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Technology Transfer: Applying the PhD Away from the Bench
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Technology Transfer: Applying the PhD Away from the Bench

Tech transferTraining to be a research scientist as a graduate student and postdoc does not mean that our only career options are at the bench.  In fact, these days more than ever, Ph.D.s are finding new opportunities to apply their expertise to a diverse range of exciting career paths.  We spoke with Nicole Mahoney, Ph.D. about her decision to pursue a position in technology transfer and how the skills she learned in her graduate and postdoctoral work benefit her now.

Coming into your postdoc, were you planning on an academic career, or were you already considering other options?

I’ve always been pretty open minded regarding my career—even in grad school.  Although I thought that an academic career was a strong possibility for me when I started my post doc, I explored all sorts of career options, attended many “non-traditional” career events and interviewed lots of people to evaluate other options.

You’re now in technology transfer, what are the most valuable skills you currently use in your job that your research career helped you develop?

Each day I rely on the skills I developed as a researcher.  The most critical skill to my current job is the ability to learn about new topics quickly.  I work with many different labs and they tackle a range of scientific topics — including many that I did not have expertise in when I took this job.  I must understand this research in order to help draft experimental plans, describe inventions, etc.  But my research skills have also come in handy regarding the business and legal information I use in my job too.  Being able to write for both scientific and non-scientific audiences is another critical skill for tech transfer, and one that many scientists undervalue, but shouldn’t.

What skills have you had to develop since leaving the bench?

Since leaving the bench I’ve really come to value “people skills”!  I spend much of my time negotiating legal documents that define the terms of scientific collaborations of one sort or another.  I think that most scientists, (including my former self), like to think of themselves as strictly rational beings and tend to discount how much personalities, expectations and team dynamics impact scientific collaborations when in reality, these factors can make or break a project.  Negotiating the framework for collaborations requires a level of patience, diplomacy and tact that I probably lacked when I started this job!

Do you think research scientists transition well to other careers, or are there areas that we should be sure to develop when changing our career path?

Scientists absolutely transition well to other careers!  Research skills and the drive to answer questions and solve problems are very translatable skills.  Clearly, there are universal skills scientists should develop—the most important being communication savvy.  Being able to explain science in plain English is a rare but valuable ability and will take you far in many science-related careers. Those wishing to change careers will also want to develop more specific skills too. As a first step, I would recommend that they start by learning about the industry they are interested in.  If you are a scientist interested in business, start reading business magazines!  Take a course, arrange an internship and do lots of informational interviews to learn more about available opportunities.  This advice sounds obvious, but I am always amazed by scientists’ narrow focus—many of them want to switch careers but do not devote the time to learning new skills.

What would you say is the toughest part about your current job?

The toughest part of my current job is the pace!  In the lab I got used to working independently, but I now must rely on many different people—lawyers, business people and scientists—to accomplish things.  It can sometimes take months (or more) to negotiate a tech transfer agreement.

If you could advise other scientists considering careers away from the bench, what would you say their first step should be?

I think the first step for any scientist considering careers away from the bench is to explore options broadly.  As I mentioned above, take courses, attend workshops and set up as many informational interviews as you can.  At the same time, think about what you really enjoy doing.  One way to figure this out (it’s not always obvious!) is to ask yourself: How do I spend my free time?   For example, do you spend hours researching and gathering scientific information or sending articles to friends?  If so, perhaps you should consider becoming an informationalist or a science librarian.

How about those interested in learning more about technology transfer?

If you are interested in a technology transfer career, I suggest that you speak to your university’s tech transfer office.  You could start a conversation with them by exploring potential commercial applications of your own research.  In addition, many tech transfer offices provide internships for students and post docs.  If this opportunity is available to you—take it as hands-on experience is the best way to learn about any field.  In addition, many technology transfer organizations exist and some provide free webinars and/or courses. One particularly resource-rich organization is the National Council for Entrepreneurial Tech TransferThe Association of University Technology Managers is another valuable resource.

What’s one major change you’d like to see in the scientific process?

I’ve always wondered why post docs don’t get more leadership opportunities.  For example, I would like to see more post docs on steering committees and on grant review panels.  Faculty members are often the mouthpieces of science and research, but I would like to see this responsibility distributed more broadly across the scientific community.

The first 3-6 months of the job:

What you’ll be doing:

Meeting the laboratories that you will be working with

Learning about patents, intellectual property and possibly licensing

Learning about the policies and laws that drive tech transfer at your institution

Learning about the range of services your office provides

Familiarizing yourself with the standard agreements and procedures used by your office

Learning about the types of research your investigators conduct

What’s expected of you:

Enthusiasm and effort!

A genuine interest in the science conducted at your institution

Initiative to meet researchers and handle agreements


Ability to multitask

You may be expected to start negotiating tech transfer agreements immediately, however, they will likely be fairly simple.

Stress Level:

One a scale of 1-10, I would rate this job a 6 or 7.

Since you’ll be learning about very different topics such as business and law, this job can be overwhelming at first.  However, it can also be very interesting and fun—especially if you have some training and a mentor to guide you through the process.

To get through it:

Take advantage of every training opportunity you get!

Seek out a mentor

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes—you will—but be sure to learn from them

Develop a sense of humor

Ask lots of questions

Nicole obtained her Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and was a Damon Runyon Cancer Research Fellow at UCSF.  She joined the Office of Technology transfer at the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 2006.

2 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Leaving the Academic Path (and Country) to Find A Job | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on May 24, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    […] Technology Transfer: Applying the PhD Away from the Bench […]

  2. B P Chatterji

    wrote on December 18, 2010 at 11:36 am


    Liked the interview. Takes courage to shift.

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