Career Development The Petri Dish

The Petri Dish featuring Dr. Erin Clark

This week we were joined by Dr. Erin Clark, Senior Scientist. Dr. Clark graduated from UT Austin with a BS in Biology and a BS in Biochemistry. She received her PhD from Harvard University and did her postdoc work at Brandeis University. While she was earning her degrees and working as a postdoc she taught at nearby universities, lead conference workshops, and served on committees – it’s a wonder she got any science done (which she did!). She’s here to talk about her experience in academia and her transition to industry.

You can listen to the full interview just below, or the quick write up beneath that! Enjoy!

Q: What made you make the switch from the academic track to industry?

A: The majority of PhD mentors have only ever been in academia, so their best advice and knowledge base is in the academic track, so I had been ingrained into academia. I had always thought of industry as this back up where I could go and make a lot of money, but really didn’t think it was a true option. You always hear about academia being a place where you can do anything you want and industry is restricted and not in your control, but my friends who got Assistant Professorships were also not doing exactly what they wanted. It’s still you-driven, but when I really thought about it I realized I didn’t really need that.

Q: What would you recommend to someone who wants to stay in academia?

A: I think you should be really strategic about the labs you join, thinking about the research they do and how they can propel you to where you want to be. That may mean that you join a lab that maybe isn’t the thing that is coolest to you, but rather something that is a bigger topic in the field.

Q: What about industry was appealing to you?

A: I live in the Boston area, and here we are really lucky to be a hub of industry positions, so if I took one and in a couple years didn’t like the company or the science or the product, I could likely find a new position but be able to stay in Boston. Coasts are great for this reason, but I do think there are some other non-coast locations that are really trying to build up to be a biotech hub.

Q: Did you have reservations about industry?

A: I started job hunting as an experiment, and after I interviewed for the first job I was uncertain it was the right move. The science was different, the culture was different, but I had been thinking about an academic career for 15 years. When I didn’t get an offer I was bummed and that made me realize that I actually had wanted that position.

Q: How was industry job hunting?

A: It was amazingly easy. I changed my LinkedIn status to “looking” and a bunch of recruiters contacted me about amazing positions so I chatted with them and it went from there. (Erin also updated her CV to fit more of an industry CV, as well).

Q: What did you do to tailor your CV?

A: I really thought about what the market is. For example, I have a ton of teaching experience and it was really downplayed on the CV, like essentially not there, just listed a couple aspects of it. On the other hand, I brought the things I thought they’d want, like bioinformatics, to the forefront. I expanded the “skills” section a lot, as well.

Q: What’s one thing you are enjoying about industry?

A: I get paid to read and learn! During grad school and my postdoc I knew I needed to read, but there were always more things that needed to be done and felt more urgent. Obviously I read papers when I absolutely needed to, especially when preparing manuscripts or prepping for a talk, but it was hard to find time for it.

Q: What advice do you want to give to grad students?

A: Benchwork starts to take a toll on your body; the bending over, the hunching, the tissue culture work, all of it. Start working on strengthening and stretching your back ASAP. In my postdoc, I started having back spasms and it’s harder to fix than to prevent.

Q: What is your position like?

A: I don’t do any benchwork anymore and after years of being at the bench and troubleshooting and banging my head against the wall, I didn’t really want to be at the bench anymore. Now, I talk with our contracted companies that do the benchwork, help them plan it, then say “okay, come back to me in a couple months when you have something”. That is seriously nice.

Q: What does a Senior Scientist do?

A: Each company will do it differently, even if they all use the same title. I coordinate with our outsourced companies, planning projects, analyzing data. They liked that I had bioinformatics experience and could bring that to their business. I did apply for positions that had benchwork involved which would have been really similar to what I was doing as a postdoc.

Q: We spoke with Dr. PJ Buske about industry postdocs. That is something people could do if they wanted to test the waters.

A: Yeah. I just caution that you keep an eye on your timers, grants and opportunities that you can age out of. If you are still heavily considering academia, most of your timers start when you finish your PhD and a number run out after 2 years post-graduation. So if you are in that camp, maybe go for an academic postdoc, and if you don’t get those grants and you’re still on the fence about academia, shift to an industry postdoc.

Q: What are the hours like in your position?

A: It’s actually really nice. You have to fill out a time card and they only expect me to work 40 hours a week (I usually work more like 45), so going from 50-60 hours a week to 40 means I have so much more of my time back. My weekends are back! I guess I need a hobby!

Q: What do you like about most your position?

A: I feel as though there is way less pressure to have the experimental data to go the way we want and more go correctly. We don’t really care if the data is negative – it tells us something about the drug and the pathway.

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