Careers Beyond Academia Workshop

An ASPB Membership Committee event at Plant Biology 2019

The Careers Beyond Academia Workshop was organized by the ASPB Membership Committee and set up as several roundtable question-and-answer sessions, where each table was hosted by someone established in a non-academic career and attendees could choose who they wanted to pepper with questions.

Speaking as someone who “grew up” scientifically when careers beyond academia were considered a failure, I’m delighted to see that bias going the way of VHS tapes and jackets with big shoulder pads.

Shoulder pads are passé but Joan Collins is eternal

The strong representation from industry, including Phil Taylor (Crop Science Global R&D Innovation Ambassador at Bayer), David Skibbe (Principal Scientist, Syngenta), Rita Varagona (Herbicide Tolerance Trait Portfolio Platform Lead at Bayer), Shu Li(Co-founder of stealth mode biotech startup), Rishi Masalia (Director of Bioinformatics at LeafWorks, Inc.), Laura Wayne (Oils Discovery Leader of Corteva Agriscience), Kay Watt (Strategic Business Analyst at HM Clause), and Ryan Rapp (Head of Product Discovery, Pairwise Plants), allowed attendees to learn about careers in plant biotech at large and small companies. We already knew from the major symposia that biotech has lots of opportunities for creative, exciting research, all aimed–as Dr. Varagona noted–at developing a product. The workshop also had representatives from publishing, including Lei Lei (Associate Editor at Nature Plants) and Mary Williams (Features Editor at ASPB), and from government, including David Horvath (Research Plant Physiologist at USDA-Agricultural Research Service), and Diane Jofuku Okamuro (Science Advisor BIO/IOS at National Science Foundation).

Thanks to all the panelists and organizers!

I learned some excellent tips about applying for jobs at biotech companies– for example, Dr. Watt suggests approaching people who have jobs you might like to hold and asking for informational interviews at meetings or on social media (Twitter or LinkedIn). Dr. Watt says “people are usually flattered and happy to be helpful”. Similarly, Dr. Rapp mentions that it’s a small world, so it’s great to reach out to people. Those team-working skills that you developed on that multi-author project are super important, as Dr. Varagona reports that biotech companies often look for people who work well with others.

Reach out to Phil, and Mary, and other panelists on LinkedIn!
LinkedIn provides a message button for contacting your contacts!

In addition to networking, we got some excellent advice on job applications. For example, it helps to use keywords from the job application in your cover letter and CV because your CV likely has to pass a filtering algorithm before a person even sees it. Dr. Taylor suggests that applicants not underestimate their own abilities. His take– learn to read the job application and what it’s looking for, but if the job description is asking for ten things, you don’t have to check all ten boxes. Finally, when you get the job offer, Dr. Masalia advises “don’t be afraid to negotiate— you don’t want to regret not doing so.”

Panelist Leonore Reiser (Senior Scientific Curator at Phoenix Bioinformatics) commented that graduate school is an excellent time to send out feelers and work on networking— but of course, it’s never too late– something I know from experience, as my career really launched years after my postdoc! Dr. Williams suggests that volunteering can advance your career, but don’t give away your time— even the simplest volunteer gig, like getting cookies for seminar (her example) can be leveraged into opportunities to learn skills (planning, evaluation of workshop). This fits nicely with advice from Beronda Montgomery (MSU Foundation Professor at MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory), who spoke at the ASPB President’s Symposium, to obtain payment in the currency of your field– for example, look for things that will add to your CV, not useless rewards.

Panelists in action!

I already have a career beyond academia, but I learned a lot from this workshop and I’m glad I attended, as it will help my mentoring– in fact, Dr. Reiser mentioned that she was delighted to see a faculty member who was attending this panel so that they could better mentor their own students. Indeed, mentoring came up a lot in the advice to attendees. For example, Dr. Reiser advised us to “Choose your mentors carefully” and Dr. Okamuro advised attendees to ask “Will they look out for you?”. In the similarly excellent Women in Plant Biology luncheon, Denneal Jamison-McClung (ADVANCE program coordinator, UC Davis) advised us to choose sponsors in addition to mentors— that is, find people who will put your name forward and help advance your career, in addition to people who will give good advice.

Kudos to the ASPB Membership Committee, particularly early-career researcher Stephanie Klein (graduate student at Penn State University, a member of the Membership Committee and current Chair of the Ambassador Alliance) and Jill Deikman (BioDirect Platform Lead and Science Fellow at Bayer Crop Science). for bringing together this great group of panelists and thanks to all the panelists for sharing their wisdom. From the President’s Symposium, to the diverse conversation circles, luncheons, and workshops, Plant Biology 2019 offered a lot of resources related to careers and mentoring. Whether you are early in your career, or are mentoring people who will be looking for jobs, check out this workshop if they offer it at Plant Biology 2020. I’ll see you there!

Jennifer Mach (Co-founder and managing editor at Plant Editors and Peridot Scientific Communications)

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