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Cornell University


Wednesday, November 11, 2015
Industry, Entrepreneurship & Management panel shares key tips

A full room of interested graduate students and postdocs from across campus eagerly lapped up insider tips from the perspectives of industry leaders, entrepreneurs and faculty at the BEST Program's panel discussion on Industry, Entrepreneurship and Management this week. What follows are some of the questions fielded from the audience and managed by BEST Advisory Board Member Aaron Joiner, PhD student in Molecular Biology and Genetics.

What does industry look for in an intern? "We love when we are happy with an intern and can recruit them later, but mostly the project they work on needs someone with good lab skills. We spend a month training, and don't expect you to have the particular skills needed," offered Kent Goklen, from GlaxoSmithKline. His company recently offered an internship to BESTie Ken Yancey, PhD candidate in the department of Biological and Environmental Engineering, who will complete six months at GSK in December. Ken is working in a downstream processing unit, when in fact his previous experience was more upstream.

To postdoc or not to postdoc? Overall the speakers agreed it depends on the field. In general, in industry engineering or process positions, no; in discovery, yes (it can be an industrial postdoc). Basically if you can get a good industry position without a postdoc, then take it; there is no salary difference if you did a postdoc (in this country). In academia, a definite yes. In startups there is no advantage, and in fact time in a postdoc represents an opportunity loss. All strongly recommended that in any case a postdoc position should be used to broaden the skill set from your PhD work and it should not be at the institution you got your PhD. Exceptions include if you want to continue to take advantage of the entrepreneurial resources at your institution while you gear up for a startup. A note of caution to review your conflict of interest documentation.

So how important is follow-up after applying for a position? All the speakers agreed that follow-up universally will increase your probability of getting a position. Gus Aguirre, from the University of Pennsylvania and Co-Founder of Optigen opined that "Networking is the most important part" and suggested that small companies could never take a chance on someone who didn't come highly recommended. Kent Goklen disagreed slightly, in that large companies like GSK have a structure in place and rely on it to find good people. He cautioned though that "There's a fine line between being persistent and being a pest, and if you go over it, your chances for landing a job drop precipitously." Nods around the room.

How do you determine if a large company or an entrepreneurial setting is right for you? Marnie LaVigne, from LaunchNY suggested "Startups are ambiguous, in what you will do each day," so you have to be comfortable with the unexpected variety which might span running experiments, troubleshooting equipment, writing patents, doing market research, sweeping the floor, making presentations to investors, and everything in between. "Everybody is a big cog in a little wheel at a small company," agreed Sue Pearce Kelling of Optigen, "you have a sense of responsibility to the team, you depend on everybody." Kent Gocklen finished her thought, "and at a large company it's more compartmentalized and in a specialized area, not necessarily the exact field of your PhD, though. There's a lot more bureaucracy at a large company, so you need a level of tolerance/patience to deal with it; but it can also protect you. There's more structure at a large company; it's more hierarchical."

Some cautionary tales? Marnie LaVigne jumped in, "Quality matters. Process matters. These can be hard lessons for a small company." David Erickson of Cornell was quick to follow, "In a startup, you're the boss. There are downs. You might have to fire people (and you might be let go as the CEO). It's impossible to hide if you are 20% of the workforce-if you are only bringing in 5% then you must be let go." Gus Aguirre provided his perspective next, "Raising money is part of an academic and an entrepreneurial career-you must sell yourself and your ideas, through speaking and writing, all the time." Again nods, and thumbs up for the BEST Program efforts to improve science communication. A quick plug followed for the Dec. 7 & 8 "Finding Your Scientific Voice" workshop-see the BEST events calendar!

Some parting advice? "You must create your own fork in the road along your career," Marnie LaVigne suggested. "As a practical matter, sometimes it can be easier to be in a startup when you are younger; of course there are exceptions," David Erickson added. "You have to build your network--but the more options you keep open the more work you'll have to do to keep those options open, so the earlier you can rule something out, the better," Kent Gocklen advised. Gus Aguirre suggested reading "The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All Administrative University and Why It Matters" a book by Benjamin Ginsberg. David Erickson suggested that "if an entrepreneurial path is what engages you, tell your advisor! That's half the battle." One third of his students go that route, one third go into industry, and one third end up in academia.