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June 30, 2011

Entrepreneurial scientists: Moving from being outliers to everyday researchers

by Paul Krzyzanowski

Success in a research career is solely defined by ones ability to churn out great academic papers, right?

Don’t be so sure.

It’s true that successful research careers can be launched with a Science or Nature paper, but many skills other than purely academic ones are increasingly being recognized as important.

On this blog, David Kent recently discussed the requirement for scientists to be aware of governmental policies, clinical trials, and therapies outside of their own research, while Ben Paylor explained how important mastering science communications and the web are, particularly to engage the public.

In a world where a glut of university graduates exists, the standard package of courses and experience in many programs no longer places people on a fixed career path. Even alumni of law and medical schools are not immune to the challenging job market, reports Nature, and there are no longer any guarantees of employment upon graduation:

“no programme of higher education can guarantee its graduates gainful and lucrative employment. At best, a graduate programme in any discipline can provide its students with key skills, knowledge and abilities. How the graduates apply that learning is up to them.”

Part of this problem relates to how degree programs define “key skills, knowledge and abilities”; purely academic skills training leads to graduates wanting to remain in academic research. Other courses to provide broader skills used in research, like entrepreneurship, aren’t commonly offered.

Some might try to argue that teaching such soft skills could detract from the training of future scientists, but the fact is that scientific research, even when it’s purely academic, requires much more entrepreneurial skills than most researchers appreciate. Successful entrepreneurs have an awareness of how resources can be used to create value, which can be scientific, economic, or societal.

Fortunately, there are examples of programs that successfully blend biomedical and entrepreneurial training. Two prominent Canadian universities (Calgary and Toronto) offer biotechnology degree programs which combine biological training with business courses covering areas such as market research, patent analysis, general research strategies, and how financing of innovation processes work. Toronto’s Master of Biotechnology program is spread over two years and includes eight months of work term placements, while Calgary’s Master of Biomedical Technology program covers the required work in a single calendar year.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a comparable program that leads to a PhD in the biosciences. I contacted Derrick Rancourt, a coordinator of University of Calgary’s biotechnology program, and he pointed out Stanford’s doctoral program in Management Science and Engineering as the closest example. In this program, some aspects of research and management courses are combined into a single PhD program that also requires a dissertation from candidates.

A PhD generally takes 5 to 6 years to complete, and incorporating some material on management and entrepreneurship shouldn’t be difficult to offer, even as elective courses that contribute towards the degree. As examples of biomedical scientists being involved in starting companies or in business through board memberships are easily found, it’s time that more graduate training programs acknowledge that these skills are becoming increasingly necessary for their alumni, even the ones that choose to “leave science”.


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