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How Did I Get Here?

The STEM paradox: At a time when we have a national dialogue about the dearth of students pursuing these degrees, newly minted Ph.D.’s are having a harder time landing academic jobs.

In a recent Chronicle op-ed article, Amanda Shea, a doctoral student at Virginia Tech, discusses the ever-worsening odds of landing an academic research position in the sciences, as well as the need for meaningful alternate career paths and better graduate training for Ph.D.’s. In future posts, I hope to write about alternative paths for STEM graduates and how they can utilize the skills they acquired in graduate school outside the walls of academe.

I obtained my Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Texas at Austin, and my classmates are now my lifelong friends. While most of us weren’t aiming for academic research jobs to begin with, our stories illustrate a number of intriguing, challenging, and fulfilling nontraditional paths for science Ph.D.’s. One friend runs a biomanufacturing center at an Ivy League university. Two are project managers at a nonprofit contract research organization; one of these was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to study women’s access to STEM careers in the Middle East. One worked at the bench at a major pharmaceutical company for a decade before becoming an in-house patent associate. Another earned a J.D. and became a patent attorney. And the two friends who earned M.S. degrees? One is a manufacturing plant manager, and the other is the only one of us still at the bench doing syntheses.

Me? I’m an entrepreneur. Or as I sometimes say, I’m CEO, principal investigator, and chief bottle washer of Arctic Inc. Arctic develops green methods of weed control for golf, turf, and agriculture. Do I use the skills I acquired during grad school and my postdoc? Yes, every day. I also use many of the skills that science faculty members must possess to be successful. I write grant proposals, and I have about a 50-percent success rate; I must bring in enough money to keep the enterprise afloat. I hire and manage employees, often knowing that I am just helping them prepare for their next opportunity. My company contracts research at a nearby university, so I get to see the design, implementation, and results of basic research. We build equipment because nothing off the shelf will work. We go to meetings and present our findings, and work with patent counsel to protect our inventions. I have to be able to communicate the relevance and importance of our work to many audiences. My Ph.D. gives me credibility with granting agencies, investors, and prospective corporate partners.

The path to my current position was a logical progression. After grad school, I accepted a postdoctoral position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, my undergraduate alma mater. After what was possibly the shortest postdoc ever (nine months), I was offered a position with my postdoctoral adviser’s first university spinoff company. For four years I led a team of synthetic chemists, built out lab space, managed human-resources processes, and provided technical support to the sales team. Then I went to work for the same professor, recruiting patent donations, in a privately funded position at a National Science Foundation center. After learning about the university’s role in intellectual-property development, I accepted a position with a for-profit technology-transfer consulting firm that is a subsidiary of Wake Forest University. It was then that my spouse, who is also in academic technology transfer, said, “Why are we both helping others start companies? One of us needs to start a company.” So in 2008 I did.

Gina Stewart has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin. She is the CEO and co-founder of Arctic Inc., which develops sustainable methods of weed control for turf and agriculture.

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