From the lab to “the dark side”; a career out of the lab

Tom van den Boogaart joined the John Innes Centre to study for a PhD in viruses and gene silencing with Professor George Lomonnossoff, Professor Jeff Davies, and Professor Andy Maule back in 1996. 

On completion of his PhD, he went on to do two years as a Postdoctoral Scientist with Professor Ian Bancroft staying until 2002, but during which time he realised a life in the lab wasn’t right for him.  

We caught up with Tom to see where his career has taken him so far and find out what advice he would give to scientists considering the same. 

“My PhD looked at mechanisms behind posttranscriptional gene silencing using replicase-derived resistance against Pea early browning virus and also the role of low molecular RNAs during Pea seed-borne mosaic virus infections. 

I found out during my PhD that, even though I have a love for life sciences, I’m not cut out to be a scientist. You say it nicely in the UK; as a scientist “your knowledge is a mile deep, but only an inch wide”. 

Because I love life sciences, I wanted to do something different but still in that area, even though I wasn’t sure what. Around that time, I had met a few people who worked in the life sciences recruitment business, which got me thinking about my options. I decided I wanted to move towards a more commercial role.   

At the end of my PhD I worked as a Postdoc for a couple of years, with Ian Bancroft. I knew at this point that I wanted to move outside the lab, so used the money I earned as a Postdoc in order to fund an MBAOnce I had the MBA I resigned and moved into sales (you can choose here … did I sell my soul to the devil or did I see the light?) 

From there, it has been a bit of a rollercoaster. 

At first, I moved around and had various sales and marketing roles. I also did business development before moving towards general management, building up experience and establishing which aspects of each role I enjoyed. At the same time, I moved from life sciences to laboratory informatics to healthcare, which is where I have stayed ever since. 

I’m currently working as the national manager for Elekta Netherlands, a global company that sells solutions (meaning equipment, software and services) for radiation therapy – essentially solutions for killing cancer through radiation. 

The interesting part is that with my team we’re completely responsible for the final (commercial) result, meaning orders, revenues, profits, and market share, for the Netherlands. We can come up with our own ideas on how best to approach and try to grow the market. So, it is a lot about sales and marketing but also business development (trying to find new ways to sell our solutions) and needless to say HR, financial, operational, quality and regulatory matters and many more. 

One thing I love about my job is that there are a lot of moving parts and I find it fascinating trying to align all of those towards the same long-term goal of growing the business in a healthy and sustainable way. It is here that my scientific training comes in handy because it taught me the value of critical thinking and approaching problem solving in a structured manner.   

Furthermore, my years in science has allowed me to live in the US and in the UK where I’ve met some amazing people. I can honestly say that without those experiences I would not have been where I am today. 

However, I have also no regrets of my career change towards “the dark side” and I always know that I have made the right choice when I’m walking into a hospital to talk to customers. 

If I had one piece of advice for someone considering a similar move, out of the lab and into the commercial word it would be to “say yes to the scary stuff”. 

I’ve had a few career switches including the most obvious one when I moved from science into sales. Another one has been to move from sales into marketing. Then again when I moved into general management.  There is a lot of uncertainty (and self-doubt) at moments like that but (and I think it was Richard Branson that said it) “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later…” 

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