Transitioning from PhD to Industry: An unclear path with significant challenges and rewards

My journey post-PhD was a baptism of fire. Though I had been intimately exposed to the early commercialisation activities of a technology to which I contributed during my PhD, I still found myself under-employed for a period of 2 years before landing a secure role. It was depressing; I lived off the patience and generosity of my family which had already endured my PhD journey, while scraping money together by engaging as consultant with various start-up companies on short contracts – something I didn’t entirely want to do. I also went back to my retail job I had as an undergrad for a short period of time when my situation became dire. However, it taught me a lot about what not to do, and there were some fulfilling career rewards that money could never buy.

Lesson 1 – Run your post-PhD transition activities as a small business

With the very basic knowledge I’d gleaned about medical technology commercialisation, I used the reasonably large network I’d established during my PhD to seek out any opportunity to add experience to my CV. I was mostly unpaid, or paid very little for these engagements. However, my key goal was to break the “not-enough-experience-to-get-the-job-but-need-the-job-to-get-the-experience” vicious cycle and establish my reputation, so I endured the exploitation to maintain some cash flow, and leverage to other, bigger opportunities. I performed these engagements primarily as a sole trader consultant.

This meant learning how to operate as small business and learning everything I could about the ecosystem and people I was talking to in order help them solve their problems. As a young consultant with a newly-minted PhD, life isn’t easy. You don’t have enough “grey hair” to be seen as an experienced consultant, and you’ll be competing with other experienced people. It’s also likely you’ve not had any real commercial experience. You’re answerable only to yourself for finding new consulting and employment opportunities through networking activities to maintain cashflow, and only you can develop and maintain your own reputation.

To be successful:

  • Adopt the start-up mindset to understand and solve your clients’ problems
  • Provide a point of difference against other competitor consultants•
  • Work your butt off to prove you’re capable and worth re-/hiring for the next contract
  • Behave like a professional (doing what you say you’re going to do, and learning how to act professionally by asking and observing mentors, and people you respect)
  • Know what’s going on in your area as a matter of professional practice, and not because someone told you to
  • Monitor and maintain cash flow
  • Know your tax obligations intimately (or getting a good accountant)
  • Network a lot (needed to manufacture serendipity for new opportunities and chance discussions/engagements)

Where academia often undervalues one’s contributions, there is nothing wrong with earning money and acting like the CEO of a business – bills need to be paid.

Lesson 2 – Establish a diverse mentor network as your advisory board

No-one knows everything, including experienced CEOs. That’s one reason why companies have Boards, and so should you. Not only do they (hopefully) demonstrate professional practices in the areas you’re aligned with, they can act as your extended radar, seeking out new connections and informing you of potential opportunities, but they also steer you away from risk areas.

I am grateful for my mentors for their help with the following:

  • Helping me to focus on my contractor responsibilities when my client was on shaky ground
  • Alerting me to the full nature and scope of legal risks I was only partially aware of following some naïve decisions I made
  • Listening and reflecting when other people close to me couldn’t understand my post-PhD journey
  • Providing me with the right connection at the right time, which put me on the path to a secure role

An IMNIS mentor is a great start, but additional mentors provide diversity in advice and guidance.

Lesson 3 – Unless you are a founder,  carefully weigh up the pros and cons of working for pre-investment start-ups

Start-ups are trendy, sexy, and you learn lots by working in them. However, pre-investment STEM start-ups are especially risky unless you (or your legal advisor/generous mentors help you) put in place appropriate contractual protections for all parties.

Typically:

  • Contracts are short – this affects the perception of your employability when HR managers at more established companies evaluate your CV, and form an impression that you can’t hold a job. Sad, but true.
  • The founders are often technical experts, but not necessarily commercial experts, or understand the difference between a technology and a product. Unless there is a strong management team, it’s easy for such companies to lose their way, and you can potentially be forced to follow along.
  • If you’re an employee, you may have shares as part of an employee share option plan, as start-up pay can be lower than market averages. As a contractor, you’re not entitled to anything outside of the contract value and benefits you’ve negotiated. I hazard a guess that shares for contractors would not typically be offered, and as a young STEM contractor, it’s hard to command a high contract value. Low pay plus short contracts, with no long-term share options? Be wary!

It’s slightly safer to work for a start-up company that has received some funding from professional investors (venture capital funds or angels, rather than or in addition to friends, fools and family). They generally undertake a level of commercial due diligence to ensure that the investment they intend to make into technology is sound, and that they get their money back at some point. Investors typically appoint a nominated representative to the Board of the company to ensure their interests are met. If the investors have sufficiently large equity share, they can exert their agenda and influence over the company. This situation may provide a more stable employer or contractor environment, as investors will typically focus company activities so milestones are met. As a young contractor or employee in a start-up, stability and the company’s clarity of focus is essential for a regular wage and CV growth.

Though there are many other topics and details I could cover, I hope these 3 major lessons provide some foundations for your business acumen and your next steps, wherever they take you. Never underestimate your worth – a commercial mindset paired with the ability to break down and solve highly complex problems is a force to be reckoned with.

About the author:
Andre Tan is a medical technology innovator, biomedical engineer and scientist. Between 2005 and 2014, he worked on developing a non-invasive, pain-free electrical stimulation treatment for chronic constipation at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. Some of his involvement with this research led to the eventual launch a medical device start-up, GI Therapies, in 2012. This exposure set the scene for his interest in medical technology innovation, regulatory affairs and commercialisation. Since completing his PhD through the University of Melbourne in 2014, he has worked across a range of pre-investment Australian medtech start-up opportunities, in both technical and commercial roles.

Over the course of his postgraduate studies and early career, he has been involved with AusBiotech, the Australian Science & Innovation Forum and the Swinburne Design Factory in a variety of volunteer and mentoring capacities. He has also blogged extensively about his pre-PhD to industry transition, which can be found at here.

 Andre is currently the Business Development Manager for Zicom MedTacc, a medical technology accelerator based in Singapore. The primary focus of his and his team’s role is to bring their portfolio companies and their technologies to Australia and New Zealand. He is currently seconded to one of the portfolio companies, HistoIndex, which is commercialising a next-generation tissue analysis system for more precise imaging and quantification of fixed tissue.

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