Recent graduates reflect on happenstance, career learnings, and resources that shaped their journey
“The lesson is to keep an open mind as you begin exploring careers. Don’t write off a certain path based on untested assumptions.”
-Kelsey Roberts Kingman, PhD, 2020, Developmental Biology
By Varupi Gupta
The pandemic crushed Lawrence’s plan to pursue an internship with a leading genomics and biotechnology company in the summer of 2020. Although a series of fortunate events had led to the internship offer, and he excitedly looked forward to the experience, the internship program was unfortunately canceled for that summer. After mulling over his options and thinking about his original interest in the internship, he applied for the Stanford Ignite Program and prepared for consulting interviews to better understand life sciences business strategy.
“In hindsight, I feel privileged to have been able to pivot and make something out of what I thought was a disaster, and I’m happy with where I am now!” says Lawrence Bai, PhD, Immunology 2021, now a Life Sciences Specialist with L.E.K. Consulting. He was SBSA Co-President from 2018-19.
Kelsey Roberts Kingman, PhD, also pivoted, though in a different way. When she first explored careers ‘beyond the bench,’ she crossed patent law off her list immediately because she thought it required law school (and law school debt). “I wasn’t willing to take on debt for any career, or to devote three more years to school. Instead, I thought I might do consulting or VC work,” offers Kelsey, a patent agent at Morrison & Foerster.
Then she happened to see a former lab-mate at Morrison & Foerster’s booth at a career expo organized by BioSci Careers. “Naturally, I went over to talk to her, even though I was certain I wasn’t interested in patent law,” Kelsey says. She learned that a law degree is not required for a fulfilling career in patent law (but if you do want to go to law school while working as a patent agent, some firms will cover the bill) – this was a revelation to Kelsey, who completed her PhD at Stanford in the Department of Developmental Biology in 2020.
“I went home with a stack of papers from Morrison & Foerster and spent the evening researching careers in patent law. From that point, it was immediately clear to me that I would enjoy helping companies build value based on their innovations, all while staying in touch with the latest and greatest in scientific developments,” recalls Kelsey.
“I think the lesson is to keep an open mind as you begin exploring careers,” Kelsey shares, “and don’t write off a certain path based on untested assumptions.”
Happenstance and serendipity – and taking timely action when those circumstances arise – likely have a greater role to play in pointing to meaningful careers than one imagines.
Serendipitously, it was through an Industry Onsite program organized by BioSci Careers and trainees of the Ambassadors program where Jane Antony, PhD met and networked with her future colleagues at Personalis.
“I met my future employer at an event I organized as a BioSci Careers’ Ambassador! When they referred me internally for the position, they could honestly say I was organized, great at communication, and a good team player as they had seen this first-hand when we organized the event together,” says Jane, Application Scientist at Personalis. From 2017-21, she was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Michael Clarke Lab at Stanford’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.
These recent trainees recognized unexpected developments in their life and transformed them into opportunities for exploration, learning, and career possibilities not previously considered. They were receptive to chance opportunities. They did not passively wait for the ‘knock on the door’ but generated and anticipated possible opportunities (even detours!) and took timely action, sometimes even in the face of risks and uncertain outcomes. Planned happenstance, anyone?
Jane Antony, PhD
Cancer Biology Postdoc 2017-2021
Application Scientist, Personalis
As former trainees who recently started working in industry, please share any competency that you used more than you imagined. Or, any competency you wish you had invested more time in developing prior to entering the job market?
“Being a scientist with soft skills is highly undervalued – the ability to communicate effectively to scientific and non-scientific audiences,” offers Jane.
Kelsey also highlights the importance of clear and effective communication. “Communicating well via email is very important—learn to be concise and put the bottom line upfront. Try to think from the perspective of the email’s recipient,” she says.
According to Moataz Razeen, MD, the importance of networking cannot be overemphasized. “I wish I had networked more efficiently earlier on. It is crucial to understand that networking is part of professional development irrespective of career and job search stages,” he offers. Moataz is Senior Medical Science Liaison at Spark Therapeutics (Roche) and was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow and later Research Scientist in the Dubra Lab at Stanford’s Ophthalmology Department. He also highlights the importance of understanding one’s own experiences and being able to find transferable skills between jobs in different fields and settings.
Lawrence reminds us that leadership is also a soft skill that can easily be overlooked during graduate school when students are focused on their science and research. “It’s important to recognize that leadership skills are necessary as you progress in your career, whether you stay in academia/research or not. If you’re overwhelmed by the thought of established “student leadership roles,” start small! Mentorship is a form of leadership – consider taking on the responsibility of an undergraduate research assistant and mapping out how you would communicate and teach. Informally create an interest club focused on a non-career-related passion with friends, and proactively take on responsibilities like logistics and planning. Leadership skills can be transferred across multiple facets, and it’s important to practice and develop those skills,” he says.
Unsurprisingly, leadership, communication, and career development (including networking and awareness of one’s strengths) are among the recently revised Career Readiness Competencies of NACE, the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Click here to learn more.
See this overview of BioSci Careers Immersion Coursework - eleven preparation & practice immersion courses, including Science Communication and Media, taught by industry leaders and academic professionals.
A video archive of past career presentations and workshops can be found here. Topics include networking, job talks, academia vs. industry, interviewing, and other aspects of career management.
Reflecting on your career and life journey so far, would you like to share any learnings you wish to pass along?
Jane benefitted from going beyond her technical expertise. “Being part of Stanford’s Ignite Program and Biotech Connection Bay Area gave me the opportunity to work on the business side of science and opened up ‘non-bench’ avenues in industry,” she says. However, Jane wishes she had better clarity on the ‘academia vs. industry’ front. Once she decided to move to industry, the transition was quick but she also realized that a longer postdoc was unnecessary.
On a similar note, Kelsey shares that students shouldn’t feel the need to check all the boxes to be competitive for a career transition—the scientific and analytical skills developed during PhD training are already a significant portion of what some non-academic employers seek.
“Once you start looking, you’ll realize that there are a lot of opportunities to demonstrate interest and learn more about a new career. With patent law, you can find classes at Stanford or online. You can also intern part-time at the Stanford Office of Technology Licensing or at a law firm, or even do a full-time internship,” she offers.
“All of those things are great, but definitely not a pre-requisite—just apply! Personally, I took several classes related to patent law and even worked as a teaching assistant, but I didn’t find time for an internship. It worked out just fine,” she adds.
On a different note, Lawrence wishes he had tried harder to meet the non-Biosciences community during his time at Stanford – something he would definitely do if he could go back in time. “While I experienced a lot of happiness and made life-long connections at the School of Medicine, I definitely feel like I missed out a little on all the other cool things happening on campus,” he shares.
BioSci Careers offers many career resources. Is there one resource you used during your time at Stanford that was particularly helpful for your career path and that you would recommend to current students and trainees? How did this resource help you succeed?
Kelsey recommends taking advantage of the alumni network for informational interviews. “Having the opportunity to talk to alumni working in the space was the most informative experience for me. Everyone is eager to help, especially those who have specifically indicated their interest by signing up as BioSci Connect mentors,” she says.
Jane, on the other hand, did not use traditional resources such as resume writing workshops or career coaching. “For me the most important resource was being a BioSci Careers’ Ambassador. I participated in setting up events with potential employers and networked extensively – an opportunity much beyond what I would have got as a regular attendee at a coffee chat or an Industry Onsite event,” offers Jane.
Moataz benefitted a lot from one-on-one career counseling sessions. They were instrumental in helping him understand how to translate his skills and experiences from academia into industry.
Lawrence took advantage of many career resources offered by BioSci Careers, but he would also pick counseling services if he had to highlight one.
“I think people have the misconception that counseling would only be needed when you’re ready to apply for jobs and want resume/CV feedback, but BioSci Careers provides a whole spectrum of career counseling services that spans from early career development (e.g., values/strengths assessment, job landscape) all the way to career transition (interviews, job talk presentations). It was informative for me to understand what my values were and what sort of career opportunities were out there, and it was so much easier to do so while talking to a career counselor rather than just finding things online,” Lawrence recalls.
Kelsey, Lawrence, and Moataz are BioSci Connect mentors and are happy to share their experiences. To connect with them, sign up to be a mentee on BioSci Connect, a mentoring community for career and life conversations.