Want To Go Into Business? Try Getting a Ph.D.

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, August 1, 2016

Theranos. Where was the “science?”

I will not take the opportunity to exhibit unreasonable schadenfreude, notwithstanding that Elizabeth Holmes (note here that she is not Dr. Holmes) was a Stanford drop-out, with a penchant for secrecy and a quasi-delusional mind meld that conflated herself with a fellow named Steve Jobs. She also possessed a keen sense of self-promotion, having assembled an august board of advisers, including Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, two men who had exactly zero knowledge of biotech blood diagnostic discovery. And to top it off, not a single “name-brand, tier 1 VC” was an investor. (Need I remind you of the risks that come with “dumb money.”)

Her personal net worth once valued at $4.5 billion is now closer to $4.50 since she has been scorched (the legal term is “suspended and sanctioned”) by the FDA and banned for two years from the drug lab industry. As a note, Hollywood, never one to miss a chance at an Icarus moment, has signed Jennifer Lawrence to play Holmes in the to-be-made movie. So enough grave dancing, the cemetery is crowded.

What I want to discuss is the power of the Ph.D. – doctor of philosophy, which in its original incantation refers to “a lover of wisdom.” The New York Times recently ran a long piece by Gina Kolata, in which she points out that we have such a surplus of science Ph.D.’s that only one in six have a chance to get a tenure-track position at a university. And if you get one, then you live and die by the grant industry. In other words, you desperately want a job in which you have to find your own money to pay yourself and your post-docs, and your chances of getting a grant are now 40 percent less than they were in 2000.

Talk about eat what you kill, wow.

A friend of mine (a Ph.D. in molecular biology) recently wrote a blog post in which she suggests that a science Ph.D. is not only good for work in a lab. She argues that the training can be cross-utilized in corporate leadership roles. At Valeant (the stock has gone from $240 to $22 in 11 months), the non-science CEO famously said, “Don’t bet on science, bet on management.” He has recently been removed.

In the case of Theranos, the visionary leader had no science background, yet she wanted to change health care in America. Admirable indeed, but a little chemistry might have proven useful.

“It used to be that the majority of Ph.D.s in the biological sciences would go into an academic career, and now it is very much the minority,” says Michael Lauer, deputy director at the National Institutes of Health. Using current hiring statistics, Lauer goes on to say that “84 percent of new Ph.D.s in biomedicine should be pursuing other opportunities.”

And as for the post-doc, he is told “your job is to work for your professor to help him succeed.” Talk about the 18th century in Britain and Germany where indentured servitude was the only way to get out of Dodge. My friend goes on to say that the scientific training that comes with a Ph.D. includes a large amount of public speaking and presentations, analytics, defense of ideas in a peer review setting and regulatory awareness – all of these being useful skills in management.

I have run a few companies with wickedly smart Ph.D.s, and I can tell you that their business skills were excellent. Maybe they can’t describe a stock derivative or a sinking fund or a broad-based weighted average stock dilution, but their leadership and their probing and their evidence-based assessment of reality was quite strong. Their training proved to be the check and balance to ego, money and obfuscation.

The idea here is that perhaps the Ph.D. track is a bit closer to an MBA than once thought. The substance of the work is clearly different, but the skills might be translated across enemy lines.

The world of the science Ph.D. who can only see academia as the end game is dark. The competition is fierce and rejection is the norm. But take your degree into industry and the corporate world, and things begin to brighten. Hard science and hard work can indeed change the world, not with arm-waving, self-aggrandizement, but with rigor, detail, curiosity and passion.

Rule No. 474

Love the test tube, but don’t marry it.


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