Off the Beaten Path

Bench work isn’t for everyone. Find out about alternative careers available to biologists and how to transition out of research.

Carrie O’neill © ImageZoo/Corbis

Lisa Haile always liked biology. So she majored in the subject in college and then headed off to Georgetown University to earn her PhD in cell and molecular biology. While knee-deep in her research on cancer, however, her enthusiasm started to wane. The science was still very exciting and interesting to her, but there were other aspects that she didn’t enjoy.

“I was starting to wonder if I actually wanted to be a bench scientist for the rest of my life,” she recalls. She didn’t like the tediousness of the work, having to repeat experiments multiple times and seeing meaningful results only every 6 months. “But I had made such a commitment at that point. I decided I needed to keep going.”...

She finished her PhD and started a postdoc at the La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation (now the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute), where she confirmed her suspicions. Then the question became, “What can I do with this strong science background without just sitting in a lab all day?” she wondered.

It’s a question that plagues many biologists who discover that, for one reason or another, they don’t want to spend their careers doing research. Unfortunately, alter- native career options in science are usually not a big part of graduate curricula. So she did her own research by speaking with the patent attorney at Sanford-Burnham and making a few calls to other patent attorneys in town. “The light bulb went off,” Haile says. She found her niche in patent law, leaving her position at the Institute to earn her law degree from California Western School of Law. She now works as a patent attorney for DLA Piper in San Diego.

I get to work with the best
and the brightest, including several Nobel Prize winners
as clients. —Lisa Haile

“It’s been 18 years, and I still love it,” she says. “I get to work with the best and the brightest, [including] several Nobel Prize winners as clients,” she adds. “It’s been a great career path for me.”

Below are three possible career options for scientists that are outside of academic or industry research, as well as examples of scientists who have made the switch and tips for how to follow their lead.


Salary: $100–2,000/hour*

Forensic scientists working for crime labs are usually jacks of all trades, masters of none, says forensic expert John Budny. For evidence out of the ordinary, attorneys often turn to people who are highly specialized in a particular area of science. Whether in criminal investigations such as arson or murder, or civil cases such as medical malpractice, scientists can make a good living selling their expertise.

Budny’s Story

Toxicologist Budny was working as a preclinical drug development consultant when he got the call that changed the course of his career. It was from an attorney representing a company that prepared guidelines for treating poisonings. He was looking for advice on a case: a young boy had been brought to the local emergency room, having just ingested toilet-bowl cleaner. The ER physician, who had turned to the company’s guidelines, was unable to save the boy. The company was being sued for putting out inaccurate information, and the attorney needed Budny’s expertise as a toxicologist to get to the bottom of the matter. Preferring not to be privy to details of the case beyond those relevant to the science he was asked to evaluate, Budny simply read the guidelines and testified that they were indeed accurate.

A couple of months later Budny received another call, this time from a chemist in Texas who needed an expert witness for a case dealing with a medical device. The deposition during which each party shared their testimony was “grueling,” Budny recalls, but the work intrigued him. “I started getting really excited about this business of expert witnesses and forensics,” he says.

He began taking courses to learn more about the process, and before long was getting more and more calls seeking his expert view of a situation. “It was not a decision to get into forensics,” he says. “It was something that came knocking on my door.”

Personality test

Are you patient? The people making the decisions do not have your training and experience. You have to explain your conclusions and train of thought simply, despite the complexity.

Are you calm under pressure? Serving as an expert witness involves testifying in depositions and in court, often with harsh cross examinations. It is important to keep your cool in these situations and accurately explain the science.

Are you confident in your knowledge? Often times, your conclusions will determine the outcome of a case. You have to be prepared to stand by your analysis regardless of the consequences they hold for the accused.

How to get in

Take courses. Associations such as the American College of Forensic Examiners International (ACFEI), Forensic Expert Witness Association (FEWA), and SEAK, Inc., offer 1- or 2-day courses on becoming an expert witness, covering topics such as how to prepare for a deposition, how trial testimony is different from deposition testimony, and how to prepare a report. Courses generally run from about $300 to $1,000 each.

Get certified. ACFEI offers credentials to certify that you have met certain educational or training standards. These certificates make you more marketable to attorneys.

Advertise. Most state bar associations publish an annual directory of expert witnesses. Associations such as Technical Advisory Service for Attorneys (TASA), FEWA, and SEAK also publish directories and generally serve as matchmakers for attorneys and expert witnesses, hosting search engines on their Web sites.


Salary: $45,000–$85,000/year**

What is a company worth? Will its stock go up or down? When is the best time to invest? These are the questions that stock analysts ponder as they research the value of a company and how its products might fare in the market

Andersen’s Story

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Rice University in Houston, Karen Andersen realized working in a biochemistry lab wasn’t for her. “I don’t think I had the necessary patience,” she recalls. She did, however, enjoy the critical thinking and analysis that went into learning about the research of others.

So she decided to start over. Browsing through a catalog of graduate programs, she chose business economics. She was “fascinated with how the economy works and how businesses function.” Unsure how she could combine biochemistry and economics, she asked the head of her biochemistry department to introduce her to a friend who worked as a biotech stock analyst. One conversation and she was hooked.

She decided to take a job at a small biotech company to get a feel for the industry before she attended Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business to get the schooling she’d need to become an analyst. The work experience and MBA degree helped her quickly land a job as a biotech stock analyst at Morningstar, a Chicago-based analysis firm.

“It’s more of a blend of skills than I had anticipated,” she says. There’s the science—learning about pipelines at biotech companies; the number crunching—the actual analysis part; and then the reporting—summing up the analysis in words. “There are a lot of different elements to it,” she says, “which is part of the reason I like it so much.”

Personality test

Are you good with numbers? By definition, being an analyst requires doing some math. If you’re math-phobic, you should look elsewhere.

Are you curious? You may not be doing the science yourself, but you must have enough curiosity to sustain your interest and focus when researching a company. You’ll ask questions such as: How do these drugs work? How do they differ from drugs that other companies are studying? How long before they reach the market? And, will one of them be the next blockbuster?

Do you have perspective? There are a lot of estimates that go into the overall evaluation of a company. You must be able to juggle these details, while synthesizing them into a broader view of the company, as well as the entire industry.

How to get in

Work in industry. Experience in industry will give you a better sense of the companies you will be analyzing. You’ll get a perspective on how companies develop a business strategy and a feel for the overall environment.

Go to business school. A business education can also help prepare you for life as an analyst. Class projects allow you to practice evaluating biotech companies and recommending investments.

Get your CFA. A chartered financial analyst (CFA) designation is a highly valued professional certification. While an MBA is a general business degree, the CFA requires three 6-hour exams that test and essentially vouch for your grasp of financial analysis. This high level of focus can actually make a CFA more valuable to some employers than an MBA degree.


Carrie O’neill © ImageZoo/Corbis

Salary: $200,000 ***

Patenting new technologies is a big part of the life sciences industry. As such, biotech and pharma companies are in constant need of attorneys who specialize in the sciences to help them obtain and maintain intellectual property and defend it against competitors.

Zacharakis’s story

When Maria Laccotripe Zacharakis started her molecular biology PhD at Boston University School of Medicine, she never envisioned herself as a lawyer. But partway through her research on the structure-function relationship of one of the proteins in “good” cholesterol, she realized, “I liked the theoretical aspects of science, but not necessarily being at the bench doing the lab work,” she says. So she started investigating other options and stumbled upon the idea of patent law. Before she even defended her dissertation, she landed a job as a technical specialist at Lahive & Cockfield, LLP, a local patent firm—a position that required no legal training.

At the firm, she began drafting patents and responses to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, while studying for the patent bar exam. Without a law degree—but with the patent bar under her belt—she became a certified patent agent and could sign the documents she was preparing. At the same time the firm paid for her to go to law school at night, and four years later, after passing the regular bar exam, she became a full-fledged patent attorney.

“I just love this profession,” says Zacharakis, now a partner at McCarter & English, LLP, another Boston-based firm. “I feel very fortunate to work with these scientists and protect their products.”

Personality test

Are you a good communicator? You must have good writing and oral skills to draft patents and defend them in the courtroom. You will need to understand how the technology works, how it will be used, and how it differs from existing technologies, and explain it in a way that can be understood by nonscientists.

Are you sociable? You will have to constantly interact with clients, other attorneys, and judges. Building relationships is important—you will have to convince potential clients that you’re the best person for the job.

Are you organized? With high case loads, you will have to manage multiple clients at once. While scientists usually focus on a single area of research, you will represent clients whose products may vary quite dramatically.

How to get in

Pick your path. If you drop everything and go to law school full time and year round, you can finish in two years, but most programs take three. Alternatively, many law firms will hire you as a technical advisor or patent agent before you obtain your law degree and pay for you to go to school at night.

Pick your school. The reputation of a law school is important, but you should also consider the types of classes offered. Though you can get a law degree anywhere, you might consider schools with specific IP/patent programs that provide more networking opportunities and job hunting help than a less specialized program.

Network. To find job openings, you should go to job fairs and join associations such as the American Intellectual Property Lawyers Association (AIPLA), and attend their local events.

* (depends on area of speciality)
**Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Labor
***Median 2009 salary of respondents to the American Intellectual Property Lawyers Association’s economic survey

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