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Learning the Business: Industry Panel Advises PGS

by | May 17, 2016

PGS IndustryMany early career scientists have difficulty finding an entry point into industry after working exclusively in an academic environment, and lack the connections that would help them get started at a scientific company.

To help remedy this divide, members of the Postgraduate Society at Boyce Thompson Institute hosted the PGS Industry Symposium in early April. Six scientists from a range of companies visited BTI to meet with students and share tips and advice for pursuing a career in industry. They held a panel discussion and workshops on topics ranging from the application process to networking to differences in company cultures.

Postdoctoral researchers Sarah Hind and Andreas Ludewig organized the event to give PGS members the opportunity to make connections with alumni and to explore career opportunities beyond academia.

“It’s hard to get good advice from your professors because if they tell you how they did it, it may not be applicable,” said Hind. Faculty who have thrived in academia don’t always have the experience and insight to help students and postdocs transition to a company. Though Hind plans to stay in academia, she wanted to create a support network to help her colleagues interested in industry.

The industry panel was composed of Mark Stowers, Vice President and Head of Global Research and Development at HM Clause; Larry Gilbertson, the site lead at the Cambridge biotechnology site for Monsanto Co.; Xiaoran Fu, a Technical Team Lead at Monsanto Co.; Kathy Munkvold, a Staff Development Scientist at Beckman Coulter; Axel Bethke, a Senior Scientist at Natera and Theresa Fulton, Director of Operations at Nature Source Genetics.

Stowers, Munkvold and Bethke are alumni of BTI.

During the panel discussion, the scientists discussed the importance of “soft skills,” such as leadership abilities and being able to interact well with other people. They also stressed the significance of communication. Being able to tell a story about your science to fellow scientists, businesspeople and programmers alike is a vital skill. Fitting in with the company is also critical, and cultures can vary widely, so job seekers would be wise to look around and find a company that fits their personality and abilities.

But companies are still looking for top-notch researchers.

“Soft skills are very important, but they don’t override the need to be a great scientist,” said Gilbertson. “Beyond that, any time you have an opportunity to network with people in industry, get your name out there.”

“I would recommend starting really early,” said Munkvold. “Start looking at what types of jobs are available and [if] you have those skills; are you using those types of things in your research.” Not all research projects translate well to industry, but planning ahead will enable you to broaden your skill set and become a well-rounded candidate, she said.

The event received high marks from PGS members. Hind and Ludewig circulated a survey among attendees, and about three quarters of them gave the event the highest possible rating. About 85 percent said that they would attend a similar event in the future.

Postdoctoral researchers made up about half of the participants, but a number of graduate students, visiting scholars and BTI staff also attended. In all, about 50 people took part in the event.

“It was really an eye-opener for me,” said Melkamu Woldemariam, a postdoctoral scientist in the Jander laboratory. Before the event, he had been committed to staying in academia. But afterwards, he found himself seriously contemplating a career in industry. “You don’t know where you’re going to end up,” he said.

Allyson MacLean, a postdoctoral scientist in the Harrison laboratory is very interested in jobs in industry and attended the event to gather more information. She said she appreciated the diversity of companies represented, which ranged from small local businesses to large companies with a global presence.

“For too many people in academia, the whole prospect of working in industry is a black box—no one really knows much about it,” said MacLean. “BTI is very good at promoting jobs in industry, more so than other places I’ve worked at,” she said. “I hope they do another one next year.”

As a result of the event, BTI has begun posting job openings in industry sites on the Boyce Thompson Institute Alumni Network and Postgraduate Society LinkedIn page. Interested PGS members and alumni of BTI are encouraged to join the group to view the postings.

The participation of the three alumni scientists was made possible through a generous grant from the Triad Foundation aimed at increasing networking opportunities between alumni and current researchers.

However, when PGS first received the grant, they did not have a way to identify and connect with BTI alum. To solve this problem, the Development Office has begun to create a BTI alumni network for the purposes of career development, mentorship opportunities and recruitment of BTI alum.

“There are many exciting opportunities our researchers could benefit from: career support or networking from alums who have already found successful careers in research,” said Kelli Monce, a development associate at BTI. “They can help researchers define—or refine—their own path into a fulfilling career.”

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