MSU alumnus Ivan Delgado has 7 lessons for current PhD students based on his own career path, starting from a PhD in Genetics at MSU to building and rapidly expanding his own successful business Mouse Genotype
Let me be up front and honest with you from the start: you are not going to find answers in this article. But I will give you something that, in my opinion, is worth much more: a politically incorrect, no beating around the bush, true story of how I managed to unearth a truly fulfilling career from within the confines of academia.
When I started my PhD in 1996 at Michigan State University I did so with the illusion only a young naïve person could have: I honestly believed I could change the world through science. To this day I still believe a few scientists are doing that, just not as many as I once thought. During the next five years of graduate school I experienced the highs successful experiments can bring and the lows only politics can drag science into.
Lesson #1: Any decision made without hard facts is a shot in the dark.
When I received my PhD in Plant Genetics in 2001 a total of 40,758 doctorates were awarded in the USA, with 5,694 going to the biological sciences. Unfortunately, that is as detailed as NSF surveys go. What is relevant to my story is a number you will not find in any survey: how many plant sciences PhDs were awarded compared to other fields like human genetics. The answer, luckily, is very simple: much fewer.
Lesson #2: You need statistics to make the most out of the limited facts at your disposal. Never taken a statistics course? Take one. Already taken one? Take another. Already think of statistics as a second language? You can stop reading right here.
I like planning ahead, so a few months before getting my PhD I started thinking about what I was going to do next. It became clear early on that I was not going to pursue a post-doc in plant sciences. One of the main reasons for this is that the professors in my committee were not really interested in helping me find a post-doc, and in the very small plant sciences community that makes a huge difference. So I made a very simple decision: I looked for a post-doc outside of plant sciences. This was actually a very simple decision for me. Instead of thinking I was leaving my field, I looked at the numbers: for every plant sciences position out there at the time there were 10 to 100 non-plant sciences openings for someone like me. I accepted a post-doc in human genetics.
Lesson #3: Always keep your eyes open for opportunities, especially the ones that are not obvious.
I went through a couple of post-docs in human research, published a couple of papers, gave invited presentations at conferences, and learned a few things about muscle development and neurobiology. I was even told by the head of our department that with the quality of work I was generating I was assured a permanent position in as little as two years. In short, I had made a successful transition from plant to human research and was on my way to achieve my goal of becoming a professor.
Then why did I leave academia? There were two reasons. First, I had become disillusioned with academic research. Basically: too much politics and not enough research. And second, I found myself writing grants, and performing experiments to justify those grants, instead of performing the research that needed to be done. So when industry came knocking they found a very receptive listener.
I should take a step back now and tell you that I have always tried to expand my horizons. While I was working on my PhD I took French classes and played soccer sometimes as often as five times a week. So during my post-doc I went out of my way to cultivate networks and friendships in the areas around my laboratory setting. These, in the Houston Medical Center, included clinics and biotechnology companies.
LinkedIn is one of the tools Ivan uses to stay connected. Check out his profile here.
One such friendship was with the CEO of a biotechnology company that specialized in DNA synthesis. Between long technical meetings trying to troubleshoot the synthesis of kilobase pair-sized DNA fragments and outings to the ballpark to watch baseball games from box seats, an opportunity came up for me to join a company to start a new division: mouse genotyping. A series of meetings occurred between me: a scientist that happened to have two years of experience genotyping mice, and a company that had identified a business opportunity: tens of thousands of mice that needed genotyping. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Needless to say I accepted the job. The fact that I was going to earn twice as much as I was being paid in academia was, truly, icing on the cake.
Why Genotype Mice?
“The laboratory mouse, which shares 99% of its genes with humans, is still the research model of choice for biomedical research. As many as 20 million mice and rats are used in the US every year by over 2,000 research organizations, including hospitals, universities, government organizations such as the NIH, and biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. The vast majority of these mice need to be genotyped before they can be used in a wide variety of applications, including basic research and the testing of new drugs. In lieu of maintaining costly molecular biology laboratories these organization can outsource their genotyping needs to CROs (Contract Research Organizations), like Mouse Genotype, that specialize in providing this type of service.”
- Ivan Delgado
Lesson #4: When making decisions always look for ways to increase your options instead of limiting them.
Once I started working in industry something became apparent very quickly: I was not prepared for the business side of things. So as soon as I started getting my new, larger, paychecks I invested in even more education: I got an MBA. Working full time, and getting an advanced degree on the side, is hard work and not easy. But if that is in the cards for you I strongly recommend doing it.
Lesson #5: The sooner you set aside your reservations for doing something you’ve never done before, the sooner you will stop walking and start running.
Just like you need to write a dissertation to obtain a PhD, you need to write a business proposal to obtain an MBA. My business proposal was a mouse genotyping company. By the time I got my MBA I had a plan for my new company. Now it was just a matter of time to execute this plan. I believe most scientists do not realize how easy it is to start a company. I was definitely one of them. If you have the ability to get through a PhD you have what it takes to start your own business.
Lesson #6: Love what you do.
As luck would have it the company I was working for got sold to another bigger company, something that happens all too often in industry. The beauty of this coincidence is that the new company was not interested in the mouse genotyping part of the business so I was able to move on to another company and pursue my new business on the side.
Fast forward through a couple of other jobs at two different companies to find me leaving my last job working for someone else to focusing entirely on growing my own company: Mouse Genotype . It took me almost 4 years, from the day I started my company, nursing it into existence while working full time for someone else, to the day I started making more money on my own than I was getting paid to work for someone else. At that point it became clear to me what to do. I quit my job to do what I really wanted to do: run my company full time.
Ivan is in the process of building a brand new laboratory in Escondido, California for his company Mouse Genotype.
Lesson #7: Chance favors the prepared mind (Louis Pasteur).
Today you will find me in the process of building my largest laboratory yet, interviewing job candidates to work at my company, and having to ask prospective clients to wait a little until we are able to build up our capacity to catch up with demand. And through it all I look back and have to pinch myself to make sure that I am not dreaming. If there is a secret to my success it is this: I poured myself into everything I did, took ownership of my work and delivered nothing but my best, and when the chance came along, even when everybody that I trusted told me I was making a mistake, I jumped at the opportunity and never looked back.
Ivan’s takeaway message
If you asked me if a PhD is worth getting my answer will always be yes. The reason why I say this is because a PhD gives you the opportunity few other things do: to tackle a question in as many ways as you can learn. The value in this could be your mastery of the topic in question on your way to an academic position, or it could be something as trivial as genotyping your mice in preparation for that next big experiment. Sometimes it is the most trivial thing that makes all the difference.