How to demonstrate your value in a non-academic setting

Got a PhD but dont know what to do with it? Wondering what life is like outside the ivory tower? In this series, we speak to individuals who have completed their doctoral training and subsequently transitioned from academic research to a variety of roles in industry. We asked them about what prompted their move, and how their scientific training has helped further their careers. Any opinions in this article are personal and do not reflect those of the interviewees’ employers.

This week we spoke to Dr. Ammar Hassanbhai, a quality assurance manager at Osteopore, about his journey from conducting basic research to managing quality standards throughout the lifecycle of a product.

BCS: To start off, what was your scientific background and how did it lead to your current position as a QA manager?

Ammar: I started out doing basic research and got my PhD in microbiology, but always wanted to do something more tangible with a real impact. So, I moved on to do a postdoc in a completely different field – of tissue engineering. I worked on tissue engineering and bone regeneration, trying to understand the clinical issues faced and using tissue engineering methods to address them. At that time, we were working with clinicians determine the unmet needs, and that made me realise that the job doesn’t end here – that more downstream work was needed to bring a product to market – and I wanted to be part of that.

BCS: What does Osteopore do?

Ammar: Osteopore uses 3D printing technology to make bioresorbable implants that facilitate bone regeneration. These are not like titanium or metal implants because they can be re-absorbed by the body and have micro architecture that helps to promote the bone healing process. Seeing the impact that they made on patients got me interested in their work.

BCS: Let’s talk about your current role. What are your responsibilities as a QA manager?

Ammar: Basically, I’m part of the team that manages quality assurance across the whole lifecycle of the medical device. A lot of people may understand that QA is just about quality testing of the manufactured product, but in reality what we do covers lots of other aspects from sourcing of raw materials to manufacturing and selling the product to post-implantation in patients. For example, it’s our responsibility to do due diligence on the suppliers and individuals being hired, making sure we source from suppliers that consistently produce raw materials to an approved standard, or providing the requisite training for individuals to work in our company. Ultimately, it’s not about simply meeting regulations and customer requirements but making sure the product is both safe and effective.

A lot of people may understand that QA is just about quality testing of the manufactured product, but in reality what we do covers lots of other aspects from sourcing of raw materials to manufacturing and selling the product to post-implantation in patients… Ultimately, it’s not about simply meeting regulations and customer requirements but making sure the product is both safe and effective.

BCS: What qualities or skills do you think are important for this role?

Ammar: There were a lot of things I was anxious about going from research to industry, but I realized that I had accumulated most of the necessary skills over the course of my PhD and postdoc training. Things like time management, people skills, documentation and working in a team. Other competencies include meeting deadlines, planning tasks and working in a systematic, organized way. In terms of skill set I don’t think there is something special that you need to have. Most of the fear was with regards to the gap in knowledge, which happens in all new jobs and can be closed by attending courses and on-the-job training.

BCS: As researchers we often think only about our specific experimental skillsets. How can one demonstrate these transferable skills when applying for non-research roles?

Ammar: I think the best way is to focus on the positives. It’s still good to put down the experimental skills you have, but the emphasis should be on highlighting broader skillsets. For example, grant writing and fundraising are indicators of writing ability and communication skills. Clinical collaborations show that your ability to work as a team and listen to feedback. Conducting seminars or mentoring students demonstrate patience and teaching ability, which is important for continuity, like training future staff. Giving presentations – that’s like second nature to us but in reality, there are some people who can’t stand in front of an audience and talk which may be due to a lack of practice

These skills or experiences at the time might not seem so significant, but in retrospect, those are actually quite critical to any job.

BCS: On the flip side, what were some things you struggled to get used to after joining industry?

Ammar: As a researcher, you decide your working hours and pace, like working late at night/early mornings, or taking a break from experiments if things were not working that day.  In industry, there are hard deadlines and they are usually very tight. So there’s sometimes a bit of pressure to get things done, sometimes even within the same day. Things move quickly and at a pace that I wasn’t used to. The side effect of this is that tasks pile up and you have to learn to prioritise the more important tasks in order to keep up.

BCS: Is a PhD necessary for this position? If not, how do you think your PhD training has helped you in this role?

Ammar: I think it’s not really necessary, but it’s more about the attitude and skills that you pick up as part of the training. One example is maybe dealing with failures, which is something that can’t be taught. Research is unique because we fail (experiments) on an almost daily basis, you learn to deal with it, and that gives you some level of resilience and the determination to keep trying and pushing forward.

BCS: Finally, do you have any last advice for researchers looking to transition to non-academic roles?

Ammar: Look for a job you can find value in and are passionate about. I know it sounds cliché, but otherwise it’s going to be hard to get up in the morning and go to work. Also, don’t be afraid that you do not have the skills for a job outside of research. In terms of knowing how to manage your work, communicate well with others or teach what you have learnt, these are skills we might not realise we have and may even take for granted. So don’t be afraid to let your potential employer know about these qualities. All we lack is the knowledge but nowadays that can be addressed with the many resources available to us.

Look for a job you can find value in and are passionate about… don’t be afraid that you do not have the skills for a job outside of research

Biotech Connection Singapore (BCS) is part of an international network of non-profit organizations, that aims to promote the transfer of ideas from theory to real world applications by providing a platform for fostering interaction between academia, industry and businesses.

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