Dr. Seth Garren: How Failures Defined My Value and Enabled My Career

By Rachel Gilmore

Recently, Beyond the PhD hosted Dr. Seth Garren for a virtual seminar where he detailed the “less glamorous parts of academia and industry.” As a current 4th year PhD student, I found his reflections on challenges, struggles, and failures to be extremely relevant and relatable. After Seth earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Connecticut, he decided to follow the funding which was aggressively being put toward stem cell research in Connecticut. This led him to pursue graduate studies in the Biomedical Science program at UConn Health.

Leadership & Communication Outside of the Lab

With a lengthy PhD, Seth witnessed some of the not-so-great parts of graduate school. He described struggles with imposter syndrome, pressure to produce data, disjointed lab environments, and feeling like he was falling behind. This is something I know spans many graduate programs and universities. It is also a reality countless students experience throughout their degree pursuit. During the tough times, he decided to use social media (meetup.com) to start a Geek Culture Group to build relationships and expand his network beyond graduate school. The group became wildly popular and still exists to this day. He credits the Geek Culture Group group for helping him cultivate important leadership and communication skills.

Failure Can Bide Time

While some of the main experiments Seth attempted didn’t work out, he noted that this allowed enough time to pass for next generation sequencing (NGS) to become an option. At this point, he was rather quickly able to conduct an NGS experiment, get published, and graduate with his PhD. Failure is often part of a PhD, but persistence can pay off.

What is a postdoc? Why do people do one? What is it necessary for? How do you get one?

Towards the end of his PhD, Seth began questioning what his next step would be. His labmate knew some professionals in industry and gave him a warm introduction to them. This allowed Seth to conduct informational interviews with individuals who took different paths into industry – one who did a postdoc before industry, one who went into industry directly from a PhD, and one who did an industry postdoc. Not only did Seth learn more about each career path, but he ended each interview by asking for another warm introduction with someone from their network. I found this to be fantastic advice for individuals looking to learn more about careers and build their network.

Relaxed, Confident, Secure

During his search for a postdoc, Seth was put through the ringer. He was told he wasn’t passionate enough for certain labs. However, his search was not wasted. Eventually he ended up at Massachusetts General Hospital. He described the culture as nothing he had ever seen before in academia – relaxed, confident, and secure. He noted that he was able to secure this position because they needed someone with NGS experience, the very thing that he was only able to achieve because of his failures biding him time for this technique to be developed.

Applying Lessons Learned from Mistakes

Determined to do a single two-year postdoc, Seth described using this as an opportunity to apply some tough lessons learned from his mistakes during his approximately eight-year PhD. Seth sought help anywhere & everywhere. Additionally, he had a frank discussion with his PI when his project wasn’t going well, which he noted was a productive and positive experience. His PI had already observed the same things and was actually prepared to have the same talk with him. Seth’s willingness to have a tough conversation was met with acceptance and problem-solving.

Network, network, network

Boston provided many opportunities for attending networking events such as “Biotech Tuesday” and events through MassBio (https://www.massbio.org/) and Bioxchange (https://www.bioxchange.org/). Seth suggested building a large number of “weak connections” to have the greatest potential for cross pollination of your network.

Breaking into Industry

To help him with his transition out of academia, Seth found a mentorship program for professionals in industry to meet with people interested in moving into industry. He interviewed for three different industry jobs and stressed the importance of finding the right fit, for both the interviewer and interviewee. His “right fit” ended up being at Pfizer in the Molecular Systems Immunology group in the Inflammation & Immunology Research Unit. His title was Senior Scientist. At Pfizer, he felt a level of comfort he didn’t know was possible and described it as “being in a space that feels like you belong” and, “You let go of the breath you didn’t realize you were holding.” He was responsible for testing and developing new technologies including automation, single cell surface marker barcodes, and spatial transcriptomics.

Other Opportunities for Growth

In addition to his position at Pfizer, Seth also joined an expert consultation network, which he noted was a great way to earn supplemental income. He provided guidance on up-and-coming technologies. He met with vendors, attended shows, and demoed instruments to stay up to speed on new technologies. He consulted with investors, inventors, and market analysts to provide his opinion on current needs of NGS users. He was paid to fill out surveys on spending habits for purchasing consumables.

Following the Leader

When Seth’s boss took a new role at Sanofi, Seth inherited the responsibility of co-managing the NGS Technology Center at Pfizer. After her departure, she had reached out to Seth subtly hinting at a potential job opportunity at Sanofi, to which he applied. His interview talk focused on the work he did back during his postdoc. Ultimately, Seth was offered the position as Team Lead at the Precision Oncology Cluster at Sanofi, where he currently works. He described his new position as “feeling more like a main quest rather than a side quest.”

Individual Results May Vary

Seth concluded his seminar summarizing some of the differences he’s experience between industry and academia, though he did warn that individual results may vary.

  1. Industry is more applied science. Every question has a clear utility for solving a problem in medicine.
  2. There is no “Publish or Perish” competition over something like the impact factor of a journal.
  3. There’s a matrixed organization with access to more funding and a much wider expertise.
  4. Culture is determined more by individual leaders. People “quit bosses” more than they “quit companies.”
  5. Pay is 2-3x higher with performance-based bonuses and financial incentives.
  6. Large companies provide stability, small companies provide opportunity.
  7. Networking is just as – if not more – important than personal achievement.
  8. There is a stronger focus on personal career development and goal setting.

If you enjoyed reading this summary, feel free to check out Seth’s seminar recording on our YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sqlj6abpvU4. Be sure to follow us on Twitter (@BeyondthePhD) & Instagram (@beyond_the_phd) for posts about more words of wisdom we’ve learned from Seth and other helpful content!

Published by Rachel Gilmore

Rachel is a third year PhD candidate in the Biomedical Science program at UConn Health. She studies a rare neurodevelopmental disorder, Prader-Willi Syndrome, using stem cell and stem cell-derived neuron models. Outside of lab, she enjoys hiking, yoga, good food, lots of coffee, and snuggling with her cat.

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