I’m officially looking for another job.

Where I came from

Over a year ago I made one of the biggest decisions of my life. I packed up all my worldly belongings and moved to San Diego to begin working full-time for a small biotech startup. This was a unique opportunity for me because it was a friend who was starting the company, he and I had been speaking over the past couple years about his ideas for a company, they had had me out several years ago during their prototype phase to show me the technology and get a biologists perspective on what a successful product should look like, and I had been doing some consulting projects for them over the past year. At the time, they displayed little understanding of basic molecular biology concepts, but I didn’t think that would be a big deal because they were just starting up and not coming from a biology background, rather an electrical engineering one. I’ve now made another big decision, and that’s to end my relationship with them and move on. Below, I discuss what I’ve learned and what I might like to do in the future.

The opportunity was a unique one because my whole lab was moving to another state, and I was done with experiments, so it didn’t make sense to move with the lab just to finish writing things up. Although there were tremendous social ties holding me to New Orleans, I was preparing to leave for a post-doc anyways when they invited me out to San Diego. I figured it would be just as easy to finish writing my dissertation in San Diego as in New Orleans, so I jumped at the chance.

Where I went

The situation when I arrived was interesting. They had moved out of the garage I last saw them in to a real lab, with chemicals on the shelves and pipettes on the benches. More importantly, they had some working prototypes running. My job was going to be to take charge of the assay development and to manage the lab. Now, at a small company, the hierarchies are essentially flat, because everyone needs the expertise of everyone else pretty much at all times. The team wasn’t so big that we couldn’t all gather together in the meeting room and discuss whatever we needed to.

I loved the freedom of being able to come up with a plan and pursue it, and it was great knowing that I was working on important problems. It was also very cool being surrounded by fantastically talented people from fields quite different from mine. In fact, the first challenge I faced was getting the respect of the others. At a small startup, it becomes very obvious when someone isn’t pulling their weight. However, because the problems you’re solving are always changing, the needs of the company are always slightly shifting as well. My joining the team was part of an overall re-organization of the company to refocus now that the needs had shifted away from their starting point. I didn’t realize this immediately, but I was actually replacing someone in some capacities, with the hope that the tasks which were tangential proficiencies of the existing employees were more direct competencies of mine.

This being my first professional job in biotech, (not my first non-academic job, but I’ll spare you that part of my biography) there was a lot to adjust to. I learned that there are many differences in how groups communicate in academic and industrial settings. The other team members need to feel that you’re confident, because they don’t always have the background that your lab mates may have had to dig into your science and ask critical questions. Additionally, they don’t expect the level of criticism that’s common in a meeting with your lab mates. Of course, the goals of a company are to get to something serviceable as fast as possible, not to find The Truth™, and that’s actually not unappealing to me. As much as I remain committed to The Truth™, I also like doing things which are technical and applied. At a startup or small company, it’s possible to both have a relatively short-term impact on how science is done or how care is provided, yet at the same time be part of the infrastructure for more fundamental contributions. Being quite used to the graduate school schedule, I immersed myself in the work and comfortably worked 12 hour days and weekends and even pulled an all-nighter or two before an important meeting. Perhaps obviously for those reading along, I became so immersed that 5 months later, I hadn’t so much as looked at my dissertation.

I don’t know what sort of schedules my readers work on, but 4-5 months is when I entered a reflective phase. I was somewhat satisfied with what I had been able to contribute, I felt like I had achieved the respect of many of the team members, and I was particularly happy to have been able to bridge the engineer-biologist gap that existed prior to my arrival. Getting the whole team to speak the same language remains one of the accomplishments I’m most proud of. Teaching the language and concepts of a empirically-based science like molecular biology to a bunch of engineers with physics and computer science backgrounds is not easy, let me tell you!

This time was also a sort of breakpoint we had discussed internally in terms of my stake in the company, so it was time to make some decisions. When my wife delivered the happy news that our first child was due towards the end of the year, it became even more clear that all the loose ends in my life needed to be tied down. I had the following issues to deal with: I needed to finally finish writing up and defend, I needed to find us a living situation more conducive to raising a child, and I needed to have a serious discussion with the company founders about my future. I began working more normal hours, so I could finish writing up and defend. Writing for a couple hours here and there on nights and weekends just wasn’t getting me anywhere. Even as the pace began to pick up at work, I finished my dissertation and prepared for my defense, dropping essentially everything else. If it wasn’t for the selfless support provided by my wife during this time, our life would have probably unraveled entirely. Next, we moved from the loud, noisy, and somewhat juvenile neighborhood where we first landed in San Diego to a quieter neighborhood. Finally, I tried to get some clarity and commitment from the company regarding my long term prospects for advancement and career development. They assured me that I was a valued member of the team, and promised that as soon as they closed this next deal, which was practically a sure thing, everyone would get raises and bonuses and options and all that.

What happened when I got there

As I mentioned above, the needs of a small startup are ever-changing. I found myself spending more and more time doing things where I couldn’t draw from my background, experience, and training. I think I’m a pretty smart guy and a quick study, and I love learning new things, so always having to learn something new wasn’t a problem for me. However, when I stepped back and looked at where things were going, it just wasn’t where I wanted to go. It wasn’t where I could bring my knowledge and skills to bear most effectively, so I wasn’t setting myself up for success. Nor was I setting myself up for failure, but irrelevance? – perhaps. As fun as it was being in that diverse environment, it was also a little isolating. As each sure thing materialized and then evaporated again, I considered applying for a postdoc just to have colleagues again, but I’ve known some 30-something post-docs with children, and there was always a slight whiff of desperation coming from them.

I still believe that the company will do very well, but I had to make a decision between staying with the company, drifting further away from my optimal career path, and possibly showing up one day to find the doors closed or starting now to look for another position in a very tough job market. I picked the second choice because that at least put my fate in my own hands. My leaving was in no way a vote of no confidence in the company. If I was still a single unmarried guy with no kids, I’d probably still be there.

I had been a part of the San Diego Biotech Network since shortly after I came to town, thanks to Mary’s engaging twitter presence and inclusive and generous demeanor, so I knew how hard it was going to be to find another job. I had seen many of the same people at the SDBN meetings, month after month. I began actively applying for positions, but at the same time I started thinking about other possible opportunities, and now I find myself with a variety of loose ends again.

Where to now?

I enjoy working a few hours a week with Mendeley, helping to make introductions between the academic community members who are looking for some solutions that Mendeley provides, and the Mendeley team who want to know what are the as-yet unmet needs of the academic community. As I’ve said before, I think these guys have the potential to transform how research is communicated and how scientists collaborate and there’s a good chance they’ll do just that.

I also enjoy writing about scientific and social issues, particularly ones brought up as the cultures of traditional publishing and the online open access web collide. I’ve had some offers to blog at various outlets and although I would love to take them all up, I can’t yet find a way to do that as more than just a hobby. There’s certainly enough interesting stuff going on around here that I could keep myself busy, though.

Last but certainly not least, I really enjoy doing research, and there’s a local company(should I say?) who has just started a project doing almost exactly what I did for my dissertation. I’ve spoken to people at the company and am currently trying to convince them they’d be crazy not to at least have me in for a talk. They’re large enough that they’re probably not going anywhere soon, yet small enough to give me the chance to be involved in some really groundbreaking work. Not to mention, they’ve assembled a fantastically talented team that I would love to be a part of.

So that’s where things lie at the moment. I have a PhD, I have two years of biotech industry experience, I write fairly well, I have a good number of connections in academia, in publishing, in research, and I’ll have a daughter pretty soon. Hopefully I’ll have a new job soon, too. It’s been quite a year.

About Mr. Gunn

Science, Scholarly Communication, and Mendeley

07. September 2009 by Mr. Gunn
Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 24 comments

Comments (24)

  1. Pingback: links for 2009-09-08 | LIS :: Michael Habib

  2. Your situation is strikingly like mine. PhD finished last spring, baby on the way this fall, not too interested in being a 30-something postdoc with a family, and heading (back home) to San Diego this december… Good luck with the job hunt – maybe if you are still in town when I get down there we can have a drink or something.

  3. Right on, Ben! I’d love to meet. Are you still interested in working on a manuscript sharing system?

  4. Good luck! I hope everything goes well for you.

  5. If you are intrested I can introuduce you to communication company that is looking for networking directors. the money is good and the paying system is incridble. I know it’s not you major, but they train you so you can biuld a huge organization for your self and get paid out of people while you are sitting home.

    eweida.s@gmail.com

    email me if you want to know more

  6. Thanks, I’m sure you mean well, but that sounds kinda like a work-from-home scam to me.

  7. Good for you to stay away from [your former employer] I hope those guys won’t get prosecuted for engaging Series A fraud

  8. I wouldn’t go that far, KiWi. I truly wish them well; It just wasn’t the place for me. Thanks for your support, though.

  9. Who, with a family to support, would voluntarily quit his job in THIS economy?! In addition to the courage, I can sense that there must be some unethical or illegal things going on with that place!

  10. KiWi, I do appreciate your support, and you’re right that it was a very tough decision. However, if there are any allegations of impropriety to be made, I’m probably the one that should make them, and I’m not. If you’d like to help, you can ask friends or colleagues if they have any open positions. My resume and contact info can be found here. If you have anything further, perhaps we should take it to email?

    Thanks for your consideration.

  11. No offense, but you need to talk to a lawyer. First, you need to talk about your unemployment insurance. If what you said is true and if you are unwilling to state your allegations, you might not be qualified. Second, you have more rights than you thought. Even you quit your job, you might still be entitled to remedies. There are many nuances you don’t know: your company might breach the contract in a way you have not thought (think about what your company promised you); you might be able to claim damages based on reliance theories; are you a whistle-blower or do you believe you were regarded as a potential whistle-blower?; did you receive comprehensive safety training? is your company following all the regulatory ordinances?; did you raised waste/environmental concerns? did you quit your job due to your moral consciousness. etc. Anyway, collect evidences, revoke any waiver you signed, and try to get at least half year salary from these bastards.
    Think about your family and good luck.

  12. Thanks for those suggestions, KiWi. I don’t think it’ll come to that. My current focus is on finding another job, so if you’d like to help, asking around for openings would be the most productive.

    Also, I know my former employer has read this blog in the past, and future employers almost certainly will as well, so if you wouldn’t mind sending any further comments in via email, I would appreciate it. My email address can be found on my about me page, along with my resume and related information.

  13. I am not sure you would be interested in a paralegal position in Virginia. Anyway, your story is interested and [your former employer] looks fishy. I hope you got a decent separation package and your former colleagues are helping you out. To me, you need ask help from the very person(s) who allured you there.

  14. What an eloquent post. I’m not sure which is worse: working at a start-up where there’s no structure in place and the ground beneath your feet is constantly shifting or working for a large organization with an entrenched structure that’s no longer appropriate or even functional really but to which people cling because ‘this is the way we’ve always done things.’

    What I am sure of is that you’re smart, funny, decent, and not a bad writer at all (for a microbiologist) (sorry, couldn’t resist the communications in-joke – you could substitute ‘for a lawyer’ or ‘for an economist’ or ‘for any other profession other than professional communicator’ for microbiologist there).

    I applaud your decision. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. And you have everything to gain.

  15. Thanks for the kind words, Ruth. You are doing a good job of motivating me to write more.

    Regarding KiWi, I wouldn’t call her a troll. It’s plausible to me that she means what she says. Perhaps she knows someone who was put in an awkward position by their employer and didn’t want to see me in the same situation. I find that people with malicious intent generally telegraph their intentions more clearly, especially when they’re initially anonymous, so I think giving something the most charitable interpretation at first is usually the right thing to do.

    As a molecular biologist with a strong stem cell resume, I think my chances here in the San Diego job market as as good as they’d be anywhere, so I certainly feel that this direction is the right one for me.

  16. Representing a site that encourages constant re-assessment of career and goals, we applaud you and your genuine courage. This economy doesn’t make it easy to make decisions let alone follow through on them. Your degree, field, and experiences won’t keep you in a frozen career tundra working or writing and you’re young, flexible, intelligent and making good choices. Stay informed, make sound connections, and commit to staying one step ahead of the pack. Bravo and Continued Good Hunting!

  17. You make a changing life and looking for direction sound pretty good.
    You are very blessed. Good luck.

  18. I think you’re approaching it the right way. Get out there, meet people, network, and stay busy with projects that engage you and are applicable to your future line of work.

    Actually, personal projects can be really important on a resume. It shows drive and initiative, and fills in that empty time between employment.

    All the best to you.

  19. Being a 30 something with kids who started his own business and created his own “job” I know this can be a stressful time.

    Best of luck,

    -Steve

  20. Thanks for the kind note, Dr. Murphy. Wanna have a truce? You dial down the rhetoric against personalized medicine and I’ll stop calling you out on it so harshly?

  21. I am a employment recruiter who is looking for a Assay Development Scientist (Cell Biology) for an international scientific company. If you’re still looking, I may be able to help. It’s a great opportunity.

    Thanks,
    Jim Hawley
    Management Recruiters of Rochester
    585-454-6650 x115

  22. Have you been able to find a job yet or are things still pretty tough over there on the west coast?
    -jack

  23. I’ve started doing assay development and startup consulting to pay the bills, but I’ve also gotten two inquiries just this week, both of which I’d like to see become formal offers, so I guess things are picking up around here.

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