Taking Your Career to the Next Level
Managing a lab requires dedication and self-sacrifice to keep operations running smoothly and to support the work of everyone around you. Too often these valuable qualities are the very things that hold lab professionals back from focusing on their own career development.
As daunting as it may seem, you deserve to take time to reflect on whether your career is headed in the right direction and then map out the best way to get where you want to go.
In this article, you will meet three highly talented and ambitious scientists who have advanced beyond the bench to satisfying careers in research, business development, and entrepreneurship. Each professional provides practical advice on ways to gain the skills and education necessary to make an upward career transition, all while still working at the bench to support yourself financially.
Although they are on divergent career tracks, these individuals share a common drive to pave their own roads to success.
Paving a gradual path to becoming your own research boss
For Bridget Fisher, it was a “gradual and slow realization” that she could do more with her science career with advanced degrees. Fresh out of college, Fisher began her lab manager career in the Department of Biology at Western Kentucky University (WKU) to get some realworld experience.
While at WKU, a faculty mentor encouraged Fisher to get an MS degree. She was a bit hesitant at first, but became gradually convinced that it was a good idea, especially because tuition was part of her employee benefits. By day, she managed a research lab, and by night, she progressed toward earning an MS in biology.
This was only the first degree that Fisher earned while managing a lab full time. A personal move landed her in a position as the microbiology teaching lab coordinator in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Memphis.
A year into the new job, she decided it was time to take advantage of her educational assistance benefits because, as Fisher puts it, “Paid tuition was one of the benefits offered with employment at the university, and so to me it was a no-brainer to use the benefit. Because when you leave any position, benefits like vacation or health insurance are going to go away. But if you can get a degree or education while there, then you are going to take that benefit with you.”
She had an internal debate between pursuing an MPH or a PhD degree to align with her interest in the biomedical sciences. Once again, she consulted with her faculty mentor at WKU, who offered Fisher some wise advice, “If you always want to have a boss, then a master’s may be OK, but if you think there will be any point where you want some professional freedom or want to be a research leader then you have to earn a PhD.”
The path to an MS degree had been straightforward— as long as she followed the HR rules and got her job done, then there was no issue with her working on the degree—but the PhD was a different situation because of the larger time commitment involved and the fact that her job required a lot of “divided attention.”
As Fisher explains, “If you don’t have the support of your supervisors, then it will never work, because there will be times when you are technically on the clock at the job when you have to go to a seminar or conduct research.” Fortunately, she had an encouraging department head and research mentors who gave their full support.
And all those years of lab manager experience paid off. Fisher had less of a learning curve to get on track with her dissertation work. “It was my professional experience as a lab manager that allowed me to learn how to read the literature, how to interpret data, and how to talk science.”
Additionally, Fisher recognized that she had to run her graduate program “like a business” to balance both work and school, largely by managing her time to take care of critical tasks first and always putting her job as the number one priority.
Fisher encourages other lab managers to check their company benefits and take advantage of any education perks because these perks are part of the compensation that you can’t take with you.
Fisher also advises, “When you are approaching people and your boss about taking the next step in advancing your education, I think it is really important to be firm in those conversations because it’s a lot harder for your boss to tell you no if you are stronger in your argument.” She continues, “You need to have your arguments ready and reassure them firmly that you can do this. And if you believe in yourself, then other people will believe in you also.”
Much has changed for Fisher since she began her scientific career a decade ago. “I was never in love with research. I always thought that I just didn’t want to do it, but when I got started on the research that I just completed, my view on research completely changed and I just can’t imagine not doing it now.”
Fisher is excited to be starting a postdoctoral research position this fall at Seattle Biomed, a nonprofit research center where she will focus solely on research, giving her a chance to discover whether her passion for research will continue.
Driving quality patient care in clinical lab medicine from the business seat
The motivation for Rose Mary Casados to transition from the technical to the business side of clinical lab medicine has always been driven by her desire to impact quality patient care.
With a BS in medical technology, she began her career at the clinical lab bench, but she was motivated to do and earn more, which led her into private industry. There she progressed to management in sales and marketing, including top positions as worldwide marketing manager and director of business development for two leading diagnostic companies, where her technical background (combined with a fluency in four languages) was always a competitive advantage.
As Casados explains, “At the core of [my career]— whether at the bench, in sales, or in marketing—my drive was quality patient care all the time, and I never lost focus on that. And I think that helped me advance my career, because I had that passion inside that kept me focused, almost like my own mission.”
Casados is now president of COLA Resources, Inc. (CRI), a company that provides educational and consultative services aimed at improving laboratory medicine and patient care. On her own time, she is working toward completing an MBA from the University of Delaware, a degree that got interrupted by her taking time off for her kids, but a goal that she is determined to reach.
Casados explains that an MBA is an “asset in laboratory medicine.” She continues, “Laboratories have to be able to drive their efficiencies in order to survive, and in order to do that, yes, you need a technical background. By all means, that’s first and foremost. But it has become so much more important to know the business aspect of running laboratories.”
As a small company, CRI is unable to pay for the degree. But Casados firmly believes in the value of an advanced education and suggests, “That’s why you see a lot of med techs not moving forward. They become stagnant and complacent; they stay on the bench because they think ‘I can never do that’ or ‘I don’t have money to do that.’”
Using her own story as an example, Casados emphasizes, “I always say don’t let [money] stop you.” She has even negotiated with the University of Delaware so that CRI’s employees can receive a tuition discount.
Casados also recommends a number of activities for those who aren’t ready to make a commitment to an advanced degree quite yet. This includes taking the initiative to engage with your organization to see what in-house classes may be offered, identifying conferences to attend based on workshops offered in needed skill areas, looking at online certification programs (e.g., Six Sigma) to learn the operational side of lab medicine, and considering programs (like earning an executive MBA) that have a shorter and more flexible format.
Casados says this about lab professionals, “Organizations, hospitals, everyone has a mission. But I think we, as individuals, have to identify our mission, stay true to that, and make that our anchor. And [then] you will look into ways to help achieve that mission.”
For Casados, the MBA is not the last step, and she plans to keep on investing in her education with the guiding principle of always maximizing her personal impact on quality patient care.
Steering a company toward continued success by treating people right
Jim Rancourt advanced beyond the lab bench early in his career, establishing himself as an expert in the rapidly expanding field of polymer science. He was still a PhD candidate in polymer chemistry at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute when he started his own company, Polymer Solutions Incorporated (PSI), an FDA-registered and ISO 17025-accredited independent testing lab that analyzes plastic, rubber, and metallic materials.
Since 1987, Rancourt has grown PSI into a global leader in materials testing, with expansion to a new 20,000-square-foot facility underway this year. He provides local jobs to attract and retain talent within the Blacksburg, Virginia, area—an option not available to him when he was finishing up his dissertation and wanting to stay in the area to raise his young family.
“As a person, I am inherently impatient; I work well when I am overwhelmed, so to be in graduate school and start a company and have three children was a lot, but a lot of the time when you are overwhelmed there is a good opportunity to be highly focused, prioritize, and achieve a lot.”
There were multiple personal factors, including family obligations, which were involved in his decision to become an entrepreneur. In addition, after a number of job interviews with large corporations, Rancourt had an epiphany that he “would be stuck in a little tiny cubbyhole,” without opportunities to expand his skill sets. Thus, he thought that starting his own company was going to be the best option for his situation.
Rancourt began a polymer testing company namely “to help local industry by solving immediate [polymer-based] problems and help the local business environment.” He also had the confidence that the market would support him, based on the demand for his consulting services from a range of government, military, and industry entities.
Entrepreneurship also suits his “impatient and never satisfied” personality, which Rancourt admits may be one reason for the success of his company: “We dig really deep, because we are not satisfied with cursory answers to complex problems.”
Rancourt attributes much of his success to Albany International Corporation, where he worked as an analytical chemist in the thermal analysis lab while finishing his BS in chemistry at the University of Lowell. There, he was mentored by an expert group of lab managers who taught him essential skills in how to manage projects and delegate work.
Albany International then sent him for in-depth polymer training at a one-week short course at Virginia Tech, an opportunity that moved his career forward and motivated him to enter graduate school.
Now in his role as CEO, Rancourt is paying it forward by providing a comprehensive suite of professional development opportunities for his employees, including self-study courses, book purchases, client site visits, and professional meetings. He also encourages employees to take advantage of networking opportunities, such as common interest groups that are offered at the local technology council. “He encourages employees to take advantage of networking opportunities.”
Besides advocating for his employees to take charge of their own careers, Rancourt recommends the book A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech, which focuses on “how you can solve problems, be creative, and get unstuck when you can’t figure out how to do something.” He adds a few of his own head-whacking tips, such as “getting your coffee from a different Starbucks one morning, or driving to work from a different direction. Or, when you’re at a conference, attending a session that has absolutely nothing to do with what you normally do.”
Why should employers provide good benefits and professional opportunities for their employees? Rancourt answers, “At the simplest level, it’s the right way to treat people, and it makes work more fun.” And the business industry is taking note—PSI was named One of the Best Places to Work in Virginia in 2013 by Virginia Business Magazine in the small business category.
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