Transitioning out from a PhD to “industry” – Riding the rollercoaster

“Plans go to hell as soon as the first shot is fired” – Lee Childs

So it’s been quite a while since my last post on Transitioning out from a PhD to Industry (18 months ago); a post written at a point in time where I was beginning to write up my thesis (February 2014). Since writing up, handing in and passing the PhD (January 2014 to February 2015) up to now, *a lot* of people have asked me what I’ve been up to, and asked me “So what’s next?” I guess a more comprehensive explanation is needed, as I don’t think I’ve painted a complete picture to anyone, and it’s recently dawned on me that even I can barely remember what’s happened since early last year. Why am I telling this story? For a number of reasons:

  1. Most advice I’d heard from academic institutions regarding transitioning to industry is not very sophisticated, and fails to capture the subtle nuances that amplify themselves as real challenges during the transition phase
  2. Often, we hear about success, and never about the failures/challenges along that journey
  3. I’ve heard so many academics naively tell me that “industry is better”, and frankly, the reality could not be further from the truth during the transition phase
  4. I finally have less on my “plate”, and I need to take stock

It wouldn’t be fair to present where (I think) I’m going in my life and career without some background and context about the failures and setbacks I’ve encountered, as well as the random opportunities that’s kept me going, and the most recent opportunity that may potentially be a career-launching role.

  1. I thought I had a postdoc in the US

Around May 2014, an interesting guy based in the States visited my University and after a series of presentations about his work, it was clear that there was an option for me to do a postdoc in his lab. Having had a background in medical device development, I would have been a great fit in his lab working on his technology, and developing them further for commercialisation. From May to October, I worked with the guy to write foundation grants, telecon-ed with him at stupid hours of the morning to find ways to organise funding for my position. When I attended an AusIndustry event on introducing the uninitiated to the basics of medical device regulation, I used the opportunity to ask specific questions about the regulatory and quality pathway required to get his technology out of the lab and into clinical trials. My hopes were high, but once October came around, it was clear we could not secure the grants to get me over there. To compound things further:

  • His Masters student decided to continue work on the project, and took half of the project
  • He got undergrads to work on the second-half of the project
  • His wife had their second child

I fell off his radar, naturally. But little did I know that my enthusiastic efforts to grill the mentors at the AusIndustry seminar would impact me significantly over a year later, as I had caught the attention of some other seminar participants.

Time expended: 6 months

That wasn’t to say I wasn’t looking for work, but…

  1. From May ’14 to May ’15, I worked on 4 projects casually, and was unemployed for 5 months

As my scholarship ran out in May 2014, I began scavenging for work – in this time I did things like:

  • Prototype tumour detection technologies at another local technology university (0.2FTE for 6 months)
  • Assist another team within the Institution where I did my PhD with their studies (though their work at that time was very “seasonal”, so it was limited to a few weeks)
  • Develop new content for an online course provider (a one week-gig)
  • Consult with a university to help them secure funding for a 3D printing platform (on and off for a month)

Some of this occurred while I was still writing up my thesis, but as I did enough work, and I’d had savings, I scraped through (but not without severe cuts to the savings I had). This all occurred in tandem with me going out to networking events, but

  1. Networking cost me lots of time, money and emotional currency

I was out networking (on average) once a week during my PhD, but this ramped up significantly once I was clear of my thesis. What became apparent was that State and Federal freezing/scrapping of industry funding was conspiring to be a perfect storm, as Victoria would in effect see all STEM-industry -related funding for startups grind to a halt once the new government came into office. Finishing my PhD just before this period could not have been worse in terms of timing. Though I did meet a lot of interesting people, nearly all of them could only give me vague, hand-waving allusions to potential work – the number of “if’s” and “maybe’s” were countless, and it drove me mad. Waiting for, in effect, non-existent opportunities to come good, was really depressing. I had lots of coffees, to no avail. Often, people sought to suss information out of me, and then ditch me. I grew very frustrated, as I could do nothing about the situation. When I did finally get some breaks…

  1. My first “commercial” gig got me some experience, but I didn’t get paid

I approached a boutique, technology strategy consulting group in November 2014, in the hope that they would have commercially-related consulting gigs that could at least help with the income situation and work as a platform for me to move into a commercial role. Little did I know what I had signed myself up for. As much as I would love to elaborate on details, all I can say was that I sunk well over 100 hours of my time into a project, and I didn’t get paid. I worked with some fantastic people, but on the advice of a very good industry contact of mine, I eventually made the decision to leave the group on good terms with some interesting experience under my belt.

Time expended: 7 months

Cash wasted: 0.5 x (Return tickets to Sydney + costs)

  1. I negotiated a role at a startup VC for 10 months, to no avail…

A founder of a startup VC firm had seen an article I’d posted on my LinkedIn, and around November 2014, I got chatting with him. Realising that I needed to meet him to give him the true picture of who I was, I flew up to Sydney in January 2015 to see him. We had a very long, 3-hour coffee chat, and it was clear that there was significant value alignment. The problem was that his startup was still in its early days. After many more conversations over the phone between January and April, it became clear he could only afford to bring me on around August 2015. Around April 2015, I was unemployed, and was very fearful that I wouldn’t have enough cash to make it to August. At time of writing, no progress on what I thought would be an amazing opportunity has been made, and I’m fairly certain this has become a dead-end.

Time wasted: 9 months

Cash wasted: 0.5 x (Return tickets to Sydney + costs)

…and basically lost hope for a while

Around March 2015, I basically hit rock bottom. I was really feeling the career and financial pinch. At first, I thought it was a good idea to keep the folks in the loop about my job hunting escapades (in order to stop them asking about when I was going to get a “real job”), but the deluge of “opportunities” that kept fizzling out was so high that it started to make them really depressed as well. Living at home always has its challenges, but some days were just awful.  There was a lot of self-doubt and self-reflection – I asked myself constantly if pursuing my passion had really been worth it. I was pretty depressed, going out with friends sometimes felt really hollow as there was a constant nagging worry at the back of my head, and seeing people move on in their lives was difficult, as I was failing to launch not just my career, but my life. What also didn’t help was the fact that one of my PhD examiners took 5 months to examine my thesis.

All I could do was to focus the little energy and cash on the things I could control – my writing up of papers, going to networking events, staying fit & healthy, and maintaining the links with my ever-shrinking pool of single/sociable coupled friends. I was mentally and emotionally exhausted – I’d spent most of my energy trying to get what little wins I could, leaving almost nothing left for anything else.

My knowledge and connections in the industry were a double-edged sword – sure, I had connections (that were useless at this stage), but I also knew enough to know what I didn’t want to do, and who I knew I couldn’t work with. There was a constant pressure to simply “take any job”, but the reality was that even those were hard to find.

  1. I caught some unexpected reprieves/opportunities

Around late March, a contact I knew my university’s startup accelerator program put me in touch with some other connections at an internal networking service for researchers at UniMelb, which landed me:

  • An invite to present at a 3D printing symposium
  • A one-month, casual project helping them bid for a grant to set up an internal 3D printing service within the university

I also got an invitation (along with one of my friends) to attend AusMedtech 2015 in April. More specifically, the chair of the organising committee had invited me to sit on the conference’s wrap-up panel at the end, which was a lovely bonus – something I hadn’t done before. I was really lucky and sat with some amazing people from Frost & Sullivan, and Johnson & Johnson’s Ethicon division.

The exposure I’d gotten through the 3D printing symposium and AusMedtech allowed me to have conversations with CSIRO, which generated some preliminary interest in my professional outlook at CV, however, nothing came of this opportunity due to major leadership and organisational changes within CSIRO. Simply put, there were just a lot more “hand-waving” conversations and allusions to roles that were being vaguely discussed.

By this stage, serendipity had also scored me some connections to senior people at a major US medical device manufacturer in the US, but the conversations basically went nowhere. It was extremely difficult to create and maintain a relationship with key decision-makers within this company, as I had only been introduced to over email. By this stage, I was becoming all too aware that the general level of evidence for therapies in the area that I had completed my PhD in was very low, yet many device companies I could potentially apply for a role in continued to market some of their products with very weak benefit claims. As I am a firm believer in evidence-based medicine, I found the ethical re-alignment a bridge to far. As an early undergraduate, I had always thought I would wind up working for such companies, but the stark reality of the economics of the industry tainted that potential pathway. Finally, a number of my friends who had completed PhD’s in parallel areas to mine held almost all the sales positions for these companies in the Australia/New Zealand region, so I knew a local role would not be possible.

  1. Timing swung back in my favour

With May coming around again, the research team at my home institution had further work for me, as new software developments meant that we could start analysing the deluge of data we’d collected in October 2014. Getting paid for the first time in 3 months was a huge relief. Additionally, at one networking event, I bumped into some old contacts I’d met almost a year ago at the AusIndustry seminar. They had gone on to do some amazing things, and were looking to grow. They had been looking for people to grow with their company, but hadn’t been able to find the right people. To quote one of them: “[I was] the missing link”. Given my terrible experiences over the prior year, I was really sceptical that anything would come of this engagement; I’d be burned far too many times by this stage.

However, the problems this start-up company are solving are huge, and the career opportunity was too hard to refuse. In the space of 2 weeks, I had 3 meetings and numerous phone calls, and before I knew it, I was on a plane commencing work on a retainer basis. Due to the early, “bootstrapped” nature of the venture, the retainer fee is only sufficient for me to pay for bills, put fuel into my car, and slowly rebuild my personal finances after the severe beating it’d taken in the prior year. That said, my travel, food and accommodation expenses are currently covered for, so ironically, my living expenses have decreased somewhat, but such gains are compromised when considering the lack of employee benefits, such as compulsory pension fund contributions Australian companies are required to make.

At time of writing, I have just completed 14 weeks within the start-up, and have been making weekly to-and-fro commutes between home (where I spend my weekends) and their current office a 2.5hr flight away. My experiences are almost worthy of a separate blogpost, but I want to finish this post with some positives.

My current boss/founder of the company and his assistant don’t have ANY scientific, engineering or medical device development background. In his former life, my boss was a land and property developer, and following an accident many years ago, he has now decided to commercialise his invention that he used on himself to solve a serious complication following the accident. I am the only person in the company that has any official tertiary qualifications. Though it may sound boastful of me to state that I hold 3 technical tertiary qualifications (a science degree, an engineering degree, and a medical research-based PhD that has had commercial outcomes), the focus and drive of the company has been better articulated, streamlined and sharply focused since I’ve come on board – the broad range of technical qualifications allows me to extract and distil the company’s goals/founder’s vision, and allows us to engage with academic and other R&D institutions in ways they have not been able to previously. Simply put, my “Dr” title gives our company scientific legitimacy, and has been immensely helpful with setting up links to academia (an irony which I will revisit later).

My boss and I think very differently, which is challenging. Ironically, he thinks that I am extremely academic, as I tend to see complicated ideas and draw linkages between such ideas quickly. He resides at the opposite end of the spectrum – he thinks and sees things in extremely simple terms, which is actually an advantage. Coupled with his exceptional drive and sharp commercial focus, he is a force to be reckoned with. His naivety to the industry also affords him the ability to see pathways and ask “stupid questions”. He constantly complains that I make things overly complicated, and I have had to quickly learn to simplify things down to very short messages – a 1-minute explanation is 50 seconds too long unless I break my ideas down into its simplest form, but it’s a fantastic way to sharpen my commercial acumen.

In spite of these differences in how we operate, we have exceptionally strong value alignment. As a small (and slowly growing) team, the energy we have generated within the company, and more broadly within the local ecosystem has been exceptional. This has allowed me to set up major academic collaborations between us and various local universities in an exceptionally short period of time (more than I ever did during my PhD). As these activities require a lot of networking, negotiating, pitching and communicating, it is a role that is well-suited to my personality – some would consider me a Connector (for those of you have read “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell).

Since joining, I’ve taken on so many roles, including (and not limited to):

  • Lead scientific officer and liason
  • Business and medtech strategist
  • Marketing officer
  • Project manager
  • Quality manager

Rather cheekily, I asked to be appointed as an honorary teaching fellow at one of the local universities – a request the Dean of the Faculty we collaborate with agreed to! This was something that would have been much more difficult to request had I not crossed into a commercial role.

I make of point of summarising my experiences so far, in order to make the following points:

  • I use none of the science I investigated as part of my PhD research. I’ve had to learn new aspects of science that the company works in
  • My networking and self-directed learning forged me an in-depth understanding of not just the dynamics of the medtech industry, but the ecosystem that supports it. This is not something taught to students (undergrad, postgrad) at university. The years of ecosystem and industry learning allowed me to develop unconscious background knowledge; knowledge that was evident when my (now) boss could see come through when I was discussing the technicalities of my potential postdoc project at the AusIndustry seminar. It gave me the ability to “read” and horizon scan the ecosystem for possible job opportunities well ahead of my competition, and allowed me to ask the right questions of employment decision-makers.
  • The same background knowledge is needed in my current role, in order to help form the company’s strategy and day-to-day operations.
  • I didn’t interview for my current role – it was energy, enthusiasm, passion and knowledge that made me the suitable candidate. My LinkedIn account was useless, as my boss doesn’t use computers…

So in summary – am I meaningfully employed? Yes. Am I off the roller-coaster? Yes, but I have boarded another scarier one – the success of our start-up is something I have direct impact on, where there is no safety net. Is this situation a driver to perform? Absolutely. And finally, is this story over? Absolutely not.

Tweet me @ayftan

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One thought on “Transitioning out from a PhD to “industry” – Riding the rollercoaster

  1. Pingback: Transitioning out from a PhD to “industry” – It’s all about YOU! | Technical Philosophy

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