Image: Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratories, Khartoum, c. 1920
Plenty of science Ph.D.s wind up in nonacademic careers. By reading about their experiences, graduate students and postdocs may get a better sense of their options and how to make the transition away from bench science. Here, in the latest of a series of interviews, Vitae columnist Viviane Callier talks with Jeremiah Mitzelfelt, a licensing and patenting manager at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
Describe your career trajectory. How did you get to where you are now?
Mitzelfelt: I got my undergraduate degree in neuroscience, and my Ph.D. in medical science with a focus in neuroscience. But as soon as I got a postdoc at Emory University, it became apparent that being a PI wasn’t going to work for me. I realized that, although I was really good at designing experiments, I was terrible at designing studies, which is what I was going to need to do to get a grant. So I started to look at other things I could do.
As a graduate student, one of the labs I had worked in had put together a patent application for something we developed, so I had some familiarity with tech transfer. When I saw a job posting in Emory’s tech-transfer office, I applied. Later that week, the office was having a seminar about a change in patent law, so I went and introduced myself to the head of licensing and told him that I’d applied for the position.
We arranged to meet later and chat. That’s when he gave me the bad news: Five years earlier, he said, I probably could have gone straight from a lab into tech transfer, but that wasn’t the case anymore. Now candidates needed work experience. The good news was: Emory had an internship program specifically for students and postdocs who wanted to gain some experience in tech transfer. So I did the internship program — a part-time program, 8 to 10 hours a week, for a year a half. I really enjoyed it, so I put my focus on finding a job in tech transfer.
In January 2014, I was able to get a position at the University of Maryland’s tech-transfer office. I was there for two and a half years, and in June 2016, joined NIAID’s tech-transfer office. I work on the Center for Disease Control (CDC) team, so we manage licensing and patenting for CDC technologies. Vaccines and diagnostics cover 90 percent of what we see.
What exactly is tech transfer?
Mitzelfelt: It’s a process to transfer discoveries that may have commercial value from the research lab to the commercial space. In an academic setting, it starts with researchers disclosing to the tech-transfer office that they have a discovery or engineering concept that may be useful. The tech-transfer office evaluates it for several key areas: Does it do what they say it does? Is there a market for it? And, if applicable, can we get patent protection on it? If the answer to all three of those questions is yes, then the tech-transfer office moves forward: first, working with patent lawyers to get patent protection, and then licensing the rights to further develop and sell the technology to companies that will take on the task of creating a product.
How did you manage your time as a postdoc, balancing your research duties with your internship?
Mitzelfelt: I was fortunate. My postdoc adviser at the time was very willing to let me do the internship. One of the aspects of Emory’s internship program is that you have to get permission from your adviser. The tech-transfer office has business hours (8 a.m. to 5 p.m.), and so that sometimes meant staying later in the lab. It’s not an easy balance, but if you want to move out of the lab, you just have to take on that outside work.
What changed in the field that meant you couldn’t just move from a lab to a tech-transfer office, and you now needed relevant work experience?
Mitzelfelt: Tech transfer is a really new field. It was only created in the 1980s when the government changed the laws to allow universities to keep ownership of discoveries coming out of federally funded research. As the tech-transfer field has matured, so have the qualifications expected of people working in university tech-transfer offices. On top of that, there are more and more people looking to leave bench science, so the positions are more competitive. So those two aspects make it harder to land a job in tech transfer without any job experience.
How does the work you do relate to skills you gained in your graduate studies?
Mitzelfelt: Tech transfer touches on science, business, and law. You really need to have a strong background in at least one of those three areas to do the job. I’m still working in medical science, reviewing technologies, so having a background in medical science is helpful, even though I actually don’t handle much neuroscience. In a Ph.D. program, you learn how to learn quickly — and the ability to shift directions and learn things quickly is really important in tech transfer, too.
What kind of experience and training is needed for your job?
Mitzelfelt: For me the internship was critical. My tech-transfer boss at Maryland liked to tell me that when they hired me, there were four finalists, and all of them had Ph.D.s and some experience in tech transfer through internships or courses on commercialization of research. If people are in an area where they don’t have access to an internship program, they could take the time and money and effort to become a patent agent — that’s something anyone can do. That would make you pretty hireable in tech transfer.
I’m currently working toward my master’s in regulatory science. I started the program when I was at Maryland because I didn’t feel like I could provide enough guidance to our inventors and startups on the process of getting a therapeutic from the lab to the clinic. In the NIAID tech-transfer office, we negotiate clinical-trial agreements and are more likely to have to obtain FDA approval prior to licensing, so understanding this process will be helpful there as well.
That said, I would recommend that people wait until they are in a new field before going back to school. From outside a profession, it’s hard to know how necessary extra schooling will be. Once you get into the new field, you can better understand how additional training or schooling will help advance your career. Plus, I think it would be terrible to spend the time and money on yet another degree, get into a new field, and realize you don’t like the work. And you might be able to get your employer to pay for your additional training, which is also nice.
Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
Mitzelfelt: I wish I had been honest with myself earlier that I didn’t actually want to be a PI. If I had, I would have started looking at other options sooner. I interned in the Emory tech-transfer office for 18 months while I was still in the lab — 18 months is a really long time to spend in a lab when you know that you don’t really want to be there. So if I could have come to that realization sooner, that would have been great.
The majority of Ph.D.s are not going to be PIs, so you might as well start looking at what all of the other options are, because you never know. You might find something you really like. I enjoy tech transfer much more than I enjoyed doing research. I’m glad I found it. There may be another field out there that you like more than research, but you’ll never know if you don’t start looking.
At what point did you know you didn’t want a tenure-track job?
Mitzelfelt: It was probably within six months of starting my postdoc. I came to realize that I am much more of a generalist than a specialist. I like knowing little bits about lots of things more than knowing a lot about one thing — and the further you go in science, the more you become a specialist. So that didn’t really fit for me.
As you go along in your postdoc, you get to see a lot more than you did in grad school — what the job-market situation is, and what the life of an assistant professor would be like. I’m terrible at coming up with projects and writing grants. I could put my head down and work really hard and eventually I might get a grant. But then what is the reward for that? The reward for that is you get to write another grant. So I came to realize that it was just not a path that made sense for me.
What would you change about doctoral education to better prepare people for all the careers that are out there?
Mitzelfelt: I think programs need to be upfront about the employment outcomes of their graduates, and be honest with students from the beginning so they can prepare themselves for the job market. I also think programs should be redesigned to be more proactive in presenting job options and working with students so they can get experience that will help them get those positions.
So did you even need a Ph.D. to get to where you are now?
Mitzelfelt: In tech transfer, you tend to see a lot of Ph.D.s, JDs, and MBAs — or people with some combination of those. I see very few people entering the field who don’t have an advanced degree in science, law, or business. Most also have had internship experience or took courses in commercialization of research.
Any career advice for graduate students or postdocs looking for their next step?
Mitzelfelt: Get some work experience while you’re still in the lab. Look at your options. AAAS has a tool called the Individual Development Plan, an online career guide developed for grad students and postdocs. I’d encourage anyone to use that. It’s useful for giving you general areas that may be a good fit for your interests. And then it provides information about careers within those areas and some ideas of steps to get into a field of interest. It’s a great tool.
For anyone interested in tech transfer, the professional society is the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM). Its website has free presentations about the basics of tech transfer, which I highly recommend if you want to get a feel for what tech transfer is.