Got a PhD but don’t 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 interviewee’s employers.
This week we spoke to Dr. Radhika Das Chakraborty, an alliance manager at Bayer Pharmaceuticals, about her journey from making scientific discoveries to helping commercialise them.
BCS: To start off, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Radhika: I did my PhD and postdoc in epigenetics and genomic imprinting. It was hardcore basic biology, studying the evolution of genomic imprinting as well as epigenetic landscape of developmental disorders like DiGeorge syndrome and cancer, to identify genome-wide methylation changes associated with disease. I really enjoyed doing research and being a scientist, but during my PhD, and more obviously throughout my postdoc, I started to feel that I didn’t want to focus on only one topic for the rest of my career. So, I started to explore options that would allow me to gain a breadth rather than depth of scientific knowledge.
BCS: Why did you choose to go into tech transfer?
Radhika: Initially, I was trying to connect with all sorts of people to learn about different possible career paths. I went to a career seminar organised by my institute in A*STAR, given by a manager from the NUS tech transfer office. I spoke to her after and she told me more about what they do, including forging partnerships with companies, SMEs or even other academic institutions, liaising with lawyers to draft legal contracts, as well as evaluating new inventions from a technical and commercial standpoint to see if they should be patented and how best to license these new technologies.
All of this sounded interesting and a good opportunity to learn a lot outside of the technical skills I had developed as a scientist. I stayed in touch with the manager, and once there was an opening, I joined the NUS tech transfer office. You could say it was opportunistic in that way!
BCS: How did this lead you to your current position at Bayer?
Radhika: I was in the NUS tech transfer office for nearly four years, and during that time we were working with the Bayer team in Singapore on various collaborations. Hence, when I learnt about an opening in the Bayer team, I thought it would be a nice transition. I’m still doing similar work, just on the other side of the table. I look out for new technologies and reach out to PIs to seek potential collaborations. I also liaise with internal colleagues to see if they would be interested in such collaborations or technologies, and manage existing collaborations.
BCS: What’s a typical workday like for you?
Radhika: A typical day is usually a mixture of activities. For existing or new collaborations, there is liaison work with different functions, such as with legal counsel for putting the contractual framework in place as well as with the project teams to track progress and payments. The other part of the work involves meeting or speaking with PIs to learn about their research and reading scientific papers to look for new technologies. Once you meet someone or see a new technology, you have to evaluate it in the context of the field to know if or why it’s new or interesting. Since it might not be in your field, some background reading and speaking to experts in the field is usually necessary. When I was in the NUS tech transfer office, the Intellectual Property component of the work also involved liaison with patent attorneys for filing, as well as showcasing promising technologies at partnering events.
BCS: What are some important qualities or skills for working in tech transfer?
Radhika: I would say having a wide interest in science and being a good communicator are crucial. You’ll need to be reading papers and being aware of what’s happening outside your field. In addition, much of the job involves talking to other parties, whether it’s to negotiate a collaboration or speaking with a PI about their technology, so it helps to be able to communicate things clearly. Being diplomatic is also crucial since you’re dealing with people who are very passionate about their work.
In comparison to a laboratory scientist, you’re expected to juggle a lot of things simultaneously, so being able to multiplex and yet be efficient and organised can be very important. There are also a few aspects that you need to be prepared to compromise on, such as being able to fully plan your own work-day or the recognition associated with being a scientist.
BCS: Is a PhD necessary for technology transfer roles?
Radhika: It’s debatable whether you need a PhD to go into tech transfer, but it helps. I’d say a good Masters’ degree that gives you exposure to a breadth of topics would also be fine. How the PhD helps is that it gives you a first-hand insight into how research works, so that when you talk to professors about their work you have a much better understanding of things like research timelines. It certainly helps while evaluating new technologies. The PhD also lends you credibility, as PIs take you a little more seriously when they know you’ve done one. But if you have a good Masters’ degree and have a genuine interest in science and communication, that also works.
In addition, there are soft skills you learn from doing a PhD, like project management, how to record things in an organised way, how to process new information and learn fast. These skills help because it’s a steep learning curve when you make your first transition – about the legal or IP aspects, or how to communicate with both scientists and non-scientists. When you’re a PhD or postdoc you might have seen a Material Transfer Agreement (MTA) or two, but you don’t really read the clauses. Now, as the person negotiating them, I really have to understand what all the clauses mean and how to reach a compromise with the other party.
BCS: Finally, what advice would you give to others looking to transition out of academia?
Radhika: I’d say that if you don’t think being a PI is the career path for you, try to explore other opportunities and build some other skill sets whilst you’re still doing your postdoc. As a postdoc you have a bit of extra bandwidth to explore these things, since you’re not taking classes or writing a thesis as you do in a PhD. It’s something I wish I did. For instance, I know of friends who wanted to go into venture capital, so they did a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) qualification. Some of my colleagues who were in tech transfer had also previously done IP courses. I didn’t do any courses but was lucky to have an opportunity to join the NUS tech transfer office due to the connection I made. But I think having a bit of preparation would have helped. It also helps show your potential employer that you have a genuine interest in that industry. Doing a short internship in any of the potential career paths is always a good option as well. Thus, I would say that be open to new opportunities and experiences, and once you have found what interests you, try to prepare yourself accordingly.