I was post-qualifying exam and officially a third-year. Allegedly the “third year” status means that you have more time to focus on your research projects and that you’re almost done teaching. It also seemed to mean that you were in this “gap” period in grad school: post-qualifying exam, yet far away from graduating. I found this to be rather unsettling. In general, I prefer knowing what the “next step” is, which used to be “passing my quals.”
While eventually graduating was a good goal, I had no idea what lay beyond that. As I am a person who also likes lists, I found myself making a list of various career options (e.g., postdoc then professor, postdoc then industry science job) and thinking through what type of career I might have with each option. My third year became a bit of an experiment, investigating each of those options.
Behind Door #1 was to become a professor. As part of this experiment, I opted to be the head graduate student instructor for an introductory organic chemistry course at Cal, in order to get a small sense of what it would be like to teach at a large public university. While I enjoyed some aspects of that course, I found other elements unappealing. Combined with the lifestyle of a professor at a major research institution, I found myself closing Door #1.
Door #2 was to become a scientist in industry. I took a more theoretical approach to understanding this career path and did several informational interviews with friends in industry. Again, I just wasn’t feeling that “thing” that I thought one was supposed to feel when looking forward at a potential career (sheesh, this sounds like a bad dating story). These investigations into Doors #1 and #2 were helpful, but also disconcerting, as I found myself with no keys to any other doors that I felt informed about. Clearly, this “think about what I’m supposed to do with my life” thing was going to be more work.
One day in the elevator, I noticed a flyer for a course called “Introduction to Product Development” that was being taught in the Chem E department for grad students. I had once heard that scientists would on occasion actually make things while they were in industry, and I was intrigued to learn a bit more around the switch from thinking about producing “results” to “products” that are actually sold and consumed. Turns out the course was more focused on the business aspects behind product development, taught through a series of case studies (did you know that Kevlar was once in development to be a material for tires?).
And lo and behold, I found myself enthralled by these case studies. How does one recognize a good idea and then turn it into a business? How does a biotech startup even happen? How can a good result ever see the light of day and actually make an impact outside of Science or Nature? Pretty sure that this was the “thing” that I was looking for. Or at least it was a start.
A few internet searches later, I discovered that Berkeley has a Management of Technology (MOT) program specifically designed to bridge the gap between the business and science / engineering worlds. I continued to take MOT courses and built mentoring relationships with several Haas faculty (Sadly, I’ve learned that Berkeley is discontinuing the MOT program. I hope that graduate students interested in business will find another equally valuable outlet!) These professors became great sounding boards and idea generators for possible career options. Most importantly, these mentors challenged me to think about what I really cared about in a potential career, and what skills I felt I could bring to the table (as well as those that I lacked). Through these conversations, a potential career in consulting kept coming up in conversation. I was intrigued. But what the heck was consulting, and what exactly would I be “consulting” on?
Read more from me and my colleagues on L.E.K. Consulting’s Advisor blog, which is an interactive resource for undergraduate, MBA and PhD candidates interested in pursuing a career in management consulting.