Author

Graduate student and postdoctoral leaders from the Early Career Scientist Committees of the GSA.

Danielle Blecha-Bashirullah, Founder and Principal of D BASH Business Solutions LLC, a consulting company in Madison, WI, emphasizes the skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur, negotiating contracts and how to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

In the Decoding Life series, we talk to geneticists with diverse career paths, tracing the many directions possible after research training. This series is brought to you by the GSA Early Career Scientist Career Development Subcommittee.


When did you know you wanted to be a scientist, and what influenced that decision?

I grew up in a small town, I went to a large university, and I moved to a large city; these experiences helped me learn to be my own advocate throughout. There wasn’t anybody telling you what you should do, where to go, or what career opportunities are out there. It took a lot of asking questions, being open to new ideas, and asking people what they did. I wasn’t looking for somebody to tell me what to do—I just got out there from very early on and paved my own way.

Before the days of CSI:, I was intrigued by a character on television named Quincy, so I wanted to go into forensic medicine. By the end of my undergraduate degree, I started to question if that was the right route for me. The OJ Simpson trial started when I was in college, and it was then that I became aware of the use of molecular biology in solving crimes. I became interested in forensic science and how DNA was being used for crime scene investigations, and I decided to pursue a Masters in Forensic Science with a focus in molecular biology.

While I have since moved away from forensics, all of my subsequent positions have utilized my skills and experience in biology—specifically things such as molecular biology and immunology. Ultimately, I gained the entrepreneurial perspective throughout my career, moving up the ladder as Manager, to a Director to a Senior Director. I also had the opportunity to take some leadership training classes when I became a manager. As you take on new opportunities, you learn new skills. Leading teams and learning to do things like budgeting and strategic planning definitely gave me some additional skills outside of the science.

Describe your current position and what a typical day at work looks like for you.

I am the founder and principal of D BASH Business Solutions. I do contract consulting and contract recruiting, specifically in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. On the recruiting side of the business, I help companies recruit for positions that require technical or scientific expertise, such as R&D scientists or technical product managers. On the consulting side of the business, I help small businesses who may not have expertise in bringing products to market or are limited in resources. In this role, I can step in to help with market research or commercialization planning.

What skill building suggestions would you give to early career scientists who are interested in starting their own business?

I think the key is not to rush into starting your own business. I encourage people to work for someone else initially. Learning what NOT to do is as important as learning what to do. You grow a lot by working in teams, learning from mistakes, and dealing with those mistakes. Sometimes, when we go into science, we think that everything revolves just around the science, but there’s actually so much more to consider. Through work experience, you learn that the business of science is interconnected with so many other parts of the business. It may involve sales & marketing, regulatory affairs, quality-control, engineering, software programming, technical support, and manufacturing—amongst others. It’s important to know the different types of roles that are available for someone with a science background and the types of skills needed for those roles. If you can figure out what you’re good at and what you like to do while working for someone else, you can figure out the right type of business for you. It’s also important to know what you’re not good at or don’t like to do before starting out on your own.

How would you encourage early career scientists to apply their scientific training to non-academic jobs?

A big part of it is identifying what you’ve learned in your academic programs that can be translated to various career paths. Always highlight technical skills—such as molecular biology techniques, special software skills, and experience crunching data—and professional skills—such as leading a project or collaborating with other groups—that would be useful for the job. Knowing that you have those skills is important, and you can highlight them by being prepared to answer questions with specific examples. Don’t just say that you have particular skills; instead, provide examples of how you manage your time or how you’ve led a group to accomplish a task. These are really attractive skills for any job opportunity, and answering questions well shows strong communication skills.

Say you’ve been offered the job. How do you go about negotiating salary?

You may be asked about salary requirements, and you can decide whether or not to state your requirements. I would not recommend asking about salary prior to getting an offer. Getting paid well is important, but if you hate your job, it’s irrelevant. It’s all about finding the right job with the right salary and working with the right people on the right things.

After you’ve received the offer, you do have some leverage. If you get an offer, it’s because the company wants you. What you don’t know is how much they want you or if there are other applicants that are the number two or number three candidates. Sometimes you’re the only one, and the only reason they would go to number two is if you backed out. Other times they would certainly be open to some kind of negotiation. You won’t know unless you try!

What components of an offer can you negotiate?

The most common places that you can negotiate an offer are salary, vacation time, and some kind of bonus—this could be bonus dollars, stock options, etc. You have to do your own research and figure out what you’re worth, what you feel the position is worth, and ultimately what you’re willing to work for. To you, salary might not be what’s most important, so you might ask for an extra week of vacation. It is not uncommon for companies to offer two weeks of vacation (ten days) and for employees to ask for an extra week during negotiation. One example from my own history involved stock options. When I was leaving one job for another, I had some stocks with my previous company that weren’t fully vested. I mentioned during my negotiation with the new company that if I started immediately, I would be leaving some stocks behind with my old company, as opposed to starting the new position six months later and obtaining all my stock options. I asked the new company if they would be willing the increase the stocks they were offering to compensate for this loss, and they did. Most companies will not walk away from you if you’re asking for something reasonable. If they do, you may wonder if that’s a company who values their employees. On the other hand, if you ask for an increase in salary and they don’t match you, but they do meet you part-way, then you’ve learned some skills and obtained some practice in negotiating.

It sounds like it is important to advocate for yourself during negotiations. Why is it important to have these difficult conversations?

If you don’t ask for something, you likely won’t get it. Especially for women, it can be hard to ask. Everyone should consider: is it at least worth trying out some negotiating skills for the first time? Even if the offer looks pretty good, you can put yourself out there and ask for something that’s important to you. It is important to keep in mind that with a low starting salary, it will be harder to increase it over the years. Even if you get raises, they are often based on a percentage. For instance, a 4% raise on $10,000 is very different than a 4% raise on $100,000. So even a large percentage raise may be small in dollars if you are starting with a low salary. And it’s hard to play catch-up!

How quickly should a decision be made about a job offer?

Think about the offer and the terms of the job, and don’t feel rushed in making the decision. You are often given twenty-four hours to respond. If you aren’t ready to commit or want time to better understand the offer, ask for a couple days to think it over. You can also ask to talk to someone responsible for benefits if the details of the benefits are important to you (e.g., medical insurance). There is no reason to jump in after twenty-four hours or feel you have to get back to them immediately. If you ask for an additional day or two and they say no, then you have to decide if it is worth it to you to make a rushed decision. Just don’t be afraid to ask!

When making hiring decisions, what are the most important qualities that you look for in an employee?

I have done a lot of hiring in my other leadership roles in technical and customer support groups. As a hiring manager, I always looked for people that were eager to work and to do that particular job. I knew I could teach people some of the science, so I always looked for a baseline level of technical or scientific knowledge and then focused on the other aspects of their skills and personality. Sometimes, I interviewed people with bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degrees for the same position. Each candidate had to have a certain level of knowledge, but beyond that, I wanted to know if they were teachable, eager to learn, and hard working. Are they a team player? Much of my team lived in cities around the country and traveled to customers, so I needed people to be able to work independently, but it was also important for me that they could work together as a team. Being able to find people that could do both was very important to me. Communication and people skills were also critical in working with customers.

With your demanding job, how do you maintain work-life balance?

That’s always a challenge! I am now at a point in my personal and professional life where I can make the decision to take on less and spend some time with my family. No one is going to tell you to take time off or have down time, so you need to make it a priority and set those boundaries. I spent a number of years working a lot of hours to get me where I am today. The one thing that I finally learned is not to keep my cellphone by my bed. I don’t use it as my alarm clock. I literally leave it downstairs, far away from me at night! I also don’t look at emails shortly before bed. I don’t want to see an email that could potentially cause me stress and ruin sleep—this can become a vicious cycle. We are always connected to work through our electronic devices. The only way to stop it is if you make it stop.

Do you have any guilty pleasure snacks that you’re can’t do without?

I don’t have them all the time, but when it’s a stressful day, and I just need a pick-me-up, I go to peanut M&Ms! In a previous position as a Senior Director responsible for planning out a new, large facility for hundreds of employees, I decided to bring in vending machines that were primarily filled with healthy snacks and quick meals. But I did request that the company keep five slots open for “other” types of snacks, and I requested one of these slots be reserved for peanut M&Ms!


About the author:

Photo of Elaine WelchElaine Welch is a liaison on the Early Career Scientist Career Development Committee and is an Associate Human Molecular Geneticist at PreventionGenetics. In addition to her work in clinical genetics, Elaine is committed to mentoring early career scientists—especially those belonging to underrepresented minority groups—to help them successfully transition from academic training to varied career paths.

Learn more about the GSA’s Early Career Scientist Leadership Program.

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