October 12, 2023

Open-Sourcing the Octant Apprenticeship

October 12, 2023

Open-Sourcing the Octant Apprenticeship

The Octant Apprenticeship (OA) program recruits, mentors, and trains early career talent to become valuable contributors across Octant, both technically and culturally. Since its inception in 2019, the OA program has recruited 27 OAs who have contributed to the Octant mission: building the next-generation of small molecule therapeutics. We’ve had a lot of success with the OA program, and are excited to share with the world how we did it. If you're looking to make an impact at your company and in the lives of early-career researchers, we hope you’ll find this guide helpful in developing your own apprenticeship-like program. 

A Brief History of the OA Program

The OA program began as an experiment: Could we hire recent graduates and train them into impactful researchers before they move on professionally? 

While trying to recruit scientists and RAs in our early days, we found our networks full of PhD-level scientists, but were struggling to find the quality of RA in line with Octant’s scientifically rigorous culture. While each of us had several personal experiences working with stellar undergraduates during our time as graduate students and postdocs, most of those students were looking to go to graduate school or some other professional schooling, or to work in an academic lab to bolster their applications. Some were even discouraged from working in industry, with detractors characterizing it as repetitive labor that would not contribute to their graduate school applications. We were also concerned about stability - even if we hire top notch talent, what if they decide not to stay? Could a talented undergraduate contribute quickly enough before leaving for medical or graduate school? 

So began the experiment - could these high achieving fresh graduates make an impact at Octant before they go off on their next adventure? Could we train them well enough and fast enough? Could we make their experience “worth it” in their overall career progression? We took these questions, designed a program that we thought would be valuable to both Octant and the OA, brainstormed a bunch of clever names, recruited a stellar class (our goal was to start with 1, and we ended up hiring 4!) and finally launched the first year of the Octant Apprenticeship program -  a one year professional experience for recent graduates looking to work in a fast-paced, rigorous, and fun startup environment. 

Over the years we’ve learned lessons and iterated on how we run the program, but overall it is a resounding success. Our OAs quickly become high-impact contributors, scientists appreciate the opportunity to mentor early-career researchers, Octonauts love to celebrate their successes both within and outside of Octant, and so much more. Many of our OAs go off to top tier graduate and medical schools, some seek alternate professional paths influenced by their experience at Octant, and we’re also lucky enough to have a few OAs stay on with us each year to contribute in big ways. 

Morgan, one of our original apprentices, has been with us for four years growing her career. From building our proof-of-concept multiplexed assay to onboarding assays for new indications and mentoring junior lab members, Morgan’s impact has been felt and appreciated!
How to Recruit a Stellar Apprentice Class

A quality class of OAs starts by recruiting a stellar group. Octant’s hiring philosophy generally looks for individuals who have the appropriate skills, passion, self-awareness, integrity, collaborative nature, and trainability. We set out to design a recruiting scheme against those criteria that was streamlined, fair, and rigorous. We’ve tweaked our approach over the years, and have had success with the following process: 

  • Get the word out there. This is always the hardest part, and many of the best candidates stem from our individual networks. Thankfully, as the OA program has grown, so too has our network and pool of candidates. We try to reach prospective applicants by contacting student groups, professors, undergraduate advisors, and similar personal connections. We also rely on social media and several of our OAs even give talks at their alma maters about their own experience going through the program.
  • Screening. Our basic structure for screening follows this outline:
  • Compensation. In line with our Octant compensation philosophy, we offer OAs a competitive industry salary, full benefits, and equity. We want to send a strong message that they are part of our team, and will be expected to contribute to the Octant mission like anybody else we hire.
  • Sealing the deal. For many of our applicants, this is their first industry job. We approach the conversation with a lot of empathy - negotiating that first job offer can be an intimidating experience, and moving to a totally new area with a high cost of living can amplify anxieties. We try to provide what they need to feel comfortable saying “yes” to Octant, whether that’s setting up conversations with current OAs at Octant, modest sign-on bonuses that can be used to offset moving costs, assembling materials with recommendations on where to live, and more. We want the OA to feel confident that this is where they are supposed to be.
Emphasizing Training to Ensure Apprentice Success 

OAs typically already have experience at the bench and/or the terminal when they start the program. However, there’s still a lot for them to learn. We’ve found that extensive hands-on training in the first couple of months is key to empowering apprentices to be independent: 

  1. Scientist mentor. Each OA is paired with a scientist mentor. We take the mentorship responsibility seriously - OA mentors are expected to provide side-by-side guidance and instruction until the OA can work more independently. This takes a lot of work! But we’ve seen it repeatedly play out successfully and most scientists are eager to take on a mentee. Scientist mentors might also provide career advice, as well as connect the OA to other people in their network depending on what the OA is interested in pursuing.
  2. Octant project work. OAs contribute directly to Octant’s highest priorities. This isn’t a fluff intern project, or a time for mentors/managers to utilize OAs to work on side quests. OAs are motivated by work that is meaningful and impactful to the company. Some examples include developing assays for our drug programs, synthesizing chemical libraries for screening, building out and running our whole-plasmid sequencing platform OCTOPUS, and so much more!
  3. Responsibility. In addition to working on impactful project work, OAs are entrusted with ownership and responsibility that they might not have at other companies. The expectations help OAs become better researchers. In the beginning of their time at Octant, this sometimes means work doesn’t progress as quickly or efficiently as we might hope, but the speed by which they develop has been surprisingly fast, and makes it worthwhile. 
  4. Side quest. At some point during the year, OAs are given the opportunity to work on a side quest, either as a cohort or individually. This is an opportunity for OAs to use their new skills to execute on something independent that they can claim as their own. For example, the most recent class of apprentices built a multiplexed assay that elucidates how our compounds interact with the ~20 GPCRs most commonly hit off-target by drugs. After completing the project the apprentices deliver a presentation to the whole company. It is always a highlight to see how much they’ve matured scientifically over one short year!
Maris and her mentor Jimin designing a multiplexed assay for our first chaperone therapeutics program
Dedication to Apprentices’ Career Development

At Octant we strongly believe in career development, and the OAs are no exception. While research training is a major portion of their overall career development, we also provide opportunities to explore different types of careers and expand their network. We’ve even seen a few OAs change their career trajectory based on the OA career development opportunities. While there are several career development opportunities across Octant, there are a few that are specific to the OAs: 

  1. Fireside chats. These are informal monthly chats with a diverse set of speakers across science, biotech, academia, pharma, medicine, law, and more. Our speakers showcase many career paths, including career RAs, doctors who run clinical trials, academic professors, pharma sales, and others. Whether early-career stage, or well known in their field (for example, Mark Murcko and Jorge Conde) the chats are an intimate setting for deep conversation. 
  2. Journal clubs. Journal clubs are a monthly opportunity for OAs to develop their scientific literacy and intuition. Scientist mentors guide conversations, ask questions, and provide feedback, but these are largely led by the OAs themselves. We start with papers that provide the fundamentals of our own technology to give the OAs better technological and historical context on the work they are doing. 
  3. Founder brunch. Finally, our founders take the time to casually meet with the OAs once a quarter. Conversations range from specific career advice to personal foibles and fun stories.
Have fun!

We have several fun events throughout the year to celebrate the OAs and foster their sense of community at Octant. Each class of OAs is a cohort in an alumni network over the years. Events include things like “Welcome Week” and “Senior Week” to orient and celebrate the OAs along with fun events (like a field trip to the Exploratorium) that bring the OAs together outside of their day-to-day work at Octant.

Apprentices and their mentors playing an adaptation of the Newlywed Game as part of their graduation ceremony

Overall, the OA program has led to a lot of success - both at Octant, and for the OAs who went on to new adventures. You can read more about OA experiences here, here, and here!

If you’re eager to start an apprenticeship program at your own company, feel free to email us at apprentice@octant.bio to ask any questions!

Naomi Handly

VP Platform
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