E026 From Startup Culture, Through Consultancy Company and Genomics, to Hosting a Podcast as a PhD

October 22nd 2020

Dr Nick Edwards is a neuroscientist by training, having completed his PhD and Postdoc training at Brown University, the NIH, and UC San Diego. As a Postdoc, he decided that business provided the best way to scale up solutions to problems he cares about. Since leaving the bench, Nick worked in business strategy at Boston Consulting Group and returned to San Diego to work for Illumina. Now, he is transitioning to a startup company in stealth mode. Nick is also the host of the Once a Scientist podcast, where he interviews scientists about their careers in academia and beyond. He’s a passionate advocate for mental health and training the next generation of scientists who will change the world.

In this episode, Nick told us about his odyssey through the job market after the PhD: from his work in sales in the startup culture, through his work as a consultant for the Boston Consulting Group, to business development at a company in genomics, Illumina. He also explained the origins of the Once a Scientist podcast, and the mission behind it.

Nick’s LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nick-edwards-phd-3007051a/

Once a Scientist Podcast: https://onceascientist.net/

The episode was recorded on October 14th, 2020. This material represents the speaker’s personal views and not the opinions of their current or former employer(s).

Natalia 00:10 Hello, everyone. Welcome to yet another episode of career talks by welcome solutions. In these meetings, we chat with professionals coming from academia and industry who will build interesting careers and can tell us a little bit about their stories. Today, I have the pleasure to introduce Dr. Nick Edwards who is a neuroscientist by training. He has completed his PhD and postdoc training at Brown University at NIH, and UC San Diego. As a postdoc, he decided that business provided the best way to scale up solutions to problems he cares about. Since leaving the bench, Nick worked in business strategy at Boston Consulting Group and returned to San Diego to work for Illumina, and is now transitioning to a startup company in stealth mode.

Today, Nick is the host of the “once a scientist” podcast where he interviews scientists about their careers in academia and beyond. He’s a passionate advocate for mental health and training the next generation of scientists who changed the world. I cannot be happier to introduce Nick today. And thank you so much, Nick, for accepting our invitation. I’m very grateful for you to join us. We are very curious about your story from your perspective.

Nick 01:31 Thanks, Natalia. I’m super excited about what you’re doing. It’s a subject that I care deeply about, and so I’m honored to be on it.

Natalia 01:41 Okay, we usually start meetings by giving the floor to the guests, so that they can tell us their story more in detail, from their point of view. Could you tell us a little bit about how your life looked like from the time of your PhD? How does your transition look like? And why did you decide to move towards industry? I mean, maybe a little bit from your perspective, and also, what your thoughts are right now about the biggest problems that PhDs face in today’s job market? We are very curious about the behind-the-scenes story.

Nick 02:31 That sounds good. It’s a long story and I’m trying to get to the right level of detail to go into and, you know, I think that it’s also important to recognize that anytime someone tells these types of stories, it’s retrospective. We’re all making up our own story, in a way. And, and it kind of fit in the narrative to how things happened. And, it’s a kind of plan that I had going through but I think it’s really important to me like when I talk to people, I try to show that I made decisions along the way.

But it was the best available decision I could make. You know, and not all options were available to me. I have kind of crafted a career in a way that has been fulfilling and interesting. But it’s not like I planned it to go this way from the very beginning. You know, I tried to capitalize on the opportunities that I had. Stepping back in my training, I did an undergrad in English literature for a few years and was in my senior year of college.

I’d had some science background but I wasn’t super into science because I didn’t like the memorization of facts. And I thought it was rather boring. I thought about doing medical school for a while. I took a chemistry class. I hadn’t done well in my first chemistry class a couple of years before and that’s why I switched to humanities. And, so I went back and retook this chemistry class because I wanted to be a medical doctor. And I did well in that class. I took the next class, which was organic chemistry and I fell in love with organic chemistry. Because to me, it was a way to solve the problem and it was kind of a creative process. I started working in the lab, just volunteering and working as a teaching assistant for organic chemistry. I realized that I do like science and it’s really interesting.

I took this organic chemistry class and realized that I liked it. I started thinking about majors and I decided that I wanted to do neuroscience because I’ve always been passionate about mental health and device had a lot of questions about it. I also had family members that have gone through some pretty serious mental health challenges. And I switched my major. I finished all of my science classes in like a year. And it was pretty intense. At that same time, I was married and we had our first child at the end of my undergraduate. I was thinking, Okay, what do I do now.

And I wanted to do research because I wanted to figure out some solutions and understand mental health and mental health issues better. And so I decided that academia and graduate school would be the way to do that. I did a PhD in neuroscience. I had this great opportunity to do this joint program between Brown University and the NIH. And that was great because I got to work at the NIH where the focus is on health.

I worked at the National Institute on Drug Abuse and struggled as all PhD students do. I had three years of totally failed projects where not even a single experiment went into my dissertation. I was super frustrated. I was about to quit science. And I had this moment where my PhD advisor was like, you got to figure out whether this is the right thing for you. He said that to me. And I sat back and I thought, Well, what else would I do? I don’t even know what’s out there. Do I want to do science? And I stepped back.

I thought that I want to finish this and I’ve always been the type of person that I push through things probably when I shouldn’t sometimes. I decided at that moment that I was going to stay in science. I went in and was able to finish in a relatively short amount of time after that and publish a paper that allowed me to have the opportunity to say, Okay, I could probably still make it in academia. I was going to start a postdoc in San Diego. That was for several reasons.

At that time, we had two kids. One of the reasons was San Diego has just this incredible neuroscience program, UCSD. I was excited about the science there. I knew that there was a biotech community. If I wanted to go into biotech later, I could do that potentially. The biggest reason is you can see behind me, I guess, there I serve. I decided to come to San Diego for all those reasons and did a postdoc for a while, helped a friend with his startup company, had some opportunities to work with an investing group, and kind of looked at new startups and assessed them. And this was all just by random chance. I thought at that time, it was hard to make a fundamental contribution to something like mental health through a basic science career. I think I’m not downplaying it because it’s still super important and I liked the academic track. I wanted to be a professor for many years.

But I also realized that if I wanted to develop solutions to these types of things, to mental health or biotech in general, business was the way for me to pursue that. In about two months, I did this mad rush. I did case interviews to get into a consulting firm and I practice hundreds of hours for these types of things. It was stressful. I had two kids. I was still trying to work in the lab and not give up on my duties with my PIs because I wanted to be fair. I had this opportunity to work at Boston Consulting Group where I was for over a year, and then we had our third child. While I was at BCG, I realized that I needed to have the ability to focus more on my family. I waited to return to San Diego where we wanted to be in the long run and took a position at Illumina in commercial strategy, started a podcast because I was like helping people just coach them to get into consulting firms for a while and I enjoyed that.

I realized that I was kind of the rate-limiting factor there. I couldn’t help many people because I just don’t have enough time in the day. I wanted to be able to scale solutions. I wanted to be able to provide graduate students with the resources that I didn’t feel like I had as a grad student. That’s where the podcast originated. It happened to coincide with a pandemic. And so I had everything prepared. And then they had been preparing for a couple of months to release this thing. And the pandemic hit and it was like, Okay, this week, we launch it. And we have been going since then about maybe 40 episodes are released. If you want to listen, if you’re interested in checking it out, then it’s like a dinner table conversation with somebody about people with different careers. I talked to science communicators. I talked to venture capitalists. I talked to entrepreneurs.

I talked to people, like, professors, and academics, as well as postdocs and PhD students, about all different industries. It’s a fun conversation. That’s kind of my trajectory. As you mentioned, I’m in a career transition myself. That’s always fun. It’s always a little bit nerve-wracking. I’m excited to get more closely involved with the startup community, here in San Diego and elsewhere.

Natalia 11:49 Fantastic. First of all, I love your office. Like, it clearly shows who you are. You have a startup mentality and a research mentality. But also you’re a dad, I think because we can see some toys in there. I don’t have any toys to play in the background yet, but who knows, maybe in the future. Okay. Great. Thank you so much for your story. It’s an amazing journey. I would like to first ask a little bit about your research experience. Back then when you were still an academic, I’m curious because before I finished my undergrad studies in Warsaw and before I came to the Netherlands to do my PhD, I spent three months at Caltech, in Pasadena. I was doing a summer project. After this project, I promised myself I would never leave the US.

The reason was this lack of work-life balance. I was in a lab where there were 35 people in total. And most of them were postdocs and it was a very competitive environment. Everyone was glued to their computer day and night. I remember when we went on club excursions in the mountains for three days, it was like a tradition that every year they were going together for like one weekend to the mountains. And I remember that one of the lab mates got freshly married a few weeks before. On this occasion, he took like three days off. I remember those three days. He didn’t go on the excursion with us because he felt guilty that he had already taken three days off before because of his wedding. And, and it’s a real story. This is how people do their work there.

They were so committed. It was a bit like an army and I felt that I cannot live like this. And here in Europe, we are a bit more focused on the family. I think the standard is nine to five and whatever else you want to put into your work. It’s your commitment and your own decision. But you’re not expected to do that. I was curious about how did you manage? I admire the fact that you started your postdoc and you had kids already. And how did you manage to manage the two? Do you have the same experience that people have? In California universities, they are so concentrated on work.

Nick 15:02 I think that it’s a feature of the culture in America in general, in some ways, and especially startup culture. I think that academic culture is very much this way where it’s not great that people tend to define themselves by their science. I’m not going to say that I have not been caught up in that trap. Because I have done it myself. Sometimes, I have to constantly step back and check that because it’s really important for me to have a stable family life and to be around my kids and my partner.

I think that there’s certainly truth to it. It’s really important to find, like, where your boundaries are, and where your priorities are. To me, my priority is my family. Whenever I interview with companies or talk to potential new employers, I’m very candid about these types of things. Because I tell them, Look, I need to have daily time with my family. I can’t be always on. I think that you have to be able to set personal boundaries.

In the long run, when you think about 50 years from now or 30 years from now, what are you going to value your life on? Is it going to be the work that you did? Probably not, you know, it’s going to be the people that you know and that you love? And I think that it’s a super important issue. It’s something that we need to fix in academic and scientific culture. I think that it’s a good thing in some ways because it encourages and allows for productivity and interesting things to be built. But it can also be detrimental. And you have to always kind of prioritize and refocus on self-care.

Natalia 17:40 There were some studies on what people typically regret when they grow old and on their deathbed but they used to say that they regret that they didn’t spend more time with their family. That’s regret number one. Nobody says that they work too little. Okay, I have more questions about your startup phase. Because I’m very curious. As we all know, the Bay Area and Silicon Valley are the cradle of entrepreneurship and startups as we know them today, the technical startups.

I’m very curious about it because I also started the company and I know a lot of PhDs who are entering this startup space, here in Europe. I have a feeling that for PhDs, it’s particularly hard for certain reasons. One reason is that we are idealistic. And we base our value on our technical knowledge and our expertise. This is what we contribute. That’s not necessarily what is the most valued in the startup culture.

I feel that this is also my finding when I started working with startups. At the moment, I’m focused more on my own company. But I also had a time when I was writing business plans for startups. And I was planning to become a member of startups but I was a kind of always put in a very disposition where I was getting the hardest parts of the project and all under the worst offer, like financially. It was hard to manoeuvre myself to use my contacts in the right way and put myself in a position where I can influence projects and it was hard because I didn’t have that business and that ability to navigate myself between people.

After a few years in business, I think you get this ability but you have to be there and try and try many times with some other teams. I felt that I was this naive researcher who thought that once you’re smart and hard-working, then you will be valued. That’s not necessarily the case. Because you also have to find the right people and find yourself in the right place at the right time and be able to sell yourself well and know how to fit in which product and what role to take.

This is just hard at the beginning. This is more of a street knowledge than textbook knowledge. That was my feeling. It was like swimming in the sea of people who build new projects and you have to get some level of wisdom that you don’t have after a PhD. I have that question for you. What were the surprising things for you when you were entering the startup culture? And how do you feel about which of your skills and competencies and which part of your expertise was the most useful? How do you feel about the startup culture today?

Nick 21:26 I was fortunate to have startup experience early on. I grew up in challenging economic conditions. There were times when our heat or water or whatever went out. And that wasn’t super infrequent. I didn’t have much of a safety net financially when I started college, and I wasn’t even planning to go to college. I started in community college because I had never taken standardized tests to get into college. When I was in high school, I just kind of wandered my way into college. Then I started to realize that I liked it. And I wanted to continue on that path.

But I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it. I started working for a startup. I was just a customer service representative. I took phone calls and answered questions about products. It was a low-paying job but I learned a ton from it. I learned what it was like to work in a small company and to be able to communicate with people from different backgrounds. What I was doing was selling outdoor equipment like snowboards, mountain climbing gear, and things like that for an online company. And it was really interesting.

I paid for the early part of my college through that. Then I worked for another startup in college. When I transferred to a university, I continued to work. It was at a different company that was a startup. It’s fortunate to have had some business experience before even starting my PhD. That helped me quite a bit. I think that there are communication elements that many PhDs have just not experienced in a lot of cases. You have to get that experience somehow. And whether that is through volunteering for a club, at your university, or getting some experience like working with a nonprofit or just going out and teaching in your local area to underserved communities.

There are a lot of different ways to do it. But gaining some good communication skills is essential. Start networking by reaching out to people that have interesting backgrounds and trying to have some insights, learn about different opportunities, and do that with people that are like one step ahead of you rather than like five steps in their career because they’ll be able to give you more relevant advice. Those types of things are really important. One thing that we need to do is like there is this incredible talent pool in science, like smartest people on the face of the earth if you ask me, and have so many above this unlocked potential that, in some ways is not being utilized in because everyone is going after this tenure track job that very few people are going to get.

Then they come to this cliff where. It’s like, I don’t know what to do next. Then it’s hard to navigate that. I think that one thing that universities need to be better at providing resources to help people to make these transitions to learn these types of communications and skills and how to translate what you do because you are not just like a bag of techniques but you’re solving ambiguous and difficult questions all the time. That’s what startups do. I think that many scientists just make good startup employees or founders, because you go in on day one, not knowing what to do, and you just figure it out along the way. And you start asking questions, you start solving problems, that’s what you’re doing. When you’re building a company, it’s just turning that lens in a different direction around solving something for customers rather than writing a paper. I think that universities can be better about training people with these things.

Companies can be better. Businesses can be better about training people when they come in and providing the pipeline to industry because I believe that we have the greatest source of untapped energy on the face of the earth in science. If we can unlock some of the potential of these incredibly smart people, I’ve said this over and over again, but like, how much more difference can you make in the world than to enable people that can build the technologies that will shape the future?

Natalia 27:08 That’s fantastic. What I feel is that PhD greatly helps me with building the products. In the company, everything from conceptualizing some problem, coming up with a solution, building the solution, and then building a website, building a network, like everything, PhD teaches you how to be systematic and how to decompose the big problem into smaller pieces. Then it also helps a lot with developing a company. I feel that for me, my PhD does not help me with making business deals. That’s what I meant. That are two different types of skills.

And even if you’re the best specialist and you are the best at building things, then without this business argument to build good collaborations, I recently kind of learned how to do it. In the beginning, I think you have to learn how to become picky with people. Because it also differs in the Bay Area because you guys have plenty of smart people there and people who have great technical skills.

In the Netherlands, if you go to an IT meetup, then in a room full of people, like among 100 people, maybe 97 are business developers who are walking around searching for people who can program and build stuff. And maybe the remaining three of them in the meetup are the people who can give something so we have a great disproportion between the talking heads and people who can get stuff. If you’re a PhD without that ability to choose the right partners, then you will find yourself among these talking heads that will put all the work on you. That’s my experience.

That’s what I meant. I had to learn in my own skin after I finished grad school that I have to think a lot about with whom I’m making partnerships because people can promise me a lot. In academia, people are very decent. If they say they will do something, they will do it. Outside academia, it’s not always the case. For me, that was a major learning point. You know, you have to build your partnerships in the right way. But again, this is my personal experience. You have a different one.

Nick 30:00 I think that it’s a great point and you need to make sure that the environments and the people that you are working with fit the culture that you want to be in. By the way, I’m not in the Bay Area. I’m in Southern California. It’s a pretty big distance. It’s a little bit different. We still do have a pretty big startup culture in San Diego as well. But I understand where you’re coming from. And it is a little bit different from my experience because I decided when I left the bench that I was going to go all-in on the business side rather than kind of coming in with technical expertise.

And so I’ve never actually used my technical expertise outside the business world. That’s fundamentally a different experience. And I think that it’s a really good point because if you’re coming and in some cases when you’re for like an entry-level type of position, where you’re going to be working for a company.

If you’re coming in from the scientific track, they’re hiring you specifically because you have very specific skill sets that they need to be able to kind of utilize quickly. If you’re coming in from that aspect, what you want to be able to do is assess the company. This is always true. Whenever you’re going for a new job, they are not interviewing you. You’re both interviewing each other. Whenever you are interviewing with the company, you’re trying to show that you have qualifications and translate the things that you have learned into what fits what they’re doing.

As long as it fits, It’s right. But sometimes you can sell yourself on the fact that like, I can learn new things. I’ve done that many other times. You’re interviewing, but you’re also like, it’s really important to make sure that the people that you’re talking to don’t have the same capabilities. Not everyone has the focus on the values that you care about.

And I think, for scientists that we’re looking to transition into something like a startup or industry, it is critical that you don’t just take whatever comes in some cases, like maybe that that’s what you have to do because that’s all out there. I don’t want to say that you should be turning down every opportunity but at the same time realize that you have a lot of value and that the skills and the thought processes, the way of thinking that you’ve learned in your PhD and postdoc, or whatever do translate to business skills. It just takes a little bit of exposure and experience. When you do make that jump, you want to find the right people to make that jump with. Is that kind of what you mean?

Natalia 33:47 Exactly. For me, that was a learning curve. People have different adaptation curves for different things. For me, I adapted to the fact that I have to now be independent and make my own decisions much faster than the fact that I have to filter everything I hear. That were two different things. Now, I would like to ask you a little bit about your experience with a Boston Consulting Group. I’m curious because consulting is one of these areas where PhDs often go and that’s actually for a good reason. That’s one of the ways to gather a lot of industry experience in a short time because of doing multiple projects on multiple topics.

But actually, I’m curious about that particular place because there are many different ways of managing and consulting a company and I know that some companies, especially the small ones, and the middle ones, at least here in Europe, this is the case and so I’m also curious how it’s in the US but here it’s often the case that the small companies Send an employee to the client-side.

And the projects are quite long. They could take, let’s say, a year. Then you work hand in hand with the clients for a quite relatively long time. And then you switch a project and work with another client and larger companies. Here in Europe, they mostly do projects on their site. And the projects are much faster.

They are like a few weeks max and then there’s another project. You build a large portfolio of projects. But you never have that experience with working on the client-side. I’m curious, what is your experience? And how does it feels to work for Business Consulting Group? And can you make that recommendation? I do believe that from your own experience if you could choose again, you think that this is a good choice for the first job in the industry.

Nick 35:59 I think it’s a great option. I had an incredible experience. I don’t regret it at all. After all, it taught me a lot of things that I just hadn’t learned elsewhere or wouldn’t maybe like it would have taken a while to learn them in other places because it’s very fast-paced. You’re working on exciting problems that are like the biggest problems that businesses are facing. In BCG, where I was working, these are really big companies and they could be the biggest companies that you hear about. That’s exciting. There are smart people that you’re working with. The thing I liked about it the most is I’ve met so many interesting and cool people. Would I recommend it to everyone? No, it’s for one. If you want to get into a high-tier consulting firm, like BCG, McKinsey, or Life Science firms, it’s very competitive. It requires a certain level of dedication just to prepare yourself to go into those interviews and succeed. I did that at nighttime.

And I listen to these audio recordings in the daytime while I was doing experiments on the bench to be able to get in and people practice 100 or more hours for these interviews. And so you do that. There’s not even a guarantee that you’re going to get the job. I interviewed and got two final round interviews with three different companies before I got rejected in final round interviews at three different companies before I even got a job offer. I thought going into BCG that I just wasn’t even going to get an offer because I had not succeeded in previous companies and it’s kind of this mental trick I had to play in my head.

I think it’s a great opportunity to work in a great industry. Not everything is good about it like when we talk about working crazy hours. You know, I worked pretty long hours at BCG. But I had a great experience. I would say though like if that’s something that you’re interested in going into, don’t necessarily put all your eggs in one basket. It means that there’s a level of chance involved. And you have to realize that you do have to like put a ton of energy into it to get in. It’s almost like you have to dedicate yourself at least for a little while. But like you need to be thinking about other things in the background. And it may not be the option for everyone especially if they’re up kind of last second.

I need to get something right now. It may not be the best option for that. But, you know, I can also tell you a little bit about what it was like working for them. One of the great things about BCG is that I think McKinsey does this. I don’t know, there may be other companies that do this. BCG hires something like 20% of PhDs or MDS or lawyers. There’s a cohort when you first start, and so I went to a couple of weeks of it’s called a Business Essentials program. And they teach you about business. It’s this crash course and a bunch of different things. That was interesting to that because I didn’t know that much. Some people came in who didn’t have any business experience.

It’s great from that perspective. They have incredible learning and development programs where you pair with somebody who shows you the ropes for a little bit. It is exciting. It’s fast-paced. In some regards, you get in there and, you know, in academia, your timelines are pretty loose. It’s kind of up to you in consulting. There are very specific timelines. There are deadlines and you plan out the entire project and you’re hitting milestones and deliverables. And every single day, you’ve got a list of things that that you need to do and you’re working very closely with other people to communicate and have this dialogue to like, it’s like a hypothesis testing approach, where you start. It’s like, Hey, here’s this big, you know, scary business problem.

And I’d have no idea how to solve that problem. But here’s what I do understand about it. And I’m just going to throw a hypothesis out there. I’m going to test that hypothesis. And you test that hypothesis by getting data from people by talking to individuals. You do it by looking up information on the internet by analyzing data. It’s not so dissimilar from the scientific process but it’s just very fast-paced. You’re constantly zooming in and out on problems.

I think, in science, you have this ability to narrow in on the problem and think about that, and like a very minute detail over months and years. In consulting, you’re zooming in and you’re doing all these calculations. And you’re still analyzing data. But then you have to zoom back out. You have to think about how that fits into the bigger picture and then have to zoom back out and think about what’s their problem? This’s like actually solving the problem. It’s constantly switching back and forth from a very high level of thinking to a very methodic level of thinking and that was a challenging transition for me. I’ve talked to many other people. It seems to be pretty consistent. Those are some of the things that I learned. I mean, it’s an incredible company to work for. Did I want to do that for the rest of my life from a work-life balance perspective, and a family perspective? No, I did not. And that’s why I left. But I will never regret the experience that I had.

Natalia 43:48 This is consistent with what they usually hear from people working for consultancy companies like the top ones. I’m just curious. Did you also have to put in no time on your projects and put every of your working hours on certain projects or you didn’t have to manage yourself to that extent?

Nick 44:16 In BCG, it’s a single project that you’re working on. I didn’t have to go back and forth between projects and the amount of time how long I was working on things clocking in clocking out. There was no clocking in or clocking out. It’s like you go in at a time that is agreed upon by the team that you’re working with essentially. You leave whenever you’ve got what you need to get done for the day. I was getting in at 8 am and leaving at 1 am. That was not always the case. It’s super common. You invest a lot early on. I did at least because I wanted to get up to speed quickly and I wanted to perform well on the job.

And so I sacrificed a lot. I was gone also flying away from home four days a week. I didn’t see my family for four days a week. That was challenging. But it was like, I learned a ton. That’s kind of what it’s like but I guess what I was getting at is that no one is micromanaging. You didn’t have to clock in or clock out. It was just about getting the job done. And I’ll also say like, once you get better at the job, and some people are just better than I was, in general. They didn’t have to put as much time in.

Once you start to figure out the job, I think about six to nine months, that intensity diminishes in a lot of cases because you know, how much time things take and you know how to expect things and how to set expectations with your manager. These are all things that you kind of learned along the way. Those are crucial elements that can help to promote your work-life balance. I don’t know that it’s ever going to be kind of like a nine-to-five job.

Natalia 46:51 I feel that it might be something that naturally happens when you put a lot of ambitious people in one room because of what they do. They have a very strict selection process from the beginning. I’m not sure about the Boston Consulting Group but I know that in McKinsey, the acceptance rate for the interviews is less than 1%. It’s like the people who are cherry-picked from all the applicants. They are extremely ambitious. These are the people who sacrificed a few months of their life to prepare for the interview.

Once you put them in one room, even if you don’t give them any guidelines, they will start exerting themselves with work. I think that’s what’s how it was gonna happen. That happens in graduate schools often because we are just put together in one place without these rules and we don’t have to leave at five. But since we’re all ambitious, then that’s exactly what’s going to happen people start sitting at work until late hours because they just don’t want to be. We’re competing against ourselves.

Before we finally talk about once a scientist, I would still like to ask you something about Illumina. I’m familiar with the name because, in one of the labs I was working with, as a PhD candidate, we were working on Illumina equipment, so I’m familiar with what they produce. But could you maybe also explain to the people who are watching this material, what this company is doing, and what is working? What do the working life and working environment look like? And again, maybe what type of professionals with what type of mindset would you advise to go to work for Illumina the most? And I’m curious about how does this company look from the inside?

Nick 49:12 Illumina is a genomics company. We sell sequencing instruments to be able to sequence the genome and much of the focus in recent years has been pushing toward clinical genomics to be able to push the boundaries so that we can detect things like for example, Coronavirus, or early detection of cancer. It’s an exciting company that pushed the limits in terms of genomic applications and, you know, as many scientists that may be listening to this, you may have either used Illumina instruments or, you know, have done some sort of sequencing. I want to be clear.

I am not speaking for the company. I’ve had an incredible experience at Illumina. I’ve been on the business side. I have a science background. I have a PhD background but I work in the commercial group at Illumina which is interesting. It’s essentially like a sales organization and I help build out solutions and tools to enable and empower our sales teams to succeed. There are a lot of different companies. There are a lot of different types of positions in a company like this. One is on the kind of pure business operations side.

Some scientists and engineers are developing solutions. Some people are product managers that kind of go out and talk to customers and conceive ideas for new products and help create a vision and bring that vision to reality. Some salespeople are former scientists, not all are former scientists, of course, but some salespeople go out and work with customers to show them what potential applications of our instruments are, their services, and support people that understand the technology and help customers to be able to kind of move forward in their workflows.

There are a lot of different types of positions. I’ve had just an incredible experience. I love the company. I believe in its mission. It’s one company out of a large industry of biotech and med device and whatnot. And the same types of roles and functions exist across all companies that are selling products. I think that it’s really important when you think about what types of positions you’re interested in and what do you like to do? Like, what are the things that you care about? Do you care about getting in the technical details and designing something? Then you want to be on the science and engineering side.

You like working with people and that’s closer to product management and dealing with customers or maybe even sales, like, sales careers are awesome. Many scientists don’t realize that there are a lot of opportunities for technical sales that can be very fulfilling. Illumina has been an incredible company to work for. I think that across the industry, there are a lot of different types of roles to go into from science. And it’s really about just making sure that you understand what the company stands for, like, you know, trying to talk to people within those companies to see if the culture fits what you want. And then starting to get an understanding of what are the different types of functions and roles that people do and how does that match my interest?

Natalia 54:07 Okay, great. It sounds like you’re a walking advertisement for Illumina. You’re walking billboards of Illumina. That’s great. If I was now looking for jobs, I would check out their website after what you’ve just said. It sounds very encouraging. Thank you for this. I hope that some of the people watching this episode will also share the same opinion and check it out.

Nick 54:40 This is not an advertisement for Illumina because I want to make sure that I’m not representing the company. This is not a paid advertisement or any type of advertisement like this is just my own perspective.

Natalia 54:57 Okay, great to know that. I would like to now ask you a little bit about something that we like to talk about, once a scientist, great initiative. I would like to know a little bit more about the origins. What did you also learn from this experience yourself and something about the people you met? It would be difficult about arranging this type of show but that turned out to be easy. On the other hand, you thought that would be easy but they’re not difficult. You change your thinking about certain problems. And tell us a little bit more about the behind-the-scenes of once a scientist.

Nick 56:01 Okay, sure. It’s been really interesting. It’s been a lot of fun. I used to listen to podcasts when I was driving to and from work and I liked the format. I am a little bit introverted as a person. It is kind of intimidating for me to get in groups of people and to talk among large crowds. I tend to prefer communicating with people on a one-on-one basis. It’s kind of an outlet for me to be able to do that.

Because I like learning about other people and about what different things are out there in the world, whether that’s from a career perspective or that is from like a personal experience perspective. I think that it’s important to shine a light on different ways of viewing things because one of the things that concern me about the world is that people are in closed communities and that happens in science all the time. It’s kind of an echo chamber in some ways. I think that the more we can open dialogue across industries and political beliefs across all different types of things, the better we can make the world because it’s important to flush these types of things out.

I started the podcast because I had seen the inner workings of business and academia. I think that there are some challenges and problems to solve across both of them I’m passionate about those types of each of those subjects. I try and talk to people about these things and then also really kind of shine a light on what different types of things scientists do after they get their PhD or after they get their postdoc. It doesn’t have to be a PhD or postdoc. In all cases, you don’t have to have a PhD to be a scientist. It is my perspective.

But it’s been interesting to see the huge broad array of different things that people do. I don’t even know working for a scientific organization and lobbying for them. I should have known but I didn’t. I’m discovering it along the way because I don’t go in with a ton of information for each episode. I just kind of go in kind of exploring and just starting to ask questions and sometimes, I probably sound like a total novice and inexperienced because I’m learning about industries.

I’ve never even thought about it. It’s fun from that angle. It’s been fulfilling to meet different types of people to kind of connect back with the science community because there’s this affinity if you’ve gone through this type of training like we have shared experiences, and we’ve gone through similar hardships. That’s been awesome. I thought it was gonna be challenging to get guests and to get people to talk about things and develop content. I have too much content. I have to start giving out. The challenge is just finding the time to edit these things. Sometimes, I don’t want to take away from my family time in the evening. And after my kids go to bed, I’ll just edit episodes until midnight because there’s no other time that I can do it.

One of the challenges is finding the time to be able to do it. But overall, it’s been an incredibly rewarding experience. I have just the coolest and the kindest listeners and followers of the podcast. I’m super grateful for that. it’s nice when people reach out every once in a while and they say this thing that you said or this thing that one of your guests said, made a difference for me. I enjoyed that aspect. That’s kind of the experience that I’ve had.

Natalia 1:01:49 Fantastic. I get what you say. I always liked talking to people in the first place. And I did it a lot in private. That’s how I wrote the whole book. Because I feel that knowledge about the job market is a steep knowledge. There are no textbooks that will tell you what the job market looks like. The only way to find out is to talk to a lot of people who have that experience and can share the good side of things. People like talking about their careers. That’s also my feeling that it was also funny because initially, I was recording these episodes and putting them on the company website.

But then at some point, I realized that it’s a lot of volume and my company website will not be able to carry this amount of volume at some point. I moved it to YouTube. And then I asked my friends, you know, the people who already took part in it, you know what, I think I will just put it on YouTube in open access, do you think that you can take it on your chest to be on YouTube? And they were like, great, you know, like, how many people did watch me already. And I was like, Oh, I thought there would be no intimidated by the fact that they’re on YouTube. But it was the other way around.

They were just looking at the stats. People refer to what you said a moment ago about you being introverted. It’s funny that you’re saying so because I feel that on the one hand, this is one-to-one interaction. But on the other hand, once you put the material there, it can reach a lot of people. And for me, that was the difficulty initially because people read your papers, they don’t associate these papers with you as a person often and you are still kind of private. 

But once you do a podcast or you’re present on social media to like inexpensive amounts, and if you start building some form of the following which is a natural consequence of what you’re doing, then there is this symmetry. All of a sudden, more people know about you and that’s not the experience most people have and that was a big barrier initially that some people know and hear about me that I never knew. In that way, we will have a chance to meet and that symmetry is growing and I don’t know how you feel about that being an introverted person.

Nick 1:04:33 It’s kind of frightening. I think about it every once in a while and I try not to think about it because it feels very private. It’s an asymmetry. But the way I view it is that I’ve gone through challenges and I’ve gone through hard times and pushed through things, I’ve been really lucky in a lot of cases and also privileged in a lot of cases as well. I tend to view it as a little bit of not necessarily an obligation or maybe a little bit of an obligation or duty that I have been very fortunate in my career.

I have had people that have helped me out along the way as I’ve sought out a lot of that help. It’s a great opportunity for me to be able to share that with other people. It’s a little bit scary and uncomfortable because people can take the things that I say out of context. I may have opinions that people may not have, in some cases. That’s okay. I think that’s fine. Because my opinions are also malleable. I’m willing to and I love hearing feedback from people because if I’m thinking about something in the wrong way, I want to know, but it is kind of frightening because I don’t know how the things that I put out there in the world are gonna be perceived.

That comes back on me in a negative way. In some cases, I feel that I have been vulnerable in some cases. I’m not saying that I’m the most humble person. I don’t know what that’s gonna look like in the future. I know that I am not necessarily a public figure or anything but I am putting things out there in the world that give people the opportunity to respond. And it’s a little scary.

Natalia 1:07:25 I think that you’re doing it all in the right ways. Because I can see your activity on LinkedIn and I can see that you get a lot of public trust, which is great. I can see that you are very good with activating people to reshare. I can see also that some of your posts get a few 100 comments, which is great. That means people feel for what you say. That’s fine. You’re a role model for me as well in that area.

Nick 1:08:07 Thank you. I’m just grateful that people are pushing more to help out and focus on these issues and mental health things. And so I think the more people are willing to open up about these types of things, the better it is for all of us.

Natalia 1:08:42 Thank you so much for your kindness. I always like like to end this meeting with some very general questions. I would like to now ask you a very itchy and uncomfortable question that is often the case happens in the job interviews. How do you see yourself in five to 10 years from now?

Nick 1:09:10 For the next few years, I plan to be working with the company that I will be just signed a job offer for the other day and so kinds of building something new and excited about that five to 10 years down the road. I don’t know what my life is going to look like. I think that I want to continue and maybe double down on being able to spend more time with my family. I have ideas for things that I would like to build in the future to solve important problems. Maybe 10 years down the road, I’m starting up my own company.

I have a very kind of driving need to bring change in the world for the better. And I don’t know what manifestation or form that is going to take. But I cared deeply about societal issues and cared deeply about the scientific community. My goal is just to continue to push on things that I think are important for society more broadly and not just for my financial gain or anybody else’s financial gain.

Natalia 1:10:59 I’m very curious how this is going to pan out in the world. You’re already a guru on LinkedIn. Let’s see how it’s gonna go and where are you gonna go next? Okay, so lastly, is there anything in general that you would like to advise to PhDs who are thinking about the career switch? Something only based on your own experience? Or maybe based on the experience of people you talk to? It can be anything.

Nick 1:11:40 My biggest piece of advice? I’ve repeated this before but the thing is worth repeating. Start moving in some direction before you start running away from academia because I know that happens and it didn’t happen for me. But that does happen because people have bad experiences in some cases. Again, not saying anything wrong with academia. But before you start making moves, to do something else, figure out where you want to go because you’re never going to get to where you want to get to if you don’t know where it is.

It’s super important to dig down to get introspective about your life and what I care about deep down. There was a guest on the podcast. He, in his episode, had this great piece of advice which is, think about the people that you look up to, and write a list of like five people that you look up to try and write out what are the traits for the each of these people that I respect, and then find the commonalities between those people.

And those can be driving factors for you if you want to figure out what you care about. At first, figure that out and then map that to what are roles and types of positions are out there that I could potentially have a roadmap to, and then that’s the basis of a hypothesis right there. You’re forming a hypothesis about what you would like to do in the future. The second thing is to test that hypothesis.

And you test that by getting on as many phone calls with people that are doing that thing, or something similar as possible, across industries and companies. Just figure out as much as you can about it. This’s something that I want to do because, during that process, you might find that there’s something else that’s a little bit more interesting to you. As you do that, you build a network, and you build and you start to develop friendships and there are also mechanics of how you do these things and make sure that you’re communicating clearly. You’re being very polite and following up with people. There are mechanics on how to do it but develop a hypothesis, test that hypothesis with data when you talk to people and then push for it.

I think that it’s important that you have also plan B as well. And for many people, like if you’re up against that deadline, you don’t have all the time to do all this. You’re just operating within whatever constraints you have to optimize your situation. But if you can start planning and being able to think about these things very proactively, I think that it helps you in your career.

I wish I would have done that a little bit more because I didn’t even decide that I was interested or didn’t even really know that much about consulting until three months before I applied. There were other things that I could have been interested in. I know that there are other things that I could have been interested in after having done the podcast now. If I could go back and take my own advice, I would do that.

Natalia 1:15:39 Fantastic. I fully agree with you that misinformation and lack of information are also big problems. That’s also why I’m working on this issue. Because I was very lucky in the sense that I could take a long time after my PhD contract expired to just mind wander and try different things. Because I just decided to take a gap year and I didn’t have the pressure to find another job soon.

But I know that and then I naturally started developing my interests in entrepreneurship. But I know that many PhDs don’t have the luxury and they have to find another job within the first few months or even a few weeks after the contract. It’s extremely hard if you don’t have that time for networking. The sooner you start, the better it’s for you.

Thank you so much, Nick, for joining us today and for all these insights. And you have had a very interesting career so far. And I’m very curious about your future endeavors. And for everyone who is watching, please check out once a scientist that will be linked below. That’s obligatory. This is homework and not the choice. Just check it out. And thank you so much, Nick. I would like to apologize also for my negligence. I know where San Diego is on the map. I just have a bad day.

Nick 1:17:36 That’s like people don’t realize how long California is. It’s a huge state. They seem like they’re closer together than they are and like they all sound the same in all the towns.

Natalia 1:07:56 I don’t know what happened. I even took a flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I know how fun it is but I don’t know what happened. But yes, San Diego, of course, is in Southern California. Okay, great. Thank you so much, Nick. Thank you so much for joining us and have a nice day.

Nick 1:18:17 All right. Thank you so much. It was a real pleasure. 

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Please cite as:

Bielczyk, N. (2020, October 22nd). E026 From Startup Culture, Through Consultancy Company and Genomics, to Hosting a Podcast as a PhD? Retrieved from https://ontologyofvalue.com/career-development-strategies-e026-from-startup-culture-through-consultancy-company-and-genomics-to-hosting-a-podcast-as-a-phd/

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