Breaking out of “the last bastion of indentured servitude”
February 27, 2009 7 Comments
(Note: I originally had this comic as an illustration but have removed it while I check whether I have permission to use it as the image is under copyright.)
The Stanford undergraduate program in biomedical computation and graduate program in biomedical informatics jointly hosted an industry panel tonight to highlight career paths outside of academia. The panel was diverse, including:
- someone who had worked at a small biotech prior to enrolling in a Ph.D. program and co-founded a startup while still finishing his degree,
- someone who had gone from a Ph.D. and a post-doc in bench science to working in venture capital, and
- someone who worked in chemical engineering and toxicology before becoming head of a biomedical informatics division at a large pharmaceutical company and is soon starting an MBA.
They talked about how they got to where they are now, general advice for people considering whether to get a Ph.D. or an M.D., how to approach startups, and some differences between working in academia vs. large companies vs. small startups. Some general themes that came out of the discussion were:
- Getting a Ph.D. is a good idea. As one panelist put it, “I hated it, it was the worst time in my life, but I’m so glad I did it.” Having a Ph.D. simply offers you more opportunity and removes the glass ceiling which unfortunately is present for those who do not have higher degrees. Even in less technical jobs, a Ph.D. is often useful. In venture capital, for example, you might be interacting with very technical people on very technical projects, and a Ph.D. not only gives you leverage to build rapport with them but also gives you the training to understand the details of those projects. (The same is also true for consulting.)
- Seek out diverse experiences and broaden your view. Even in a Ph.D. where you’re focusing on a very specific area, you should be aware of what’s going on elsewhere because nothing is completely isolated from everything else. One panelist encouraged students to do multiple internships to explore industries and career options.
- Learn how to fail, and be tenacious. You hear this everywhere but it really is true: don’t be afraid to fail, and to fail often. People are more likely to hire someone who has failed and learned from it than someone who has always succeeded. If you’ve always succeeded, it may mean you’ve never been tested, and similarly, that you’ve never taken risks. If you go to graduate school, however, you’ll definitely fail a lot…
- There’s no “right” path. Each of the panelists started out thinking they were going to do one thing and ended up doing something different – sometimes something wildly different. None of them took a direct line to get to where they are now. You shouldn’t expect to, either. Explore, be flexible, and take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. Just keep thinking about what you enjoy doing and what fires you up. This leads to the next theme.
- Find your passion. You will be hired if you are passionate about that work. Your startup will be more likely to succeed if you are passionate about it. You will have more of an impact if you are passionate about it.
In addition to this general advice, the panelists fielded several questions surrounding startups – how to evaluate ideas and the pros and cons of startups vs. other types of companies or academia.
To startup or not to startup?
This depends on your goals. If you just want to make a lot of money, by all means start a company. If you want a specific experience, you may be better off joining an existing small company that does something you get excited about. When evaluating a startup idea, it can be helpful to ask whether the idea is an enabling technology for a tangible application. Even if the market isn’t quite there yet, your idea will create one if you can demonstrate that your product makes something possible that wasn’t possible before. An example of this is the technology that enabled high-throughput parallel assays of gene expression, which was later acquired by Affymetrix.
What makes a startup different from a large company or academia?
A major difference is pace. Things happen fast in the startup environment and attitude is very much “fail early and fail often.” Decisions are made and executed quickly. In contrast, decision-making can be incredibly slow in a large company, which often is much less willing to take risks. Ironically, large companies often have lots of money to throw around, which is something that startups and academic labs must work very hard to get. For a large company, the hardest resource to find is good personnel. Startups have an easier time attracting personnel but it’s still not cheap. Personnel, however, is very cheap plentiful and relatively cheap for academia (one panelist described graduate school as “the last bastion of indentured servitude”).
I hope the following diagrams (inspired by Indexed) are helpful in illustrating these differences*:
* Diagrams are from a peon’s perspective and not necessarily to scale.