What did you study at Yale, and what is your current profession?
I am currently working in Equity Research as a Senior Research Associate at AB Bernstein. This is a finance job on Wall Street where I look deeply into biotech and pharmaceutical companies and make recommendations to investors (e.g. mutual funds, hedge funds) on whether to buy or sell their stocks. Prior to this, I worked for 3+ years as a Consultant at The Dedham Group, where I developed strategies for high-impact biopharmaceuticals. I finished my PhD in 2014 in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology in Ronald Breaker’s lab, where I had spent ~5 years investigating the function of RNA molecules in bacteria and viruses.
For this series, I would like to discuss both my role in Equity Research (Finance) as well as my prior role in Consulting, partially because of (1) the popularity of consulting as an alternative career, and (2) easier transition from PhD to consulting.
What do you like most about your current role? What do you find most challenging and/or rewarding?
In life science consulting, our questions included: How do we set the price tag on Drug X? Should Drug X first launch into disease A or disease B? How do we design the supply chain for Drug X? Our competitor Drug Y just launched, what do we do? How much discounts should we give to a customer group? What is the best way to allocate our budget to support marketing Drug X?
In this role, 100% of my time was spent on analyzing market dynamics & business strategies, and 0% was on science (few consulting firms focus on science and R&D; most are very commercial-focused). Partially due to the lack of science, I really enjoyed it — if you throw a scientist at a science job, they would do great but they wouldn’t be learning much. I am an intellectual and I wanted to learn, and consulting was the perfect opportunity. In 3 years, I mastered intricacies of the US healthcare system, how money flows through each stakeholder, and how every moving piece is interconnected. The US healthcare system is quite complex and I needed this immersion to develop fluency. (As an aside, I was fortunate that my firm focused on the US-only market as opposed to dabbling in global healthcare. As I found out later in my finance role, knowledge about the US market is among the most important transferrable skill in this industry. There are many global biotechs, but very often 70-75% of their global sales are from the US. Understanding of the US market is king).
As for Equity Research, I am also happy to be moving back to science, and I spend most of my day reading scientific research and clinical trial results. I used to study bacteria and viruses — the human world and the drug world are new to me. As a rough estimation, my current role is 50% on science, 25% on finance and perhaps 25% on the market. This job is very much akin to detective work — once clinical trial results are published in a journal, it’d be my job to read the publication to figure out what they said, and most importantly, what they didn’t say! Which part of the publication can I trust and which part should I doubt? Is their dosage strength suboptimal? Should I be worried about the drug’s peak absorption level?
It is my job to take drug data on mice and predict how well the drug will do in humans. As a scientist, obviously the science part is easy. The challenging part is to fully understand how the financial market behaves. If the clinical trial results show X, would the stock price of the biotech move up or down? How quickly and how far would it move? What if the trial failed, then what? There is a great deal of mystery that is keeping me enticed.
What are the main skills that you acquired as a PhD student which help make you successful in your current career?
It is critically important that we see ourselves as scientists with strong skills in independent research, critical thinking, and quantitative analysis (hopefully you are the quantitative type).
In terms of technical skills that one can learn in grad school, I regret NOT having mastered (1) Excel and VBA, and (2) a data science programming language such as Python or R. In grad school, I mostly used Excel to organize text neatly into cells, which is laughable given the true power of Excel. In both consulting and finance, we handle large datasets with hundreds of columns and millions of rows. Third week into my first job in Consulting, I was tasked with handling an 11-gig Excel file that was too large for Excel to open. The ability to manipulate data in an automated manner is immensely useful. I am in my 4th-year post PhD now and I am only starting to learn to program. This is unbefitting given the speed at which our current world is heading toward computer-land.
Mentality-wise, Yale sort of awakened an entirely different side of me. Having done a hyperfocused PhD by studying the same molecule for 5 years had an opposite, lasting effect on me — it made me want to learn something different every 5 days. If you are always treading into the unknown (which consulting and finance will inevitably force you to do), I can assure you that you are indeed learning and developing valuable skills to further your career. Do not let your existing experience define who you are and limit your potential. It helps to have the mentality that ‘I am an expert in X. I am fed up now and I want to explore Y’.
Did you acquire any professional experience related to your line of work while in graduate school?
Yes. To name a few, Yale Graduate Consulting Club, a couple of case competitions (one in market positioning, one in M&A), a consulting project for Bloomberg (where I optimized product pricing), a summer internship at a biotech (where I built financial models). I also finished the first level of Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA).
I was late to the party and I crammed all of the above into my last year of PhD — From Sept 2009 to January 2014, the only thing I knew was how to grow bacteria in the incubator, and I could not tell the difference between revenue and profit to save my life. By October 2014, I was competent in modeling financial statements and I could calculate how much a company’s stock was worth. To prepare for an alternative career, a lot of things require dozens of hours (if not hundreds of hours) to learn, and even longer to internalize. I spent >100hrs doing mock cases to prepare for consulting interviews, and I had study-buddies who prepared with me — I still bombed my first few real interviews. If you are not in your last year of PhD, I recommend starting early so as to not overstretch yourself like I did.
What advice would you offer PhDs who are interested in your line of work?
Be overprepared for your target career. You should not be at an interview and ask about what they do. You should not be at an interview to tell them that you don’t know squat but are a quick-learner. You need to give them confidence that you are aware of the tasks, you are already trained at the job, and if they hire you right now, you’d need minimal guidance on Day 1. Both Finance and Consulting hire freshly-minted science PhDs with no other experience, but there are usually few interview opportunities and neither career is easy to break into.
On a more concrete level: if you would like to prepare for a career in life science consulting, you need to first learn (1) how to think and solve problems like a consultant, and (2) how the healthcare system works, especially in the US. Remember, you will be competing against MBAs from Wharton and MPHs from Yale for the same position. Your competitors know (1) and (2) inside out because that’s what they study at school. Most interviewers are very experienced and can tell in the first 3 minutes whether you are going to be a superstar or a dud. It is also possible for PhDs to find generalist consulting opportunities (e.g. MBB consulting). In that case only (1) is important, but it’s also best to supplement your skillset with business acumen and ability to perform financial analysis.
As for biopharma equity research, it is a funny career path because PhDs (and MDs) are highly valued on both sell-side and buy-side, given the amount of science knowledge required and the number of clinical publications that you’d have to read on a daily basis. Almost every team has a science PhD (or MD), and some teams have multiple. However, at the end of the day, this is still a finance job and it’s best that you know your way around the three financial statements and a few valuation models. If you have done your homework, you should have learnt all of these prior to the interview.