Before you start graduate school, try working at a start-up.

August 28, 2012

I was an excellent undergraduate researcher. I gladly repeated experiments, worked very quickly at the bench, and loved learning from graduate students eager to pawn their work off. When I finally finished at Davis, I decided to give graduate school a try and enrolled in a Masters program. I was foolish to assume it’d be an easy transition, that perhaps the work would be similar but scaled up. But that’s not grad school and truthfully, you can’t ever be ready for the rigors of any higher level education. As a matter of fact, some argue that you can’t replicate the experience, that there is this “unique pain” in obtaining a Ph.D.. It’s my personal belief that one’s ability to finish graduate school is a combination of willpower and passion. So how can you test those personal limits? What situation affords a curious and doe-eyed scientist an opportunity to experience “real” science? Work at a start-up.

My definition of a “biotech” start-up: Under 10 employees with an operating budget of $5k a month. Salary equal to a post doctoral fellow or graduate student. No regimented work schedule, work hours vary dramatically depending on research goals.

Your responsibility (applicable to those with B.S.): Assigned a scientific task that you must research, implement, and conduct independently. Data is discussed as a team, but at the end of the day you are the only person actively thinking about the topic at hand. If you don’t do it, it won’t get done.

Ways a start-up is like graduate school:

  1. Resource acquisition: In graduate school you learn how to get “stuff” – be it advice/help, supplies, and even money – in order to accomplish your scientific goals. It’s no different at a start-up company and your team is relying on you to seek those resources. More often than not, it’s the relationships you build that make or break your project.
  2. No schedule: Industry jobs are regimented and I have plenty of friends who can keep a 9-5 working at larger companies. There’s no question that they work hard, but they also have control over their schedules. You learn how to operate on other people’s schedule at a start-up and in graduate school, your P.I.’s schedule.
  3. Pay rate: Generally, an industry or academic lab technician is paid more than a technician in a new company. I am paid the same as the average UCSF graduate student. It’s not a lot of money so get comfortable with microwave dinners.
  4. Perspicacity litmus: Like I mentioned before, there’s nothing like the pressure of having to be the “expert” at one topic that affords you an opportunity to actually consider how much you want to do this. If you can see a start-up through the initial growing pains, you can probably hack through the tribulations that come with true independent research.
  5. It will not work: If you are an industry technician you are typically assigned tasks which are accomplishable – there are prescribed deadlines, expected outcomes, etc.. You are intelligent hands functioning under assembly-style operations. When you are given a question to solve, that is a complete game changer. Expect things to not work and expect it to not work most of the time.

Ways a start-up is not like graduate school:

  1. Publish or perish: It doesn’t exist in start-ups. It would be ideal to publish a paper as a company, but it is not necessary and there are other avenues of acquiring funding.
  2. Equity: If you’re lucky enough to be a single digit employee, you get stock. Such monetary incentives don’t really exist in academia. In this case, your ability to accomplish your scientific goals are directly linked to money.
  3. “Ship it”: Academics dissect, critique, and beat the proverbial horse to death. The focus of academia is not the product, but the process. Companies always consider the fastest, most parsimonious, and economical route first. So as soon as something is done, even if there are still a few experimental gaps, we have to “ship it” off.
  4. Interact with non-scientists: You definitely do that more in a company and oftentimes they are the people that are giving you money to conduct the experiments.
  5. Producing a product: At the end of the day, your job is to get something to work and monetize it. Graduate school expects that and then some.

Final thoughts: The one underlying common theme to being successful in both these fields is your ability to not accept complacency. When you grow complacent, you grow lazy and in turn, stop learning. And if you’re not working hard and actively learning then you are doing something wrong. Be patient with this fact as in time, you will grow comfortable and learn to deal with such pressures and uncertainties.


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