How 7 years of lab research prepared me to work at a tech startup

Exactly one year ago, I was furiously prepping for my PhD qualifying exam. I was in my third year of a neuroscience PhD program, and my project was titled “Investigating the effect of progranulin haploinsufficiency on microglia.” Now, I’m doing marketing at a tech startup.

So what happened? In February of last year, I was still feeling pretty good about grad school. I had an exciting project that had the potential to reveal a lot about a brain disease called frontotemporal dementia. I spent countless hours preparing for my qualifying exam (‘quals’ for short), which I needed to pass to officially become a PhD candidate.

The big day came, and my obsessive over-preparation for quals paid off. I presented my research plan, handled every question to the satisfaction of my committee members, and got some really helpful feedback. I felt motivated and ready to DO SOME SCIENCE.

One month later, I was spending hours each day updating my LinkedIn and browsing job postings, angling my computer screen so that my lab-mates couldn’t see what I was doing.

As soon as I passed my quals, the tiny, nagging voice in my head that kept asking whether I really wanted to do biology research for the rest of my life turned into a head-pounding roar.

The truth is, I had doubts about my choice to go to grad school within a few months of starting the PhD program. In my first 3 years I went through several bouts of crises in which I seriously questioned continuing grad school, but I kept convincing myself to stay because it would be “good for my career.” This time was different. I had reached a critical point: it was either commit to doing this project for the next 3+ years, or cut my losses and find something else to do.

Despite this conviction, I was still really scared to actually leave the path that I’d been on for so long. My days looked something like this:

  • sit in lab, staring at my computer screen, not wanting to get up and start an experiment
  • search for jobs
  • realize that I’m not qualified for any of said jobs, because all I have to show from my years of education is that I’m really good at pipetting
  • feel even more depressed and stuck
  • go to the bathroom and cry
  • rinse and repeat

After a couple months of absolute misery, I decided (with the help of some very supportive friends and family) to take a leave of absence from grad school and look for an internship or job. Being in the Bay Area, I naturally started looking at startups. I decided that startups were the way to go, namely because (a) I liked the idea of a fast-paced, high-energy work environment focused on actually doing/making things, and (b) startups generally seemed more okay with hiring people who were smart, but might not have much relevant job experience (or in my case, any job experience).

As these things go, I ended up getting connected with a startup called Amplitude through a friend of mine who had been working there for a few months. He heard that I was on the job hunt and convinced me to check it out.

Amplitude provides scalable analytics for mobile and web apps. In other words, it has absolutely nothing to do with anything I’ve learned or worked on. However, the company was looking for someone to start out taking care of day-to-day operations, finance, HR, etc, while also learning the product and company. This person would then move on to a more focused role depending on what they found interesting/were good at. In other words, it sounded perfect. It would give me the chance to learn a ton of new things as part of a small team at a fast-growing startup, and I would have the flexibility of figuring out what area I wanted to work in. I joined Amplitude 2 weeks later and haven’t looked back since.

Now that I’ve been here for 7 months, I’ve had time to realize that despite the obvious differences between academia and startups, there’s actually quite a lot that my time in academia taught me that translates to my current work.

This post contains observations that I’ve made over the past year — a year in which I went from feeling miserable and trapped to being at a job that I actually enjoy. Hopefully, it will give anyone who’s currently feeling stuck in academia (or anywhere else for that matter) assurance that, contrary to what you may think, you have a wealth of experience and skills that can help you in other careers out in the “real world.”

So here it is — things I’ve learned from academia that have helped me at a tech startup:

1. How to work independently, self-teach, and start from scratch.

I’m now working full-time as Amplitude’s marketing team of one. Everyone else at Amplitude has about as much marketing experience as I did coming in, which is to say, very little. I’ve been teaching myself and figuring things out as I go, reading lots of blog posts, and seeking out advice from more experienced marketers in my space.

Luckily, all of this was incredibly familiar.

In grad school, this happened when I wanted to use human stem cells and turn them into a specific type of brain cell (called microglia) that I wanted to study. My lab didn’t have any expertise in this area, so I caught myself up by reading dozens of journal articles, getting coffee with students and postdocs from other labs who did have experience, and practicing the techniques to make sure I got them right.

My time in research got me really comfortable with a few things: embarking on a new project with very little prior knowledge, confidence that I could figure things out given the available resources, and asking more experienced people for help. So, when I started working on marketing, I was naturally a little nervous, but I knew exactly how to jump right in.

2. Getting used to failure and knowing when to move on.

If there’s one guaranteed thing in research, it’s that your experiments will fail. Most of the time it’s for no discernible reason, no matter how many things you try to fix to get it to work.

I spent a whole summer in college trying to make biodegradable microspheres that would deliver drugs to injury sites to improve healing. It never worked. Turns out the process of making the microspheres was too harsh for the protein I was working with, so I was degrading the protein every time, leaving me with some empty, useless microspheres. So that was fun.

As a result, researchers develop a pretty thick skin — which is perfect for working in the world of startups, where failure is common and often praised.

In addition, you learn when to call it quits. Obviously you don’t give up right away, but after you’ve banged your head against the wall enough times…you know when it’s time to move on and find a different approach.

3. Being a workaholic is okay when it’s for the right reasons.

At my current company, we all work a lot, but we’re working as a team, building a product that our customers need and get a lot of value out of. We feel ownership for our work. We really, really want to see it succeed, because it’s something that we’ve built and care about.

Contrast this with grad school. I felt pressure to always be working — but it wasn’t a good, self-motivated pressure. It made me stressed out and miserable. Looking back, the difference is that I didn’t really believe in what I was doing. I didn’t actually care if my project succeeded or not, except for how it would affect me completing my degree. I just worked all the time (or felt guilty when I wasn’t working) because I thought I was supposed to, due to a combination of academic culture, lab environment, and my self-imposed ideas of success.

It’s not about work-life balance, so much as finding the work that you actually want to do, and hopefully, a team to do it with. Also, a good work environment certainly doesn’t hurt:

Would you rather…?

4. Being comfortable with risk and knowing how to manage it.

Sure, startups are risky, but so is pursuing a research project that has very little chance of producing results. The really exciting, potentially groundbreaking research ideas are always the ones with the lowest chances of working out.

Working in a lab environment for 7 years trained me to be comfortable with some amount of risk. It also taught me to always have several projects going in parallel: at least one really exciting, high-risk, high-payoff project, and a couple safer projects on the side.

5. Evaluating hypotheses and designing experiments.

This one’s pretty obvious: as a scientist, hypotheses and experiments are your bread and butter. The good news is that if you end up leaving science, these skills are still incredibly applicable.

Coming up with a new product idea or marketing campaign is all about starting with an initial hypothesis. Now that I’m working on marketing, that hypothesis might be that a certain blog post, ad, or campaign is going to increase traffic to our website and generate potential customers. I may have certain hypotheses about the messaging, medium, design, etc. that I can test — and then I evaluate the data from Google Analytics and our own internal tracking to see what’s working and what isn’t. Sound familiar, scientists?

6. It’s all about funding! Or, how to sell your ideas.

In both academia and early startups, funding is essential. At least some startups, including Amplitude, have revenue, but in an academic lab, you are completely dependent on raising money from government agencies, research foundations, and private charities.

The letters are a little different: instead of NRSA, NSF, and K grants, you’re thinking about seed rounds and Series A’s, but the underlying goals and strategies are the same.

How do you convey, in a very short amount of space (in the case of research grant proposals) or time (in the case of investor pitches), that your idea is worth investing in, and that you have the ability and resources to carry out that idea? If you’ve written research grants, you’re already a pro at this.

7. Wearing whatever you feel like to work.

Except now I don’t have to worry about splashing hydrochloric acid on my shirt or having my clothes smell like the mouse room.

There you have it. If you’re reading this and you want to leave academia, I feel you. I hope reading this gives you some assurance that a life in research has taught you many things that are valuable for life after research. Most of all, I hope this helps you if you know, deep down, that you need to leave, but haven’t, whether it’s due to fear, inertia, or a combination of the two.

I realize that I’m incredibly lucky to have landed what is turning out to be an amazing job so soon after deciding to leave my PhD program. I also didn’t talk much about just how hard of a decision it was to leave (which could be a whole other post).

I don’t intend to leave biomedical science behind forever, even though I’ve stepped away from it for the time being. I envision that my next step will be to work at a startup doing something innovative in the health space. I don’t know what exactly, but whatever it is, it will be making something that really improves the quality of people’s lives; that’s the reason I wanted to go into biomedical research in the first place.

For now, I’m happy where I am. I’m learning new things every day and flexing a part of my brain I haven’t in a while. I have a lot of say over what projects I work on. I get to spend time with fun, smart people every day, working on something that our users get a ton of value out of. Bottom line: I left a path I’d been on for 7 years, and it turned out more than okay.