Traditional Ph.D. training programs are designed to groom students for careers in academia. Yet, according to multiple recent surveys from U.S. and international government agencies, only 66% of students pursue postdocs after graduation; 6 years after their doctorates, a mere 33% still hold jobs in academia. * The percentage of scientists who manage to maintain long-term careers in scientific fields is smaller still. Many students and postdocs are ill-equipped to make informed decisions about whether to pursue academic careers, while those students who are set on a career outside of academia lament the few opportunities readily available.
Most graduate training programs are unknowingly doing students a disservice by failing to adequately prepare them for alternative careers. Career counselors encourage students to “sell” their problem-solving skills and to portray themselves as critical thinkers, but few can offer specific and actionable advice—and none can offer the kind of experience students need to make the transition to other work sectors.
Origins and growth
Recognizing the need for hands-on experience and exposure to a business environment, a small group of graduate students and postdocs at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) in Missouri formed The BALSA Group, a nonprofit, student-and-postdoc-run consulting company whose mission is to prepare Ph.D. students and postdocs for academic and nonacademic careers while assisting local biotech companies.
BALSA brings teams of science trainees into partnerships with startups and established corporations for 8- to 12-week consulting projects. To align incentives and ensure that companies are invested in each team, we charge companies $1000, with discounts for startups. Although students and postdocs do not receive monetary compensation, the revenue we generate is reinvested in BALSA members by sponsoring social and career networking events and professional development seminars and workshops.
Since BALSA's establishment in December 2010, we have completed 23 projects and provided experiential learning opportunities to 85 students and postdocs. A key early step was recruiting an influential client who was willing to help us learn and who would vouch for the quality of our services. Our work with DYNALABS, an analytical testing lab with 25 employees, brought legitimacy to The BALSA Group. In this pilot project, we proved we could solve industry problems with professionalism and meet our clients’ needs. This project set the operational structure for the next generation of projects.
Another key factor in BALSA’s success was gaining early support from local technology incubators and entrepreneurial support centers, which quickly led to the recruitment of a dozen more clients. As our credibility and reputation grew, we recognized a need for a centralized resource—a content-rich Web site—to serve as an interface between BALSA's leadership, clients, and consultants. Our Web site has streamlined the consultant application and client inquiry processes and united the growing organization while ensuring visibility and sustainability of the group going forward.
Support from WUSTL faculty members was also essential, since students and postdocs need to balance their BALSA commitments with their academic responsibilities. We invited university leaders—the dean of the Division of Biology & Biomedical Sciences, the dean of the Genetics Department, and the managing director of the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies—to serve on our Board of Advisers, improving faculty receptiveness to BALSA and ensuring transparency in our operations.
The BALSA Group has continued to grow. We no longer have to go out and find clients; instead, they find us. Normally, we have four to five engagements at any one time. With each generation of projects, new consultants join the organization, some consultants move on, and some suspend their consulting activities temporarily to focus on their research. From six founding members, we have grown to a staff that fluctuates between 20 and 30 active members.
BALSA provides opportunities for motivated individuals to take on leadership roles managing teams of their fellow consultants. These opportunities train members to become effective communicators, collaborators, leaders, and managers—skills that are underdeveloped in recent graduates and aspiring principal investigators. Whether scientists are pursuing a career in academia or not, mature management and leadership skills are critical to achieving professional success.
• Microbiology postdoc Corinne Cusumano took a BALSA engagement with Eyelten Therapeutics assessing the marketability of and competitive landscape for macular degeneration therapeutics. She then took a position as an associate consultant at Kantar Health assisting biopharmaceutical companies in forecasting the market potential of new drugs.
• After completing a BALSA project with Intuitive Genomics, Marie McNeely completed her Ph.D. in neuroscience and went on to become a health economics analyst with Centene Corporation evaluating health outcome metrics for Medicaid recipients participating in access, incentive, and education programs.
Other BALSA consultants have accepted jobs in industry at firms such as Monsanto, Peabody Energy, and Janssen Biotech (formerly Centocor); in consulting at boutique firms such as Towers Watson; and in technology transfer/licensing at the Office of Technology Management at WUSTL. Others are in competitive graduate programs in law and business.
We have demonstrated the viability and sustainability of a nonprofit business model that develops the creativity, initiative, strategic capabilities, and management skills of graduate students and postdocs while providing much-needed, tangible benefits and services to local companies that could not otherwise afford them. The BALSA Group provides a bridge between experience-hungry students and local early-stage companies, fostering entrepreneurialism and lowering the barriers between academia and industry. We believe that the BALSA model could work to achieve the same objectives at any research institution nationwide with a handful of motivated scientists.
Working with The BALSA Group, students and postdocs supplement their academic training with on-the-job training to become better leaders and managers. These new skills enable graduate students and postdocs to enter the next stage of their careers better informed and equipped to adapt to challenges the academic or nonacademic world sends their way.
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*See the National Science Foundation’s Division of Science Resources Statistics report, Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2010, and D. Cyronski et al.’s “The PhD Factory” in Nature, 472, pp. 276-279.