MCD Biology at STEMCELL Technologies (feat. Uday Madaan)
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Alumni Aloud Episode 54
Uday Madaan earned his PhD in Biology from the Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental subprogram at the Graduate Center. Uday is a Scientific Sales Representative in Cell Media at STEMCELL Technologies.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Uday tells us about how interviewing and hiring processes differ between academia and industry. He also discusses the transferable skills from grad school that translate well to sales positions and the importance of building a long-term professional network.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode we talk with a GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
CARLY BATIST, HOST: In this episode, I sit down with Dr. Uday Madaan. Uday earned his PhD from the Biology program at the Graduate Center, in the Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental subprogram. When we spoke, he was a scientific sales representative in cell media at STEMCELL Technologies. In this episode, Uday tells us about how interviewing and hiring processes differ between academia and industry, transferable skills from grad school that translate well in sales positions, and the importance of building a long-term professional network.
Can you just start off by introducing yourself and telling everyone what your current position is and a little bit about how you got there.
UDAY MADAAN, GUEST: Sure. Well first of all thank you for having me and thinking of me for this. So my name is Uday Madaan and I did my PhD through the Graduate Center. My program was the biology program, the subprogram was molecular, cellular, and developmental biology. I graduated in 2017 from the lab of Dr. Cathy Savage-Dunn. Her lab is in Queens College. And I have to be honest, I knew way waaaay before I started the PhD that I did not want to go down the postdoc route. I came to that conclusion when I was an undergrad. I went to undergrad at Hunter College, so I’m a through and through CUNY product. *laughs* And I knew working Dr. Paul Feinstein’s lab which I enjoyed tremendously, that I just didn’t want to take the academic route after the PhD.
So what I started doing during the PhD itself was I started looking for ways to basically branch out and do something a little bit different or explore different careers. And I made a lot of progress but it was a lot of basically shooting arrows in the dark and learning on my own because I just didn’t have someone who could provide the type of structure I needed and guidance I needed to be able to make that decision immediately out of the PhD. There was a lot of conflicting knowledge available. Do you need to do a postdoc for ‘xyz’ positions or not? How much do employers care about this, how much do employers care about publications or any of those issues that we in a lab or in an academic environment constantly think about. And when you’re trying to assess your value outside of an academic environment. So I went through that whole juggernaut of issues.
But I was very fortunate to have Cathy as my PI because even though she wasn’t very aware of what to do outside and how to get a type of position, she was able to help me by just inviting people from companies we networked with at conferences. And that actually got me an interview at this biotechnology firm. And I was able to interview there. Never quite made the cut. I just didn’t know how to do the interviews. I didn’t know how to get through the human resources interviews you have to get through. From a scientific perspective I was quite sound. Cathy helped me quite a lot in terms of preparation but there were these other aspects of interviews that I wasn’t prepared for back then.
So I went into a postdoc shortly after finishing up my PhD at Weill Cornell and I was working on mechanisms of thyroid cancer in zebrafish. And I just wasn’t happy and funny enough, I didn’t realize how unhappy I was until I left. And then I was like “oh boy ok.” And it’s not that you cannot be happy in a postdoc. There are lots of people, it serves a goal for them. For me it didn’t. It’s just that I didn’t want that to be a part of my career. That’s not the path I wanted to go down on so it didn’t serve a purpose for me. So I ended that postdoc very shortly after and after that, it was I think a very familiar story in the sense that I was adjuncting at 3 different places because I still had bills to pay. So I was adjuncting at Hunter College, I was adjuncting at Hofstra and I was also adjuncting at Marymount. So it was quite a lot of running around just to pay my bills. And I got really lucky that Hofstra really liked me and offered me a visiting professorship for the year. Which gave me quite a lot of stability.
And what I did at the same time is I joined an internship with Celdaro Medical which offers you a chance to learn about different aspects of the biotechnology industry. And they help you what it takes to take an academic technology from the lab setting and reach all the way into an actual product to market. And I learned about IP, intellectual property, and how to assess these technologies. What are the different sources of funding? What does it take to get to a clinical trial? So it was a tremendous learning experience. And I was doing that while I was a visiting professor at Hofstra. Which, being a professor, as you all know is very challenging with teaching and when you’re not adjuncting anymore but you have a full on visiting professorship, the duties are a little bit higher. And the teaching is obviously a lot more. So I was juggling both of those at the same time and trying to figure out what next step should be in my career at the same time. And I just wasn’t sure what to do. I’d had a couple of different interests. Soldero was helping me narrow down my interests at the same time.
And then somebody I had networked with about a year ago reached out to me and said, “Hey, I know you’re teaching right now and I know your goals are to be in the biotechnology industry. I’m working for this company, STEMCELL Technologies, and I’m their field sales person. Come talk to me about it, there’s a position available and I think you might like it. It would be a good first step for you to take.” And I never thought about sales as a position. Anytime I thought of it I was always very dismissive of it. And I think a lot of us are because of, well, sales, right. *laughs* It has a negative connotation to it right off the bat. So you have to think about that a little bit.
The more I looked at the company itself, I understood it’s not just the selling aspect. You have to understand a very wide ranging portfolio of products. So the company itself provides reagents of solutions for re-programming stem cells into different lineages. And it’s quite an arduous process. When I sat there and looked at it, I had to understand lineages starting from just basic stem cell maintenance to understanding how to take it step by step into a particular type of neuron. And there are so many different types of neurons. I had to understand that, I had to understand how to go into the other different systems and test it whether it’s kidney or hepatic. So the science aspect was really solid there, which is what obviously as a scientist you want. You want that in your corner. You want to be able to talk about science and learn new science at the same time. So that was very attractive to me. And there were other things about the culture that were very, very attractive and I ended up applying.
So my friend basically forwarded my resume on my behalf. A resume, mind you, that I spent three months working on and created a hundred different versions of, without exaggeration. Because I applied to that many different biotechnology companies. Because I still was kind of trying to get back to the bench side of it. So I had all these different versions and I just sent him one and he forwarded it to the HR person and I went through the interview process. I liked it the more and more I talked with people at the company. I went from not being sure, not wanting the role to really wanting the role. And the interviews went great, the people treated me really nicely and they flew me out to Vancouver for the final round of interviews where I met the owner of the company. It’s a Canadian company that I work for. And I met the higher up management team and the executives.
The interview process was great. I have to say after all the interviews I’ve gone through this was the only interview process where I wasn’t stressed out for a singular second. I just was confidant because I knew the answers that I was giving were good and they weren’t like heavily practiced. They seemed very natural. So it seemed like a good fit in many ways. And then they offered me the position. Which I thought about for a week because it required me to move to Boston. I was in New York, had a house in New York, and family here so it’s something I had to think about. I took about a week and sat in on negotiations and all that stuff. And I ended up accepting.
So that’s a lot to unpack there but just to tell you about my current role now, exactly what I do. So I work from home as it is about two-three days a week and then I would go out and meet clients. Now what does that mean? I talk to people in academic labs and then I also talk to people in biotech, again more scientists. The idea is to have a conversation with them, learn about their research interests, see what they’re doing in the experiments, and really think about how you can expedite that process and how you can help them. Whether it’s by providing a product or providing some technical knowledge that they might not be aware of. So the company’s motto is “Scientists helping scientists.” And that’s what attracted me very heavily when I applied for the role. It’s something I get to do on a daily basis. I do generally have conversations about, “Well this is how you’re doing this experiment. Have you thought about doing it this way? This would be a faster way.” Or to learn at the same time because they talk to me about their research so I get to learn at the same time.
Obviously selling is part of it, but I think learning that sales skill is going to be an asset at any time in your life because you know the idea is basically the same as what you’re trying to do in a grant. But now you have to do it on the spot. You know, you write a grant because you’re trying to convince somebody, you’re writing a sales pitch to somebody to give you their money. So here you have to do it on the spot in person. So that skill is, I think, very, very valuable. And you get to learn some business aspects about how the company operates. The company is pretty stable, they like to promote people from within and they have a lot of lateral movement. People stay usually for multiple years, there’s not a lot of high turnover. So that’s a glimpse of what I do overall.
BATIST: So what are the backgrounds of the people that you work with? Do you work on a team and if so, do they have PhD’s? In lots of different things? Things like that.
MADAAN: The overall sales team is very heavily science-oriented. Most of them, at least the sales people in the field like me, at a minimum have a Master’s if not PhD. So there are a lot of PhD’s. Some of the most brilliant people I’ve met. Just very smart, right. And for many of them, this is the first step in their career as it is for me also. A lot of them have science PhDs, doesn’t necessarily have to be about stem cells but a general understanding of either molecular biology, cell biology, or any other type of advanced science degree is something that helps quite a lot. On a day to day basis I am fairly autonomous. I do a lot of the work on my own.
But I do have a team that I’m part of in the sense that we have someone called an “inside person” who is in the office most of the time and you get to talk to them about various aspects of the job and then I have my own manager. So I guess that’s the trifecta of the team I work in but most of the time I’m pretty much on my own. I’ll communicate with them as I need on a daily basis but I’m pretty much on my own. Which, I didn’t realize but it suits my personal working style quite a lot because I used to be like that in the lab. You know, you’re on your own doing your experiments and setting your own schedule. So it really does suit me because I’m used to setting up my own day, I’m used to setting up my own structure. And making sure that I’m productive. So it works really well for me in that regard.
BATIST: So it’s a Canadian company but there are offices around the world or is just in North America?
MADAAN: So it’s a global company at this point. Their headquartered in Vancouver. They have an office in the Boston area but because of the nature of the job, a lot of us work remotely. They don’t really need offices everywhere. I think they’re thinking of opening an office in New York at some point. But the Boston office is the only one outside of the Canadian territory. And they also have then branches in Europe and in China as well. So they have some offices, not a lot, but they have some offices there. But the majority of the business is happening in North America.
BATIST: You mentioned you wrote a lot of resumes. In terms of changing from a CV to a resume and preparing for industrial interviews as opposed to academic ones. What did you find was the most different for going into industry?
MADAAN: So this was a long and painful process in terms of learning how to do this resume. *laughs* In some ways it’s like grant writing where you want to write a lot but you’re only allowed to write a sentence on it.
MADAAN: And then that sentence better be effective in communication what you’re trying to say. And part of the reason I had soooo many different resumes prepared was because each job posting requires a separate, customized resume for that. And what does that mean? And just to give you a couple of general things that I went through. I would look at the job posting. I would make a word cloud out of it. And I’d make sure that the big words that are in the word cloud are included in my resume. That’s just one. And then the other one was that each sentence of the resume had to have a particular structure to it. You had to tell them what you did, how you did it, and what was the result of that. And I think that takes a long time to master. And I haven’t written a resume in about a year now so if I have to go back to it I’ll be suffering again. I had to learn a lot by reading a lot of resume writing articles, talking to a lot of people. Networking quite a lot. Yeah the resume itself is just a gargantuan task. So that’s just one aspect of it.
The other thing that I did was I networked. Make LinkedIn your best friend. And not just where you click on somebody and you send them an invite. No, you have to do more that. You have to study up a little on their background. Who is this person? Why are you asking them to connect with you? Like what’s your end point, right? One of the biggest things that I’ve learned is start with the end goal in mind. And that’s in life in general as well. In this case also, what do you want out of this person? And you have to do more than “I want a job out of this.” No. Yes, that’s the ultimate goal, but you’re trying to establish a relationship with is a difficult thing to establish in a short amount of time. You have to study up on their background a little bit and you have to recognize that you can’t really offer much to this person because they already have a position.
Right, so you send them a little message saying “Hey, my name is xyz and I would love to connect with you and learn about your experiences” or something along those lines. Something short like that. And they can choose to not talk to you. Fortunately for me, a lot of people are willing to talk. I think a lot of people, once they reach a position and they understand that they have struggled to reach that position and want to give back on some level. I basically grew my network from like 100 people to 500 and I made sure that anybody I connected with, I sent a personal note. And this didn’t happen overnight, it was a months, months long process.
BATIST: How was the interview process? Was it kind of what you would think with standard industry interview questions? Or was there anything surprised you about it?
MADAAN: The interview process itself for STEMCELL was great. I interviewed at a couple other places where it was a lot more rigorous. And this also depends on the nature of the job, right. So there, they needed my scientific background but they also wanted me to have some sort of business savvy and people to communicate both on a superficial level and on a deeper level. So there, the questions were never about my research. It was more about how you would approach a particular person in a given situation. Let’s say, you walk into a lab. Who do you want to talk to? How do you identify the people who are actually going to help you with the ultimate goal? So it was those types of questions.
And I think having worked in a lab provided quite a lot of advantages because I knew where funding was controlled at each level. I knew who are the people that are going to be able to push something. It’s usually the postdocs, it’s the grad students that you want to have conversations with because they’re there 7 days a week. Or at least 5 days a week minimum. And they’re the ones that are actually utilizing the tools that you want to provide. So it was those types of conversations. And they want to know, I think a lot of us don’t emphasize this enough, PhD’s are masters of learning, right. That’s what you do best. You’re given something and you break it down and you read fifty thousand articles on it and you integrate it and you learn. I think they were looking for someone who was willing to be open-minded and learn the process of the sales but also continue to keep their scientific background intact. So that process, the interview process here was fairly easy in that regard. They asked questions, pretty standard, why do you want to work for STEMCELL? Why do you want to come into sales? Like, you have a pretty scientific background, why don’t you want to be continuing that? Or like are you done being a scientist? And these are all questions that seem benign but you need to be able to answer them in a particular way. Because they’re looking for you to slip up, right, and say the wrong thing.
Because STEMCELL is very, very good with their hiring process. And what I mean by that is that they hire some great people. And the fit matters and the culture matters. I haven’t met a single person at STEMCELL that I wouldn’t want to work with. And they do that through a really rigorous screening process. I personally enjoyed it. But on the other hand when I interviewed for another company, that was an 8-hour interview. It was very, very rigorous. But the reason it was an 8-hour interview was because their focus was on not only can you do the science but are you going to fit in our rigorous, intensive culture. And you met tons and tons and tons of people. So not only are they looking at can you do the science well, and a lot of us can. But are you going to be able to work in an industry environment? What does that mean? Meaning they’ll tell you what they need you to work on but the results need to be produced in a certain way. They have to be fast, they have to be in some ways a lot more rigorous because whatever they’re producing has to go into clinic. That’s their ultimate goal. They’re not necessarily doing it just to publish, right. Even though they do that, the ultimate end goal is different. They’re trying to put out a product in a market that’s going to serve a patient population.
So they’re working pace is very different. It’s a much more intense environment. So that was a more intense interview where I got through the science part but I didn’t know how to answer the HR interview. Like I didn’t know how to answer, “Why do you want to work here?” Yes, yes, I understand you have a great scientific background but what makes you think you can survive here or you can well here? And I didn’t know how to answer that question. And the key to answering that question was you have to study their website and memorize what they write on there. And in some ways, just rephrase that, tell them. Because that’s what they’re looking for. They want you to tell them why this company is so great. They want you to tell them that, “I want to work for this company because you do this, you do this, you do this, you do this.” And they want to know that you have a familiarity not only on the scientific side but also on the business side. And that was my first interview out of the PhD and it was brutally intense.
BATIST: Yeah, it sounds like it!
MADAAN: Yeah, so different companies do it differently. I think with STEMCELL a lot of things fell into place. I enjoyed the interview process. I wasn’t stressed out, I liked the people that I met from the get go. The managers that interviewed me were very scientifically oriented. They were also good and kind people and that showed. A lot of times I think interviewers try to do this, “Aha, gotcha” moment with you, nobody ever tried that with me at STEMCELL and I really appreciated that.
BATIST: You said you were doing an internship while you were a visiting professor. How did you come to get that kind of industry internship even as you were still teaching?
MADAAN: So, our common contact Eric Veira told me about that. And he said, “Hey, I think you would benefit from that.” Because I was quite in touch with Eric throughout the whole process of leaving the PhD, even before leaving the PhD I was talking to him quite a lot. And he knew my struggles after leaving the postdoc and was like “Hey, there’s this internship coming up that would be beneficial. Just to learn. Give it a shot. I did and I was very fortunate and very happy that Celdaro accepted me for that. I learned a tremendous amount there.
BATIST: Okay, gotcha. And how was it structured? It must have been somewhat flexible for you to have been the visiting professor on top of doing the internship. What was the structure of it?
MADAAN: Yeah, so I had to go in one day a week, to be there in person and have those meetings. And then every week there was some sort of project that you had to work on. They partially pay you, but you’re really there to learn. As much as it helps, you know every dollar counts. You’re really there to gain some experience and really learn about the industry. So there was some sort of project due [every week]. I think the first week it was like go read a paper on this very immune-based technology and try to get an understanding of it. And I am not an immunologist so for me I spent that entire week, as any good PhD would, by reading a lot of articles to try to understand that one article by reading 15 articles. *laughs* On top of teaching and grading and all of that stuff. What I was doing at Hofstra, the classes were very heavy in terms of writing so I had a lot of grading to do. But I think for me at least, I needed to do all these things simultaneously and to feel like I am being productive and I am not wasting time and I am constantly moving forward in my goal of getting an industry job. So they would have some sort of project due every week that I had to like either present on or talk about or have a decent understanding of. Some projects took longer than a week, some projects took shorter.
BATIST: You mentioned that there wasn’t that much turnover in this company, but in other biotech companies, there’s a huge amount of turnover. Are there professional development opportunities through the company especially because they kind of want to promote within?
MADAAN: Yeah I think they want you to develop there. It’s interesting, STEMCELL really is interested in your personal development. They really want to know, what do you want to be done with after the first year, what are your bigger goals. What did you learn from this particular year and how have you grown and how are you going to leverage that to become better next year. So they’ve invested quite a lot in your training. When you’re hired, you go through quite an extensive training. You have to do lab training. So you spend about a week in the lab learning. You have lectures in the morning and then you spend the rest of the day in labs. Essentially like a very intense workshop, because they have such a big product line. So you go through that training and you’re learning more science but at the same time you have to start billing people and handling new territories. There is a quite a lot of lateral movement in the company where people go from sales into another associated department or a completely different department. And they have training programs, I believe, set up for them.
BATIST: And you got this position also through a contact that you had made. How had you met them?
MADAAN: So that’s a good story. I met that person on Facebook, surprisingly. I had no contact with this person before but we are part of a common group, and somehow we ended up talking. He was a postdoc, I was very freshly out of a postdoc and had sworn that I would not step back in the lab again. *laughs* We had a couple of conversations and I think he was there for a year I think before he reached out to me because they were looking for people in New York at that point. And he was like, you know, I know someone who I’ve talked to a few times. And we had had good conversations so he referred me and he reached out to me. And yeah that’s how that process came about. But we found our relationship very organically. We just happened to be part of this group on Facebook and then just connected. We had a conversation first like oh I’m a postdoc, this is what I’m doing, how do you want to do this. And giving each other advice on how to get better and we touched base periodically maybe 3-4 times. Every time we talked we had really good conversations. And he thought of me, which I’m grateful for. So yeah.
BATIST: You touched on it a bit, but skills you’re still using now that the PhD established or refined for you, for your current position in industry. Like transferrable skills.
MADAAN: I think the ability to engage anybody is key and not just for sales. I think communication is in short is a very, very transferrable skill in any career. Whether it’s written or verbal or when you’re up there in a meeting presenting to your peers. Be personable. Learn how to communicate that. It’s nervous, I understand that, and I have been there. It’s nerve-wracking to put your ideas out there and have them be like picked apart. But communication is something you have to master on all levels whether it’s writing a grant or writing a blurb or having two sentences to summarize your research. Communication is very, very big. Especially in sales, you have to be able to go talk to anybody, you have to be able to make that move. So communication is something that is very, very big. And then I think the other thing is being able to trouble-shoot in the sense of problem-solve, right. That’s what we are naturally built to do, that’s our conditioning for the entire 6, 7 years that we spend doing this program. To identify the problem and break it down and solve. Only, you don’t have 6,7 years to do this, you have to do it in a much shorter time.
And the problem can be a real scientific problem where you’re talking to a customer and they have a particular issue, right, with one of the experiments. And you have to figure out how to solve that problem whether you figure it out on your own or you reach out to your R&D department. Like ok this is the problem, this is what I was thinking, is this the right approach, do you have a better suggestion for this. And then provide that solution but at the same time provide that solution in a way that they understand the value of your approach. So that’s communication and problem-solving simultaneously that you’re going to need. And as much as I didn’t like it while I was in the program, teaching is a requirement. And teaching is a valuable skill, very valuable skill. As much as it interferes with the actual work you want to do. And we all complain about the students, I know we all go through this. But it’s a valuable skill, it’s a real life skill. Being able to take a complex thing and break it down and communicate it effectively. So all these things are transferrable. And then, again, I think I said this earlier, we are masters of learning. Being able to learn a new subject in a short amount of time and being able to communicate it. Those are very, very big skills.
BATIST: Yeah, absolutely. So we’re pretty much going to wrap up. Is there anything else you want to say or anything else you would recommend current GC students do who are interested in exploring fields outside of academia.
MADAAN: I think, start leveraging, or at least establishing a network today. Doesn’t matter if you’re in your first year or you’re in your last year. Start doing it today. Whether it’s by attending events or through LinkedIn, which is a great forum. Start building a network and start building those relationships. But don’t do it in the way that I’m going to build this relationship today and in a week it’s going to pay off. Start sowing the seeds and you don’t know where they are going to take off. I mean that’s what happened with me, right. I spoke to this person four times over a year. I never reached out to this person for a job but they thought of me because we had interactions. We had built some sort of relationship. And when you do reach out to people on LinkedIn, don’t just send an blind invite. Write a message. I personally, for the most part, turn them down if I get a blind invite. And when you network with these people, follow them. Really see what they’re doing.
Conduct informational interviews. That is key. Informational interviews are very, very important. I would treat them as real interviews. Take those seriously, don’t just show up to an informational interview like, “Hey so I’m looking for a job, how can you help me.” Do not do that. I’ve seen that happen. It’s a sure fire way of ending that potential relationship right there. Take it seriously, do your prep work on that person. Again, start the conversation with the end in mind. What are you trying to get out of this? So have those questions ready for that person and ask them for advice to give to you and how they can maybe guide you a little bit. It’s a bit like seeking mentorship in some ways. And you pick a career line that’s associated with a scientific field and explore it. And this takes time. Nothing is going to happen overnight. And as pressing as it is to get a job because you’re worried about bills and graduation, and this and that. It takes time, so start now. And try to learn about different career tracks. Start now, start early. If you’re in your first year, at least one person a day. If you’re in your last year and you need a job, start adding ten people per day. When somebody really knows you, they can speak to your value in a better way.
BATIST: Well thank you so, so much for sharing your experiences and all of that wonderful advice.
MADAAN: Thank you for thinking of me and really thank you for having me.
BATIST, VOICE-OVER: That’s a wrap for this episode of Alumni Aloud. I want to thank Uday for coming on the show to share his experiences as a scientific sales representative. Remember to stay tuned for more episodes of Alumni Aloud, published every 2 weeks during the fall and spring semesters. Subscribe on iTunes and you’ll automatically be notified of new episodes. Also check out our Facebook, Twitter and career planning website at cuny.is/careerplan for more updates from our office or to make appointments with our career counselors. Thanks for listening and see you next time!
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