Scoring your first job in health tech
A guide for PhD students about to wade into the unknown
This is for PhD candidates in the biomedical sciences hoping to get a job in health tech. If you’re getting your degree in something else, that’s alright, read on. A lot of this is still relevant.
Alright, you’re finishing up your doctorate and it’s time for some changes. Things ahead are ambiguous, maybe even intimidating. I was there not too long ago. Allow me to try and help as best I can. This article is organized into the different thoughts that occupied me when I was finishing up my dissertation. Maybe some will resonate with you, too
Wait, I’m leaving academia?
Yes, and that’s okay.
You’re familiar with the arguments made here. Chances anyone ends up in a tenure-track faculty position are slim. There just aren’t that many faculty jobs out there and the ones who have them refuse to hang up their Sketchers and retire.
My goal is not to convince you to leave. There are pros and cons to staying in academia and there are pros and cons to getting a job job. But if you’re here reading this, chances are you’re already leaning to one side.
So, an industry job it is. Let me say this: Depending on the position you land, you may be able to do your best work by leaving the academy. Going into industry does not mean you’re leaving to go help big tobacco sell more vape pens. With access to resources and the ability to build products around your work, you could potentially have a greater impact on your field.
My dissertation is going to be perfect
This section is just in case you’re knee-deep in your dissertation (or about to be).
I empathize with you here. Of course your dissertation is going to be perfect. It is the culmination of years of work and a physical manifestation of your intellectual contributions; it’s going to feel so good when you tie a ribbon around it and hold the document in your hands.
But also: Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. Your life the day after you’re done is going to be no different if your dissertation was a B+ instead of an A. You’ll get your PhD either way and if a B+ means you have time to focus on your health and wellbeing and maybe also find a job, it’ll be worth it.
The dissertation is one thing right now: A means to an end. Get it done, do it justice, but don’t go overboard. No one cares about this document as much as you do (okay that’s mean and I’m sorry). I’m just saying leave out the chapter on the project that didn’t contribute to the story. You may have the energy for it now but you will not near the end. Skip the emotional rollercoaster and adopt a realistic perspective throughout. You’ll be better off.
I’m assuming here that your committee is not full of sticklers. I know some advisors who micromanage the thesis and check it for punctuation errors and those people suck a little bit. I’m also assuming you’re not Stephen Hawking, so if your dissertation is like, I don’t know, going to set off the next scientific revolution, please ignore me.
What opportunities do I have access to?
Okay, now we’re starting to talk about jobs. Have a look at the figure below.
Consider this triangle.The closer you are to any corner, the clearer the path is to scoring a job in that industry. Clear does not mean easy. Clear means that you sort of know the steps involved, even if it is competitive or long and arduous.
Let’s start with academia. Say you wanted to find a postdoc. You kind of know how to do that. Maybe there’s a lab you already collaborate with, or there’s another group in your field that just got a bunch of funding, or you go to a conference and you respond to flyers people put up — whatever. You’re in this world deep enough that you know what to do to find yourself a postdoc, even if it’s a bit tough.
Similarly, getting a traditional industry job is not rocket science. These guys, they send recruiters everywhere. They’ve probably hosted lunches at your college, where they’ve been like, “Hey, we’re McKinsey or Roche or whatever and we have roles for recent PhD grads. Applications open in the winter, interviews take place in the spring, you start in the summer, and here’s the website where you can apply.” It’s a long, competitive process, but at least there is one.
Big tech is not that different. I mean, they’re not hosting lunches asking you to apply. But they will at any given point have a lot of positions open for research scientists with your skills. You’ll want to get someone on the inside to refer you and get your application on top of the pile. And you’ll find a plethora of resources on the internet on how to best interview for them. These jobs are super competitive but the route to getting them is not obscure.
Maybe you’re someone who’s happy with one of these three options (well, perhaps not academia) and will get a job in drug development R&D or a big tech company. You can land a really cool research or applied science position at these places. But this article isn’t about getting a job in the corners of that triangle. It’s about landing in the very middle of it. This vague, ambiguous zone that is health tech, in my opinion, is the most exciting place to be working as a recent PhD grad. The trouble is that the path to get there is immensely unclear.
Where do I even start with jobs
Most health techs are going to be startups. So, we need to be able to evaluate startups. I’m willing to admit I didn’t know how to do that when I was in school. If you’re the same, I suggest you read up on it and get familiar with at least the different stages of a startup. This is important because the stage a company is in will have a massive impact on the nature of the job you can get there and you want to make sure you’re making an informed decision.
The earlier the stage of the company, the greater the scope of the responsibilities you’ll get (which is great) but that also means low job security and pay. The later stage the company is, the higher your salary and job security, but you’ll be joining in a role that may not allow you the same level of creative and scientific freedom as you’re used to. It’s a difficult balance, but since you understand these stages, you can try and find that balance.
In my opinion, I wouldn’t join a seed-stage startup right out of grad school. It’s too risky. Plus, if it’s any good, an early-stage company should be hiring leaders, not recent grads. The earliest I would go is if the company is most of its way through it’s Series A round and can tell you with confidence they’re going to have x dollars raised and hence are able to have a runway long enough to hire you with comfort. I’m not going to say don’t join a company if it’s too late in the startup process because honestly these are still fantastic jobs and you’ll learn a lot. If you want a greater scope of responsibilities, you can take your experience and join an earlier stage company a couple years down the line.
The point of this section is to show you that not all startups are the same. You should know how to evaluate them and ask the right questions during interviews about what stage they’re in. If they’re later-stage startups, you can probably find out quite a lot from their Crunchbase page. But if they’re earlier stage, you’re not going to be able to tell much by looking up the company; the only accurate information you’ll get about the state of their funding is just by asking them and it is totally cool to be very frank when asking these questions.
Anyway, all of this probably doesn’t seem very helpful because you have no idea what these companies are or where to find a list of them. That’s what the section below is for.
How do I find out where to apply
Let me create an average picture of the company we’re looking for here. We’ve already concluded that it’s most likely a startup. It’s going to have an employee count ranging from ~50 going into the hundreds — not thousands. In terms of organization, it’ll have a leadership team, a product team, an engineering team, an operations team maybe, and a commercial team. This is normal for any tech startup.
What a health tech startup is likely also to have is some kind of dedicated science or R&D team. This will either be a standalone team (ideal) or it will have research roles integrated into the product or engineering teams. You’re aiming for one of those research roles, wherever in the company they may lie.
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a list of all promising health tech startups out there. But there is something better. Any time a company raises a round, they make a lot of noise about it. Folks are adept at putting together newsletters of recent raises and there are also just roundups of fundraises for the last quarter or the last year. That’s helpful because as we learned above, one of the best times to join a company is when they’ve just raised some money. This is when they’re going to focus on growth and hiring. They’re also more likely to be a bit frivolous with this money and be hiring pretty fast and loose, which is great for you.
I don’t want to just give you these lists because the best ones change all the time and anything I share here may not be relevant by the time this article gets to you. But, for example, the daily health tech newsletter by STAT often mentions recent raises, Rock Health always posts quarterly reports of funding rounds, and honestly just googling for recent health tech funding rounds will give you whatever is rising to the top of searches anyway. If you want to be a bit more advanced, search for popular VC firms that are investing in health tech, and then go through the list of companies they’ve invested in. Examples right now are able partners and what if ventures; there are worse things than having these guys’ names in your investor list.
So what you need to do is make a list of all the companies that stand out from this search and scour their websites and LinkedIns for recent job postings and apply to them. If you don’t find a posting, find out who their scientists or research engineers are and reach out to them on LinkedIn. This is not a crazy thing to do. You will probably hear back. They’re not celebrities and they don’t often get cold emails or messages from other scientists. Ask them what job openings are coming down the pipe and express your interest in them. If you are able to find postings on these guys’ websites, still reach out to the scientists to have conversations and just by doing so, raise your application to the top and at the very least guarantee an interview.
And then take the interview process seriously. I’m not getting into how to best do that, partially because goodness knows if I’m even remotely qualified to give advice on that topic. But lmk in the comments or email me or whatever if you want me to get into it. Best, if you find good resources on the internet on how to interview for research scientist positions, post them.
What am I looking for, really
Believe it or not, you’re going to have options. And when that happens, it’s good for you to have an understanding of what it is that you’re looking for. Most of us have thought about what we want from our jobs, but we’ve done it fairly loosely. Like, can you really tangibly put into words what the criteria are? Try putting together a rubric and you’ll realize that though some criteria are quite plain (location, salary), others may be a bit vague. Do you care that all of your skills are being utilized by your job? What are your skills?
This is helpful not just when you’re going to be sitting in front of a list of job prospects and have to make a decision on which one to pick, but it’s also really going to help you during the search, when you’re picking companies to apply to, when you’re having informal or informational conversations with folks that might help you in your search (they’re going to ask you what you’re looking for), and during your interviews, when the potential employer asks you what you want out of the job you’re applying for. Putting together such a rubric is going to require a bit of soul searching and a lot of thought. Because really, you’re answering the question of what makes you happy, really, and for a lot of us that’s not a very easy question.
To help, I’ll put down what was on my own rubric. Hopefully that’s helpful in getting you started with yours. Also, this is my rubric, not yours, so please just chill out. Some may resonate with you, in which case, take them forwards; some may not resonate with you, and that’s okay.
I was basically looking for five things. First, I wanted to be in a specific location (this is pre-pandemic days when remote jobs weren’t as much of a thing). Second, I wanted to be making a certain amount of money that could enable me living in said location with some level of comfort (New York is expensive). The first two were easy to measure and were binary items in my rubric i.e. either an opportunity met them or it didn’t; there was no middle ground or ambiguity. Third, I wanted to have a job that would use my domain expertise in the biomedical sciences, and hopefully the brain sciences (my PhD was in neuroscience). Fourth, it was important for me to use (and build on) my programming and data science skills. Fifth, I had spent a considerable amount of time during my training doing science communication work (writing, producing, creating content, etc.) and I would have loved if my job used those skills in some way, whether it was through storytelling or working with people or just having to communicate sophisticated concepts to laypeople in an engaging and accessible manner. The last three criteria were difficult to measure compare to the first two, and they became excellent questions when I was engaging with jobs or interviewing and I wanted to learn more about the opportunity. Plus, they had graded answers (e.g. maybe a job will use my knowledge in the biomedical sciences but not necessarily the brain, maybe a job requires me to work with software engineers and data scientists but I myself won’t be asked to code) and that made my rubric a bit richer.
If this seems too calculated or too intense, maybe it is. Ultimately, when I had to make a decision, I didn’t really struggle with it. It was easy to evaluate the opportunities in front of me because I had a well defined rubric and I’ve never looked back.
What even is my value in the world
One of the more consistent things I see in graduating PhD students (and my colleagues and I were no different) is the lack of confidence when applying for jobs. Maybe academia teaches us to be humble, maybe it beats all the self-worth out of us. Whatever the reason, we forget when going out in the job market that having a doctorate is kind of badass. When employers hire you, they’re not doing you a favor. They need the expertise you’re bringing. I’m not asking you to not be humble; humility is important, especially when interviewing. But you also don’t want to miss an opportunity to demonstrate how you would be the right person for the job.
I don’t need to remind you that by the time you’re getting close to defending, you’re already an expert in your field. What you should also remember is that getting a doctorate, regardless of it being in neuroscience or art history or theology, means that you’ve been professionally trained in critical thinking and (hopefully) efficient problem solving. A lot of people like to say they’re good at those things; you have the degree to back up the claim. That’s why the Deloittes and the JP Morgans are sending recruiters your way regardless of the topic of your dissertation; they want good thinkers. You know how to design an experiment to answer a question. You’ll be surprised to see how rare this skill really is. Keep that in mind when you look at a job and say, jeez, am I really qualified for that? The point of the PhD is that you don’t have to know how to do something in advance; what you’ve shown is that you, more than others, can just figure it out.