Dr. Judy Kjelstrom is the Director of the UC Davis (UCD) Biotechnology Program, which forges connections and partnerships between scientists and industry. The Buck Postdoctoral Association recently invited Dr. Judy to discuss how postdocs and graduate students can maximize their full potential as scientists in both academia and industry.
Dr. Kjelstrom has an interesting and unique career path. She grew up in the town of Napa and was the first in her family to attend college at Sacramento State. Initially, Dr. Judy had aspirations to be a doctor, but after college, her path took her on multiple journeys including 12 years as a medical technologist, a PhD in microbiology at UC Davis, 6 years teaching as a community college professor, and her current position as Director of the Biotechnology Program at UCD. Impressively, during this time, Dr. Judy got married, had kids, and also had a stint as a Nike sponsored marathon runner.
So how did Dr. Judy accomplish all of this and become an entrepreneurial leader in science? As Dr. Judy puts it, she had to “reinvent herself” multiple times. After doing a PhD, she realized that research wasn’t for her. But she still loved science and the translational potential of research, so she decided to pursue other career paths that would better suit her outgoing and motivated personality. Dr. Judy acknowledged that, “reinventing yourself can be a painful metamorphosis.” But she did it anyway in order to do something she was truly passionate about. During these transitional periods, she had to ask herself hard questions, which she encouraged our audience to consider, such as: “What is your story? Are you living your passion? If not, why? Do you need help? Do you have the courage to change?”
Facing these questions after committing yourself to a PhD or postdoc can be overwhelming and scary. But the facts don’t lie. Less than 15% of postdocs will attain tenure track faculty positions. Furthermore, a recent study of UCSF graduate students revealed that students were already considering a broad-range of careers half way through their PhD programs, and a third of which intended to pursue non-research careers. So how do postdocs and grad students, who are expertly trained to enter academic positions, bridge the gap and obtain industry positions, which they have received relatively little training for?
Answering this question is what Dr. Judy does every day as the director of the UCD Biotechnology Program. Dr. Judy briefly discussed the program and its success stories (check out their website for more information), and followed with advice on how Buck scientists can make the most of their futures. She pointed out that academic research does not typically translate to innovation, which is very important in industry. To overcome this obstacle, Dr. Judy emphasized that scientists should make an effort to gain leadership, communication, networking, business, teamwork, and social skills. Furthermore, she explained that it’s important to have a creative mindset and to work in cross-disciplinary teams when possible to diversify your experiences and show your versatility as a scientist and a leader. For those that want to be entrepreneurs, Dr. Judy recommended to build up your social and investment networks, because “it takes money to do great science.”
So where do you start when attempting to maximize your own potential? Dr. Judy said, “It’s like Nike: Just Do It!” While this motto has served her well, she acknowledges that it’s not easy for everyone to “Just Do It”. She mentioned that a good place to start is finding appropriate coaches and mentors that can guide you in the career path your interested in. She also suggested networking with industry scientists by attending events or setting up informational interviews. Many times these conversations and informal interviews lead to actual job interviews, internships, or further conversations that help you get to where you want to go. One especially interesting point that Dr. Judy made was about postdoc CVs. She said that a typical postdoc CV looks very selfish and lists only scientific research accomplishments that say little about other skill sets that could apply to industry positions. Dr. Judy emphasized that your CV should show competence, passion, and compassion, and should include examples of how you’ve branched out and influenced the surrounding community in a positive way.
Dr. Judy’s seminar was very well attended with over 50 Buck scientists in the room. It was clear from the number of people present, that many of us at the Institute are considering alternative career paths and figuring out how to best prepare ourselves to get jobs either in academia or industry. Dr. Judy’s talk was a great wake-up call to take a step back from our all-consuming bench work and seriously consider how to make ourselves more experienced and competitive for successful scientific careers in new millennium.