Elizabeth Schneider, Ph.D.

Elizabeth Schneider, Ph..D., is a Regional Account Manager at NanoString Technologies.  She went from hustling hard to stay afloat while completing her doctoral research to leading commercial efforts in the field for an up and coming genomics technology company.  Let’s follow her path from using scientific equipment in the lab to representing innovative scientific equipment on a technical sales team.

Aiming for Industry

As an undergraduate, Elizabeth started her venture into science through a Chemical Engineering degree, with an eye for transitioning into bioengineering-focused research as her next step.  As she gained experience in the academic research world through molecular biology and biochemistry experiments, her initial career plan was to move into an industry bench position in pharma or biotech after gaining the necessary graduate credentials.

The idea of staying in academia as a career path was not particularly appealing, even before Elizabeth entered graduate school.

“I like teaching, and I’ve done a lot of undergraduate teaching and tutoring,” she said, “but I think the structure and the environment didn’t really appeal to me.”

In particular, she pointed to the necessity of writing grants and chasing money as a PI, a fact of faculty life that has turned off many other researchers as well.

The day to day cadence of academic research was also a concern.

“Even when I was going to grad school, I found academia to be a very slow pace and not really the best place for a fast-paced growth environment,” she noted.

Knowing what she liked and wanted to get out of her Ph..D. research experience, Elizabeth entered her graduate program with the goal to do great science, and then utilize that knowledge at the bench in an industrial research career.

Enzymes, Funding and a Tough PhD Hustle

While most Ph.D. students enter their doctoral dissertation lab with the promise of funding for a particular research topic, this turned out to not be the case for Elizabeth.

The research project she had initially been interested in working on was no longer available and neither was funding from the PI.

What to do?!

Elizabeth decided it was time to hustle.

Given that her PI did not have the money to fully support her research and stipend, she first decided to try her hand at the grant game.

“I applied for this California biotech grant,” she said, “and came up with a PhD project to work on the same enzymes that a couple of other people in the lab were working on, called Cytochrome P450s.”

These enzymes are oxidoreductases that perform oxygenation reactions with drug compounds and xenobiotics, and as such, they contribute in large part to the rate of metabolism, or half-life, of small molecule drugs in the body as well as different side effects and drug-drug interactions that can be caused by enzyme inhibition.”

Elizabeth wrote a grant to build an electrochemical biosensor using these enzymes, with the goal to create a potential biosensor for drug companies to test the reactivity of small molecule drugs.

She got all the way to the final round of the grant competition, but unfortunately did not win.

In order to walk away from her graduate training experience with the degree she wanted, Elizabeth took on a much more stressful option: she accepted partial funding that her PI found to support her research needs, and hustled her way through the rest of the program on her own, to cover her living stipend.

As she worked on her research project, she took on extra graduate teaching responsibilities to support herself financially.  She also tutored, babysat, took on technical editing and contract writing work, and won a fellowship.

In-between all this extra work to stay afloat, Elizabeth also managed to squeeze in two summer internships, including one that took her to India for rural community development through a micro-finance initiative.

“A lot of people don’t realize the benefits of branching out a little bit,” she said.  “You work on one project for four or five years, and sometimes it’s nice to get a different dose of other challenges that remain to be solved in the world.”

Leaving Academia for A Technical Sales Career

Before her trip to India, Elizabeth completed her qualifying exam, a step in her PhD experience she had been putting off for two reasons.

One was practical – the project she was planning to propose took a while to take shape, as often happens in science.

And two, well:

“I found out that I just really didn’t like research,” she said.  “I found it at times incredibly boring, very painstaking, frustrating, and lonely.”

It’s no secret that the potentially isolating work environment graduate students face can lead to frustration and depression.  The combination of both social and intellectual isolation can be especially challenging when trying to move forward in a project with little support or guidance.

“I felt a lot of the time like I was banging my head against the wall,” she said, “and just repeating experiments over and over and getting different results every time.”

About three-quarters of the way through her PhD program, Elizabeth realized she had no desire to continue with research as a career – academic or otherwise.  Thus came the familiar struggle that all scientists who eventually leave the bench face – how to see past a dead end when you’ve only known this one way forward in life.

“I really struggled with what I was going to do afterward,” she said.  “I had only seen two paths for a PhD scientist: academic research or industrial research, and I didn’t know that there were any other options.”

Exploring Job Options for PhDs

Like many graduate students in the biological sciences, Elizabeth widened her professional horizons after she attended a career development class, which opened her eyes to various career resources to help students make a decision about their career.

She dug into various career possibilities, started doing informational interviews, networking and reaching out to people from her internships, and applying for jobs as well.

“I applied for several positions, like management consulting, technical writing, technical editing, medical writing, patent law,” she said.

As she continued to apply for jobs and write up her PhD dissertation, Elizabeth happened to stumble across a job opening as she was looking up instrumentation information on a company’s website.

That company was looking for a technical sales rep.

Typically, alarm bells start ringing in the average academic mindset any time sales or marketing roles are mentioned in conjunction with science.

The culture of traditional academics tends to distance academic research from the “dark side” (aka money-making) of for-profit business, which has its pros and cons when it comes to preserving the integrity of scientific results.

However, this tendency to separate academia from industry is disproportionately strong in the biological sciences, where the very idea of commercial ventures and legitimate research seem at times incompatible with the bench.  This is much to the detriment of scientists seeking to use their unique combination of skillsets and personality to find the best fitting role and work environment.

Luckily, Elizabeth gave the idea of moving into the commercial side of science a chance.

“I had passed sales off,” she said.  “I had a negative impression of sales reps from encountering them going door to door on campus hawking microcentrifuge tubes, plates, etc., and had never thought about it or considered it.

But as I read the job description online, I thought it sounded really neat.  You get to work from home; you could travel and go to conferences; do presentations and seminars and meetings with customers, and I would be working with one of the instruments I had used for my graduate work.”

She applied and got a phone interview.  Given her scientific knowledge and personal experience with the technology, she then got an on-site interview right away, followed by an offer.

Happily, Elizabeth was able to wrap up her research career with a relatively smooth transition into technical sales.

“I’ve really, really enjoyed it,” she said. “It’s a perfect fit for my personality, and I get to dig deep into the technical dive with customers and the equipment that I sell.”

Companies that employ scientists on their technical sales teams are in need of highly communicative representatives who can match the scientific expertise of their clientele.  Usually, this means these businesses develop highly specialized products that warrant a scientifically experienced salesperson.

“I’m not selling pipette tips or Eppendorf tubes,” Elizabeth said.  “I’m doing more of a detailed, in-depth discussion about people’s research (consultative sales), so I realized I really enjoy that.  It’s my forte.”

Headhunted Into Her Dream Job

After being a Territory Sales Manager for five years, Elizabeth wanted the challenge of moving professionally into her preferred scientific focus of biology and genomics.  She made the switch when she was recruited by a headhunter to her current position of Regional Account Manager for the Pacific Northwest (US) and Western Canada.

Being out in the real world at the front lines of business, Elizabeth is able to reflect back on her PhD transition experience.

“Coming out of grad school, I felt I wasn’t that successful compared to other people,” she said.  “I had a very niche project that I worked on.  I thought, ‘how the heck am I going to get a job?’

But I realized that a lot of people coming right out of the PhD really sell themselves short, because there are so many other types of qualities, characteristics, and skillsets that you learn as a graduate student.

A lot of them are not necessarily tangible – communication skills; teaching skills; time management; financial planning; the ability to work on a project that’s very interdisciplinary and complex.  For example, to be able to go from reading a paper on materials science to a paper in hardcore biochemistry or molecular biology and still understand what they’re doing.”

In the end, Elizabeth advises all PhDs to not be afraid of losing their connection to science, just because they think a career outside academia may sound light years away from what they love about research.

“To be honest, I find that now that I’m outside of academia, I feel even more connected to science and research than I was as a graduate student,” she noted.

“That’s because I get to meet with so many different researchers and scientists from so many different universities and institutions.  I’m constantly reading so many different papers that are being published by our customers and with our technology, that I have such a broader scope and expansive knowledge about research than I did when I was in grad school, where I just knew this tiny little sliver of knowledge about my particular project.”

Does this sound like an interesting career?  Curious about what it’s really like to do sales as a PhD?  In need of support and encouragement to take the leap and explore different career paths so you love your life outside academia too?  Join fellow PhDs in the Free the PhD Ultimate Career Transformation Program for Scientists!