Written by Yuezhe (Li)
On June 30, the midpoint of 2020, I interviewed Dr. Spencer Keilich, a UConn Health alumni, about his transition from academia into industry during COVID-19 and any advice he may have for those going through a similar transition.
Spencer studied immunology at the UConn Health Center. His research focused on influenza-induced muscle atrophy. Spencer graduated from UConn Health in 2020, and now he is a research scientist at QCDx. His company develops a liquid biopsy system that helps to provide personalized medicine for breast cancer patients. QCDx is a biotech startup located in Farmington, CT and is part of the UConn Technology Incubator Program (TIP). Spencer says he applied for this job because he wants to work on an interesting project in the biotech industry.
Spencer says he was lucky that he started to search for jobs before the COVID shutdown reached Connecticut. He found his current position through a UConn job forum that shares job postings from BioCT, a bioscience industry voice for the state of Connecticut. He cold-mailed QCDx’s CEO for his current job and was interviewed immediately: he emailed the CEO on Friday and was interviewed on the next Monday. He was hired immediately and was able to finish all the paperwork before the COVID shutdown. He mentioned that had he looked for jobs later, finding a job could be much more difficult.
Spencer thinks the training he received during his Ph.D. is helpful for him to transition into his new job. He was able to use his bench skills developed during his Ph.D. training, such as running different assays and literature searching, in his new role. Unlike academic research, there is more regulatory compliance in the industry. This means more paperwork. The lab is also more organized: there is more experimental documentation, notes, and annotation, as well as a better reagent tracking system.
When I asked Spencer what advice he could offer for graduate students, for example, how to talk to their PIs about graduation, he laughed. He says the key is managing expectations and to know where to cut [your dissertation research] off. He says students should pitch their complete story to their PIs to essentially argue that their PhD training is complete and that it’s time for them to move on. Spencer also mentioned that he thinks that training successors to take over the current [unfinished] projects could help with this transition out of the lab. In this way, the projects do not die when students graduate. I recall hearing similar advice on the Harvard Business Review podcast. If people want their supervisors to help them to move to their next career position, they should train their successors.