Transitioning from a Plant Biology Ph.D. to a Career in Technology Transfer
Updated: 3 days ago
by Julia Miller, Ph.D.
How would you describe your PhD work?
I used structural and functional techniques to understand the function and regulation of a plant transporter protein that is important for aluminum stress responses in Arabidopsis roots.
Please provide an overview of what you do on a day to day basis in your current position
I am the AgBio Technology Transfer Fellow at Michigan State University (MSU) Technologies, the MSU technology transfer office. I first check my email to see if there is anything urgent that needs to be done that day. I am usually working on an agreement or two, as my office processes many technology disclosures, licenses, and agreements each week. I am in constant conversation with my colleagues, and I sometimes discuss agreements with the inventors or the third party (such as a university or company). These discussions usually take place via email or video call, as my office is still remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I often have questions to ask the inventor to clarify an aspect about the technology, or questions for the third party to make sure we are drafting an acceptable agreement. Since I am a fellow (similar to a postdoc), I am constantly checking with my mentors and colleagues to ensure I am following the proper processes. I also work on special projects, such as gathering and synthesizing market data for a technology or talking with a plant breeder about their breeding program. Finally, I attend many weekly and monthly meetings to keep up on the activities of our office and partner offices.
How is your PhD training being applied in your current position?
I work closely with inventors (who are usually professors, research assistants, postdocs, and graduate students) who have discovered cutting-edge and technically advanced inventions. They often describe their invention using the same technical language they would use for describing academic research. Thus, having a strong technical background, such as a PhD, is very useful for speaking with the inventors and reviewing information related to the discovery. It is also helpful to understand the process of academic research, as it helps me understand the concerns and motivations of the inventors. Technology transfer professionals help file patents to protect inventions, but this filing needs to be completed before any papers are published or talks are presented. Thus, it is valuable to understand how important publications and conferences are for inventors while we work with them to protect their inventions. Additionally, other skills that I gained during my PhD, like time management, critical thinking, synthesizing information, and juggling multiple projects, have been very useful during my current position.
What made you decide to transition into technology transfer as a career?
During the middle of my PhD, I realized that while I enjoyed research, I did not want it to be the focus of my career. Thus, my original plans for working as a scientist at a biotechnology company would not be possible. I attended talks that discussed ‘alternative’ careers for PhD students, and I learned about technology transfer. I thought the interactions between science, business, and law were interesting, so I found mentors and took a technology transfer class, which increased my interest in the field. I decided to apply for the internship program at the Center for Technology Licensing (Cornell’s technology transfer office) to get more hands-on experiences. I greatly enjoyed those experiences, so I interviewed for technology transfer positions as I was finishing my PhD.
How was the transition like from being a PhD student to being a technology transfer fellow? What are the similarities and differences?
The transition was a little strange, as I went from being in a wet lab every day to just working on a computer every day. Just like transitioning to any new job, there was a long list of things I needed to learn, like who to contact when I had a problem and where certain files were kept. The biggest transition was learning many new technology transfer skills very quickly, such as how to review legal writing and how to draft different types of agreements. There was also a drastic increase in how many meetings I had each week. I went from three meetings per week to often having more than three per day!
There are still many similarities between graduate school and my current position. I have some flexibility on how I prioritize my time to work on my agreements and projects. I check in with my supervisor each week and she helps me solve problems and provide feedback.
I still think about science each day and I use my critical thinking skills that I developed during my PhD. I still run into issues and I sometimes use creative ways to solve them or use a totally different approach.
What do you enjoy about being in the field of technology transfer?
I really enjoy thinking about research from a scientific point of view, as well as from a law and business point of view. For example, what other experiments should be completed so we can draft strong patent claims to protect the invention? What company or institute could we partner with to complete testing to ensure that the invention would work in this market? What market would fit this invention best? How can I draft the agreement to make sure the invention is developed into a new product or service? I also enjoy learning about the diverse research that is being completed at MSU. I mostly work with agriculture- and biology-related technologies, but I learn about new discoveries coming from the physical and social sciences as well.
I enjoy working on different projects that allow me to learn new things, while still using my plant science background on agriculture-related projects.
What do you find challenging in this position?
I still have so much to learn! In one day, I can go from talking to an attorney about software terms and conditions to finishing a material transfer agreement on potatoes with an international agricultural institute. Learning how to read legal documents has been challenging, but my colleagues are very helpful and there are many great online resources. There is also a constant flow of emails to respond to and agreements to draft. During my PhD, sometimes I decided that I was going to have a slow day of ‘easy’ lab work. Now I have colleagues and inventors who may need certain documents turned around quickly.
What do you suggest current graduate students do if they are thinking about going into technology transfer?
During my PhD, I attended a class for plant scientists who are interested in technology transfer called Invention and Technology Commercialization: IP Management for Scientists, Engineers, & Entrepreneurs (PLBRG 4050). It is a great introductory class that covers many aspects of technology transfer. I attended the annual meeting of the technology transfer professional society, the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM), which had many informative sessions and networking opportunities. As everyone says, networking is important! An easy way to network as a graduate student is to cold email technology transfer professionals to have informational meetings. It is a great way to learn more about their careers and you get to make a connection. Almost everyone I cold emailed was happy to speak with me, either on the phone or during the AUTM conference. Finally, I had an internship at the Center for Technology Licensing (CTL). I would strongly suggest applying for an internship at CTL if you are interested in technology transfer, as you will be able to get hands-on experience while you are still in graduate school.
What is a typical career development track for PhDs starting in technology transfer?
Technology transfer offices have people with many different backgrounds, including those with master’s degrees, MBAs, PhDs, JDs, and even PhD/JDs! Since you will be going into an office with a strong technical background, you will probably be working with inventors and new inventions. Depending on the office, you may start as a fellow or as a junior technology manager with a focus on learning about technology transfer. After you get some experience, you could become a senior technology manager and have your own portfolio of departments or inventors that you work with. You could then move to management roles, such as head technology manager or head of the office. If you are interested in law school or completing an MBA, those degrees can be useful to enhance your law or business background. There are also technology transfer-specific certifications you can get, such as the Certified Licensing Professional (CLP) or the Registered Technology Transfer Professional (RTTP) certifications. But you do not need further degrees or certifications after finishing your PhD to have a good career in technology transfer.
If you would like to reach out, please contact Julia Miller via LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/julia-miller-b7a18ba5/