand and asked a lot of questions.

Months 4-6

What you’ll be doing:

More deeply engaged in the project.

What’s expected of you:

Similar to months 2-3, but with a little more responsibility.

Stress level:

6-7

What to do to get through it:

Find someone in the company with experience that you can rely. It is always good to check with others, since you could be missing out on some basic principle that you are not aware of. Your decision may be scientifically correct, but not be the right answer in the company.

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Check out our other career-related interviews:

The Non-U.S. Postdoc, Part 1

Technology Transfer: Applying the PhD Away from the Bench

Working at a Small Company, Part 1

Working at the Interface: Matt Bogyo

Switching Careers? Try the Sampler Platter: Internships

Challenges in the Scientific Curriculum

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2 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. ejils

    wrote on March 12, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    one thing that wasn't brought up was the visa issue that foreigners face when looking for jobs outside of the academy. a postdoc in my lab underwent a similar transition but wanted to find a job in the us. because he had little experience in the field he was switching to, it was difficult for him to find an company willing to sponsor his O1, so he had to return home.

  2. Career-related from Grad School to Job | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on December 2, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    […] Leaving the Academic Path to Find a Job – one researcher’s story of changing careers and countries in pursuit of a job […]

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