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For budding scientists, the road ahead holds both promise and pitfalls

At a biotech job fair in February, a panelist on alternative careers offered a sobering statistic. “Only one in five of your peers is going to have their own lab,” Laurie Dempsey, Ph.D., told the crowd of graduate students and postdocs in the Harris Auditorium at the Child Study Center. The implication was clear. The other four would have to consider alternatives. Dempsey herself traded pipettes and Western blots for an editor’s green eyeshade at Nature Immunology.

And that is only one decision facing scientists, according to members of the two panels at this year’s Graduate Student Research Symposium. If they remain at the bench, will it be an academic or corporate lab? If the lure of the corporate world is stronger, should a scientist go for big pharma or an unknown biotech startup?

Two panels, which divided neatly along gender lines as it happened—men discussing traditional career paths, women considering alternatives—offered the advice and experience of scientists who have been out of school for a few years. Whether in traditional or unusual careers, all managed to keep their hand in science.

“I do a lot of writing, a lot of financial modeling, and I talk to investors constantly,” said Hailey Xuereb, Ph.D., who now does equities research in biotechnology at the financial giant Bear Stearns. Dempsey said she takes satisfaction in helping scientists communicate their work to a larger audience. “You have to write well and enjoy being challenged all the time,” she said.

Karen Mangasarian, Ph.D., spent five years as a postdoc before becoming a technical advisor at a law firm by day, while getting a law degree at night. Small biotech companies make up a large part of her client base. “You can help bring those companies from a middling company to something of substance,” she said.

All agreed that an M.B.A. is not essential to their careers. “It’s helpful, but you really learn once you’re on the job,” said Xuereb.

Students wishing to pursue more traditional careers were warned of the trade-offs inherent in choosing among established firms, startups and academic research.

“There are high risks involved and you have to determine whether it’s worth that risk,” said Timothy S. McConnell, Ph.D., who chose a startup—Rib-X Pharmaceuticals, founded in New Haven last July.

“There’s a big misconception out there that big companies equal stability and small companies equal instability,” said Vic Myer, Ph.D., a founding scientist at Akceli, a 12-person Cambridge, Mass., company that works on high-throughput, cell-based assays. Picking up on Myer’s thought, Mark R. Miglarese, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at Bayer, added, “A big company is probably not going to go down, but your research area might.”

And, the panel noted, working at small companies allows scientists to develop skills in other areas, such as business, marketing and public relations, while corporations offer another kind of flexibility. “In large companies there’s a fair bit of opportunity to move around, because big companies do a lot of different things,” said Miglarese.

Panel members also warned students about the difference between science in academia and in industry. Academic researchers have the luxury of pursuing projects for no other reason than that they find them interesting. “Let’s face it, these are money-making ventures,” Miglarese said of corporate research. “You’ve got to sell it. It’s got to make some sense for the company.”