Nathaniel Robichaud graduated from the Faculty of Medicine in Biochemistry in 2018. He is currently a Business Development Manager at Genome Quebec and a consultant for startups in life sciences.
Q: Why were you interested in pursuing a PhD in the first place?
I had wanted a career in academia as soon as I started undergraduate studies. My first summer of my first year of classes, I was already in a lab doing experiments and learning what lab life is like. I did a co-op program in Sherbrooke, three internships full-time, and a part-time one in undergrad. So I already knew what I wanted to do. The lab for my last internship ended up being the lab I did my PhD in. So my goal was to be a professor—I wanted to do research and discover new stuff.
Q: Was your supervisor supportive during your PhD?
So, during my PhD my supervisor was helpful because from my point of view, he gave me all of the opportunities that I needed and whenever I asked for something, he was very happy to help. Other people I did my PhD with would have the complete opposite point of view because you really had to ask to get something and be proactive. Things like negotiating, asking to write a grant or review article, or going to a conference—people who weren’t comfortable bringing up the topic didn’t get anything. But if you were proactive, you could get everything.
Q: What do you value about your time doing your PhD?
I think the best skill that I developed was learning how to learn anything I wanted on my own. That’s one of the things that a lot of people in the same lab found very difficult. There was a very steep learning curve in terms of, you know, you’re just thrown into the lab and expected to perform. Learning how to just dive in and try something new for the first time and learn something new for the first time, that I think is the best skill that anybody can learn during graduate studies, and it is the most useful skill when you’re gone. Almost nobody’s going to work on exactly what they worked on during their PhD for their future job. If you’ve already learned how to quickly catch on to whatever topic you need to, then you’re set. You can do whatever job is required of you.
Q: What were your biggest challenges during your PhD?
Self-learning was both a benefit and a challenge. It was hard to get stuff started and it was also hard because everything takes longer. If there’s nobody guiding you every step of the way, even if you end up in the same place, you have to take a few detours to get there. I did have a very long PhD—it took 8 years. Because of the length, there was a time where scholarships ran out and I was worried about maintaining a certain salary without being eligible for any scholarships anymore. That worked out, so I was okay.
Q: How do you find your first job after your PhD? How is the job hunting process for you?
After a PhD, I did a postdoc. I wanted to get more into translational research and learn how to commercialize discoveries. I started talking to this PI at conferences and getting to know him. He’s in charge of all commercialization of research at NYU and he spun out like seven or eight companies from his lab. I spent a year in his lab and followed a science commercialization program that he launched. Unfortunately, personal reasons forced me to return to Montreal. I left the postdoc but I had nothing lined up.
But when I started looking, I actually got two offers within two weeks and it was largely because of the science commercialization certification that I got while in New York. I got to learn how to start a startup, how to get funding for that, and how to decide if there’s a market for that. That was what got me the job I have now. They also really like the fact that I had written several grants, and several reviews, and that I was a reviewer for papers and grants. The job that I currently have involves giving feedback on grant applications.
Q: What is your current position now?
I work for Genome Quebec. Most people know us for our sequencing platform. But it’s actually a funding agency. The program I work for is about matching academic researchers with companies to accelerate the translation of discoveries into products. The gist of the program is that a company has a need and is associated with academic scientists that can do the genomics R&D to fix the problem. So we will fund that to accelerate the adoption of genomics and technology transfer and to have benefits for Quebec and Canada.
My job is three-fold: it is business development, consulting and project management. The business development side of my job is to find new teams to apply for these grants. So I help build the teams. I do consulting work by helping the teams write grants. The grants are tricky because it’s both commercial and academic. The grant has to be written like a business plan, so the format is totally different. People in academia don’t know what they’re supposed to be putting into the grant, so part of my job is helping them do that.
Q: What advice would you give students currently doing their PhDs?
Take a startup class. It doesn’t matter if you want to be in a startup or even go to industry but following this type of class gives you a totally new perspective on how useful your research can actually be. There’s a Quebec scientific entrepreneurship program, QCSE, and it’s online. Any student can apply to the class and learn what it takes to get a startup going. It’s a really good place to start that’s totally free. Then you’ll have this huge advantage if you want to work for a startup or start your own, because you have this knowledge. It’s also great if you want to go into industry, work for an established company, or go into consulting. There’s also Lean Startup and IndieBio and other classes online for you to learn how to turn discoveries into commercializable products. It can change how scientists do their research to make it more applicable to real world needs. So I highly recommend it.
However, if have different interests, like medical writing, for example, then I recommend that you ask your boss if you can write more. And if your boss says no, find an excuse to start a science blog. Do something other than experiments that will give you the experience in what you want to do afterwards.
Many thanks to Nathaniel for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find him on LinkedIn.
This interview took place in July 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.