Breaking out of “the last bastion of indentured servitude”

(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.


7 Responses to Breaking out of “the last bastion of indentured servitude”

  1. Euge says:

    Love the diagrams :p

  2. A few points:

    Pie charts:

    Academia: a large portion of the time is spent not on research, or meetings, or teaching, or implementation (whatever that means in this context) but on obtaining funds: i.e. writing grant proposals, renewing grant proposals, and writing progress reports. Same goes for startups, but in this case it’s soliciting mostly VC money, rather than Federal grants.

    Dot plot:

    Personnel in academia: although manpower is cheaper, that does not mean it is cheap, nor readily available. The salary + overhead for a postdoc or a grad student, while meagre by industry standards, can strain a lab. Also, funding is never a given (see above), and work contracts are typically short (2 years for postdocs), after which, if you wish to renew you need to check your funds. As for availability: not a given, even with sufficient funds. Many programs cap the number of grad students, so there are not enough to go around if there are several competing labs. I would say a 3D-distributions plot rather than a dot plot is better here.

    I agree with the last diagram, but maybe not in the way it was intended: being married to someone who spent a lot of her work time in startups, working in a startup is like driving drunk while eating a bucket of ice cream (rather insane, dangerous, but filling).

  3. shwu says:

    Hi Iddo – you’re right that lots of time is spent obtaining funding; I meant these more from a student/average worker perspective since that’s where most of the audience at this panel session is coming from. I also agree that students aren’t cheap, but there certainly is no lack for them if there are the means to hire them. PIs practically have to beat them off with sticks. Also, smart undergrads at a place like Stanford are plentiful AND cheap, so that can get around caps. Tongue in cheek of course. Your points are certainly all valid.

    I may put up a second version of the pie charts reflecting a more general view of time spent in those areas + fundraising.

    Thanks for the comment!

  4. PreferNotToBeDisclosed says:

    I think that getting a pH.d. may make one overqualified for a job and decrease the alternatives. This is especially true if someone not native to the US is returning back to her home country after the Ph.D., and there are not suitable jobs for PhD’s in their country, but even for the US workers getting a job seems easier to me with an MS degree.

  5. shwu says:

    @PNTBD, I admit I have sometimes thought the same thing, worrying that not even Starbucks would hire me because they’d claim I’m overqualified. But my view now is that while it might be harder to find a job that perfectly fits your interests and qualifications (there are fewer and they are less well defined), once you have one it is much easier to advance. With just a BA it will be much harder to advance even if the entry-level jobs are more plentiful. I don’t know if a MS gives you significantly more professional freedom than a BA to make getting a Ph.D. superfluous. But whether you get a Ph.D. or not definitely depends on what you ultimately want to do.

    Note, I don’t have any real experience from which to make these statements, this is just what I see from my position.

  6. Deepak says:

    One of the reasons I avoided academia, other than an opinion that postdoc-ing in it’s current format should be declared illegal, was the time spent writing grants. Contrary to what Iddo says, if you are working at a startup, you’re not worrying about VC’s (that’s the exec teams job). Your job is delivering and I always found that to be a ton of fun. At larger companies, it varies. You can be part of the borg, or you can be in a place where you can learn a lot and learn right in the trenches.

    I do think having a PhD helps. Depends on what you want to do, but in the sciences, even if you want to get into product marketing, or business development, without one, you’re going to be at a disadvantage.

  7. Pingback: Mailund on the Internet » Blog Archive » This week in the blogs

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