PhDs in Industry – a path to the top

I left CSIRO around 25 years ago. I think it was fair to say I was successful there. I had tenure, grants, and ran a good-sized research group. But I realized that the next thirty years of my career would all, roughly, be the same, and that prospect scared me. Many of the years that followed were very tough, but they were exciting. In writing this blog I was trying to think of what motivated me to move out of academia (CSIRO is pretty much academia). Why wasn’t it enough, at least for me?

“Scientists and engineers! Always on tap, never on top”

These were words my mother’s father uttered to my engineer father on their first meeting, often repeated to me. My grandfather had dragged himself from illiteracy and abject poverty to a knighthood, so he had earned some right to comment on life.

When I later quit being an employee and with a close friend started a company, those words of grandfather were still a motivation. Why was I solving problems for others who knew less about our actual work, but mysteriously managed to be in charge?

And maybe my grumpy Grandpa was right. The attitudes of many Australian scientists and engineers often seem disempowering. They don’t expect to be in charge, outside academia they often never quite aspire to the top job, they leave that for others. But a fact of life is that if you don’t believe you deserve authority you will rarely acquire it, irrespective of your skills base; greatness is rarely thrust upon you.

Scientists in industry

This lack of respect for STEM professionals as corporate leaders is reflected in public attitudes. When I was running a public biotech company, I was often told by shareholders that, as a scientist, I shouldn’t be in charge. I was asked when was “the real manager” taking over? Can you ever imagine an accountant or banker being told they couldn’t run a finance company?

Why the persistent Australian perception of the commercially useless boffin? There are some very successful STEM PhDs. Andrew Mackenzie successfully runs our biggest company, BHP Billiton – but did you know he is a widely published PhD research geochemist, that he has publications in Nature? The board of nearly every German company of any type is littered with PhDs, and the US is knee-deep in successful entrepreneurial (sometimes billionaire) scientists. But apparently this doesn’t register in Australian consciousness.

I would hazard that many of you undertaking PhDs secretly think something you don’t say out loud; you see yourself as the best and the brightest. And so you should. But if the only ambition you have is to become increasingly more expert on an increasingly narrower technical subject: well, to me you are missing your full potential. Don’t get me wrong, research is valuable and can be exciting. But it’s not the only thing there is. Your PhD is a chance to learn to think, to plan, to analyze, and work at a daunting task and succeed! To become skilled at working with imperfect information, become used to living with uncertainty to ultimately making sense of it all and communicating complex things clearly…. These are big skills, and they are not common.

So, when I joined with the Foundation donors to co-found the Industry Mentoring Network in STEM (IMNIS), my personal aims for IMNIS reflected my experience. Yes, I wanted more academic-industry collaborations. I would certainly like to see an Australia where careers could cross from industry to academia and back.

But what I really want are PhDs in STEM who see that the world outside academia is also a natural career path, and a path that  leads to the top. Australian PhDs that not only make discoveries but also found companies, run major organisations, show leadership and achieve real change.

And if you want wealth, well that too.

About the author:

Dr Tony Radford AO is a senior biotech executive with over 30 years experience in pharmaceuticals and diagnostics. He obtained a PhD from La Trobe University,  and then joined CSIRO for 8 years. As a member of the CSIRO research team that invented the QuantiFERON method for Cellular Immune based diagnostics, he received the CSIRO medal of Research Achievement. In 1993 he joined the pharma development company AMRAD, later acquired by CSL, initially managing external research projects,  then as head of development managing both pre-clinical and clinical research teams. In 2000, he co-founded Cellestis Limited. Cellestis listed on the ASX, and developed more accurate and user-friendly tests that made QuantiFERON the gold standard worldwide for diagnosis of tuberculosis infection. Cellestis trialed these products extensively, and registered and sold products in every major world market. The company had offices in the USA, Germany, and Japan, with staff in many more countries. Dr Radford was Cellestis CEO from founding until its acquisition by QIAGEN NV in 2011 for $400m. For his contributions to tuberculosis diagnosis and enterprise he has received the Clunies-Ross Award for application of technology, and is a Distinguished Alumni of La Trobe University. He was awarded the Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 2016. He is a founding director of the IMNIS initiative, and director of the Radford Foundation, a philanthropic trust.  Dr Radford is a non-executive director of Nucleus Networks (2013- ) and Genetic Signatures (2015-) and an active adviser and investor in many other biotech/medtech companies. Dr Radford is a co-founder of IMNIS and was appointed to the IMNIS Expert Advisory Panel in 2017.

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