How can I salvage my career?

Q: I need some career advice after just losing my job at the third failed medical-diagnostic startup I have worked for. I believed it was a high-potential field, but now I have a terrible-looking resume. I earned an MS degree eight years ago from a top engineering school and was providing broad support to the engineering team.

A: These are tough times for everyone, including VCs and their start-up companies. Medical diagnostics is a particularly difficult field, in which only a very small percentage of start-up companies are successful.

You did the right thing by picking a field and sticking to it, which gives you an opportunity to become an industry insider. But I wouldn’t have advised starting your career at start-up companies, especially in a difficult field; you simply couldn’t have known enough to choose a company without taking undue risks. Two tweaks you can make at this point: work for a biomedical company instead of one that is narrowly focused on diagnostics, and work for an established company instead of a startup. I personally would get into genomics because health care is always needed and that particular field represents an entirely new era in health maintenance. There you can focus on instrumentation opportunities—even big pharmaceutical companies are getting into companion diagnostics to sell more of their medicines.

The advantage of working for an established company is branding. It means something when you have made a mark at a Roche or Genentech. At these types of companies, you’ll learn professional management in an organized way instead of managing crises in firefighting mode, as one often does in a start-up company. That also brings up the issue of the jobs you already had. These are glamorous management positions, but you become a generalist instead of a specialist, which is more competitive in the job market. I believe the right career path is to first become a specialist by gaining hands-on experience, before broadening to become a generalist as manager. This is one of the disadvantages of working for a typically chaotic start-up company. For example, you would be eminently more employable if instead you had learned to manage FDA-compliant GMP (good manufacturing practices) system regulations.

Q: My friend and I are debating whether it is wise to be the first to toss out a number in a negotiation.

A: This is known as providing an “anchor” in a negotiation. Experiments have shown that the first number put on the table has a big impact on the outcome. What you do depends on the situation. For example, you wouldn’t want to toss out a ridiculously high number when you are selling because you’ll be taking a big risk that a buyer might walk and never look back. On the other hand you can toss out a ridiculously low number if you are buying, especially if you can take it or leave it, because the seller will usually argue for a bigger number instead of walking out in anger.

If you generalize this reasoning, it says the person with the upper hand gains by providing an anchor, and that position also depends on how much you care about the outcome. I have seen start-up companies ask investors to “make an offer,” with the wishful thinking that they will get a higher number than they can realistically expect, only to get a number they aren’t happy to hear.

Think about how you can strive for a win-win outcome so both sides walk away satisfied. Yes, you can gain by being aggressive, but probably not by much if you take into account the intangibles that you can lose in the process. The point is that when the chips are down we are all smart enough to protect our own interests.


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MILTON CHANG is managing director of Incubic Venture Fund, which invests in photonics applications. He was CEO/president of Newport and New Focus, and currently sits on the board of Precision Photonics. He holds a B.S. degree from the U. of Illinois and a Ph.D. from Caltech. He is a Fellow of IEEE, OSA, and LIA, a former president of LEOS and LIA, recipient of Distinguished Alumni Awards from both universities, serves on the board of trustees of Caltech, and is a member of the Committee of 100. Visit www.incubic.com for other articles he has written.

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