EEB and MB Graduate Student Organizations

Name: Matthew Thompson

Job Title: Senior Product Manager

E-mail Address:

Please describe your work: I am responsible for leading a team of engineers in delivering a product to market. I set the vision and clarify it (constantly) with the engineers. I review output and provide feedback from the "commercial" perspective. I speak with customers to understand their needs, and to prioritize which needs we will try to meet in the near-term, short-term, etc.

Work hours are 50-60 hrs per week. Travel is common during the growing season (our company makes agricultural robotics so we need to leave Silicon Valley and head to the fields of California and the Midwest).

What were your graduate studies in? What aspects of your graduate training do you feel have made you more successful in your position? I studied plant physiology, with a PhD and post-doc focus on phloem vascular physiology.

One of the most important elements of my training was that I was so interdisciplinary as a graduate student and postdoc. Yes, I could work in a molecular lab, but I could also build equipment for experiments, and I was very comfortable with engineering mathematics, especially computational fluid mechanics (which is relevant to the phloem).

Interdisciplinary training is really important.

What was your career path after leaving graduate school? I did two post-docs, not very traditional ones. Again, I tried very hard to learn totally new things in new labs with new people.

But then I got faculty offers and I left academia. I joined the Boston Consulting Group, a management consultancy, and worked there for four years. This put me in a different realm when applying for jobs in the sciences outside of academia. Not only did I know the biology, and not only was I comfortable with scientific and engineering topics outside of biology, but I also had real management experience, leading teams for large corporate clients. Now, I didn't like working at BCG that much (I left after 4 years from being pretty much exhausted by it), but it changed my career prospects forever.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job? What are your favorite aspects of your job? Challenging: engineers think they know everything, they're terrible at communicating what they're doing in simple, metaphorical ways, and they assume that you know nothing. I was and continue to be *roundly* underestimated by my colleagues (but that just means that I get to surprise them all the time).

Favorite: being in the field again (yay) and doing work in what has been a passion for me since the 90s (back when everyone thought that breeding could be done with just an advanced knowledge of an organism's genetics ... ha!).

Do you have any other useful advice for graduate students interested in your field that hasn't been covered yet? Actively develop other skill areas outside of what you're focusing on. Academia will say, "focus, so that you can get your degree over with," which is great advice if you're going to stay in academia. The clock is ticking, after all. But that's not the best advice when you need to develop skills for outside of academia. For example: the ability to aggressively prioritize work, to be comfortable calling something "finished" when it's not really finished, telling people "no", managing complex teams with weird personalities, building trust through active listening, basic (and advanced) business literacy. You don't typically get these things in a graduate program.


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