By Anjana Narayanan
After realizing the traditional path was not for her, Anjana chose to explore not only research jobs in industry, but whole new business positions that drew upon abilities she already had or challenged her to master new skills.
- When did you decide to leave the lab bench? Why?
During my first year as a postdoctoral fellow in 2014, I was working on a behavioral neuroscience project which was not progressing well; I was frustrated and unhappy. Instead of just working through the situation, I decided I would take some time to self-reflect and ponder what I wanted in life. It was then that I realized I became a postdoc because it was the “default” choice, rather than something I really wanted to do. For most PhDs in life sciences, when asked, “What is next?”, the standard response is, “Apply for a postdoc position.” Not because it is necessarily what you truly want to do, but because it seems like the only thing you can do. Similarly, I had no idea what other career options I could pursue or how I could get there. Most importantly, I also had to deal with the feeling that I was not a “failure” or “a sellout” for wanting to leave academia. In academic circles, you are only considered successful if you become a tenured professor and continue to publish in academic journals. So to say I wanted something different felt like failure at the time…but in hindsight, I think it was the best decision I made.
- What were the first steps you took to explore options outside the lab? Was this very challenging?
I started with a visit to the office of postdoctoral affairs and spoke to the Dean to see what advice she had. She gave me some pointers such as looking at alternative job boards (Journals, Science Fairs), tailoring my resume, etc. I took her advice and vigorously applied to over 50 jobs for scientist positions in pharma companies, but got zero responses. It was like a black box where my resume would go and I would not hear anything for weeks or even months. This got me really anxious. I also realized that I was falling into the “default” mode again where I was applying only for scientist positions…just that they were in industry instead of academia. I realized I needed to clearly define what my career goals were before jumping head on into the next opportunity.
- What did you do next? How did you land up with a job in consulting?
I decided to make a list of skills I believed I had, work that excited me and things I did not like as a researcher. With this in hand, I looked around for job profiles that seemed like a good fit for me and also networked a lot via LinkedIn, conferences, and job boards. This process helped me better understand the various career paths available for PhDs such as myself—there were roles in scientific writing, consulting, medical science liaison, industry R&D, etc. During one of the many networking events I attended, I had a chance to participate in a workshop by Boston Consulting Group (BCG), one of the “Big 3” global management consulting firms. At this workshop, advanced degree candidates (PhDs, JDs, and MDs) presented an overview of what they did at BCG and spoke about a program called “Bridge to BCG”. This program allowed chosen applicants to take part in a three-day crash course in management consulting and came with an offer to interview for a consultant position at the firm. I went home excited and tried to learn as much as possible about management consulting. I read articles about top consulting firms, connected to consultants on LinkedIn, did informational chats, and signed up to a consulting newsletter. Eventually, I decided to take the plunge and applied for the Bridge to BCG program as well as a few other management consulting firms. I was fortunate enough to be selected for the program at BCG, where I learned the essentials of consulting. This invaluable experience propelled my interest in the profession and I prepared rigorously for two months for my interview. I joined an online consulting club and practiced countless cases and fit interviews. Luckily, all my efforts paid off And I got an offer from BCG’s Dallas office! I moved out of academia after one year of being a postdoc to a job that was intense and high pressure but super rewarding at the same time with fantastic learning opportunities.
- What does it mean to be a consultant? Who were your clients? Were you able to interact with them regularly?
Companies like BCG solve the biggest challenges and problems organizations face. As a scientist by training, this excited me. Starting with a problem, taking a hypothesis driven approach and coming up with creative solutions…all this without having to pipet! A consultant at BCG can be a generalist, who opts to tackle cases in any industry, or a specialist, who chooses a certain business vertical and digs in. Given my love for science I decided to specialize in Healthcare. In my two years at BCG I worked with top pharma companies and hospitals and helped them with mergers and integration, organizational change, and corporate strategy. Cases were typically 12 to 15 weeks long; the case team flew to the client site Monday through Thursday and worked from the BCG office on Friday.
- What did you love most about the job and how did you find the transition from academia?
I loved working on different cases, understanding business scenarios and problem solving. The hours were long and intense, but I got to learn first-hand how large businesses were managed, strategic decisions were made, and how companies innovated. I honed a range of soft skills such as presenting to the C-suite (i.e., people in high-ranking positions in an organisation), time management and prioritization, and also developed important technical skills such as advanced Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint. What really helped ease the transition into consulting was the fact that I was not afraid to ask for help when I needed it.
- For how long were you a consultant? What did you move onto next?
After two years as a consultant I realized that consulting is more than a job, it is a lifestyle. Constant traveling and living out of a suitcase was hard, so I decided it was time to move into industry. I wanted to apply for a job where I could leverage my technical skills with my newly minted business skills and acumen. I interviewed for both biotech and pharma companies, and finally decided to join a Bay Area–based biotech startup called 10x Genomics, as a Product Manager. In my role, I collaborated with cross-functional teams to conduct commercial assessments and was responsible for global strategy, product lifecycle management, and market development of the products I was in charge of.
- What challenges did you face in a startup? Was your lifestyle more flexible than before?
Startups can be challenging and exciting at the same time. You work long and intense hours to manage your own work while putting other processes in place at the same time—you roll up your sleeves and do what needs to be done! In the process you learn a lot and wear many hats, which for me was very exciting. I definitely faced some challenges along the way and I overcame them by utilizing my resources well, maintaining good communication, setting the right expectations, and being willing to learn. Importantly, a great manager and wonderful colleagues made the transition easy. My hours depended on project deadlines—some days it would be 9-to-5 and other days it would mean putting in as many hours as it takes. As Product Manager I primarily worked from the office as it gave me face-time with the various teams I worked with (R&D, marketing etc.) and I did not have to travel as much as before.
8. Your career path seems to have taken yet another turn—you are not a product manager anymore. Can you please tell us about your current role?
10x Genomics was growing rapidly. We were expanding our presence geographically and decided to open an office in Singapore (Asia Pacific HQ). After 2.5 years of being a Product Manager, I decided to use this opportunity to take on a new challenge of relocating to Singapore and a new role in Business Development and Corporate Strategy. Currently, I manage key partnerships, collaborations and also oversee associated market development activities. It has been an exciting few months in Singapore and I am looking forward to more learning opportunities in my new role and in my new home.
- Do you have any advice for budding scientists?
Network as much as you can! It is a great way to learn about new opportunities and build impactful relationships. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and definitely don’t underestimate yourself. As a scientist, you have many transferable skills that are highly valuable. The key is to make sure you showcase them in the right light.
10. How can our readers connect with you?
You can reach out to me via LinkedIn. Anjana Narayanan, PhD
Maanasa Ravikumar provided editorial assistance for this article.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and not that of ImagenScience.