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Alternative careers in translational research

By Sean Muthian, contributor

Want to keep working in translational research but prefer a role away from the bench? Then opportunities abound.

For PhDs who still want to have a hand in translational research, but do not necessarily want to be the ones at the bench, there are many options. There are jobs in regulatory affairs, with the FDA or EMA, and policy work with the NIH. Disease oriented non-profits, such as the American Lung Association, or private foundations, such as the Michael J. Fox Foundation, also commit funds and efforts to accelerate the search for cures. At these organizations, you can improve opportunities for large numbers of translational researchers. In the United States, one of the best resources for staying up to date on news and events, and catching up on policy issues in translational research is the NCATS website. NCATS is the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences and is part of the NIH. In Europe EATRIS, the European Advanced Translational Research Infrastructure in Medicine, is a similar resource.


Help others turn their ideas into a business


There are also clear opportunities on the business side because the labs proficient at generating discoveries are not often adept at turning ideas and some IP into a marketable product. According to an AAAS and Sigma-Aldrich survey of academic translational researchers, 62% of translational researchers believe collaboration with their business school would benefit their work, yet only 13% are in such collaborations now. This highlights a necessary growth of the support network for academic translational researchers. Where can you fit in then? Good options include positions in business development or tech transfer at academic institutes, academic partnership development and management in industry, or as a patent agent at an IP firm.

With these new career options in business and law come some questions:

 What skills do I need?

Graduate students and post-docs already possess some of the necessary skills for any of these jobs, for instance the ability to think critically, ask questions, and analyze data. These skills are especially valuable for a patent agent, who must understand what the inventor is saying, or for a technology liaison in industry, who must evaluate academic inventions and decide if their company should license a particular technology.

Ask yourself what skills beyond the PhD you would need to get your ideal job in translational research. Advancing in these jobs requires an ability to understand how a single project fits into the entire process of translation. Try to gain some experience in other fields and learn some of the skills necessary to do a full analysis of a set of data. If you are a medicinal chemist, for example, it is worth reading a short review and talking to colleagues about cell culture/assays, such as the MTS assay for metabolic activity. Medicinal chemists who understand what these data reveal and how they are used to make decisions about compounds collaborate more effectively and are typically offered opportunities to lead interdisciplinary teams. As another example, if you want to learn more about life in the clinic, make friends with the MD-PhD students, learn their language and ask if you can shadow them in the clinic. Even though you are not planning on continuing with bench work or becoming a physician, understanding the work and goals of as many people as possible along the pipeline will help you pinpoint your career interests, and understand the careers of those you might end up working to help later on.

As for business or law skills, most positions will have a great deal of on-the-job training and as long as you can apply the core reasoning skills you learned in graduate school, you will be fine. You may find that project management certification helps, particularly at pharmaceutical companies, or positions in which you will help coordinate colleagues and interdisciplinary teams.

People always talk about communication skills. How important are they in these types of jobs?

Invaluable. You must be able to clearly and effectively communicate with everyone. For these alternative careers, good communication is perhaps even more important because you are often tasked with communicating science to non-scientists to inform important decisions around patent applications or the value or structure of academic-industry partnerships.

In graduate school, there are three easy ways to improve your communication skills:

  1. Create an elevator pitch for each project you start. Try making two different pitches targeting a decision by different audiences – for instance, an NIH grant reviewer and a potential investor. Notice how you change your message, which data you choose to present, and the background information for context. Naturejobs’ round-up this spring on science communication has four excellent articles on the subject.
  2. Select and present recent papers from translational research journals for your journal clubs. Try to choose topics different from those in your own field. If you are in toxicology, present a paper that intersects with chemistry. This will also help you round out your knowledge of terminology and trends in translational research. Also, as the adage goes, you always learn more when you teach others.
  3. Read publications that report on the therapeutic development process, such as Nature Biotechnology, Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, and Drug Discovery News. These publications will not only help you explain your work in the larger context of industry events and pressures, but also present paid opportunities for you to contribute articles or editorials and practice non-academic writing. After familiarizing yourself with the publication, you may find an inquiry to the managing editor and a look at the planned topics in the ‘editorial calendar’ is the best way to seek out an opportunity to write. (You may also find Matthew Herper’s column in Forbes and Ed Silverman’s Pharmalot blog provide insightful views into industry events, although you cannot contribute to them). And as you read, do so critically – question the way the articles are written and whether they get the message across well.

What matters more to potential employers – a paper or a patent?

Both are valuable, although quite frankly, publications remain the most valuable currency to demonstrate scientific skills and productivity. A patent means that your institution has attached some commercial value to your work. Experience filing a patent would be very valuable for jobs such as a patent agent, although as a graduate student you likely have not filed a patent despite having developed or contributed to the development of the IP. If you list a patent on your resume, have an elevator pitch ready to explain its potential value and the likely path and obstacles to commercialization.

 Do I need to do a post-doc?

It is almost always recommended because having a post-doc exposes you to new areas of research and provides the opportunity to work more independently. However, you can certainly get jobs right out of grad school, for example as part of a due diligence team at a venture capital (VC) company.

Will I get hired without an MBA or a law degree?

You can certainly work in tech transfer and business development without these degrees. A PhD is sufficient to be a patent agent, but you need further law qualifications to be a patent attorney. Inside pharmaceutical companies a PhD will get your foot in the door, but many strategic positions will require further real-world experience, not another degree. In many cases, it is better to gain experience in these fields before investing more time and money into earning another advanced degree.

When I am looking for jobs, what position titles are appropriate for me?

Try to focus less on titles and pay more attention to what you can learn in that role. The important questions are: what kind of organization is it, what does it value, and how is it structured? You want an open environment in which you can learn from others and take on side assignments to increase your knowledge. Being boxed in is not good, especially in translational research, which requires expertise from many fields.

How do I choose what is right for me?

The field is diverse, so I recommend internships and informational interviews. Most people will find it flattering that you are interested in their work and will be happy to give you 15 minutes to talk about what they do.

Can I ever come back to academia if I leave it?

It is becoming more common for individuals who have worked in industry to come back to the academic sector because they bring to bear the know-how of what it takes to make a drug and develop a therapeutic.

What is the single most important piece of advice?

Start conversations with anyone whose job is interesting to you. Find out how they got there and what gets them up in the morning. Keep in mind that once you have earned your PhD you have the rest of your life in front of you. Take more time upfront during your PhD to think about what types of careers you would enjoy. I have noticed that those who are passionate about and enjoy their work tend to do the best job.

Sean Muthian has a PhD in Pharmacology and Toxicology from the Medical College of Wisconsin and an MBA from the Olin Business School, Washington University. He is currently Director of Strategic Marketing, Academic Research at Sigma-Aldrich. Before joining Sigma-Aldrich, Sean was Director of Research Operations, Strategy and Portfolio Development for Pfizer Inc. He has extensive experience in the drug discovery and development process and has established a number of translational research partnerships between academia and industry.




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