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Science Careers Blog

February 11, 2011

More on the Postdoctoral Professional Masters Degree

Since we posted an article on the Postdoctoral Professional Masters program of the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) last week, Science Careers has spoken with the two remaining scientists who have obtained the degree thus far.  With 100% coverage of the program's graduates to date, we can report that all have found it very useful for making the transition from biomedical bench research to applied areas such as product development and regulatory affairs.  All, furthermore, recommend it to other scientists seeking to make that switch.

"I'd always had the idea in mind that I didn't want to do research and discovery work for the rest of my life," says molecular neuroscientist Linda Soo Hoo, who is now development and technical manager at the pharmaceutical firm Gilead Sciences.  Instead, she hoped to use her science to help produce treatments that would aid patients in the real world. "I saw myself personally transitioning my career but I didn't have anything on my resume to give people confidence that I'm not just a lab rat," says Soo Hoo, who pursued the PPM program part-time while working as a postdoc at UCLA.  "The stereotype [in industry] is that [a postdoc is] a lab rat,...you don't have social skills."

The program's "biggest selling point" is the opportunity to "immerse yourself" in the culture of industry, which is very different from that of academe, and to "start talking differently."  Most postdocs attempting to move over to industry do so through the "very narrow window" of bench research, she continues.  PPM training, however, allows one to "change the resume to transition from bench research to something more managerial."  For Soo Hoo, the real downside of her KGI experience was her long commute from one end of Los Angeles to the other.

The program gives students a broad perspective on the complex process of turning science into treatments, she adds.  This allows them to understand how the particular job functions they may choose contribute to the larger goal of "helping patients" -- knowledge she believes gives work much greater meaning.

Molecular biologist Yvonne Klaue, the first person to receive the PPM degree, shares these goals with Soo Hoo and the other PPM alumni.  She is the only graduate not employed in industry.  Instead, she accepted a position as research associate in the lab of KGI professor Angelika Niemz.

Even so, Klaue sees her PPM training as crucial to her work.  "In industry this would be called research and development," she says.  She is working on developing a prototype of a low-cost device that health care personnel in developing countries can use at point of care to diagnose tuberculosis, herpes simplex, and other infections. 

Despite the academic setting, the patent issues that Klaue studied during her PPM training are fundamental to the project's ultimate success.  Patent law is not something that Ph.D.s learn in graduate school, or that academic scientists generally think about because "you're not thinking of commercializing," she says. But in product development it plays a central role. "The product we're developing is supposed to be cheap. If you have to pay [licensing] fees [for use of patented technology]. it brings the price up enormously."  

Learning about budgeting and accounting has great utility for her future career, she says. Many academic scientists "do not know how to manage their group when it comes to money."

For Klaue, both the academic world, with the intellectual freedom it offers, and the commercial world, with its ability to tranform discoveries into products, have attractions.   She does not plan to return to basic research, however.  "I really want to get a product," she says.  In the type of work she does now, "you actually see your product becoming a real thing." 

Still, she notes, it can be "hard to make the step" from the bench to the PPM program.  But for scientists interested in moving into more applied areas, she thinks the degree is worthwhile.  "I'd definitely do it again," she says.

Still, it's not for everyone," Klaue says. And anyone considering the PPM should inquire about "the strengths of the program and see if it's a fit," Soo Hoo advises. But all the graduates so far have told us that for scientists who share its goals, the program, which Soo Hoo calls a "speciality boutique business-oriented school for the biosciences," can open up valuable opportunities.

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