Image: Members of the Biotechnology and Life Sciences Advising Group at a planning retreat. (Courtesy of BALSA)
Scientists trust numbers. And the employment numbers for graduate students seeking academic jobs in many fields aren’t encouraging. So life-sciences doctoral students at Washington University in St. Louis started a nonprofit consulting firm aimed at providing industry experience to graduate students looking for a professional Plan B.
The firm, called the Biotechnology and Life Sciences Advising Group, or BALSA, has an unusual model: Doctoral and postdoctoral students typically spend about 10 hours per week helping area companies by doing market research, analyzing regulations, and creating project-launch plans. The students are all volunteers, since their research positions at the university prevent them from taking outside employment. But the group charges companies a small consulting fee—usually between $500 and $5,000 per project—which goes to support professional development events and microgrants.
Maxim Schillebeeckx helped start the group in 2010, when he was a doctoral student in genetics at the university, because he saw potential opportunities for himself and other students working as liaisons between the worlds of science and business. “I realized I’m not going to cure cancer, but the chances of me bringing a drug to market would probably have more success,” said Schillebeeckx, who now works in business development for a genomics-research company. After working with the consulting group's first client, a company that tests pharmaceuticals, he found that businesses were hungry for help. Biotech startups in particular, he said, "were really struggling to survive and understand what their final product should look like.”
BALSA has inspired the creation of similar consulting groups at other universities. In 2011, four postdocs at the Medical College of Wisconsin created Postdoc Industry Consultants, an independent group that advises technology firms in Southeast Wisconsin. Earlier this year, postdocs at the University of Michigan founded Michigan Life Sciences Engineering Advising and Development, a nonprofit that consults for companies in Southeast Michigan. A similar group is forming at University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.
“I think people are realizing the reality of the funding climate. You’d be kind of silly not considering alternatives,” said George Schweitzer, director of finance for BALSA, who is a postdoc in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Washington. “There’s only so many academic positions available, so you’ve got to consider other things.”
Ambivalence About Alt-Ac
Not everyone has embraced that message. Several student-consultants expressed frustration that their universities don’t do more to help them explore alternative career paths. Some report that professors are ambivalent or disapproving about their efforts.
“There are some students who don’t tell their professors about their participation in BALSA because they would tell them not to join it,” said Brett Maricque, the group’s current president, who is a Ph.D. candidate in the computational and systems biology program at Washington. “We’ve had students who had to quit BALSA because their faculty member told them to.”
John H. Russell, associate dean of graduate education at the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences and a member of BALSA’s board of advisors, has had to work to convince colleagues to accept the idea. “Faculty are concerned because they’re paying them off their research grants, so they want to have total control,” Mr. Russell said. “I think faculty do take pride in having people be successful in academia, but I think they need to understand that success isn’t totally defined by academia.”
A study tracking the first 40 biology and biomedical-sciences students to earn their doctorates after participating in BALSA found that the program did not affect their time to degree. “One of the concerns was that it will take time out of the lab, and distract them from getting their work done,” Mr. Russell said. “Out of this group of 40, almost all of them have at least one first-author paper, and the median number of papers is three, so they’re productive in their academics.”
Mr. Maricque dismissed concerns about BALSA cutting into the lab time of students. “With funding being limited, and difficult to obtain, there’s a lot of pressure on students to be productive,” he said. “Any time outside the lab is viewed as time that could be on your lab project. If BALSA was cutting into the time of students, I would understand, but most students are doing this in their free time. I wouldn’t have to ask my faculty advisor to do yoga for two hours every night, so why should I have to ask permission to do something like BALSA?”
While 80 percent of the program’s doctoral students accept postdoc positions, only about 40 percent of the BALSA graduates followed that path. Another 40 percent took industry jobs.
“It is really opening career paths that wouldn’t be there if they didn’t have this opportunity,” Mr. Russell said.
He plans to disseminate the findings in faculty training workshops this fall, hoping to dispel professors’ concerns and foster a more-accepting attitude. “It’s a faculty training problem,” he said. “That’s part of our job in this process, to try to educate faculty.”
But another source of friction might be more difficult to resolve. Mr. Maricque believes some professors have a negative opinion about the business of science.“There’s sort of an impurity associated with it, so having students pursuing a business-related career is seen in a negative light, I think, in a university setting,” he said.
Garland Marshall, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Washington, said students are smart to look at alternatives to academic careers, considering the austere funding climate. But he cautioned that the business world doesn’t always align with the principles of research.
“I’ve started two companies myself. That’s not really what a scientist wants to do,” he said. “There is a problem of compromising your integrity.”
Program alumni have found jobs at drug and chemical companies and patent law firms. While student-consultants consider these success stories, their professors might find solace in the fact that not all participants plan to leave academia entirely. “I’m still giving my academics a shot, applying for grants, doing my best to see if I can establish myself as an independent academic researcher,” Mr. Schweitzer said. “But I’m casting a wide net, and if the academic route doesn’t work, this is giving me a baseline of experience to move into should I need to.”
To Stephanie Cossette, a member of Postdoc Industry Consultants who is currently doing cardiovascular research, the supposed split between academia and industry is a false dichotomy. “I can have an academic lab that produces things that could be licensed to industry,” she said. “But I still love the academic research side. I still want to do the basic science.”