The postacademic future loomed ahead of me. And although leaving the bench after 5 years took tremendous courage, I knew it was the right decision. Indeed, the position I've held for the past 1.5 years at a small software company called LabVelocity has led to tremendous personal and professional growth. At times I've felt almost euphoric about starting anew and exploring the life sciences outside of academia for the first time. But during the 4-month transitional period between leaving the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and stumbling across the exciting opportunity at LabVelocity, my confidence and morale wavered significantly.
My initial job-searching strategy was passive-aggressive. I bought a computer, got wired, and stayed at home for a solid month scouring the Internet for science-related jobs in the surrounding California Bay Area.
While I didn't have a specific dream job outlined in my head, I did have several basic requirements. I wanted a small company (to reduce transition shock and increase my voice); I wanted the opportunity for professional growth (in case I didn't like my initial role); and, if possible, I wanted a short commute. I also wanted to be part of a company that provided a service as opposed to one that created a specific device or product. As a result, I focused on scientific consulting companies and small biotech start-ups.
While searching Web sites like hotjobs.com or craigslist.org, I took time to familiarize myself with a wide variety of job descriptions. Often, these descriptions told me what I didn't want. But they also gave me a better sense of what sales, marketing, and other positions that didn't exist in academia were all about. At times it was terribly depressing. Either I didn't meet a job's minimum requirements or the description made it seem so boring that I found myself asking why anyone would apply.
Two weeks into my search, I discovered a position entitled "Assistant to the President" at a small biotech company called Mycometrix (now called Fluidigm). Because I qualified and the description intrigued me, I decided to learn more about it. I had no idea how small the company was until they told me that if I joined, I'd be employee number four. The president wanted to divide my time equally between himself, the lead scientist, and the business developer. Three bosses pulling me in three totally different directions? No thanks!
After a month of being a hermit, I started to go stir crazy. I also needed to earn some money, so I began temping through an agency a friend recommended. My first temp job was in the accounting department at a business-to-business start-up called Smart Age. They were undergoing an audit, so I had to organize and photocopy old invoices. Chaos does not even begin to describe their office environment. Aside from the audit, they were in the process of moving four offices to one centralized location. I quit after less than 2 weeks.
My next temp job at Robertson Stephens, an investment company, lasted longer. I answered phones and put clients on hold until someone could take their trade order. Finance was a totally foreign environment so it wasn't surprising that I felt utterly useless and unintelligent. It was, however, a relatively easy $15 an hour that allowed me to surf the Net between calls. Admittedly, getting to the office by 6:30 a.m. (when the market opens) was a total drag, but it gave me time in the late afternoon to interview and make phone calls.
During this period, I found two scientific consulting companies that piqued my interest. One was a small 10-person company called BioMedical Insights, and the other was a prestigious consulting firm called The Weinberg Group. I interviewed at both places but neither turned out to be a good fit. BioMedical Insights offered me low pay and had very limited growth opportunity. The Weinberg Group presented itself more like a law firm: The formal office environment was cold, stark, and way too quiet for my tastes. As soon as they mentioned the phrase "billable hours" and that they had some tobacco companies as clients, I knew it was not for me. I ended the interview shortly after it began.
Periodically, when I was feeling particularly depressed, I'd take a peek at the want ads in the San Francisco Chronicle. During one of these self-flagellation sessions, I found an obscure job description that caught my attention because it mentioned the words "Internet" and "biotech." As I soon discovered, the ad turned out to be a science-related position for which I was highly qualified. The job was as a "Product Analyst," and the employer was a small Internet start-up called LabVelocity. My role would be to analyze life science products on the market, categorize them appropriately, and create parametric searches so scientists could search online for products by attribute and key word. It was a perfect fit, given my background and experience at UCSF. After interviewing twice, I officially accepted an offer than included a decent salary and stock options.
After that, the transition from the bench became less bumpy. The company had about 18 people when I started, and 10 of these employees were former bench scientists. Because our Scientific Ontology group was small, we interacted much like people in a lab. I found myself surrounded by wonderful ex-lab rats like myself who could empathize with and help validate my decision to leave academia. The newness and unfamiliarity of the Internet start-up scene forged a bond among us, leveling differences that might have existed in a more traditional lab setting. We discovered that the harder we worked, the better the product performed--a simple source of great personal satisfaction.
As the company grew to its current size of about 50 employees, individuals were encouraged to take advantage of their inherent strengths. A few scientists became programmers and developers. Others went into marketing. I took advantage of this flexibility as well, shifting toward a role as a Scientific Content Editor. Every morning, I edit scientific news feeds for our Web site, a task that I love. I've participated in numerous content-based projects for the LabVelocity site, including the publication of several interviews with distinguished Nobel and McArthur award winners. In doing all this, I've discovered that the editorial process is particularly rewarding. Additionally, I help our marketing department at trade shows and supervise customer service e-mail and phone activities. Soon I'll be managing client accounts. Because of the diversity in my job, I find I am up-to-date on the latest trends and technologies in science--much more so, in fact, than when I was working at UCSF.
Naturally, there have been difficulties. The hardest part about joining an Internet company was getting used to sitting in front of a computer all day. I experienced pain in my hands and still have problems with my lower back. Ergonomics quickly became an important buzzword, and stretching is now routine. A separate issue that I wasn't fully prepared to face was the inherent risk of being affected by the market economy. Because of the huge economic downturn this past year, we watch every dollar carefully, and we're now extremely focused about our products. Many of the fun content projects I was hoping to work on never materialized because of this trend. Instead, all energies are focused on supporting sales to achieve the goal of profitability. And to be honest, there have been times when I wondered if my job was at risk, a thought that never crossed my mind while I was in academia.
But since leaving academia and the expectation of pursuing a Ph.D. behind me, I've never looked back. I've been too busy learning new skills and exploring new career paths--things that I believe a small company is best able to offer. To this day I'm still amazed that I joined a risky dot.com tech firm. I honestly never imagined that I'd feel at home working at a start-up. And although I may not know exactly how I intend to spend the next 10 years of my life, I have certainly gained a lot more confidence and come closer to finding my professional niche in the life sciences.