The Bioinformatics CRO Podcast

Episode 11 with Vay Cao

We chat with Vay Cao, founder of Free the PhD, about her journey from neuroscience to an MSL-like role and how PhDs can leverage their experiences to get that first job outside academia.

On The Bioinformatics CRO Podcast, we sit down with scientists to discuss interesting topics across biomedical research and to explore what made them who they are today.

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Vay is a neuroscience Ph.D. who made the transition from academic postdoc to business professional at a biotech startup. She founded Free the PhD to provide career counseling and a peer support system to current students looking to move out of academia. 

Transcript of Episode 11: Vay Cao

Grant: Welcome to The Bioinformatics CRO podcast. I’m your host Grant Belgard, and joining me today is Vay Cao. Vay, can you introduce yourself please? 

Vay: Sure, well, thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here and chat with everyone. So my name is Vay.  I guess, for the audience we have today, I have a PhD in neuroscience. I did my research at the National Institutes of Health and with Brown University. So. I have extended my career outside of academia and actually made it a point to try and bring more fellow academics with me on this journey by founding a small organization called Free the PhD. Recently, I’ve actually kind of put it under an umbrella called Free the Degree.

But you know, for my day job, I actually started off my career as an application scientist at a startup company. And today I find myself actually working more in the healthcare space. I’m on the commercial side of things. So I’m looking forward to our conversation today. And hopefully when we get to talking about careers and sort of looking forward towards the future, my goal is always to help inspire and motivate people to shoot for new things and take some new risks. So thank you again for having me. 

Grant: Thank you for coming on. So tell us about Free the PhD. What is it? 

Vay: Yeah. I mean, you know, it was just an idea kind of was born out of some frustration and personal experience in the challenges of figuring out what options are available for academics who may want to leave the bench, want to get out of, you know, the grant writing cycle are not interested in being faculty, don’t want to teach that whole world of not knowing what’s out there. 

I actually was very privileged to come from an institution that actually offered a lot of resources for people who want to explore alternative careers. However, I think many of your listeners who have this kind of background would agree that much of the challenge is actually psychological and not always necessarily in terms of resource, you know, need.

So when I did eventually make my jump out of academia into this startup, I had so many worries and concerns. And I didn’t really have any role models, at least in my own personal life to model this sudden change in career path after. Pretty much everyone in my life went the academic route, of course, including my own PhD mentors.

So when I finally was on my way across the country to this new state, new job, new life, I just remember telling myself this was a lot of work. It was very stressful to get to this point. And it almost seems like a waste of this experience to just kind of let it pass. I was really looking forward to the future, but I’m like, it would be nice if I could take this experience that I went through and help make it less stressful for the next person and the next person.

And I’m not alone, certainly, in this desire to give back to the academic community and encourage more people to explore their options. So Free the PhD came about basically from this desire to kind of give back and not waste that experience that I went through in transitioning. So it started off actually as a very typical document editing service.

I think it was like my second or third year of working when I figured out it is a real job and I’m not going to be fired or the company is not going to go under right away. So I feel like I have a foot to stand on and kind of reach back to the community. So from kind of just editing people’s documents, I realized, as I mentioned already, there’s so much of this emotional turmoil. And a lot of the things that people are really looking for I think are ways to increase their confidence in themselves and feel justified in trying something different. 

So I started adding more of these like personalized conversations with people. Some consult calls and it sort of started to evolve into this larger program and essentially started putting down a lot of FAQ’s. People ask the same questions I give the same answers, and I started putting together a course.

So basically today Free the PhD is actually an online community. It’s a digital course. Kind of one-on-one career coaching, all done digitally. And it’s really allowed me to continue to build on this passion of mine for career advocacy for academics, while I’m still holding on to a full-time job. 

And as I mentioned Free the Degree is actually just an umbrella now that Free the PhD lives under. So it’s been super rewarding. I’ve learned so much. It’s like my own mini entrepreneurial project. And, you know, even just today, I had someone tell me that they got their verbal offer, and now they’re just saying a few months ago, they didn’t think it was possible. And, you know, I told them everyone is capable of it and sometimes we just need some support to get there.

Grant: And what’s the scope of, for the PhD? Is it pretty focused on biomedical research? 

Vay: I mean, so we actually have never turned anyone away. We have actually had people come from the humanities, social sciences. I think people tend to look for a background similar to their own when they’re seeking advice. So we do have a majority of our members and people who subscribed to our courses coming from STEM. That’s simply because many of us who are acting as advisors have that kind of background.

But yeah, we’ve worked with people from all different kinds of backgrounds. Clearly people’s skill sets and experiences will dictate some of the options that they have, which are low hanging fruit. But at the end of the day, I really think a lot of the emotional and psychological support that we provide is universal.

Grant: What’s the scope of Free the Degree? 

Vay: That’s really just something that I think is a placeholder for the moment. I think the kinds of advice and the sort of step-by-step programs that we’ve laid out, they kind of apply to almost anyone who has been in a niche for a long time. 

So, academics, we have our own unique problems and benefits to society, but so does everyone else who might’ve been in one particular focused field for a really long time and all of a sudden realizes they want to leave that place. Right. So I think for me, I just decided to kind of pick an umbrella term that can encompass future directions that we could go in.

Cause clearly, I mean, PhDs, we’re just one kind of academic demographic, right. And there are so many other people who might also feel stuck where they are today, but might actually really benefit from exploring new fields. 

Grant: How’s the landscape changing for fresh biomedical PhD graduates? 

Vay: Oh, that’s a great question. I mean, right now we’re in a very unique time in history, I suppose. I think there’s been a lot of people who probably have discovered that the faculty openings have been harder to find. They’re certainly more competitive since we always are seeing an increasing number of PhDs being graduated every year without that same increase in number of faculty positions.

Right. So it’s simply a numbers game. I think the landscape has been doing this for a long time, actually. So it’s not even a particularly fast change in the landscape. But I do think perhaps some of the assumptions that are made in academia haven’t changed as quickly as the landscape. And I think that’s probably where the challenges lie.

There’s a disconnect between what people think about their job opportunities within academia versus the reality. So, you know, I think especially for fresh graduates, or–better yet, which is always our philosophy–people who are not yet graduated but are getting there and are thinking about where they want to go.

You want to be realistic and you need to get the data. I think, especially for biomedical PhDs, but really any academic right. Your research skills, you got to apply them to yourself too. You have to figure out what’s really out there. You need to take the skills you use in your research projects and go out and actually talk to people who are either new faculty on the faculty hunt–if that’s something that you really want to do. And just kind of be more honest with yourself about how likely it is that you can go for option A versus option B versus option C. And that’s how you’re going to really lower your stress levels. Right? 

I think the landscape overall, especially right now, I think the educational world is struggling a lot under the current pandemic situations. We don’t know how the economy is going to fare in the next few years. So if you’re kind of eyeing the job market soon, it makes sense to not lock yourself into only one option. 

Grant: Who do you think should and who shouldn’t do a PhD in these days?

Vay: Oh, man. That’s a hard question. Cause you know, if you had asked me if I should have done a PhD, like looking back, I’m not sure. Maybe I should have done business school instead, but now at the same time doing the PhD has given me so many opportunities and has really both broadened and giving me depth in a field that I think is really interesting and has a lot of applications to real life.

So I think there are always the people who are very certain and have always known they need to get that depth of knowledge. And that’s awesome. I think it’s great. They are also people that–and I would certainly put myself into this category–who are not sure what they want to do after undergrad. Not in love with my job options coming straight out of this particular degree, it could be family pressure, could be social pressure could just be, I don’t know, I want to try it and they do a PhD. 

And now sometimes I hear people saying, that’s a mistake. Like you really need to know you want to do it. But I also think that’s not really realistic. Right? You don’t know what you want to do until you actually do it. So I think there’s really no wrong answer.

I think for people who are not necessarily sure about what precisely they want to do. Just make sure that as soon as you say, start your program, that you don’t lose track of what you care about as a person. Right. It gets really, really easy to do that. I think, especially in academia, but at the end of the day, you are earning the degree and you’ve got to figure out what to do with it.

When you’ve finally got it–it may seem like forever, but you will graduate most likely–as long as you always are looking at your options, talking to other people, exploring as you go. You can get a PhD without even wanting to be in academia. And actually, I think there are plenty of examples of people who go for the degree for reasons other than wanting to enter the faculty path.

There are people who want to go into entrepreneurship and they want to lead biomedical companies. Or maybe you like a think tank in the future. They may want to go into policy or even politics or right. So there’s so many different ways that you can leverage a terminal degree, like a PhD and the technical skills and research skills you gained through this program anywhere in society.

So as long as you’re kind of trying to figure that out actively, purposefully, step-by-step, I don’t think it’s wrong for anyone to pursue a PhD. I think what people will perhaps regret a little bit is if you kind of fall into it and then just let it take you wherever the internal pressure makes you go.

Cause then you might find yourself way off the path away from what really matters to you. And then to come back to what matters can take a lot more effort and be more stressful. So, you know, I think a lot of advice out there will say, if you’re not sure don’t do it. But I think that also is not a very scientific way to think.

Cause you kind of got to get your hands on that data on that experience to really know if it’s right for you. But then again, if you know in the first two years that this is not for you, you should move on. Right? Don’t feel like you should be trapped in something. I think taking ownership of what you want to do with your life is a very, very difficult thing to do. But usually people benefit when they do that. 

Grant: What translatable skills do you think are best honed in a PhD program, as opposed to spending that time in the workforce? Or spending that time partially getting a master’s and the rest in the workforce?

Vay: You know, I think one of the things that you really do a lot in a PhD, just simply because of the time and sort of the expectations of the body of work you’re supposed to accomplish during the PhD, you know, it’s kind of like figuring out how you flounder for a really long time and hopefully not fall apart through that process. That, you know, a lot of people talk about resilience or grit. And I really think if you’re not kind of put through some sort of a ringer, it’s harder to develop that type of perseverance. Just kind of being beaten down, but getting up all the time.

It can get abusive at a certain point and it’s not for everyone for sure. But I do think this is one of those like squishy soft skills that it’s hard to articulate on a resume. Like you don’t put grit on your resume as something you bring to the table. But people can typically tell that. I think, especially when you’re hiring, especially companies that are going through a lot of change or they’re moving really fast or they’re in a very demanding or challenging field. They are looking for people who can handle that type of environment. 

And I think in many ways, although a PhD doesn’t necessarily have the same time crunch for deadlines, the kind of ambiguity of am I doing the right thing? Is this, you know, on the right path? Having to deal with that for many years–again, people in master’s programs do amazing work–but the length of time you’re kind of thrown into this ambiguity in a PhD, I think almost forces that type of skill set to become part of who you are. 

And I actually think that’s a very valuable trait. And the reason why I think many PhDs are amazing candidates for many of the jobs that exist out there is because everyone will benefit from being able to leverage their grit and their perseverance and sort of just being able to get back up. 

Grant: So, in what fields do you see the strongest evidence of a glut of PhDs? And do you even agree with that framing? And where do you think we don’t have enough? 

Vay: It’s a good question. I think there is a lot of talk about there being too many PhDs being produced. I think it depends on what perspective you’re taking. So if we’re talking about, we want to only educate enough PhDs to fill the open faculty positions we have, well, clearly there’s a glut, right? But I also think that as a society and especially here in the US where our taxpayer dollars are paying for research. I think you need people who are like the folks that enter PhD programs like highly ambitious, motivated, you know, really driven by finding the truth or truth and quotations here, but just to pursue an intellectual direction.

I think society benefits from supporting people in these types of endeavors. I think in a society where otherwise you’re driven by other priorities that may never at all touch the level of intellectual rigor and depth that you can go into in various parts of academia. So I would say if we’re talking about filling faculty positions, yes. We definitely have a glut.

And I think that is going to be worse where there are the fewest faculty openings. That’s just a practical answer if we’re talking more philosophical though, and perhaps on the larger scale of society, I don’t know. I mean, even though I didn’t continue into the faculty path myself, I did leave behind a body of research. I did publish some protocols. I published a paper. People cite my paper. I’m still pleasantly surprised it happens, but you know, you’ve contributed something that will last in the field. I think there’s value in that. Now, whether or not that should be the reason that we have the kind of programs that we have today for doctorates, I think that’s up for debate.

Exactly how do you want to kind of shepherd people to contribute to different fields and does a PhD have to have all the things that it requires today? But I actually think we should continue to support people who want to contribute to research endeavors. I think the PhD is the only degree that supports the kind of depth and scope of projects that we have today.

So again, I’m kind of a, I’m kind of mixed on this one, right? Cause I think especially being where I am today, outside of academia and seeing so many PhDs being very successful and happy and fulfilled after leaving the PhD and contributing to society outside of academia. They still did that PhD though.

They still contribute to their field. And perhaps I think many people will say that their PhD experience helped them in their life outside of academia. So I think there is mutual benefit, both to the individual and to society. I think we can make the system better. I think we can make it more efficient.

I think we can better prepare people who go through PhD programs to be successful either in or outside of academia. So I think I’m still very supportive of our society funding and encouraging people to go into research. They may not be for their entire career, but I think there’s value in this idea of fostering individual research programs. I just think we can shape and tailor them to meet the needs of our modern society. 

Grant: How do we go about that? What reforms do you think are warranted? 

Vay: Many of these things are starting to happen now. In terms of say preparing people for even thinking about careers outside academia, changing the conversation within academia, perhaps adjusting some of the expectations of what you’re supposed to do as both a PI as a mentor and as a trainee, maybe the length of time you’re funded, the kind of scope of projects and then taking a look at the different kinds of fields that maybe require a little bit more investment in terms of personnel and resources.

And then there’s also a need in terms of the workforce, right. And conditioning the workforce to understand the value of people who have this kind of training. It’s becoming more common simply because there’s more of us out there. So, right. We’re representing people who have this academic background and have shown practically what it can do when we are given, you know, whatever problem we’re solving in the workplace.

So, it’s definitely kind of a three body problem. That, at least as part of Free the PhD, I’ve been trying to help to address. So it’s in the individual who is entering PhDs, knowing and thinking and preparing ahead. It’s in the educational institutions that are developing and changing and modifying their programs and recruiting people in how they choose to prepare their trainees for the future. And that’s also in greater society in terms of employers and recruiters and hiring managers. Understanding that maybe this type of so-called untraditional candidate is actually going to be a huge benefit to our team and our company or organization. So it’s definitely an ecosystem that needs to change together.

It’s probably not all going to change at the same time. Clearly I think us as academics, pushing into the world, we are the first people because it’s our necessity to get out there and make a living somehow. But again, I think all of these changes are happening. And I’m actually really glad to see that because I think it’s going to be sort of a win-win for everyone. 

Grant: Is academia a cult? Or more softly, are there some cult-like characteristics that commonly need to be deprogrammed as people leave? 

Vay: That’s a loaded question. I mentioned niches earlier about anyone who has been, I won’t say isolated per se, but perhaps sequestered or siloed in one particular environment for a long time. I mean, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a cult per se, but I certainly will say that the environment is very self-fulfilling in some ways. Or almost like an echo chamber sometimes just because of how tight knit the community is and how much they pretty much only interact with each other.

So even when we go out and talk at conferences or we present talks, typically we’re presenting to other fellow academics if we’re still in academia. So it’s actually one of the reasons why, when we’re helping someone to edit their resume for industry and we’re talking about presentation skills, communication skills, I want to see something outside of scientific presentations. Cause again, you’re just, you’re talking to the same audience. Show me some variability. Show me some diversity and how you can tailor your message to different people. 

And yeah sure, students versus postdocs versus PIs are kind of different audiences, but really they’re all academics, right? So when I can see examples of people tutoring children, and then going out and giving public talks at a bar, immediately that adds more depth to their communication skills. So academia, I think, is the same type of silo that many other types of insular workplaces or cultures are.

And I think it has the same challenges. So like you said: there can be some deprogramming necessary, but really it’s just what we were used to. And now all of a sudden we’re exposed to people with different priorities, people who care about completely different things who are using very different acronyms and jargon and all of a sudden it’s like: Oh my God, what is this world? 

And really it’s been out there this whole time. So as trainees, as people who are being brought up in this type of a more insular environment, I think it’s our responsibility as individuals to realize this is not the whole world. We know this, I think intellectually, but emotionally, sometimes we don’t. And it is up to each one of us to reach out and keep those connections outside of any type of insular environment, if we want to have an easier time breaking through in the future. 

I also clearly think that the academic world itself would benefit from integrating external conversations and interactions more often, not for the benefit of trainees, but actually just because cross-communication and cross-fertilization of ideas is always beneficial. So I think this is going to vary. I think I’ve found certainly between different fields, there’s different amounts of baseline communication between academics and others. So in some fields, for example in neuroscience, being a newer field, there’s not that much industry.

There’s not that many applied applications of this technology or this research topic. So we don’t have many industry or other people to really interact with. Whereas if you’re going to look at computer science or even chemical engineering, a lot of people are very used to interacting with people in industry and companies and, you know, entrepreneurship. It’s just part of what they do. 

So they will have less “deprogramming” to do because they’re consistently taking in other priorities outside of academia. So at the end of the day, I think if you don’t like the insular environment you’re in, then take some effort to break out of it, especially if it’s not kind of handed to you. Again, it can be a little bit difficult on the psychological side of things, but really the world is out there and you have every right to reach through the walls of academia and get to know other people outside.

Grant: How did you get to where you are today? What influenced your own choices and decisions? 

Well, I’ve always loved biology and I love behavior in particular. So I think if I was someone who had grown up decades and decades ago, I’d probably be one of those naturalists, trekking through the woods and documenting the life cycles of different animals. I think that would be one of my dream jobs if only it made money, of course. 

But when I went to college, I knew I wanted to study something biological in nature, just cause I’ve always been interested in that. I actually picked microbiology without honestly knowing all that much about it. And then when I discovered what it was all about, I mean clearly it’s about microbes, but the specifics of the work, right, what you learn about and what you do in the lab was really not at the scale that excited me.  

And again, I didn’t really know that until I did it. So like pipetting and running gels and purifying proteins and growing bacteria is just not my cup of tea. I’m much more interested in larger organisms and that’s actually what influenced me. It was also partly family reasons:  my family is big into intellectual endeavors and wanted me to go for a PhD. But it was also from my own interests: I was not interested in doing the kind of jobs that I could easily get with a microbiology bachelor’s degree. So it was like, all right, if I don’t want those kinds of jobs, I guess I could try for this PhD program.

And I actually did end up going straight from undergrad into a PhD program. So I know a lot of other people will do a post-bac. You’ll take some time off, maybe work or do a masters degree. It just so happened that I got into a program straight out of undergrad, so that’s what I did.

And then as far as the field goes, I did focus more on the types of topics I felt would be more personally rewarding. So I applied to psychology programs, cognitive neuroscience, and then actually a kinesiology program as well because again, these all have to do with behavior, more oriented towards entire organisms, rather than cells and molecules. 

So yeah, that’s kind of how I got into the PhD program. And then again, as I mentioned at the beginning, I ended up in a pretty unique program, which was a joint one between a university and a national lab. So I spent the first year through the book knowledge comps, and then actually moving to the national lab at the NIH to do the bulk of the research. 

So yeah, through that process, I think I also confirmed to myself that academic research, the process, the findings, the things that are very interesting to me–I love neuroscience. It’s amazing as a field–I just don’t like doing it. I don’t find the research process personally rewarding. And again, you could argue that maybe I shouldn’t have done the PhD, but I really wouldn’t have known that without actually doing the PhD. 

So in order to help me keep my sanity through this process–which I think happens to a lot of us, even if we are die-hard fans of research–I started doing other things in grad school. So I took on some social activities, leadership activities, creative activities, because that’s also just a big part of who I am. And at the end of the PhD, I had somehow racked up a lot of other experiences outside of the PhD thesis research that I conveniently could talk about on my resume and during interviews.

And again, it just made me stand out as a job candidate. This is definitely advice that we give every day to people at Free the PhD, because, again, it just shows the diversity and flexibility of you as an academic to fulfill the needs of different audiences. And I think really it’s that gap that is lacking and holds a lot of us back from getting job opportunities, especially straight out of academia.

People are like, you only know how to think about academic things and academic people with academic audiences and it’s up to us unfortunately or not to show them that no, that’s not true. I have done things for this audience and that audience, and I know how to think about your problems and blah, blah, blah.

So I really think that that long period in a PhD of ambiguity, of not knowing if this is the right direction also gave me some room to pursue small side projects that I mentioned: writing, leadership, creative endeavors. I taught myself video editing because I was bored. Our graduate student council had a talent show during one of their events and they’re like: can you like sing something? So I made a little music video to go with that. And these skill sets that seem a little bit frivolous compared to our thesis or postdoc project, actually add a lot of depth to you as an individual and as a future job candidate. 

I don’t know if I would have pursued these things, if I didn’t have this kind of against space within the PhD program to really work on things that I liked. And again, I know in many environments, people don’t feel like they have that space, and I’m here to say that you should take it for yourself because it’s important to both grow yourself as a person, manage stress and mental health, and also help you open more doors once you think you want to leave academia. Because one of the things that’s common when people come to us for help trying to find a job or figure out what they should do next is we’ll look at their resume and all their work and there’s nothing that we can easily apply to something outside of academia. So it’s so much easier if you’ve already done some other things. 

Grant: Would you say that’s the most common mistake people make in grad school? 

Vay: Yeah, I wouldn’t say it’s a mistake per se. In many ways I think we pride ourselves as a demographic on being focused on really diving deep into research. So I won’t say it’s a mistake, but I will say that it is a challenge. If you want to pursue a job after a PhD that really relies on those skills that you developed in the lab, you’re fine. That’s not the issue. 

The issue is if you want to run away from the lab after you graduate, but all you have to show is lab work. Clearly there’s going to be a mismatch there. So that’s when people have a problem, especially if they want to leave right away. It’s probably not going to happen that easily.

For example, if a grad student wants to go and do something more business related and they have done nothing related to that during their PhD, I know people who have ended up doing a postdoc sort of as a foothold. So they have something to pay the bills to survive on and to give themselves space to pursue some of these other things. But you can do that as early as your first few years in grad school, if you really want to. It’s really just about keeping your eye on the future, even as you’re working on what you’re doing today. 

You don’t have to kill yourself over it. Just like, make sure you don’t get complete tunnel vision. There is a horizon out there. You want to make sure you’re kind of pointed in that direction that you want to go. And if you’re not, then just taking a few hours a week, talking to different people, taking an online course, working at a small project can actually really pay dividends down the line.

So yeah, I wouldn’t call them mistake, but I will say it’s a very common kind of habit that people fall into just saying, Oh, my research will speak for itself. And yeah it might. It just kinda depends on where you want to go after. Cause if you go somewhere where your research is sort of irrelevant, your research is not going to speak for you. So something else has to speak for you and you can start building that foundation today. 

Grant: And how about your own path after the PhD? 

Vay: I applied to so many jobs, starting from my third year and it wasn’t even serious because I knew I wanted to finish out the PhD. I think at that point, my experiments were finally sort of working, which is so common, like third year blues are just the worst. Even in my third year I started putting out applications just to see what would work and what was out there. Of course I made the classic mistake of applying to everything with pretty much the same documents, which is definitely not likely to work.

So yeah, I didn’t get an actual hit in terms of interviews. And actually, I think I interviewed for one. But the job that I got came pretty suddenly, and it was also because I was looking. I didn’t technically have an internal referral, but I did have experience with the company’s products, which I’m actually always looking for when people are looking for industry jobs.

I’m like: what have you used before? Have you thought about actually working for one of these companies, because you have an advantage over other people who haven’t. So yeah, it was posted on a scientific society website, on their jobs page. And I looked at the job description. Most of the time when I was looking for jobs, I was looking for things that did not say postdoc. Of course that’s usually the job postings you’re going to find the most of on scientific society websites. And this one was different. It was for an application scientist. And I was like, what does that mean? But when you looked at the job description, and what they wanted from the person, I was like, Oh this sounds cool. I could do this. And I knew their product. I just actually started working with one of the earliest prototypes that they had developed. There’s always a little bit of luck or a little bit of serendipity in everyone’s journey.

My PI just happened to have their product. So that wasn’t something that I had meant to happen, but I did work on it. And those skills that I mentioned, I developed through the PhD, the speaking skills, the teaching skills, creative skill, even the video editing skills, all things that I ended up mentioning in my cover letter and talked about during the interview.

I really sat down to think about: Why do they need this person? And they weren’t even looking for a PhD. They want a bachelor’s level person, but companies, especially good companies, good hiring managers, are looking for someone who can fulfill the need that they have, whether or not the person looks exactly like what they thought that a candidate should look like. So you have to sell yourself. And I think I was fortunate that I was able to do that, having hands-on experience with the product. And I could point to the tutoring that I had done, the protocols that I had written, the videos that I had made and say, I can now apply all of these things to help your customers be successful.

And I think that was a very compelling argument because they gave me the job. So that’s how I made that first leap out of academia. I was really taking these routes that I had started to grow in different directions and apply them to the needs of this new audience of this company. 

It was a startup company and I really enjoyed my time there. I think startups are amazing opportunities for any academic. They typically move fast. They’re cutting edge. People are collaborative. You’re working on new things that no one else has done before. So a lot of those transferable skills that we develop in a PhD applied really nicely to this kind of a work environment.

And then yeah, I was there for almost six years and transitioned through different teams. And I really let myself use my own interests to drive that direction. Application scientists are typically the support team in any company that has a highly technical product. So it was a great fit. And actually, I think application scientists roles are a fantastic first step for many highly technical academics.

There’s just a lot of stuff that you bring to the table right away, that you can use immediately. And then for myself, I mentioned I have a creative streak. So I started working on marketing materials for the company. They had a very small marketing team and I really enjoyed communicating with people and being creative about it.

And that’s a lot of what large parts of marketing can be focused on. So, I love that part. And then, sort of serendipitously sort of purposefully I ended up moving into much more of the commercial side and into the sales world. Partly because my boss actually asked me, did you ever think about sales? And I was like, no. And he basically said I should think about it. A lot of what happens to us in life is about keeping an open mind. Just keeping those feelers out there for new opportunities. I had never thought about sales ever. I had my own preconceived notions and biases about what sales means.

I think that’s very common in academia, but I got to see for myself exactly what this type of job in this type of industry is like. And I have to say I enjoyed it. There’s always going to be pros and cons. Perks and problems in any type of role. So it’s really just about letting yourself be honest about what you want.

What do you want in your career? What do you want in your life? Does salary matter? Does travel matter? Does personal time and flexibility matter? These are things that we don’t typically think about when we’re training in academia, but it becomes more and more important as we get further along in both our career and our life.

I actually ended my time at the startup company in the sales team. And then I was recruited to my current position where I’m still technically on a sales team, but I’m playing a more educational role than the entire sort of commercial life cycle or sales cycle for a client. So it’s a little bit like an MSL (medical science liaison) position where you’re supporting sales efforts through technical education essentially. 

Did I ever think I’d end up in a role like this? No. Did I ever think I’d jump from very, very basic neuroscience to now thinking about patients and disease and lab tests? No, I didn’t. So there’s a lot that’s going to happen to each and every one of us that we can’t predict, but all you can do is try to be true to what you have strengths in naturally. And then people recognize that and they’ll try and draw you for those types of things. And that’s just a win-win for everyone because you’ll be happier and they will benefit from someone who really likes to do what they do. 

Grant: So on the psychological side, what would be your top three pieces of advice for grad students or postdocs who are looking to leave academia?

Vay: Three pieces of advice? So I’d say, first of all, try to always have an open mind. I’ve already mentioned kind of keeping your eye on the horizon, even as you’re kind of diving into a tunnel into the middle of the art in your inner research topic. There are many, many different ways to think about where you could end up. Having an open mind about it, and not judging yourself or putting too much pressure on yourself to achieve only X. Success is not just one thing. It’s going to evolve. The definitions will evolve. You’re going to change your mind about what’s important to you. And that’s all really normal. So it’s very important not to lock yourself into this is the only right way to do something.

And especially as researchers, we should typically know that that’s not necessarily the case. Just because we want this protocol to work doesn’t mean it’s going to. Just because we want this pathway to be a certain way doesn’t mean it’s going to be that way. So it’s the exact same thing about trying to plot out your life.

You can certainly set yourself a path that’s desired, but if you end up taking a left turn or a right turn somewhere, that’s fine. Just reorient yourself. There’s nothing wrong with it. People do it all the time. We just don’t see it as much. I think people just don’t talk about it that much. Most people’s paths are not straightforward.

It’s not one line. You rarely work for one company forever. It just doesn’t happen anymore. Be open-minded and sort of along the lines of being open-minded, make sure you reserve time and energy to do hands-on things that are not your research. Like this is just very practical advice.

No one can help you do this. It’s why I’ve always been trying to get to earlier and earlier stage college students to do seminars and talks and workshops because we want inspire more people to get the experience that could help open more doors later on as early as possible. If you have like three months before you graduate, that’s usually not enough time to show a complete project in something else that would help attract an employer or a hiring manager. But if you started in even your fourth year and you graduate in your fifth, that’s one year of experience you can talk about. You don’t have to be officially anointed or paid by someone to claim that experience because it’s really that learning process, a process of prioritizing execution of a project. 

It’s that experience people want. That’s what they mean when they say they want one or two years of experience in X. So you can give that to yourself. Gift it to yourself. You deserve it, as early as possible. So just stay open and try some other things because really you’re not going to know if you like sales or don’t like sales or like business or don’t like business, or are going to be great at consulting or are going to suck at it, if you haven’t even tried something related to the work. And it shouldn’t be that difficult, especially now with the internet.

There are plenty of relatively cheap or free ways to get exposure. And I would say, don’t feel like you need a certificate. Don’t feel like you need to pay a few thousand dollars to get some sort of official degree to show you can do something. In many ways it is actually the self-driven side projects that are the most impressive because those are the ones that you’ve taken the initiative to do and figure out for yourself. And that is what people are going to be judging your capabilities on. So, make sure you save time in your day, in your week, in your month to work on your own projects.

And nothing can substitute for this. And I can say this from personal experience, a certificate is great if you can show like, Oh, I’ve completed a course. But that’s not going to substitute for actual experience. I did this project and this was the result. And here are the people who benefited and whatever.

So, I mean, you can make the same argument. Like you can say someone has a particular degree or a certification in an instrumentation in your lab versus maybe you’ve been using it day to day troubleshooting, figuring it out, finding all the quirks, teaching other people. I would hire you in a heartbeat over someone who just has book knowledge about something.

And so this is exactly the same for us, if we’re interested in a particular field in the workplace. Do you need an MBA to get a job on the business side of things? No, you do not, but you probably do need to work on some sort of business related experience, some project or internship if you can.

Because it’s being immersed in that environment, facing those challenges and floundering your way to success. It’s that process that people are looking for. So give that chance to yourself to experience it.  And then you can figure out how you want to leverage it in the future. So I’d say that’s sort of two things, and then I’d say the third one is one that I have repeated many times to different people.

But I think it still bears repeating. It’s the fact that you are not going to waste your PhD. You no matter what you do. And I think this is one of those very, very deep seated, psychological fears that everyone has. We invest a lot of time and energy into this degree, into this time in our life. And I think everyone would like to make use of it in some way in the career they pursue.

And sometimes there might be this great direction that people are hesitant to go into because they feel like they’re not doing their degree justice in some manner. And I just want to encourage you to think about it differently. You’re not defined by the degree you define the degree, right?

The degree follows your name. So you are whatever kind of PhD you want to be. And to any one who says otherwise you’ve contributed already to your field in your degree training. So you don’t necessarily owe the field anything more. You did what you’re supposed to do to get that degree. Now you can take it and do what you want with it.

Right. So, I mean, that was certainly one of the fears that went through my head: Oh, I’m going to go be a customer service representative. It’s not the way you should be thinking about it. But I admit it happened to me too. And I was like, is this what I did a PhD for? But then looking back, you realize at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter.

I still have the PhD. It’s mine. No one can take it away from me. No one can redefine what I did in that period. Papers are still out there. People are still reading my protocols. So I have done myself justice in getting the degree. I’ve done my field justice in finishing it and contributing to the field. And now it is your turn to have ownership over where you want to take the degree, where you want to take yourself. So believe that you have the rights to define how a PhD should be seen, how it should be valued and what you want to do with it. So that would be my advice. 

Grant: Thank you so much for those words of wisdom, it’s been really great having you.

Vay: Yeah. It’s been wonderful to be here. I hope that people enjoy our conversation. I think it’s great that you’re getting out there and telling people more about what you guys do. And then also sharing the thoughts of fellow academics out here in the real world. Anyone who might be struggling a little bit right now with the direction that they want to go in, we welcome you to check out our website, We have an open forum that people post in and have actually very similar kinds of conversations with different PhDs in different career paths, just to introduce people to different options. And then as I mentioned, we have developed over the last few years.

A pretty comprehensive step-by-step online program. And that comes with personalized guidance. When people have questions ranging from: Is this LinkedIn message okay to send to someone? To hey, you know, I’m not sure how to answer this interview question. How should I go about it?

We’ve really tried to put together the best of both worlds, the sort of digital self-serve plus that personalized attention. Cause again, I really, really believe having that emotional, psychological support through the process is absolutely vital. You really have to feel like it’s okay to do what you need to do. And then people do great. They do amazing things. So it’s been such a pleasure and honor to help people get to that point. And so we hope to continue helping more fellow academics. 

Grant: Thank you so much. 

Vay: Thank you.