Correlation versus Causation: the Eternal Struggle

By John McLaughlin

 

Scientists are always warning the public – and each other – not to confuse correlation with causation. Whenever a study is published linking our favorite food to cancer, heart attacks, or other health problems, we are cautioned to take these findings with a grain of salt because identifying causes in a complex sea of correlations is a daunting task.

 

Despite the challenge, a major task of researchers is to uncover causes – whether it’s the simple mechanism of a protein’s activity within the cell, or a population-level analysis of interactions among genes that increase the risk of disease.

 

This raises the question: what exactly does it mean for X to cause Y? The concept of causality has existed for a long time, predating the scientific revolution by many centuries. Aristotle explained causation by dividing it into four separate aspects. Take the simple example of a wooden table: its material cause is the wood of which it is composed, its efficient cause is the carpenter who crafted it, its formal cause is the particular shape which makes it a table rather than something else, and its final cause is the purpose for which it was created, maybe to hold a lamp.

 

Scientists today don’t operate with such a multifaceted theory of causation. Although the meaning of ‘cause’ is usually taken for granted in everyday life, when pressed for a precise definition a biologist would likely explain cause and effect in terms of probabilities. According to probabilistic theories of causation, a cause both precedes its effect and increases its probability, all other things being equal. For instance, we know that smoking causes heart disease; this does not imply that everyone who smokes will suffer heart problems, but it does mean that smokers have a higher probability than non-smokers of developing heart disease, all other factors being held equal.

 

In order to scientifically study causal relationships, a critical requirement is the ability to intervene in a system and manipulate separate variables. Luckily, researchers can often alter experimental variables and examine counterfactual scenarios, which take the form ‘if X causes Y, then if X does not occur, Y will not occur’. Model organism biologists pride themselves on this skill. Working in the lab, if I’d like to determine whether a particular mutation is the cause of an interesting phenotype, I can compare flies that are genetically identical in all respects except for the mutation in question. By eliminating the confounding variables in this way, a direct causal link can be established.

 

What, then, is the relationship between causation and correlation? Two correlated variables or events share a mutual connection that can be observed as a positive or negative relationship. At first glance, a correlation between two variables may suggest to us a causal relationship, but this conclusion does not necessarily follow. Fires and fire trucks are often correlated, but obviously it is not the fire trucks that cause fires. To demonstrate this point, just take a look at the ridiculous spurious correlations that can occur between events that are not causally linked.

 

To make the issue more confusing, even if we do know with certainty that x causes y, it does not therefore imply that these variables will be correlated. Imagine a mixed community of smokers and non-smokers: cigarette smoking is a known cause of heart disease, but in this hypothetical population all of the smokers exercise while the non-smokers do not. If the heart-healthy benefits of the smokers’ exercise perfectly counteract their increased risk of heart disease, then there will be no correlation between smoking and heart disease at the population level.

 

In a game of billiards, the precise ordering of cause and effect is obvious to the observer. In the real world, discovering causal relationships is often a slow and arduous process, but it’s what scientists signed up to do.

From String to Strand

 

By Jordana Lovett

 

Ask a molecular biologist what image DNA conjures up in the mind. A convoluted ladder of nitrogenous bases, twisting and coiling dynamically. Pose the very same question to a theoretical physicist- chances are that DNA takes on a completely different meaning. As it turns out, DNA is in the eye of the beholder. Science is about perspective. Moreover, it relies on the convergence of distinct, yet interrelated angles to tackle scientific questions wholly.

 

When I met Dr. Vijay Kumar at a Cancer Immunotherapy meeting, I was immediately intrigued by his unique background and path to biology.  Vijay largely credits his family for strongly instilling in him core values of education and assiduousness. He was raised to strive for the best, and was driven to satisfy the goals of his parents, who encouraged him to pursue a degree in electrical engineering. While slightly resentful at the time, he now realizes that this broad degree would afford him multiple career options as well as the opportunity to branch into other fields of physics in the future. As early as his teenage years, Vijay had already begun thinking about the interesting unknowns of the natural universe. With his blinders on, he sought to explore them using physics and math, both theoretically and practically. As he advanced to university in pursuance of a degree in electrical engineering, he strategized and planned what would be his future transition into theoretical physics. He dabbled in various summer research projects and sought mentorship to help guide his career. Vijay ultimately applied and was accepted to a PhD program at MIT, where he studied string theory in a 6-dimensional model universe. He describes string theory as a broad framework rather than a theory that can be related to the world through ‘thought experiments’ and mathematical consistency.  Kumar continued his work in string theory during a post-doc in Santa Barbara, California, where he found himself surrounded by a more diverse group of physicists. Theoretical physicists, astrophysicists, and biophysicists were able to intermingle and share their science.

 

This diversity spurred new perspectives and reconsideration of what he had originally thought would be a clear road to professorship and a career in academia. As one would imagine, the broader impacts of string theory are limited; the ideas are part of a specialized pool of knowledge available to an elite handful. Even among the few, competition was fierce- at the time, there were only two available openings for professors in string theory in the United States. Additionally, seeing the need and presence of ‘quantitative people’ in other fields, such as biology made him increasingly curious about alternatives to the automated choices he had been making until this point. With the support of his (now) wife, and inspiration from his brother (who had just completed a degree in statistics/informatics and started a PhD in biology), he networked with other post-docs and set up meetings with principle investigators (PI’s) to discuss how he, as a theoretical physicist, could play a role in a biological setting. He spent time during his post-doc in Santa Barbara, and throughout his second post-doc at Stony Brook reflecting, taking courses and shifting into a different mindset. Vijay interviewed and gave talks at a number of institutions, and eventually landed in lab at Cold Spring Harbor, where he now is involved in addressing some of the shortcomings in DNA sequencing technology.

 

Starting in a different lab within the confines of a field means readjusting to brand new settings, acquainting with new lab mates and shifting from one narrowly focused project to another. Launching not only into a new lab, but into a foreign field adds an extra unsettling and daunting layer to the scenario.  Vijay, however, viewed this as yet another opportunity to uncover mysteries in nature- through a new perspective.  He recognized an interplay between string theory, wherein the vibration of strings allows you to make predictions about the universe, and biology, where the raw sequence of DNA can inform the makeup of an organism, and its interactions with the world.  It is with this viewpoint that Vijay understands DNA. He sees it as an abstraction, as a sequence of letters that allows you to draw inferences and predict biological outcomes. A change or deletion in just one letter can have enormous, tangible effects. It is this tangibility that speaks to Vijay. He is drawn to the application and broader consequences of the work he is doing, and excited that he can use his expertise to contribute to this knowledge.

 

While approaching a radically different field can impose obstacles, Kumar sees common challenges in both physics and biology and simply avoids getting lost in scientific translation. Just as theory has a language, so too biology has its own jargon. Once past this barrier, addressing gaps in knowledge becomes part of the common scientific core. Biology enables a question to be answered through various assays and allows observable results to guide future experiments- expertise in various subjects is therefore not only encouraged, but necessary. Collaborations between different labs across various disciplines enable painting a complete picture. “I’m a small piece of a larger puzzle, and that’s ok”, says Vijay. His insight into how scientists ought to work is admirable. Sharing and communicating data in a way that is comprehendible across the scientific playing field will more quickly and efficiently allow for scientific progress.

 

If I’ve learned one thing from Vijay’s story, it is to understand that science has room for multiple perspectives. In fact, it demands questions to be addressed in an interdisciplinary fashion. You might question yourself along the way. You might shift gears, change directions. But these unique paths mold the mind to perceive, ask, challenge, and contribute in a manner that no one else can.

How to Be Unhappy in Grad School

By Deirdre Sackett

 

If you follow The Oatmeal, you may have seen his newest comic, “How to be perfectly unhappy.” (If you don’t know The Oatmeal, I suggest you check him out! Looking past the crude humor and poop jokes, cartoonist Matthew Inman produces some pretty inspiring, touching, and hilarious comics.) The comic is based off of an essay by Augusten Burroughs, titled “How to Live Unhappily Ever After.”

 

When I saw that title, and even before I read the comic, I immediately thought of the graduate school experience. Not just my own, per se, but the general concept of graduate school — the image of the over-worked, over-caffeinated student plugging away at their fifth 14-hour day that week, with an equally exhausting work-filled weekend to look forward to. Are we, as graduate students, happy with this life? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

 

From a young age, we are programmed to believe that happiness is the ultimate goal in life. Once you obtain it, then you’re golden, and you’ll never have to suffer ever again. You’ve reached Happiness™. But if you’re not happy, then you must be unhappy. And if you’re unhappy, well, then you’re doing something horribly wrong, and you must hate your life. Right? Here’s my bold claim. Despite their busy lives, regardless of the sardonic jokes and grumblings, most graduate students are not Unhappy™. They are not doing anything objectively wrong, nor do they utterly hate their lives. As a grad student, when someone asks, “Are you happy in your grad program?”, it limits an entire 5 to 6 year experience to one word. This innocent question creates a binary in what should be a spectrum of human emotion. It binds the grad student to one of two answers: yes and no.

 

Yes, my experiments all were successful. I have 5 first-author publications, all accepted on the first round with perfect reviews. I’m graduating in 4 years rather than 5 or 6, and I’m guaranteed a starting salary of $100K in my new job. I don’t even have to take a post doc!

 

No, everything is failing. I can’t get statistical significance on anything. My one measly paper got desk rejected by 3 journals. My experiments all yield null results. I can’t network to save my life, and I have no friends. Even my cat hates me.

 

Of course, those are both ridiculous examples. Graduate school is a mixture of good and bad experiences. In the 5 or 6 years it takes to get a Ph.D., you might get one first author publication, a couple of desk rejections, one experiment that works sort-of perfectly and another two that completely fail. You might have two really close friends and a smattering of acquaintances you interact with only at the department holiday party each winter. It’s a blend of good and bad, which makes sense. You don’t waltz into graduate school expecting everything to go perfectly.

 

Like the grad school experience, human emotion doesn’t work in terms of purely Happy or purely Unhappy. Nor should we expect to waltz into our experience and come out happy. The spectrum of emotion ebbs and flows like waves in the ocean, much like progress in graduate school.

 

I’m a graduate student in the sciences, and science is hard work. Experiments don’t go the way I plan, things take longer than I think, and my inexperience slows me down as I learn new techniques. My eyes sting as I stare at a computer screen for 8+ hours a day, analyzing data or writing a paper. I feel guilt and soul-crushing defeat when I can’t write as well or as fast as I expect myself to. Imposter syndrome rumbles in the depths of my brain like a voracious beast, ready to snap up any imperfections I throw its way.

 

And yet, to shamelessly quote The Oatmeal’s comic, what I do is meaningful to me. Everything I do in grad school pushes me to become a better scientist, communicator, and writer. I recognize my frustration at how slowly I analyze data or figure out a technique, and realize that it’s better to slowly do things correctly rather than rush and do it wrong. Each experimental failure encourages me to think creatively and problem-solve, to figure out what went wrong and how I can fix it in the future. Plus, when experiments do succeed, the past failures makes the victory way more significant. Getting negative reviews on a paper help make my science writing better —  they do not reflect on my imperfections as a scientist. Most importantly to me, I know fighting the imposter syndrome beast helps me find self-worth and value in my being, though it’s the hardest thing to do.

 

So it’s not a matter of finding “happiness” in a slew of “unhappy” experiences. It’s a matter of finding value in frustrating or sad experiences and emerging as a different person. Not a happier person, but a stronger person.  Other grad students might feel this exact same way, or at least some version of it. Grad students are in their programs because they find their work meaningful, not because every day is a walk in the park. Other people will question this version of “happy,” and even try to dissuade grad students from doing what they are passionate about because they perceive this existence as blatantly “unhappy.” How to be unhappy is not for others to decide, but for you, dear grad student. So go forth, find meaning in your failures, rejoice in your successes, and thrive in unhappiness.

Divorcing Academia: Changing the PhD Mindset

By Isaiah Hankel, PhD

I made up my mind. I was dropping out of graduate school. I was going to leave with my Masters degree, get a job, get paid, and leave academia behind forever. I was so excited about the possibility of escaping the bench that I couldn’t think about anything else.

I lined up a few jobs, told a couple of close friends, and started putting my plan into motion. But then my excitement wore off. I wasn’t sure what to do next. How do I drop out, exactly? Do I just give my academic advisor two-week notice, or what? There was nothing in the student handbook about this.

A few days later, as I was still gaining the courage to quite, I got an email from one of the deans. He wanted to meet. One of my friends told him that I was planning on dropping out. Why did he care? I walked down to the Dean’s office and he called me in. “Do you need money? I mean, we all need money but do you need money?” This is what he asked.

No, I guess I don’t need money. I mean, I was poor and unhappy and just filed government assistance because I was having trouble paying for groceries but I wasn’t living in a cardboard box or anything. There were thousands of reasons why I wanted out of graduate school, but I didn’t say any of them. Instead, I said that I didn’t want to stay in academia. I wanted to transition into an alternative career.

“Come here,” he said. Then he walked over to his computer and pulled up a job website listing dozens of biotech and biopharma industry positions: “PhD required, PhD required, PhD required, PhD required, PhD required, PhD required.” …I got the point. Most of the postings preferred job candidates with a PhD. I didn’t realize there were so many options for PhDs outside of academia. My mindset about my career and the potential of my PhD changed right there in that moment.

Too many PhDs lose themselves in academia.

Before entering into academia, many PhDs know exactly who they are and what they want.

Then, over time, these same PhDs start to lose themselves in the academic routine. They get pushed down by the thankless grind of trying to publish. They get lost in the uncertainty of when they might finally graduate. They see the numbers like >60% of PhDs and >80% of Life Sciences PhDs will NOT have a paying job at graduation (The Atlantic), >99% of PhDs will NEVER be tenured professors (Royal Society), and 43% of PhD students will NOT get their PhD within 10 years of starting graduate school (CBS News). As a result, they become hopeless. They lose their confidence and their optimism about their future.

According to a report by the Royal Society, the proportion of PhDs who now manage to secure academic tenure positions is only 1-in-200. That’s right – academia only provides a future for 1 out of every 200 PhDs. Yet, if things are so bad in academia, why do so many PhDs choose to stay in academia after getting their degrees? The reason so many PhDs stay in academia after getting their degrees is because they’ve learned to limit their futures. They’ve been trained to have a limited mindset in academia. They’ve been trained to accept less than they are worth.

They’ve heard things like “things are getting better in academia” “if you leave academia you are a sell-out” and “you’ll never get a job outside of academia” over and over again. The only way PhDs can open themselves up again to all the possibilities available to them is by changing their mindset. They must change their mindset from limit and lack, to opportunity and options.

There are a number of limits that PhDs place on themselves in academia. One such limit is that high unemployment rates for PhDs mean that every PhD should accept whatever postdoc he or she can get. It’s true – the employment numbers for newly graduated PhDs do not look good. Over 30%-40% of PhDs are unemployed at graduation. This, coupled with the fact that graduate students and postdocs have a 1% chance of getting tenure now, can make PhDs feel isolated. These PhDs have made a decision to work hard, to create knowledge, and to make a difference. Yet, their futures seem bleak. As a result, most of these PhDs desperately accept any low-paying postdoc you can find.

The only way for a PhD to avoid this fate is to realize that he or she is not alone. Every PhD is worried about their future. Yet, every PhD has a future. Yes, the academic landscape is changing. Academic jobs are disappearing. But PhDs are still in high demand. There are over 22,500 new industry researchers and over 7,000 new government researchers right now (International Forum For Cell Biology). These industries are expanding.

PhDs may not be able to get tenure as easily as in the past, but they still have many options that will allow them to do meaningful work and get paid well for it.

If you leave academia, you’re a sell-out and can never do “real” science again.

How many PhDs have been told this? Too many. Too many graduate students and postdocs stay stuck in academia because they’re afraid of leaving science behind. They feel this way because these PhDs have dedicated their lives to research and study, and they falsely assume that transitioning into an alternative career track means turning their backs on their love of learning. The truth is that very often PhDs can do even more learning in alternative career tracks. PhDs can get access to better equipment and higher-level knowledge outside of academia than they can inside of academia. Again, the academic landscape is changing. Academia as a whole no longer has access to the highest level information in most fields. Instead, this information is often only available in industry and government positions. Moreover, these positions pay very well. PhDs should understand that it is now possible to make good money and do great research at the same time.

Changing your mindset is not easy. This is especially true if you are a PhD who has spent the last 20-30 years in academia. If academia is all you have ever known, you will have an academic mindset. PhDs in today’s world and job markets do not need to leave this mindset behind entirely, but they do need to expand it. PhDs have opportunities available to them today that they never had before, and they should seize these opportunities. But first, they must believe that they can seize them. These PhDs must know their own value and must leverage their value to the careers and lifestyles that are right for them.

 


Dr Isaiah Hankel is the founder of Cheeky Scientist, a one stop shop for PhDs wanting to transition out of academia and into industry.

 

So You Want to Be a… Publishing Editor

By Sally Burn, PhD

Scizzle’s post-PhD career series is back this week with an interview with Cathy Sorbara about her career as a Publishing Editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry. Dr Sorbara also acts as a consultant for the Cheeky Scientist Association (check out their great PhD industry transition articles here) and can be contacted via her LinkedIn page.

 

Hi Cathy! So, what exactly does a publishing editor do?

As a publishing editor, I assess submitted articles and guide them through the peer review process including reviewer selection, review evaluation and making the final decision to accept, reject or transfer the manuscript with our portfolio.  I also carry out production of accepted manuscripts including editing, proof reading and issue make up.  Other responsibilities include coordinating themed issues, commissioning cover art work and acting as a point of contact for associate editors (an international team of experts in various chemical sciences who handle submissions for various journals).

 

How did you get to where you are now?

I am Canadian and received my undergraduate degree at the University of Western Ontario in Medical Science and my Master of Science at the University of Ottawa.  I then moved to Munich, Germany where I did my PhD in Medical Life Science and Technology.  At that point I decided I was better suited for a communication-based role and wanted to move away from bench research.  I move to Cambridge, UK and came across this opening and thought it would be a great opportunity for me to further develop these communication skills.

 

What are the key skills needed for this job, and did you develop any of them during your PhD?

PhDs gain a wealth of transferable skills that I feel they often underestimate.  I too suffered from imposter syndrome through graduate school and left feeling I had little skills to offer beyond my technical expertise.  I soon realized however, that I had developed effective communication skills, time and project management, ability to work independently as well as in a collaborative environment, to name a few.  All of these skills were beneficial in my current role.

 

What would be your advice to a PhD wanting a job similar to yours?

A job advertisement is a wish list.  Even if your skills do not match 100% the job description, do not let that intimate you.  If you are interested in a job in editing or other communication-based roles, reach out to employees in the company and have a chat with them.  See if the company and the role is something that would be of interest to you and learn how to translate your skills into professional business experience.

 

What are the top three things on your To Do list right now?

Assess the latest manuscripts that have been submitted to the journal, check up on previous manuscripts that are under peer review (can a decision be made, do I need to invite more reviewers, etc.) and tackle the production to-do list to ensure everything is completed as quickly/accurately as possible to maintain low times to publication.

 

What are your favorite – and least favorite – parts of the job?

As I assess each manuscript that is submitted to the journal, it gives me the opportunity to read a lot of fascinating science and stay up-to-date with the latest breakthroughs in the field.  As a science nerd, this is a dream come true.  Sometimes we have to make decisions on manuscripts that are difficult and not well-received by authors.  It is never easy to tell someone who has worked for years on a manuscript that it has been rejected.  I definitely empathize with them as I have been on the receiving end of these rejection emails before. I am sure this has made me an enemy of some but I hope they understand that this is all part of the peer-review process which we strive to maintain as fair and unbiased as possible.

 

Is there anything you miss about academia?

I do miss bench work from time-to-time.  There was a sense of pride and honor associated with doing research, especially disease-related as I had done.  Now, however, I have time to pursue other passions and have more time for travelling and spending time with family. My life is not defined by the number of hours I am chained to the bench and this was important to me.

 

How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?

As many academics are aware, publish or perish is a theme to their success and accordingly the peer review/publication process has received a lot of flak about how it contributes to the plight of academic research labs.  I think we will see a lot of changes in the future as publishing houses adapt and deal with this growing concern of how research should be disseminated, evaluated and rewarded.  Already we see more journals becoming open access, changing their peer review process (double or triple blinded) or allowing for raw data to be published.  There is also the argument of why negative data or repeated experiments should not be equally as rewarded.  It will be fascinating to see how things evolve.

 

What kind of positions does someone in your position move on to?

Publishing editors can move into managerial roles or higher executive roles where they deal more with commissioning of articles, competitor intelligence, attending conferences and the overall management of the journal and its goals.  Many people who move out of publishing move on to other communication based roles such as medical writing, policy, marketing and more.  It is a good stepping stone for many other roles.

 

And finally, the big question: In the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would a publishing editor bring to the table?

A publishing editor would draft a well-written article to the zombies, detailed how we can work together to live in harmony.  Of course this article would be reviewed by experts in the field of zombie apocalypses before it was sent.

 

So You Want to Be a… Technical Copywriter

By Sally Burn, PhD

In this week’s edition of Scizzle’s post-PhD career series we talk to Colm O’Regan about being a freelance Technical Copywriter. Colm trained in the physical sciences – which makes a welcome change from our usual biology-centric focus – and came to our attention when he commented on one of our previous interviews on LinkedIn. We were so intrigued by his job title that we just had to get the lowdown on his career! If you also happen to have an interesting post-PhD job, please reach out to us – we’d love to hear from you. Just connect with Sally Burn via her LinkedIn. Colm can also be contacted via his LinkedIn or by email.

 

Hi Colm, so what does a Technical Copywriter do?

I write marketing communications and content for scientific companies. This means any material a science company uses to promote its products. These range from white papers, technical/scientific articles, landing pages, advertisements, application notes and case studies. Many science companies put out a wide range of marketing collateral and this stuff needs to be written. They’ll do a lot of it internally, but often they’ll outsource it to a writer like me to take some of the pressure off. Specific responsibilities include: marketing my services, making contact with potential buyers (typically marketing managers), talking to these buyers on the phone to ascertain their needs, making an offer, writing proposals, doing the actual writing, following up constantly, bookkeeping etc.

 

How did you get to where you are now?

I enjoyed science in school, particularly chemistry and physics. Chemistry was always my favorite subject so I continued studying that in university in Ireland. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. After my degree, I didn’t want to get a job in a chemical plant or a pharmaceutical company, which seemed to be the typical route most of my classmates were following. By the time I finished my third year, I had developed a strong interest in nanotechnology and materials science. So when I was offered a PhD in materials science at the same university, I jumped at the chance. After that, I went on to do a postdoc at the National University of Singapore. The research was focused on using electron microscopy to study dendrite growth in battery systems. However, by the end of this, I realized that working for someone else was not something I wanted to spend my life doing. Even if it was in academia which, admittedly, can be quite cushy. I had always enjoyed writing so after spending many months trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I found that marketing writing for science companies seemed to be the best choice.

 

What are the key skills or experience needed for this job?

You don’t need much in the way of experience from a skills point of view, as most of it you can learn on the job. That said, any relevant background you have will be helpful. For example, if you’re targeting a specific industry such as biotechnology, a degree, masters or PhD in biotech will be a huge advantage. It will set you apart from other writers targeting biotech companies. You know the technology, the field, and the industry, and will probably have hands on experience with many of the scientific instruments you’ll be writing about. Companies value this and you’ll be able to command higher fees. The main skill I got from my PhD and postdoc was the ability to research effectively (I mean look up papers, documents, articles etc. pertaining to my field) and keep persevering when things get tough. Anybody doing a PhD project knows that it’s three and a half years of crap followed by six months of good things happening. When you’re in your second year, your 150th experiment in a row has failed and you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, it can be disheartening. That perseverance and ability to tough it out is critical when going out on your own.

 

What would be your advice to a PhD wanting a job similar to yours?

Anybody wanting to do this job (or start a freelancing business in general) should know that it’ll probably take twice as long, cost twice as much and be twice as difficult as you initially anticipated. I know this isn’t exactly encouraging, but if you come into this knowing what to expect, then you’re already ahead of the game. I definitely thought it was going to be easier than it is. So the first thing someone needs to do is market themselves and their services like crazy. Estimate how much marketing you need to do, double it… and then go do that. I didn’t do enough marketing in my first year (and the marketing I did was the wrong kind). Ultimately, the people who are successful think of themselves as marketers of the services they provide (in my case, marketing communications writing for scientific companies), rather than doers of that particular service.

 

What are the top three things on your To Do list right now?

Usually, my to-do-list involves marketing. Right now, the list includes launching a direct mail effort (sending letters through the mail to promote my services), finishing writing a proposal for a project, and following up on a previous project that I finished recently (I do this a lot)

 

What are your favorite – and least favorite – parts of the job?

Least favorite part right now is the inconsistent paycheck. Some months you have work, others you don’t. Invariably, this comes down to consistent marketing. When you let up on the marketing, your income takes a hit. My favorite part is working to my own schedule, and not a schedule set by someone else.

 

Is there anything you miss about academia?  What was the most challenging aspect of moving from academia to your current job?”

One of the things I enjoyed most about academia is the relaxed working atmosphere. Specifically, it’s not a typical nine to five job, so there’s nobody checking up on work hours. As long as you do the work, it’s fine. So that was a big plus. I was also lucky to work in a fun lab with a lot of great people. Now, I work on my own so I sometimes miss the interactions of working in a research group. The most challenging aspect of moving into freelance work is being your own boss. You’re responsible for every single aspect of the business. From marketing, selling, doing the work, bookkeeping, to running the business. If you slip up on anything (marketing in particular), the business as a whole takes a hit. It takes some getting used to. You definitely need to develop good habits (getting up early, not wasting an hour scanning your Facebook feed), improve your productivity and have the discipline to work and market the business when you need to. Which is most of the time.

 

How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?

In terms of marketing writing for scientific firms, I guess It really is a buyer’s market due to the sheer number of people going out on their own and starting businesses. Over the last decade, copywriting has been actively promoted as a business opportunity by several organizations. This has prompted more and more people to start freelance copywriting. Though admittedly, you don’t see many science graduates and researchers doing this, but that could change over the next decade. Copywriting in general is sure to become more and more popular, so narrowing down your specialty and focusing on a particular industry will be even more important than it is today.

 

And finally: In the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would a technical copywriter bring to the table?

Well, if the remaining living scientists ever discovered a cure for people turning into zombies, a technical copywriter would be the one helping to promote it!

 

So You Want to Be a… Freelance Medical Writer

By Elizabeth Ohneck, PhD

In the first post of our So You Want to Be a… series we talked to Elizabeth Ohneck about her career as a medical writer. This week Elizabeth interviewed Ginny Vachon who runs her own medical writing company, Principal Medvantage, to find out what it takes to go it alone and become a freelance medical writer.

 

What does a freelance medical/science writer do?

Medical writers can do many different types of writing, but in general, medical writing is centered on taking information and making it accessible and informative for the correct audience. For example, taking raw data and writing a manuscript for other physicians is really different than summarizing recent findings for the general public. Freelance medical writers are contractors, and can be called in by pharmaceutical companies, communications agencies, medical associations, or other groups to help with specific projects that can’t be handled ‘in house,’ for whatever reason. There’s a ton of variety and opportunity to learn about different diseases. Some freelancers specialize, and write mostly about certain medical areas, or for certain audiences.

 

How did you get where you are now?

I have a BA in Biology from Agnes Scott College and my PhD is from Emory University. As I was nearing the end of my PhD I realized I had no clue what I wanted to do next. I totally froze because I knew I had choices, but I didn’t know how to make the next step. I realized that before I could pick a direction, I needed to learn about all of the different things I could do and how the people who were doing those things spent their days. So, I joined Women in Bio Atlanta and started going to events held by Emory and by WIB. I went to a WIB event on women in business and I heard Emma Nichols, who owns Nascent Medical Communications (formerly Hitt Medical Writing), talk about her experiences as a freelance medical writer and entrepreneur. I spoke with her after the event, and ended up doing a number of projects for her. After getting some experience, I started my own company! She has a great podcast, medical writers speak, that is full of great information about both medical writing and the business side of freelancing. The American Medical Writer’s Association also has a great website, training course, and chapter meetings where you can meet other medical writers and take short courses.

 

What are the key skills needed to be successful at this job, and did you develop any of them during grad school?

I think that the most important thing is a willingness to tackle any subject and learn about it. I think that as a Ph.D. student, I learned that discomfort and anxiety are totally normal when learning something new, and usually happen right before you understand something! I also had my daughter during my third year of graduate school, and developing the level of organization that I needed to ‘do it all’ has been awesome.
Medical writing is really great in that you can get a little bit of experience as a contractor before you graduate. Even if you end up not being wild about medical writing, you have a new skill to set you apart. Who on earth doesn’t want to hire someone who is skilled in communicating complex ideas?

 

What would be your advice to a PhD wanting a similar job as yours?

I would say to listen to the Medical Writers Speak podcast, go to the AMWA website, and start developing samples, writing for a blog or university paper are great starts (the manuscript you wrote with your PI isn’t the best sample) I think a lot of people who are trying to break into medical writing have a hard time with the transition from being a scientist or physician who can write to being a writer who understands science. I think that it’s important to recognize that while obtaining an MD or PhD is really hard, it is only a piece of the puzzle. The thought of sharpening your writing skills should be an exciting one! I know I heard this said at a lot of ‘alternate career events,’ but what you do next should not be a ‘back-up plan,’ it should be an exciting new set of goals! Also, after doing a ton of lab work, I really had a hard time sitting all day. Now I have to be a lot more deliberate about exercise and working with my hands in other ways.

 

What are the top three things on your To Do list right now?

A typical day usually starts with assessing deadlines. I usually have a few projects going on at once, so organization is really important. Today I have to check in with a client who owes me a transcript of an interview, look over a manuscript I finished two days ago with ‘fresh eyes’ before sending it off, and do some bookkeeping (scanning receipts from a recent work trip out of town).

 

What are your favorite parts of the job? What are your least favorite or most challenging parts?

My favorite part is that I get to solve problems for clients. Usually I get called in when people are stretched thin. It’s nice to be able to help companies when they are growing. My least favorite thing is the sitting. I have a standing desk now, which helps, but I miss the constant motion of lab work.

 

Is there anything you miss about academia? What was the biggest adjustment in moving from the bench to your current position?

Yes, of course! I miss being an ‘expert’ in a scientific area. As a writer, I learn just enough about a subject to write well about it. I have totally lost money on jobs before because I get sucked into a topic and next thing I know I am well-versed in how a specific trial recorded adverse events, but it doesn’t matter because that wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing. Especially as a freelancer, it’s all about doing what needs to be done to complete a project. I miss the freedom of diving into a single sentence in a paper to figure out the nature of a problem. The hardest part about making the mental switch was understanding that my role is to produce clear and meaningful content, not to assist in guiding the direction of research or marketing, or whatever the problem is I am writing about. Again, the switch from being a scientist to a writer.

 

How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?

I think that the ways in which medical writers develop content over the next few years will change to include more interactive platforms. I expect that soon doctors and patients will be unsatisfied with brochures, which will not only seem old-fashioned, but be insufficient for the increasingly complex decision-making that accompanies personalized medicine. Probably medical writing will soon include more content for apps. I don’t know that the clinicians of tomorrow will put up with PowerPoint-based CME, or posters will remain paper-based and non-interactive. It is hard to predict how communication will change in ten years time, but I think the most flexible and willing to learn medical writers will be the most successful.

 

What kind of positions to people in your position move on to?

One of the coolest things about freelance medical writing is that it can serve as a grand tour of many different types of biomedical businesses. You get to work with many types of companies (big, small, growing, pharma, CROs, communications firms, medical associations – you name it). You also get to work with the people in a company and see what they are like and see many different styles of working (fast, slow, organized, totally insane – you name it!). You can really observe and learn about what suits you. Many companies who need freelancers also need an on-staff medical writer, or someone smart in medical affairs, or marketing, or communications. Showing up and being organized and pleasant can prompt a job offer.

 

And finally: In the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would a freelance medical writer bring to the table?

I could be sure that every conceivable population of clinicians is well aware of how to identify, appropriately treat, and report zombie-related medical events. In addition, all potential patient populations will be well aware of how to seek out specialists, should they experience symptoms. Because I’m a freelancer, I am available to handle any writing needs that crop up as various new anti-zombie therapies emerge.

So You Want to Be in… Scientific Public Relations

By Sally Burn, PhD

Scizzle was recently fortunate enough to chat with the infectiously upbeat, super accomplished Cherise Bernard, PhD. Cherise is Senior Manager for Elsevier’s U.S. Engagement Program, as part of their Global Academic Relations team. She acts as a conduit between the publisher and academic institutions and performs scientific public relations duties (in addition to being a “technology midwife”… more on that later). We got the lowdown on the publishing world, what her job entails, and how you too can move into this exciting sphere of work.

 

Hi Cherise! So, what does someone in Scientific Public Relations do?

Basically, my responsibilities align around being a thought leader. When I say a thought leader, one of the primary responsibilities that I have is to build relationships, programs, and initiatives with different US universities. One topic that my company is very passionate about right now is precision medicine. We identify universities in the country that are also passionate about precision medicine and we network with them to understand their challenges. When I say I need to be a thought leader, I need to be having very up-to-date conversations about precision medicine to recognize what the field is lacking and what steps need to be made to propel the field forward. The execution aspect of my job is to make sure that I build relevant programs in order to do those things. For example, let’s say Stanford University is known for its work in precision medicine. What I would do is to go meet with, let’s say the vice president of research at Stanford and then build some program around precision medicine where Elsevier and Stanford are both contributing data or resources, jointly resulting in a better understanding of precision medicine at Stanford and as a whole.

 

What kind of data do you contribute, specifically?

Elsevier is a scientific information solutions company. We publish over 2,500 scientific journals, both online and in print. Not only that, we also provide other digital web-based solutions for the scientific community such as Scopus, Mendeley, and Science Direct. Scientists all over the world use these resources in order to disseminate their research. For example, using our SciVal platform, universities can actually create custom reports indicating what their top research areas are.  How would that be helpful for an institution? This can assist them in making targeted investment decisions for areas that they dominate in. My job is not black and white; there are no two days that are the same. It differs with every single engagement that I’m involved in. But it’s always going to be a mutual exchange of information to promote an extensive learning opportunity or to promote advancement in a particular field or initiative. This should be a really interesting blog post because, honestly, my job is not one that biomedical life scientists have traditionally considered and said, “I want to do that with my PhD.” It’s something that I just fell into. It allows me to use creativity every day. And so far it’s awesome.

 

How did you get this job? What is your background?

I always tell people I’m a recovering scientist because that’s exactly what I am. When I was younger, I knew that I wanted to go into research. That interest led me to major in chemistry as an undergrad. Then I pursued my PhD in Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, focused on cancer research. Then… I don’t know when there was a shift but somewhere during graduate school I realized that I wanted to see how the research applied more to the patient. I’m at the bench, I’m doing my research but – what happens to the research after it leaves the bench? What is the impact on society once the paper is published? Does it have an effect on the actual patient? It was then that I decided to do a little bit of research myself into the process of taking research findings and bringing it to market. I learned about the field of technology transfer (or scientific commercialization) and began to understand that this is how inventions are translated from the academic bench to industry, then to the bedside. So, with this knowledge, I decided to pursue a mini-MBA certification at Rutgers while in the thesis phase of my PhD program, just to get more of an understanding of what the business aspect of science looked like. Everything that a full MBA would cover, we touched on it in a span of twelve weeks. It was a very intensive program. But I was able to do that at night while still working in the lab during the day. It was extremely difficult but I felt like I needed to get some framework behind what I was interested in doing.

That mini-MBA helped me land an internship with the Rutgers Office of Business Development and Technology Transfer. The internship allowed me to not only learn about the intellectual property process, but also taught me how to evaluate, market, and license new technologies coming out of the university to commercial partners. The commercial partner used the licensed technology in coordination with their own technology portfolio while the university received licensing fees and profit shares from any resulting products. Prior to the internship, this whole concept was foreign to me. As a scientific researcher, no one talks about this really, unless you are in a lab that already has a relationship with a commercial company. I learned that there were technology transfer offices at the majority of universities, commercializing the research taking place at the bench. I was completely intrigued and I knew that I wanted to pursue it further.

My Rutgers internship allowed me to get a paid position at Rockefeller University’s technology transfer office, where I stayed for two years. From Rockefeller, I moved on to Mount Sinai Innovation Partners at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. That’s where the creativity started for me. I was able to align my commercialization experience with my passion for education. The director at Mount Sinai Innovation Partners gave me the creative freedom to build a commercialization internship program. From that opportunity, I was also able to build other programs, educating the Mount Sinai community about entrepreneurship and scientific communication. Mount Sinai was the place where I learned that I could think like a scientist but I could also be creative. That whole concept was foreign to me because as a scientist you follow protocols. You read papers. You see what other people have done. The whole concept of creativity, of building things right from scratch not knowing what the process will be at all was something that I hadn’t experienced before and now I was. I started realizing that this is exactly what I wanted to do. That experience led me to my position now at Elsevier – so you can see the transition, right? I was able to build programs, initiatives, and learning opportunities at Mount Sinai and now I’m at Elsevier with the amazing opportunity to create on a national level with a portfolio universities and organizations!

 

Do you feel like the mini-MBA was essential for getting to where you are now?

This might seem like a strange answer, but in terms of the content, it was not essential. The content helped. I became familiarized with a lot of business terms. But it was essential in terms of me proving my commitment to learning about this field. I tell PhDs and postdocs this all the time: sometimes you need to make certain moves to push your career forward… and it’s not really so much about what you’re doing, but more about you proving your commitment to identifying your skill sets, learning your personality, understanding what you like, what you don’t like. Everything will not always work. Everything will not always be a home-run. Trust me, I did things that I’m not even discussing here that I was just like okay, no, I don’t want to do that. But I made a decision for myself to always follow my instincts. That’s another concept that I’m actually going to be trying to write a short book about – following your instincts as a scientist and not always staying “within that box” of the norm.

 

You’re outgoing with great communication skills. Would you say those are essential skills in your job?

Yes. Outgoing, being a great networker. But I wouldn’t just say “go network”. I would say do targeted networking. Find the people who you can actually have a great conversation with. Find the people who it’s strategic for you to talk to and it’s strategic for them to talk to you. To do that, you have to do your research. That’s another thing that my PhD taught me, which may be underutilized by other PhDs – you know how to do research. You know how to find stuff out. It doesn’t have to be about a protein. You can also find things out about people. If you make your networking more strategic and have more of a purpose, then follow your instincts, your networking will turn into relationships and that’s the crux of what I do right now – relationship building.

 

Do you think LinkedIn is important for somebody who wants to get into your industry?

Definitely. I think LinkedIn is just important for getting into any industry at this point. I think it’s a great way to initiate cold meetings. If you don’t know someone and have never met them but you would feel they would be beneficial to know, LinkedIn is a great way to introduce yourself. If you are able to then send them a little note, or do your research, find out their e-mail address, find out their phone number, do a cold call. These are the kinds of things that people really need to take initiative on nowadays – really just put yourself out there and don’t necessarily care about how you look all the time. Just put yourself out there.

 

In addition to taking the initiative and networking, do you have any other advice that you would give to someone who wants to get into your field?

The first thing I would advise is to understand who you are. I know it sounds a little bit cliché, but when you are going into a field that’s not very heavily populated, especially by scientists and by PhDs, you have to be extremely sure of yourself and confident (even though the confidence may not be an everyday occurrence!) Know what your interests and passions are. Know what your personality is like. If you don’t like to talk to people, this is probably not the best job for you! My second piece of advice is to read. Read what’s on the cutting edge (this is important for scientists who are interested in technology commercialization as well). What are the hot topics right now? Last year, President Obama did his State of the Union Address and he talked about advancing the fight against cancer. When I listen to that, I’m not just listening to it as Cherise in my living room. I’m also listening to it for work because when I meet with the NSF and the NIH, they are taking their cues and forming their priorities directly from The Office of the President. I need to be well versed so that if I have a meeting at NIH and the NSF, I know what I need to talk to them about. The only way to do that and to be confident in those types of conversations is to be really aware and be on the cutting edge of what’s going on in the country and even globally in terms of scientific research, technology, and data.

 

How do you remain on the cutting edge? Are there any sources of information that you particularly rely on?

I read reputable blogs by thought leaders in the fields that interest me.  I try to stay up to date on articles in Cell, Science, and Nature. They are pretty much always on the cutting edge. And of course, reading the journals that Elsevier produces. It’s also cool because I come from a commercialization background so I am still on top of those kinds of literature too. When you read about startups, they are usually a couple of years ahead of where the rest of the industry is currently. I also read venture capital blogs because their investment decisions contribute a great deal to the technology commercial landscape.

 

What are the top three things on your to-do list for today?

I have a portfolio of programs and initiatives that I’m working on. One of the things constantly on my to-do list would just be e-mailing and phone conversations with colleagues and partners to find out where we are on certain things and to ensure that the plans are moving forward. I spend a lot of time as well reading and understanding the strategic goals of the universities that I’m working with, identifying openings and gaps in their capabilities, and assessing if there’s an opportunity for us to partner with them. I need to constantly track updates and relevant public relations topics happening with our partners and distribute that information to my team. Another item on my to-do list is focused around more logistical efforts. If I have meetings next week on the West Coast, I need to be churning out the agendas for these meetings to everyone on the team. I’m on the thought leadership side but I’m also on the program management side.

 

What are your favorite and least favorite parts of the job?

I guess my favorite part would be the travel because obviously I get to see places that I’ve never seen. Another great thing about this position is that it’s a great work-life balance. I get into the office about 8:00 a.m. every day and I pretty much leave around 5:00, 5:30. Since we’re a global company, it’s also pretty feasible to work from home. My first day here I was given a work cell phone and laptop. So I take work everywhere I can work, especially since I have colleagues that are in Asia – sometimes I have to wake up for 7:00 a.m. calls with them because of the time difference. But I can just work from home if needed. That’s another really cool part that I really love. It’s the flexibility to do that. I also really enjoy the fact that my role is a brand new one, but that’s also my least favorite part! It’s my least favorite only because everything is from scratch. Sometimes that’s a little bit scary because I don’t know if I’m doing something in the right way. Nothing is set in stone and it’s just difficult to measure my success. But that’s also the really intriguing part of my job, too: that I don’t know. I have to figure everything out and that actually motivates me to get up and try new things every day. It’s my least favorite and most favorite part of what I do.

 

Do you miss academia at all?

No, I don’t. Honestly, I get a healthy dose of academia without actually being in it, so I feel like I get the best of both worlds. I still work with academia on a very regular basis so I can’t really miss it. But I’m far enough away from it that I’m not dealing with the politics of it. I have other politics now but it’s not academia politics, which is great. Obviously, there are other benefits to not working in academia like a higher pay range, bonuses… those types of things that academia historically does not offer.

 

How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?

The way that we disseminate research is changing rapidly because of technology, because of social media. I think that in order to make that change amenable to universities, you need some liaisons, the kind that know both the old way and the new way to be there to push that change forward, and I think that’s what I am. In all of the topics that I’m working on [at Elsevier], we are trying to change the face of them, be thought leaders in them because we are trying to go from what’s old to what’s new. I’m like a midwife to push technology forward! All aspects of science will change rapidly within the next ten years, including how we educate and train our professionals and disseminate our findings.  We’re going to have to switch from the bench mentality to what the bigger, more global impact will be. We’re going to have to start changing the way that we educate our scientists, the way that we produce scientists. We’re going to have to change the graduate curriculum to account for the surges in technology that’s currently happening. We’re going have to change the way that we educate medical students to account for artificial intelligence and digital health in medicine. All of these things won’t happen overnight. The field requires these champions that are right in the middle of it to say, “Come on. Let’s go. We know you don’t want to leave this old way but we’ve got to go. We’ve got to move forward.”

 

What kind of positions does someone like you move on to?

I haven’t started thinking about it yet but now that you’re asking me there are a lot of things I can do. I think that I can probably transition from here into leadership roles in academia. I think that vice presidents of research and deans, they really need forward thinking people. They need people who are inventive, creative, and willing to take some risks. That’s possibly something that I could do if I wanted to return to academia. I also see myself being a motivator and public speaker in terms of scientific education, making sure that US universities in particular stay on the cutting edge of educating our scientists. Maybe an education consultant – helping universities switch gears to move their curriculum forward. Then, in terms of publishing, what I’m doing right now has its own ladder as well, because right now I’m a senior manager but I could become a vice president in our Global Academic Relations team.

 

Final, most important question: In the event of a zombie apocalypse what skills would someone in scientific public relations bring to the table?

I would probably be the one trying to befriend the zombies and saying: listen, that zombie right there, he might be able to help us. I’d say I know you guys are afraid of the zombies, but I don’t think all of them are bad. We can’t talk to all of them, but let’s look for one of them that can give us some inside information. I will be the one in the zombie apocalypse to bring all the inside information to the table. You have to be like an advocate for at least one of them because that’s the only way we’ll know what their plan is. I’m all about building strategy and you have to be able to view people as a resource in order build strategy.

 


Cherise can be contacted by email at c.bernard@elsevier.com or via LinkedIn.

 

So You Want to Be an… Equity Research Associate

By Sally Burn, PhD

In this week’s edition of “So You Want to Be a…”, we turn to the financial side of science and find out about a career in biotechnology equity research from Raluca Pancratov. Raluca completed her PhD in pharmacology at NYU School of Medicine, before transferring her analytical skills to the fast-paced world of equity research. Read on to find out if this is the post-PhD career for you!

 

Hi Raluca! So, what exactly does an Equity Research Associate do?

An equity (stock) research associate analyst typically works for large Wall Street investment banks or boutique investment research firms. The associate’s role is to support the senior analyst’s stock recommendations (buy, sell, hold) for investor clients. These can include pension and mutual fund managers, as well as hedge fund managers. Research analysts forecast whether a stock will go up or down and by how much, based on the commercial outlook of the analyzed companies. For biopharma companies, stock performance is often linked to the success of drugs in the clinic and on the market. Given the complexities of the drug development process, advanced degree holders such as science PhDs and MDs are well-positioned to understand clinical data and predict the likelihood of clinical success. A good portion of the work is keeping up to date with the newsflow (scientific, clinical, regulatory, or commercial), which influences day-to-day (and sometimes minute-by-minute) stock value. Estimating the value of a stock entails analyses of financial statements and forecasting the company’s sales and expenses.

 

How did you get to where you are now?

I have always been fascinated by drug development and my PhD mentor cultivated a “bench-to-bedside” mentality in the lab. I also enjoyed working on a translational project. I learned about investment research at one of the many “What can you be with a PhD?” career fairs that I attended (organized by the great team at NYU School of Medicine), where alumni from my graduate program described this type of niche position within finance. I remember thinking “Ah, I could do that!” and proceeded to read as much as possible about the biopharma sector and enroll in finance classes at the NYU School of Continuing and Professional studies. In addition, I conducted numerous informational interviews with professionals in equity research and educated myself on financial modelling. I got my first job through alumni referral, and was fortunate to encounter terrific mentors that trained me how to think about strategy and market “sentiment” driving stocks up and down.

 

What are the key skills needed for this job, and did you develop any of them during your PhD?

First, equity research requires analytical abilities, which I honed during my PhD, designing and troubleshooting experiments. Second, the finished product of an equity analyst is a written note or report, distributed to investor clients. Therefore, written communication skills are of utmost importance. While I wrote papers, reports, proposals, and a thesis during my PhD, their style is very different from the succinct and to-the-point communications required for the equity analyst job, so I had to adapt my writing style. Lastly, I am grateful to my PhD advisor for extensive training on the ins and outs of PowerPoint and delivering presentations, which came in handy in equity research.

 

What would be your advice to a PhD wanting a job similar to yours?

For scientists interested in a career in finance, I would advise reading as much as possible about the current therapeutic landscape and the biopharma industry players, and keeping up to date with translational and medical newsflow. I remember my undergrad colleagues majoring in social sciences spending a lot of time taking classes on designing effective surveys. In retrospect, I wish I had taken some of those courses and I recommend STEM scientists focus on this type of research method. I also advise trying to learn as much as possible about finance and accounting, perhaps by taking advantage of local course offerings in these fields. Some universities have access to published equity research through the local library – I would strongly suggest reading as many reports as possible, in order to become familiar with the writing style and structure of the different investment communications.

 

What are three things you do on a typical day?

On a typical day, equity analysts wake up to news from the European markets and U.S. market press releases begin to trickle in at 7.00am ET, so they need to digest a large volume of information, assess impact to covered stocks, and evaluate if financial estimates will be adjusted. News of a drug succeeding in a Phase III clinical trial may translate into adjustments of the drug’s probability of success. Second, equity analysts spend a lot of time on the phone, pitching and discussing investment ideas to investor clients. Third, equity analysts also coordinate multiple diligence projects, pertaining to products/clinical trials of covered companies or to companies considered for future coverage.

 

What are your favorite – and least favorite – parts of the job?

I enjoy reading and analyzing novel drugs and therapeutic modalities, and learning about the forefront of medicine. There is a great feeling of satisfaction when a prediction or forecast is accurate, when value creating events such as successful drug development are in line with the analyst’s expectations. I also enjoy attending medical conferences in fields as varied as oncology or rare disorders, and getting to know where the field is headed and what the upcoming research directions are. My least favorite part is the constant “on call” feeling, as key news can be announced any minute (including late at night), and the work required to react to major announcements can derail a day’s schedule.

 

Is there anything you miss about academia? What was the most challenging aspect of moving from the bench to equity research?”

Sometimes, the answer to a molecular question can only be found by experimental means (e.g. which strategy is most effective, targeting PD-1, PD-L1, or both in cancer?) and I miss not having the means to answer it directly. I was told before I started that equity research is an effort-intensive job, and believed it would be comparable to lab research (especially paper resubmission season). However, the pace of work is more comparable to the feeling during preparation for an important lab meeting or department presentation. Except for that is the feeling every day on the job.

 

How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?

Biotech and pharma equity research remain niche areas within finance, and the need for freshly-minted PhDs fluctuates greatly. During the recent biotech boom (2012-2015), hundreds of new companies became public, prompting multiple financial institutions to hire more biotech analysts as coverage universes became too big for a single team to manage. However, with more and more analysts covering the same stocks, client revenue is gradually directed at the minority who conduct the highest quality and most differentiated analyses. Over the next ten years I predict a lingering need for specialized professionals to analyze drug data, thereby predicting stock moves. However, in the social media/digital era, many analysts may have to reinvent themselves and the methods they use to reach clients and deliver the results of their analyses.

 

What kind of jobs does someone in your position move on to?

The most straightforward transition is promotion from the associate to the analyst position. To employ an academic analogy, analysts are similar to PIs, deciding on which companies to cover and what the course of the franchise should be, while associates are similar to postdocs, executing most of the analytical work to support such recommendations. Alternatively, associates may go on to work for the so-called “buy side”, investment managers such as hedge funds, pension funds, or mutual funds. This type of due diligence work is highly similar to that done by research analysts working for the “sell side” (i.e. banks “selling” stocks and “buy side” investors “buying” them). In addition, the diligence, market research, and valuation skills are amenable to other positions in corporate/business development and strategy in biopharma, investor relations, and consulting.

 

And finally: In the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would an equity research analyst bring to the table?

Man, since we survive the pressure of having to do multiple things on a  deadline – immediately, we can rapidly seize a situation and make a recommendation: Sell! Buy! Erm, I mean Run! Take cover! We may only be correct 50% of the time, but you can be darn sure that our attention to detail (honed from those endless days of Excel modeling) is so great that we’ll avoid those zombies lurking in the shadows.

 

So You Want to Be a… Medical Science Liaison (MSL)

By Sally Burn, PhD

I recently had the pleasure of talking to Alexandria Wise, PhD about her job as a Medical Science Liaison (MSL). It should be noted that she deserves special recognition for being so understanding in the face of an epic technological mess-up on my end. But then this personable nature is one of the traits, along with excellent communication skills, that make her a successful MSL. If you too are as good with people as you are with proteins, a career as an MSL could be the post-PhD path for you. Here’s the lowdown on this exciting career:

 

Hi Alexandria, so what does a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) do?

At its core, an MSL provides medical data to Health Care Professionals (HCPs) about a specific pharmaceutical drug product. An MSL is basically a library of knowledge for all groups who might be interested in a specific disease state or drug. I work for Sanofi-Genzyme in their Multiple Sclerosis (MS) division. My job is to know everything about our MS drugs, from clinical data to disease state information. When you’re in grad school you have four years to learn everything; here it’s much more intense, you have six months for training before you are put into the field. Following your training, you basically give what equates to a defense on the product. At this presentation, you are questioned by upper management to see how well you do under pressure and, more importantly, how well you know your stuff. We’ve got two MS drugs at the moment, and both are just amazing. Patients on our products are able to have a better overall quality of life, their MS is controlled and they can do things they couldn’t before. That’s a wonderful feeling.

 

In grad school you can work on a protein for four years, finally find out it tethers to the membrane… and then everyone outside your niche is like: so what? What you just described is a very different level of outcome.

Absolutely! I mean I used to work on ubiquitination and I thought everyone should be interested in it, but I talk to MDs and they’ve never heard of it. You spend so much time on a problem but then is anyone going to read your paper? Maybe some people but unless you are doing translational research then it’s probably only people in your very specific field of research. This is a problematic outcome of scientific research. I talk to doctors, nurses, physician assistants and answer their questions. And I love the variety because everyone’s perspective on the field of MS is different.

 

Can you tell us about three things you’re currently working on?

Right now I’m driving to have a quick discussion with an MD on some research that was carried out in like the late ‘90s, early 2000s that’s still relevant today. One thing about being an MSL is that we are on the road often or spend many hours traveling and you can’t always pick up a journal article to read. So, with the support of Sanofi-Genzyme, I’ve produced a podcast for MSLs, so we can learn about cutting edge research while we are traveling and reading isn’t convenient. I also work with doctors who carry out scientific research. Right now I’m working with one MD who’s working on functional MRI and neuronal metabolism in patients who are on one of our drugs.

 

You mentioned the amount of travel, so leading on from that, what are your favorite – and least favorite – parts of the job?

Understatement of the year, there is a lot of traveling! I cover New York and Long Island and I drive a lot. But also there are a lot of meetings that take place internally and externally (i.e. annual conferences) so I fly a lot too. My least favorite thing would be the scheduling and how it gets disrupted easily. I may be in Albany in the morning and then have to drive at a moment’s notice to Long Island. But often it’s because a HCP needs the information to give the best possible care to their patient and that’s fine, that’s what I’m here for, and I’m willing to drop everything to address that. My favorite – I’m very independent and so being an MSL works great with that. I talk to my boss, maybe once a week and I see him even less, maybe every quarter. Other than that I make my own schedule and decide what I do. And I know I’ll get it done. Some people aren’t suited to that – they need hand-holding for each step, and that doesn’t work out so well. But of course being a PhD you’re already suited to this because you know how to work alone, decide what needs doing, and manage your time.

 

Other than the needs to be independent, willing to travel, and outgoing – are there any other key skills required for this job?

A lot of the soft skills you’ll already have from your PhD. You are constantly working with people you’ve never met before but your goal is to develop a relationship with these HCPs. Being able to read body cues or other non-verbal cues are highly necessary for this job. It may not sound like a huge deal but when you are in a business meeting, being able to recognize and adjust your message, so that the audience receives your message better is the difference between being asked back for another meeting or never seeing that person again.

 

How did you get to where you are now? What is your educational and science background?

For my undergraduate I double majored in neuroscience and psychology. I did my undergrad at Ohio Wesleyan University; it’s a small liberal arts college. Then for grad school I went to Northwestern but transferred to City University in New York to complete my PhD in neuroscience. I then did my postdoc at Columbia, working in the pathology department on the ubiquitination pathway in neurons. I also represented postdocs on a Columbia committee and helped set up a New York wide postdoc society. But you know what it’s like, it’s expensive being a postdoc in New York and so I started exploring jobs outside of academia. All I kept hearing was “consulting, consulting” so I thought I’d give that a try. It took nine months from starting to look for a job to leaving the lab. I started working as a consultant for a small company and… yeah, I wasn’t that happy. Some projects were great, like this one diabetes project where we took one aspect of the drug – that it stayed in the system longer than competitors’ – and spun it to be the positive selling point. So if you forget to take it one day, it’s not the end of the world, your blood sugar isn’t going to plummet. That was how we sold it. A lot of it is about branding. But then there were other projects which had nothing to do with science and it just wasn’t for me.

I started reaching out to friends to see if anyone knew of any jobs going. I will say right now – LinkedIn is your friend! It is so useful, I cannot emphasize that enough. I messaged one of my friends on LinkedIn to ask if he knew of any jobs at Sannofi-Genzyme, where he worked. He was like “this is amazing, yes, we have two positions we’re looking to fill right now”. So I did an over-the-phone interview with my now boss, then a month later I was in Boston for an interview with the whole team from the Northeast, and a month after that I learned I got the job.

 

I was going to ask what your advice would be to a PhD wanting to become an MSL, but it sounds like the advice is LinkedIn!

Yes, absolutely, LinkedIn and networking! What I did was to email people at companies I was interested in. There’s the route of submitting your resume via an online application but honestly if you want someone to notice you, email the person who’ll be your co-worker or an HR person personally. Also, you have all these connections currently at grad school but they’re going to move on and make new connections and then you will have a whole new set of people you can reach out to. It’s such a useful resource. Even now I still get maybe three or four messages every week asking if I want to go transfer to their company. It’s crazy. But I’m happy where I am right now.

 

That brings me to the next question: what kind of positions do MSLs move on to?

There are various levels you can move up through. My friend who I messaged about the job initially, he is now medical director. Another option is moving into medical communications. They prepare scientific data for presentation on posters or in brochures for a pharmaceutical company about the products. And some people move across to consulting. There are lots of options and, like I said, I get offers every day to move companies. It’s a big field right now and the number of MSLs in the US is increasing.

 

So is the field expanding? What major changes do you see happening to the MSL field in the next ten years?

It’s going to continue to expand, very much so. At Sannofi-Genzyme the US territory used to be just carved up into four large areas, having one MSL for each region but now we have grown to 38 MSLs for the US. I cover New York and Long Island, and there’s another MSL just for Manhattan and Brooklyn. The job opportunities are only increasing. And I think now PhDs are beginning to become aware of it as a career. Previously it was just PharmDs who knew what an MSL was.

So I think as a whole the field is growing. But you should be aware of the lifecycle of the product you’re dealing with because if you work on a drug that’s been out for a while, soon it’ll be off patent and then go generic. In the US, most drugs go off patent in 10-15 years. At that point your company may downsize because other companies are also making your drug and data on the drug is more readily available. But there will be other MSL jobs you can fill elsewhere. And it’s a great job, the benefits are excellent. I don’t mind saying my salary, I earn around $130k and a brand new car but that’s not including the other benefits like an annual bonus. All my travel is covered, I have an Amex. At the consulting job, I started at $70k but that was at a small firm.

 

Is there anything you miss about academia?

Mmmm… yeah. I miss going to an interesting talk and having conversations about research. If I talk about ubiquitination to one of my MDs, they’re not going to know what it is, whereas I think everyone should be working on it – it’s the trash can of the cell! And I miss seeing cool stuff down the microscope. I used to work on neurons, so that was cool. But other than that… no, I’m good with where I am now!

 

OK, the final, most important question: in the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would an MSL bring to the table?

There are definitely two types of zombies: fast-moving ones from 28 Days Later or the slower mob-like ones from Walking Dead. If you’re talking about full-on 28 Days Later type zombie apocalypse, MSLs would be useful as we know all about density, of where people are located because of all the travel we do. So we would know where it’s safer to be (i.e. less dense areas of people). And we know where all the remote clinics are, hidden away in woods. If these were like Walking Dead type slow zombies… I mean, come on, you can walk faster than them! Just walk fast! But I guess in that situation where you have a group of survivors coming together, MSLs would be really good at working with all different types of people and managing the balance/harmony within a group of survivors to build something constructive (i.e. a wall). I still can’t believe no one ever met a construction worker as a survivor on one of these shows! I live in NYC, there are millions of them!