31 March 2024

Industry as a Game: an interview with David Giltner

An aerial photograph of Fiji demonstrating transition by Damon Hall from Unsplash

Navigating the Private Sector as Your Best Self

If you’re a graduate student, you’ve probably felt the following. You initially wanted to be a professor like your supervisor. To get there, you’ll need a postdoctoral fellowship to conduct new research. The road ahead excites you. You love learning new things, solving problems, and getting credit for your research output.

But then you encounter some worrying statistics. Most concerning is that only 10% of PhDs and 17-21% of postdocs eventually enter a tenure-track faculty position. Worse yet, you hear that fewer tenure-track positions exist for the increasing number of postdocs out there. In short, there are too many of you for too few spots.

More and more, your colleagues are considering careers outside academia. They tell horror stories of the one post-doc who churned out paper after paper without receiving so much as a sniff of a professorship. Then, some of your other colleagues claim that those who leave academia are not worthy to be called scientists. Your professor also hopes you stay in academia. Worse yet, they say they can’t help you should you choose to leave. After all, they don’t know anyone outside the hallowed halls of the university. Or so they say.

Does this story sound familiar to you? It was for me. Although I left academia to begin GenoWrite, I needed a lot of help from the biotech community. I came across various people who were happy to give me helpful advice. And David Giltner ranked prominently among these mentors.

His approach to the private sector has helped people like me take a new direction with their careers. With , David held countless seminars and provided resources about making it in the private sector. His second book, It’s a Game, Not a Formula: How to Succeed as a Scientist Working in the Private Sector, has helped me adopt creative approaches to growing GenoWrite. Simply put, it’s thanks to the mindset change I made from his book that spurred much of GenoWrite’s growth.

So, if you want to start making the transition to industry from academia, check out the latest BioGraphers interview with David Giltner.

The interview

PN: Thanks, David, for coming onto our BioGraphers series. Let’s begin by talking about Turning Science. What’s the story behind the name?

DG: The name “TurningScience” came from the first book I wrote in between jobs back in 2009, titled Turning Science into Things People Need. It started as a series of 1-hour speaking gigs that I held at universities and conferences. During these gigs, I helped my listeners answer this question:

Can a scientist find a rewarding career in industry?

The effort grew so much that I left my job in 2017 to work on TurningScience. Through the years, I’ve realized that many people think that when you leave academia, you’re leaving science for good. However, I show that that’s not the case. Instead of leaving science, former academic researchers like us are turning science into things that people need. We’re still using science and acting like scientists, but we use it to create solutions to problems in contexts outside the university.

And that’s what the biotech industry is all about.

PN: I confess, I thought TurningScience was an odd name at first, but hearing your story has convinced me that the name is perfect for your company.

DG: It’s interesting you say that. I spent a good amount of time considering getting a better name when I incorporated Turning Science. The name initially didn’t stick well with me. But after I thought about the rationale behind my book, I realized that the name was perfect for what I sought to do. I started with a PhD in physics thinking I wanted to be a professor. Then, I realized I didn’t want that career anymore. I assumed that PhD graduates were destined to be corralled within a university’s walls. That was before I realized there was much more to life and our careers than the university.

By the time I created Turning Science, I was already using my science experience for a viable career in my way. My personal experiences matched my company’s name because I turned my science into a valuable career outside academia.  Additionally, I didn’t need to spend money getting help with a company name; I already had one that would work just fine. And that would allow me to spend my resources on things that mattered more.

PN: It’s clear that your story already helps your company stand out from everyone else. In what other ways does Turning Science distinguish itself from other mentors?

DG: Here’s my biggest distinction: I don’t just teach how science works in industry. I also teach how the private sector works. A lot of mentors give you practical skills. They can teach you to write a resume, craft an engaging cover letter, make new friends through networking, or nail the interview process. Those skills are still highly useful, but I teach the principles and values of the private sector. Through my workshops, I show the ways that people must think to be successful in the private sector, how business differs from academic research, and what managers need from you as a worker.

PN: Let’s delve into how business differs from academia. You mention in your second book, It’s a Game, Not a Formula, that people should see the private sector as a game. Explain that and how this attitude differs from what you’ve seen in academia. And how does it affect students making the transition into academia?

DG: In academic research, we think of our roadmap to success like a formula. Research is about being certain that our answers are correct, no matter how long it takes to get there. That’s because the goal of research right now is to publish papers with reproducible data and conclusive insights. The whole system favours a constant search for the right answers to our questions and creating knowledge from it. On top of that, the academic road is like a trial along a single road. Researchers work by themselves and are expected to pass the gauntlet of learning something new by themselves. You may have other students and post-docs helping you, but you’re still on your own.

Working in the private sector is very different. There are good ways and bad ways to solve problems and achieve your goals, but there isn’t only one correct answer. Graduate students asking me about getting their first private sector job will often ask me, “What are the right things to do to get the job I want? Do I need another certification or training or how should I do things? What’s the right way to do my resume?”

The truth is, there is no formula for getting a job. There is no formula for selling products. And there is no formula for ensuring career success.

In reality, we must persevere in seeking ways to solve problems for whoever we’re interacting with. That can be done in so many ways. That’s why there’s really no one answer. And that’s why the private sector is like a game. In industry, people are creating solutions for paying customers. A person may adopt many approaches to come up with those solutions. It’s different from graduate school where researchers most often search for a single answer that correctly solves the problem. But in industry, so long as your solution helps people make money with integrity, your solution will stand even if your approach is so different from what everyone else expects.

You’ll also have to work with a team. You’ll have to find creative solutions that no one else thought of. And you’ll need to think on your feet. It’s much like a sports game when you think of it that way. You play within the rules, but there are so many ways to succeed and you’ll have to work with your teammates to achieve your goals.

PN: You’ve delved deeply into the private sector as a game and the confidence to find one’s way through the industry. So how can people in academia best create new opportunities for themselves after identifying their strengths?

DG: In my books and workshops, I talk about several important steps someone in academia can take to build their career in the private sector. The first of these, as we’ve discussed, is finding one’s strengths. It’s important to start with a solid understanding of what you do well, and what you don’t do well.

From there, researchers can take the following steps:

  • Define a target: Once you know what you do well, you need to identify a direction within the private sector that interests you. You can say that you’re open to anything, but without a direction to start, you can’t take action and you won’t make much progress.
  • Research your target area: This next step involves searching for people, companies, and opportunities within your target area. You can search online, find career advisors, search for conferences to attend, and connect with people on social media.
  • Reach out to people doing things that interest you: These are called ‘informational interviews,’ and they are the best way to know how people with similar interests built their careers. As you talk with them, consider listening for the kinds of problems and challenges that they and their companies are trying to solve. Also, reflect on creative solutions they’ve found in building their own careers and think about how you might adapt what they did to create your own unique path.
  • Tell stories about how you can help: Once you have an idea of how you might be able to contribute to solving the problems that companies in your target area are facing, draft stories about your strengths and accomplishments that help people see how you can help. A long list of credentials and publications doesn’t mean much to most people in industry,. They want to know how you can help them, and stories are the best way to help them see that.

Once you find your unique approach to doing these steps, you’ll find your place in the life sciences in no time.  

PN: Let’s end this interview by talking about your book’s impact on your readers. How have readers benefitted from reading your book?

DG: People frequently contact me about the books I’ve written, as well as the workshops I do with Turning Science. I’ve been doing this full-time for almost seven years, and I stay connected with people after they move into their industry careers. Many people have told me how much my books and programs have helped them transition out of academia and be productive in their first jobs.

I find this work so rewarding because I’m helping people do a much better job than I did making the transition to an industry career. And I get to blend two things I love to do because I provide insight into how the industry works, which is fun to talk about, and I also get to encourage them and help them build confidence in using the talents they have. I get to see people find the courage to build the rewarding industry careers that they want. To see them reach that goal is so fulfilling, and I plan to continue that trend for many more years to come.