Each summer, college and high school interns at CST get a chance to sample work life in a biotech environment. They are typically in the early stages of considering potential career paths, so what better time to set up a Q&A panel? Five CST employees shared some of their career development experiences during a recent “lunch and learn” session with the interns. Selections from the session have been transcribed and edited for brevity. –ed.
Q: Which do you like better, being on the bench or managing?
Caitlin R., R&D Supervisor/Associate Scientist,
There are challenges to both. I think the part I like the best, actually, is training and coaching people. I would be sad to move away from the bench at this point, and it took me a long time to realize this, but I can be more impactful for the company as a whole if I share my bench work skills with other people. So, I really enjoy the training aspect of my role and getting everyone on my team to know just as much as me, plus everything they brought to CST in the first place. It ends up making for a much stronger team.
Jackie C., Production Process Manager:
As you're on the bench for a while, you start to find what you really care about and what you really liked, and you grow in those little areas. The bench is a cool time to grow. You can stay in that and grow as a scientist or you can say, "I really like this part. I really like marketing or I really like sales," and then you can transfer those skills to different avenues completely. I think the MBA helped me with that, figure out what I wanted to do as well.
Q: How do you position yourself to always be learning and [to understand] fields that you don't understand currently, and how do you prevent yourself from becoming out of touch?
Erin H., Product Manager:
So, for me, my role is to understand our customers. I can't possibly understand what each one of their PhDs is on, at that level of detail, right? And so trying to spend as much time with them and understand that to the best I can is important. … You can look at it like a puzzle. There are all these different pieces, there are indicators [and different studies and things that you hear or read]. It doesn't need to be quite that complicated. You don't need to be the expert in every customer's PhD in order to understand what the common needs are, and then figure out how to serve those.
I wouldn't look at it as diluting your skills, but you just see the bigger picture, and I think that would help you as someone who's gonna grow in a company farther than “I just do one thing and that's all I care about”. If you want to do that one thing and that's all you care about, that's great, you do you. But it depends on what your goals are. If you like all the things, then know all the things. Listen to podcasts, read books, touch this, touch that, break something here. “Whoops, I learned from it”. Have fun.
Ken B., Scientific Writer/Editor:
Yeah, so I guess if you've boiled down what it is you get out of doing a Master's or a PhD, aside from depth of expertise in a narrow domain of knowledge, what you get is the ability to pick up a paper from another field, and even though you don't understand all of the experimental details, you can pick out, "Why is the scientist asking this question?"
You can quickly look through a paper and say, "Okay, yeah, the conclusions are supported,” or “They're not supported." You can read through a STAT News or DDN article, or news stories on whatever new immunotherapy is coming out, and without being an expert in that field, you can know why they're doing what they're doing and what questions they're likely to ask next. So that can help you [later in your career] if you'd be evaluating businesses or consulting. You can go from being a super-focused scientist to these other areas of business that need that scientific - not expertise - but competence, scientific attitude.
Shidong W., Inside Sales Representative:
Think about compatibility. The way you absorb all those new skills, that makes you a more compatible person in any area. … And you're speaking their language. You don't need to be the expert, because someone else will be the expert.
What you need to do is to be able to communicate with them and then get the job done. [And] trust me, there are jobs that require people to be able to absorb information from different areas, and the core value they provide is being that bridge to connect different departments, different experts together. Heck, there are even companies that call themselves consulting firms, all they do is connect professionals from different industries.
Q: Final words of advice?
Have fun. This doesn't last. Yeah, it's crazy and [you might be saying] “I don't know what I'm gonna do when I grow up”, well, I don't know what I'm gonna do when I grow up! It's just, who cares, have fun with it, this time is not gonna be forever. There are lots of questions you have to answer and you'll answer them someday. They don't have to be answered now. Try something, like Erin said. You try it, you hate it, you change it. That's it. Whatever decision you make, it's not the end ... it's not the one decision that you have to stick with the rest of your life.
Yeah, to keep doing things like the internship, volunteering, reach out. I know that networking can be intimidating, but it doesn't have to be. Just whatever connections you make, ask them "Who do you know … which one of your friends has worked in this industry, or for this company?" Get coffee with that person and just try to learn more, whatever it is.
If possible, align yourself with a really great mentor. They'll be there to teach you new skills and share their network with you, and you can learn a lot by just following them around. Also aligning yourself with someone that has a really similar work ethic is helpful. I think, when you come right out of school, you don't really know your passion yet, so if you can focus on working with someone that has that same drive as you, your passion will develop as you go. I think mentorship really shaped me.
I would say just follow your heart. I mean, it's easier said than done, but definitely do that and entertain all those crazy ideas in your mind. You never know what's gonna happen, and as long as you trust yourself, you trust your instincts, and ... take calculated risks and make reasonable decisions, right? Even though it might sound crazy at first, once you think it through, you can see the sense in it, and then you're on the right track, you'll be fine. … Build good connections, don't burn bridges. You're living in a society where everyone is so connected in crazy ways, so make sure you have a good network going on.
Yeah, I think what everybody else said, but also, you might not feel like you have a lot of power over what happens right now, but you actually do. You really have the opportunity to make things happen for yourselves, so in terms of whether it's networking or whether it's trying new things and learning about something else, don't wait for somebody to come knock on your door and say, "Hey, do you want to try this cool thing?" If you're interested, find a way to get exposed to it.