Vania Cao did a PhD in neuroscience before transitioning away from the bench to become an Application Scientist at Inscopix, Inc. She is now Manager of Scientific Content and Training at Inscopix. We caught up with Vania to learn more about how she moved from academia into industry.
You did a PhD in neuroscience at Brown University (finished 2013) and a postdoc at the National Institute of Mental Health before moving into industry. Why did you decide to leave academia?
Ever since I started doing research as an undergraduate, I’ve known deep down that bench experiments were not really for me. I’ve always loved science, but the pace and emphasis of academic bench research was not well matched with my personality. I didn’t have any better ideas at the time when I graduated from college, so decided to continue my education and see where it led me.
My time in the Brown University and National Institutes of Health Graduate Partnerships Program was fantastic overall. I met amazing people, learned a lot, and matured as an individual. I don’t regret spending my time in the PhD, but was quite sure towards my 3rd year that this was not a career path I wanted to continue after graduation. Because of this, I spent time exercising and developing other skillsets during graduate school. This is what gave me the ability to qualify for different kinds of career paths, including the one I eventually took.
Your first industry job was Application Scientist at Inscopix, Inc. How did you get that job and what did you do in that role?
The story is typical of so many job seekers – I was “lucky” and saw a job posting that appealed to my personality and required my technical skillsets. I applied and it just so happened that it was a fantastic fit all around. It didn’t hurt, of course, that I had experience with that company’s flagship product, and I could directly address the needs that they had at the time.
A typical Application Scientist works primarily with a company’s customers to ensure they are successful with their products or services. This is a vital business function, and a potentially very rewarding way to get started utilizing one’s scientific background in the business world. Since my company was a start-up, I got to wear “many hats”, and have since worked on customer support, R&D, marketing, sales and business development projects. My role continues to evolve as the company grows, which makes life interesting!
What was the biggest challenge you faced in transitioning from academia to industry?
The biggest challenge was ultimately internal – my mindset coming out of academia. How I saw myself at the time - my value and what little I knew about the professional world, directly shaped the way I communicated about myself on job applications and interviews. Having now stepped into the “real world”, especially being on interview panels, I see how these intangible but critical things like attitude and confidence affect a candidate’s chances at a job offer, time and time again.
What did you learn in your PhD and postdoc that helped you in that first industry job and what did you have to ‘learn on the job’?
My first industry job required intimate knowledge of specific scientific and bench-level procedures, as well as logical thinking and systematic troubleshooting. These I acquired directly from my PhD research experience.
On the job, you learn an entirely new way of valuing yourself, your time and your skills, based on the kind of professional environment you enter. Regardless of how technically skilled you are, you must learn everything from new job responsibilities to what relationships, processes and interactions are needed to succeed in each new role. The requirement for emotional intelligence and self-advocacy alongside scientific thinking is a critical gap that scientists are usually poorly trained to face. These soft skill requirements can comprise a significant culture shock when starting your first job.
You are now Manager of Scientific Content and Training at Inscopix. How and why did you change roles within the company and what do you do in your new role? How is it different from being an Applications Scientist?
The needs of all organizations change over time. This is how and why professional development is possible – if you can step up to take ownership of a particular organizational need that excites you, you can change roles. Since I was already heavily involved in the development of educational and scientific content for the support and marketing departments, I shifted to formally owning content and training for the company. My role has shifted into more commercially oriented projects, and since the company is still growing, I’m sure the changes won’t stop there!
While doing your PhD, you were also a freelance writer for Asian Fortune, the Association for Women in Science and FROMzine. Did this experience help you transition away from the bench?
Having freelance writing and reporting experience was key in helping me transition away from the bench. Mastery of both written and oral communication will accelerate your career success no matter where you go. Everyone must communicate daily, and you must represent yourself and your ideas well to be successful. Even today, I consult on the tone and messaging of diverse communications precisely because of the practice and experience gained from these projects.
You are now doing a Smartly MBA Program. Why did you decide to do an MBA?
Knowing that I would like to continue my career path in the business world, I wanted a better grasp of business best practices to become a more impactful professional. This is not a traditional MBA program, but has been a great way to get exposure to the key concepts and structures of the business world. This is also useful to support my entrepreneurial ambitions. As a scientist at heart, I’m always seeking more data and background literature to inform future decisions!
Do you have any other advice for scientists looking to leave the bench?
Diversify your time as early as possible. Your time is the most valuable asset you will ever have, now or in the future, and is a non-renewable resource. Although we do not necessarily think that our time is particularly valuable as graduate students or postdocs, remember that all skills and experiences are built hour by hour, day by day, with repeated use and practice. Give yourself permission to step away from the bench for dedicated hours every week to become a more well-rounded person, because your future is, well, yours! If you wait until your transition is imminent to begin exploring, you will have a much more stressful experience. Learn something new, meet new people, and push yourself outside your comfort zone regularly. There is an endless amount to learn and do outside the traditional PhD career path that will satisfy people searching for something away from the bench, but they must reserve the time to open their minds, get informed, and take action as soon as possible.
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