Be strategic to conquer those walls fellow PhDs!



You gotta be strategic.

There is no other way around it.

Sometimes, the route to your goal is a straight line. But more often than not isn’t.

Eventually you gonna stumble into a wall that seems too tall to climb, too thick to break.

You are not alone, we all have been there.

Usually people then resort to a short-sighted mind of the field tactician: looking at the elements that are in front of them, and simply hack away at what they are already doing and back off completely when the wall seems insurmountable.

In other words reacting.

Reacting spends necessary energy, wastes movement and accomplishes only circular motion.

Motion leads nowhere and feels like action, but it’s nothing of the sort.

Motion is circular “movement”.

Like empty calories, it feels satisfying, but it’s devoid of substance.

Only action leads to true movement!

A smart move is to think that your current battle is one of many, to think like a marathoner, not a sprinter.

Take a step back, assess your situation.

See how much time you need to get to your goal.

It doesn’t need to be a precise number, just an estimate to get you thinking.

Most walls can be climbed in an indirect way.

Any wall has structural weaknesses. But you only can see them if you step back and reassess.

In the particular situation of the job hunt, being a strategist is clever than being a tactician.

What I mean by that? For example, you can take a job now to help you get closer to the one you really want.

Let me talk about something I know by heart.

The hard choices a PhD have to make after graduation if he or she plans to go into pharma industry.

The story usually goes like this, see I didn’t miss anything ok?

You are a good student, good grades through all your basic education, with some interest in science. So, the thinking usually goes like that:

“I was good at science in high school. Why not go to a good college and get a great job doing what I love?”

This great job is usually unspecified. You had no idea into what you were diving into. Vague ideas lead to unsatisfying results always.

So you go and chose some STEM major, and alongside the way, you start to make that vague idea of a job into something more concrete. And the first terrifying truth rears its head!

There are no jobs! Only scholarships and professorship.

You did not want to be a professor at first. But you loved solving complex problems, and thinking about these job thingies always gave you a headache and a sour taste on the mouth. And maybe a nightmare or two.

So, instead of addresing the problem head on, you delayed the inevitable.

Either by taking a scholarship (there is this possibility outside of the U.S.), or by getting knee-deep into debt or just working for free.

You got yourself a PhD. Since doing a PhD feels like work as PhDs usually work very hard, a fact that is taken by granted by most institutions and advisors, you forgot about the creeping debt or the fact that most industries do not see a PhD as actual work experience.

After the thesis defense and the viva (in the U.S.), you are now hit by a truck and then shot with a riffle in the leg and left for dead as the question strikes you in the chin.

What now?

You consider the tenure track, but it’s dying fast, and the competition is becoming insanely tougher with each passing semester. And you did not get into grad school to become a professor. You wanted to become a researcher.

And why? Because you love to solve complex problems. You live to discuss science with your peers.

Now, the good news! There are other fields outside academia that deal with complex problem solving and where you can talk about science my friend!

Research on Pharma Industry [Entry points: grad, MS or PhD]

One option for those who wants to still pursue biomedical research is to enter the Pharma industry. Ethical considerations aside, since I would never for my life work for a thing like Monsanto, some Pharma companies may be a valid route for some of you.

Say you want to get into the department of Research and Development in the Pharma industry, and you are a newly minted STEM PhD with zero industry experience.

Perhaps you could do a Post Doc in industry, which is the usual route. but Post Doc positions in industry are somewhat rare.

Another way to go about it, is to get an equipment or reagent sales position. They are easier to get into. Do a really good work, and keep an eye opened for opportunities once inside. Companies mainly recruit people they already know. Only when this avenue is exhausted they resort to job ads and such.

This strategy can be adapted to any industry.

The way to succeed in doing it lies in some research of the positions available in the industry, and their requirements.

Look for positions you could perform RIGHT NOW. Keep in mind its temporary, and keep your eyes open for new opportunities.

There is no defeat in taking a job which you haven’t been trained for. It shows adaptability and willingness to take smarter, less obvious routes to your goals.

Is Pharma research the only alternative for STEM students then?

Hell no. As I have zero interest on research nowadays, as doing science effectively killed my interest in doing science, I would be doomed. And I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. For those who wish to remain somewhat associated with academia, I suggest reading this piece.

Another alternative is the Medical Science Liaison, (MSL for short) position.

Enter the MSL [Entry point: PhD]

The MSL is quickly becoming the favoured destination of medically inclined STEM PhDs.

And for good reason. With great pay, great benefits and the possibility to still discuss high level biomedical science, it’s the dream of many researchers. It’s a role within pharma companies that specializes in a given field such as Oncology, Cardiology, Pulmonary, Hematology, Surgery, Women’s Health Care, etc.

It’s great for socially inclined researchers, as you will experience a lot of face time as you influence and persuade Key Decision Makers in hospital settings.

As the best way to transition into such a position, I refer to the above-linked article, but it basically boils down to the same theme: strategy.

Deciding your goal early, networking and keeping an eye open for transition jobs within the same company if straight transition proves too hard.

For those who are ready to take the leap of faith I saved the best for last: management consulting.

The true high level corporate life: Management Consulting [Entry points: grad, MS, PhD]

There are other options in this other piece, that I didn’t find particularly exciting, since what I love to do in research is think and solve complex problems. Not bench research, not teaching in an academic setting (too rigid). Solving complex problems.

Management consultants do just that. How did I found such an awesome possibility?

I started searching for options other than high school teaching and things like that, and found this nice resource called Individual Development Plan from Sciencemag that enlightened my path. I strongly suggest you take the tests there to see where your strengths lie, to better understand your future career choices.

I ended joining a group of wannabe consultants in LinkedIn, and eventually the consulting club in my University.

The transition from bench science to management consulting is not an obvious one, especially if you have no clue that management consulting even exists, and how it relates to science.

So, let’s tackle the obvious question, what is management consulting and what this type of consultant do?

The really short answer is that they solve problems for businesses.

The long answer is that they solve complex problems without obvious solutions and full of ambiguity.

Not much longer, but with a critical difference: problems full of ambiguity.

The clients of the “Big three” consulting firms (McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group and Bain & Company) are Fortune 500 companies typically. Their fees are very, very high.

Why would a twenty year company contract a bunch of overpaid advisors (a common criticism of the career) to solve problems in the industry they themselves have way more experience?

The consulting firm have a fresh outlook on the problem and a team of very smart analytically minded people used to tackle vastly different problems.

These companies love PhDs exactly for this reason, they are used to take a project from inception to finish (the thesis), encountering diverse hurdles along the way that need to be solved with grace and creativity.

PhDs are comfortable with ambiguity. This is a valuable strength.

PhDs are self-reliant, specially those with crappy/absent advisors. This is also a strength.

How do you prepare for such a role? The preparation is more complicated than the previous two and requires an article of itself to come in the near future.

Those three options were given having PhDs in mind. What about other situations??

Having a goal and a strategic plan to get there is universal.

You don’t need a perfect plan, you need a workable one, and you need to be able to distinguish when to keep on beating on the wall to destroy it, and when to circle the wall.

This is the critical skill that needs to be honed.

When should I keep on going then?

By now you should be very comfortable with the idea of strategically taking detours to circle the wall.

However, we should not totally discount the idea of banging away at the wall if a crack presents itself. If you see weaknesses attack without abandon!

The art is to position yourself to be near the crack.

This art of knowing when to back off and when to keep going is exactly that. An intricate art that mixes gut feeling with knowledge.

This art of knowing when to back off and rethink your route and when to keep going is so precious and poorly understood, that people are making books about it and making money.

A great resource to help you understand what is involved in such a decision is The Dip, by Seth Godim. I strongly recommend you read it and commit to memory its principles.

A plan goes a long, long way.

Take your time to come up with one.



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