The AltPhD Interview Series features conversations with scientists who have successfully transitioned into a non-academic aka an “alternative” career, and highlights the skills and career moves that helped them to achieve their current position. In the third interview of this series, it is my pleasure to chat with Arumugham (Ragoo) Raghunathan, PhD, who I got to know via networking through an online Facebook group- Career Support and Grow (CSG). CSG has now grown from a small group into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization “dedicated to create a peer-based mentoring and support platform for the STEM workforce of the world.” Ragoo has been one of the most active members in the group, providing guidance in all aspects, including interview prep, salary negotiation, and overall mentoring for a wide array of scientists interested in making a career transition. I am grateful that he agreed to take time to chat about his extensive professional journey in this installment of the AltPhD Interview Series.
Ragoo is currently a Business Development Executive at Metabolon Inc. He completed his PhD work at the University of Hyderabad, India in Animal Sciences (Neurobiology). Following this, he completed his postdoctoral training at Wesleyan University & Yale University respectively. He then transitioned into industry as a Research Scientist and worked his way up to Group Leader in Molecular Staging Inc (MSI). He then worked as a Senior Technology Specialist/Sales Development Manager at Qiagen. Following this, Ragoo transitioned into Field Applications Scientist (FAS) to Executive FAS roles at Sigma Aldrich (currently Millipore Sigma). He then explored the business side in pharmaceutical industry as a Business Development Executive to Sr. Director Business Development at Horizon Discovery. He began working at his current company in March of 2016.
In this freewheeling #AltPhD chat, he talks about his journey from an academic postdoc position into the different roles he has held in industry and what has influenced his career choices so far.
LP: Thank you for taking time to talk about your post-PhD journey and non-traditional career choices. Let’s start with talking about what does your current job currently encompass.
RR: Currently, I am a Business Development Executive at Metabolon Inc. My role has been to create and raise awareness of ‘metabolomics’ as a biomarker discovery and validation platform, build relationships and develop sustainable and strategic business solutions around these capabilities with pharma and biotech companies in the Northeast US.
LP: Your current position requires an interesting combination of management and scientific skills. Related to this, how did you shape your career trajectory after your PhD to get this current job?
RR: When I finished my PhD, I had no idea what I wanted to do, so it was an automatic transition into a postdoc position. However, as I got into my 5th or 6th year of that, I started thinking about how I want to live my life, in addition to what I wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to enjoy life and have a good work/life balance. If you don’t enjoy what you do, there is no point in doing it. I realized that I wanted to move out of the lab into the field, interact with people and take science to the people who need it. I also realized that there was a greater earning potential here.
During my days at MSI, I got an opportunity to do a customer visit with our marketing group, where I got to present and troubleshoot technical questions about Whole Genome Amplification (WGA, a technology which I’m a co-inventor of). This experience gave me the confidence and push I needed to consider a field-based role. So, when the company was acquired by Qiagen and there was an opportunity available, I cashed in on it. I started as a Global Technology Specialist travelling with Sales Specialists doing seminars about WGA and RNAi.
Having come from an entrepreneur’s lab at Yale, co-invented a technology and helped commercialize it, I have always been intrigued by the idea of starting a company. So, I thought that accumulating experience in every aspect of a business will be crucial if I had to do it someday. So, I decided to take on roles like Sales Development, Field Application Specialist, Business Development etc. with companies like Sigma Aldrich, Horizon Discovery and Metabolon for the next 10 years presenting to and visiting customers in 40 out of 50 states in the US. During the past few years, I have also had the opportunity to start a little business of my own, help couple friends with fundraising and commercialization strategies of their start-ups as an advisor, and mentor a large number of PhDs/postdocs on a Facebook group called Career Support and Grow that has >12K members.
I also have a passion for the arts – both performing and fine arts. I think it is important to make some time for something that you can unwind with. Acting in a locally made web-based series has been one of my outlets. When I find some additional free time, you might find me doing some watercolor painting.
LP: Wow that’s quite an extensive experience that you have acquired so far! My next question is, do you think doing a postdoc is important to transition into the job that you currently hold?
RR: Not really. If you decide early in your career that you want to move into a field-based position, I would recommend that you make a move either after an MS, MBA or immediately after your Ph.D. The goal is to get into an entry-level sales or FAS position first, learn the skills and you can get there. If you don’t have an innate ability to socialize, influence, sell or negotiate, this may not be your cup of tea. However, you will not need every one of those skills to be an FAS.
LP: What skills that you learnt in your PhD/postdoc that are helpful in your current job?
RR: Analytical and logical thinking skills are very important to have, and these are something that everyone will get during their PhDs/postdoc years. The resilience you build, the tolerance to face a negative result/failed situation and to trudge along till you succeed, and not giving up when things don’t work for you come to mind.
LP: How crucial was networking to get the position you hold? And your opinions on importance of networking in general.
RR: I got my past 3 jobs via a recruiter. I would say that networking is the ‘pulse’ of my professional career. I have used that to my advantage at every interview I’ve had and to an extent most meetings with prospective clients. It helps to know people, and to create and maintain a significant network. I use LinkedIn mostly for professional networking, and FB for the Career Support Group. I attend as many conferences as possible. To excel in my job, you have to reach out to people (most of the time people you don’t know) constantly. So, if you are not into active networking it could be a major challenge in my job.
That being said, you cannot use a network or your contacts just to ask for things. It always has to be a give & take interaction. Also, it is important to keep the relationship going on through regular interactions. You can’t reach out to someone after a long break and suddenly ask for a favor and expect them to help you. It does take some effort in developing good networking skills.
LP: What is the career trajectory that you hope to have moving forward?
RR: Although I am happy where I am at right now, ideally, I would like to start my own biotech company. So, in the meantime, I aim at learning all the skills needed to be able to do that, while I make sure I have enough time for my family and my passions.
LP: Thank you so much for taking the time, I’m sure our readers will find the information you shared extremely useful! Any final words of wisdom to PhD students/postdocs who are looking to transition into the job you currently hold? And in general, transition out of academia.
RR: Field-based (loosely ‘Sales’) jobs can be seen as a ‘less likeable’ profession by your colleagues. You would also have to understand that once you make this transition, you will be facing such people on a daily basis. So it is important to understand that you will be perceived differently. Think of the days when you saw a sales rep coming down the hall and you went into the lab or dark-room to avoid that person. That could happen to you. So, managing your expectations, facing rejections from customers, coping with pressures of maybe not hitting your target (revenue), having to handle extra-curricular logistics beyond your job (for example you may have to schedule your days travels, reservations, find locations of your customer sites, make sure you have the right marketing material etc.) are things that will become routine. So be mindful of that. Not trying to scare you, but if you are cut out for this, you will become a natural at it soon.
A transition out of academics in to a field-based position needs a serious attitude adjustment. Your perception of many things will change as you adapt to your new surroundings. Be open to that. Make sure why you want to make a transition, then prepare for it by talking to people who have done it before you decide if it is for you. Try to get an opportunity to shadow your favorite ‘sales’ person for half a day if you can to see what they go thru and if you will enjoy it. If you like it, decide soon and make it happen. Good luck!