Student Reflections: Krithika Venkataraman

Post date: Jun 11, 2014 5:07:52 PM

Krithika is a recent graduate of the Molecular and Cellular Biology PhD program. She completed her thesis on protein translation mechanisms in bacteria and graduated in May 2014. She reflects on stepping outside the lab to identify and achieve her career goal of working in the biotechnology industry.

I did my undergraduate studies mostly in chemical engineering with a little biology on the side. In the summer sessions, I did brief internships at various research institutes and biotech companies in India, which gave me a taste of biotechnology research. By the end of my bachelors, I knew that I wanted to be in the thick of the biotech world. Based on my interests and forte, I was advised by my undergraduate advisor that obtaining a PhD in biochemistry would move my career goals forward. This motivated me to apply to the Molecular and Cellular Biology PhD program at Stony Brook. I was over the moon when I received my acceptance letter in 2008.

My first two years of graduate school were busy with rotations, exams, teaching and research work. Amidst all these tasks I lost sight of my end goal. However, due to some fortunate turn of events, I had the opportunity to host Nobel Laureate Dr. Phillip Sharp from MIT, on behalf of my PhD program. Apart from being an eminent researcher, he has many other ‘feathers on his cap’, including serving on the boards of several biotech companies. During our conversation, he asked me what I wanted to accomplish in my life. I thought for a second, and realized that I didn’t have a truthful answer. I gave him a wishy-washy response, but the question continued to nag at me. Dr. Sharp conceded that unless you venture outside the lab and learn what’s out there you won’t truly know your values or interests. I have since learned that this statement could not be truer. He added that bench work is always there – you have 5 years to do it – but ‘life after PhD’ does not wait until you’re ready for it. This conversation with Dr. Sharp inspired me to identify my interests and goals, and to achieve them.

I wasn’t sure just how to do that, but one of my colleagues suggested I go to networking events, such as those hosted by the New York Academy of Sciences, NY BioPharma Networking Group, and Association for Women in Science. I learned three important lessons from networking at these events. First, I realized that I was not the only PhD student interested in non-academic career options, which made me feel less like an outlier. Second, I realized that the successful industry professionals I met were once PhD students like me. This means they can relate to us and are more than willing to entertain ‘cold’ emailing and even serve as a ‘career mentor’ to graduate students. Third, the face-time I got with industry people in various positions proved to be extremely valuable; I made great friends who later helped me find and apply for jobs. Aside from these three lessons, I also learned in great detail about many career options for PhDs apart from the traditional tenure-track professorship. I know if I had not ventured outside of the lab, I would have been too sheltered to identify my career goals.

While learning about various career options, I found the process of bringing technology from the bench to bedside most fascinating. I aspired to play a significant role in this pathway as I personally felt it to be rewarding. The Fundamentals of Bioscience Industry program at Stony Brook, Life Sciences Summit, and other events gave me perspective on how the process works and the career fields it involves. The Fundamentals course gave me ‘hands-on’ experience designing a business plan to move a nascent technology into a viable product, which was extremely informative. In some senses, it changed my perception of areas such as technical sales and field application science, because I now understand what makes these areas so critical for successful business development. The exposure also gave me an in-depth view of the life sciences and healthcare industry. In addition, I was able to contact several alumni from the course and gather more information on their career transitions and future goals. As a result of these experiences, I realized that I could feasibly enter the biotech industry through a bench scientist position, as the research skills acquired during a PhD can be easily transferred there (and I personally like doing bench science). I knew that once you learn the industry culture, it is easy to transition into non-research areas if you so choose. Hence, I started to look for scientist positions at biotechnology companies.

Now, at the end of my PhD training, I have two job offers from biotech companies and two job offers for post-doctoral fellowships. I must stress that all these offers came to me only through contacts that I made previously. The face-to-face networking I did helped tremendously, because the people who recommended me knew my personality, strengths and skills. A recommendation from an internal employee carries much more weight than applying to a job posting online. To put it bluntly, the company wants to hire someone who is a capable worker, but who is also an amiable person - which they can’t evaluate from anonymous applications received online.

So to all the current graduate students, my message is this: take some time away from your thesis work to identify your interests and values. Get involved in activities that will set your resume apart from the hundreds of other PhDs. If you want to achieve your career goals, you have to start planning and working for them now. It’s never too early to start.