Early May Musings of the Future

The day when I shivered in the public toilet of Gloucester Green, desperately looking for a room, felt like yesterday. Yet, May is already here, and I still have no clue on what subject to choose for my PhD. I know that I got tired of cutting and pasting DNA segments, and I would love a more direct, marketable applied research. I still keep my desire to be a science writer burning strong inside. Right now, I am torn between two options: networking option, or cutting edge research? Hopefully, by writing this blog post, I can sort my mind and choose what is best.

Luckily, I came across a short piece by Christopher Taylor (Nature 522, 379-381; 2015). Within the text, he introduced a career-exploration framework that might help me discover a possible career plan. It was broken down into four big questions: knowing myself, understanding my options, identifying gaps, and launching the plan.

Knowing myself

By knowing myself, I can create my “professional DNA”, including my personality traits and values, education and technical training, accomplishments, and overall life experience. A way to do this is to ask 8-12 close friends, family, and colleagues to describe myself in 20 words (jotted down in to-do list now). A blatant rip-off of a Professional DNA diagram is described below (please don’t sue me).

Professional DNA

Understanding my options

Ever since my bachelor, I have this inherent fear that I can only work within laboratory. Microbiology, in essence, is just adept handworks and the ability to draw conclusions from available data. During my master, I shifted my attention toward biopharmaceutical industries, but the outlook seems to be grim. The piece highlighted the shrinking opportunities for graduates pursuing careers in this fields and the fact that less than a half of 145,000 US biomedical graduates in 2012 were employed full time.

Thankfully, the article highlights that the biomedical enterprise is not limited to lab research. The presence of “transferrable skills”—or skills that can be used in diverse fields—may allow one to have career in biomedical field independent of lab presence. Such skills involve but not limited to data analysis, presentation skills, conflict resolution, perseverance, communication, and project management. On the other hand, the bioscience enterprise consists of at least ten facets: biologicals, devices and diagnostics, consulting, law, finance and investments, government, non-government organization, education, healthcare, and media and journalism. Knowing which facets I will devote my love for science into (education, journalism, or biologicals), along with my personal DNA, will prepare me to the next step.

Identifying gaps

Gaps refer to any skills, abilities, or accesses that make me more competitive in the field I choose, but I haven’t acquire yet. This can first be done by scrutinizing “regional, national and international trade and membership groups and associations, leading companies and the positions that exist in each of their desired sectors” (Nature 522, 379-381; 2015). During research, I should focus on functions, responsibilities, work environment and aspects beyond degrees or technical skills. To step up the game, I should do networking—such as setting up coffee chats, lunches, and informational interviews with leaders and executives in area of interests—and develop a clear picture of what is the least and the preferred qualifications for professional in that area. Then, when the gaps are identified, it can be filled in by internships, classroom or online courses, and internet communities (LinkedIn?). Maybe it’s about time to polish up my LinkedIn game.

The competitive nature of Biopharma industry

For biopharma industry, I got some interesting readings from other piece in Nature (524, 257-258; 2015). What I read was both encouraging and disheartening: apparently, the industry only accepts the best of the best. As an entry level career researcher, I am expected to have a grasp in both relevant clinical knowledge (neurobiology, cardiovascular disease, or immunology) and specialized molecular biology techniques (antibody engineering, next-generation sequencing, bioinformatics, or genetic manipulation). Understanding of general concepts in biopharmaceutical business, such as clinical development and large-scale production of monoclonal antibodies, recombinant proteins and cellular therapies, will help tremendously, as well as knowing the direction of the pharma company I set my eyes upon. I guess this is where setting up coffee chats might help.

But of course, all those technical hard stuffs are not the only one companies seek. Several other skills—aside from writing a good report and presenting stuffs—are communication skills and creative thinking. As one senior scientist within the article articulate, “It’s sometimes like being a used-car salesman as being a scientist,” communication skills can help deliver what I really want in a project to people who might be at odds of what I had in mind. As for creative thinking, “Can you make mediocre ideas into good ideas by applying creative thinking?” a senior vice president of famous pharma companies asked. “That would get our attention.”

The not-so-bright future of the biomedical higher education

While reading for this blog post, I came across another not-so-encouraging piece. Apparently, there are too many PhD graduates in biomedical science compared to position in research career; one researcher even commented that, “graduate departments should partake in birth control” (Nature 528, 22-25; 2015). This stems, apparently, from the PhD project that is too “blue-sky research” and less applicable to industrial researches. Paired with less tenured position available, this resulted in too much researcher and too little permanent position in research. One of the possible way is to find a PhD project that is better suited in industrial application. EngD, as opposed to PhD, is one example of such vocational PhD project. This allows me to develop not only hard skills but also soft skills necessary to do career in biomedical research.

Despite all that, I won’t be giving up on biomedical yet. In another issue of Nature (with the uber-cool front page of science-superheroes), general biomedical research is one of the few specific research that has the possibilities to go interdisciplinary. This possibility is viewed as the degree of citation from outside discipline versus the research itself referencing to outside discipline. Clinical medicine and virology, curiously enough, are not as interdisciplinary potential, while general biology has even more potential (Nature 525, 305-311; 2015). Well, probably my late uncle has a point about biology being the future discipline. Maybe it’s time to read more about synthetic biology.

Launching my plan

This is the hardest part, I suppose. I need to formulate all those thinking, asking around, and such into a concise master plan. One important fact highlighted in the first article is that the education—or Postdoc—may not prepare one for the work world outside academia. The article offers some consideration for timings: those who are more than a year away from job-searching phase should increase their marketability (e.g. filling the gaps with necessary skills), while those who expect to have a job within a year should focus on CV development.

The article then zoom in more on the CV: it needs to reflect the professional DNA map and highlight the transferrable skills and area of expertise. There should be an online persona that mirror the CV, such as robust LinkedIn personality (again?) or tweets about talks and publications (something to keep in mind during PhD). The CV should be tailored to specific companies instead of using generalized template, and the applicant should have a list of 10-15 professionals in their desired industry to contact for informational interviews. To prepare for interview, it is advised to record a footage of me answering sample questions (go.nature.com/oiaoik) and review them in the shoes of potential interviewer.

Afterthought

Thinking about the future is always hard, especially if I don’t know what I really want to do. I do know that I like storytelling, and some people said that it’s my gift. I also like to do research and to understand things, but I am not sure if I want to jump from postdoc-to-postdoc. I also find the idea of publication dictate your ‘worth’ to be disturbing; I don’t think that approach is impactful to more people.

So, what’s the plan?

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