In my job as an alliance manager I work at the interface of academia and industry, managing large-scale, industry-sponsored research projects, or “alliances.” I work with Harvard University faculty to connect them to our corporate partners, which include some of the largest international pharmaceutical companies but also many local biotech start-ups. I provide strategic and business development support to their projects, ensuring the success of Harvard researchers in translating their academic discoveries into new therapies, drug targets, medical devices, clinical platforms, and new companies.
[A]t the end of my PhD I was ready to never touch a pipette again.
Some of you had probably never heard of an alliance manager before reading this article. To be honest, a year ago I hadn’t either. During my time at grad school, I had a very successful and rewarding career, publishing multiple journal articles, giving research talks at national and international conferences, and ultimately obtaining my PhD last year. However, as my graduate career was ending, I was faced with the daunting question, what do I do now?
Leaving the Bench
While grad school was full of successes, there were long hours in the lab, with countless experiments, many of which failed. I wanted to take a break from the bench, or maybe say goodbye to it forever. I also had a growing interest in the business side of science. Signs pointed toward leaving academia, forgoing a postdoc to pursue some other career. I wanted to find a career where I could still be surrounded by science, but at the end of my PhD I was ready to never touch a pipette again. Thus, I spent many hours networking, chatting, and calling friends and friends of friends who already went down the non-academic career path. I wanted to know how they did it, what they like and don’t like about their new careers, and if they knew anyone that was hiring.
… I am still challenged every day to use my critical thinking skills to solve complex problems.
In the end, all the networking I did was fruitful. I wound up in the biotech hub of Boston, where I started a position in the Office of Technology Development at Harvard. I have been an alliance manager since last October, so I’m just over six months in. While I do occasionally miss experiments and that feeling of discovery, I am still challenged every day to use my critical thinking skills to solve complex problems. I get to learn about lots of different scientific projects and interact with many different scientists in both academia and industry.
Being at this intersection of academic science and biotech/pharma is truly fascinating and extremely rewarding. Although I do not make the discoveries myself anymore, I am instrumental in translating those initial discoveries from academia into real products—drugs, therapies, etc.—and bringing them into the clinic. The alliances I manage and the critical connections between academia and industry are making a real difference in the world.
Do not be afraid to take risks, to deviate from “the plan,” or to try something new.
Do Not Be Afraid
While I do enjoy my new career path, the leap from academia was not without its challenges and adjustments. Over the past six months I have done my fair share of second-guessing and worrying over whether I made the right decision, but I have followed the advice I received as an undergraduate, and it has led me to where I am today. That advice was: Do not be afraid to take risks, to deviate from “the plan,” or to try something new.
However, figuring out what new thing to try was not easy. I ended up reading a lot of blogs on the Science and Nature websites and I even tried googling alternative careers for PhDs just to see what would come up. I found several books that were aimed directly at the questions I was asking, including Next Gen PhD by Melanie V. Sinche. I also networked at the ASCB|EMBO Meeting with collaborators, colleagues, and friends. We talked about their different career choices and the paths they took. All in all, my advice is to use every available resource you can. Be informed. Don’t just do the next step because it seems like the obvious next step. I encourage everyone at the end of their PhDs to do some soul-searching and to be truly honest with themselves about what they are passionate about in science (and in life for that matter). For me, I loved learning about new scientific landscapes and technologies, but I was also very ready to move on from experiments. It was a hard decision, but it was the right one, and now that I am on the other side, I can without doubt acknowledge that I am personally and professionally happier.
If you’re interested in becoming an alliance manager, or in landing any business-oriented scientific position, a minimum requirement will be a PhD, preferably in the life sciences, but at Harvard some of our team have a physics or chemistry background instead. Business degrees (e.g., an MBA) are a plus but not typically required. If you want to pursue the business side of science, do not feel counted out for not having prior business experience! However, experience is always welcomed and there are multiple ways to expose yourself to business, possibly including internships and fellowships in your own university’s technology transfer office. Alliance management, and other business scientific positions, can end up being a rewarding alternative career well worth your consideration.
Editor’s Note: ASCB offers several courses to help graduate students and postdocs transition to careers in industry. Two weeklong courses are held each summer (one on the West Coast and one on the East Coast), and a one-day mini-course is held the day before the ASCB|EMBO Meeting. More information is available at www.ascb.org.
About the Author:
Erin Langdon Straub is an alliance manager in the Office of Technology Development at Harvard University.