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My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Many thanks to the scientist who sent in these great questions for discussion.  I welcome input from everyone so please share your advice with this reader. If anyone has more questions, please feel free to email me privately if you prefer. These questions were edited to remove specific details and indentifying information.


Hi Jade,
I'm a frequent reader of the blog, if a rare commenter. I thought I would ask your advice on moving into biotech jobs. To give you a bit of background, I am doing my PhD at a UK university and still in my first year, but I'm certain I would like to work in industry. I spent two and a half years before grad school at a small company, working in a contract research division that ran tests looking for acute toxic effect in pre-clinical compounds from pharmaceutical companies. I found I liked the company environment for research, and quickly figured out that tenure-track faculty positions aren't what I'll be looking for. My work has mostly been happenstance, not that I don't find it interesting, but I have many other research interests, like cancer biology, immunology, and virology. I want to have a game plan in moving forward in my career, and figure now is better than later to have one. I am curious for your opinion on things such as, should I do a postdoc in industry or academia? Should I do a postdoc at all? I'm outgoing and get along with people really well, and consider myself a good scientist in terms of work ethic and creativity. I wouldn't mind being involved with the business side of a biotech, as long as I also was able to operate in research as well. Not to mention I've been complimented as a smooth talker, which can only help in a corporate context. I feel like my attitude and general disposition would be of benefit in a biotech, but I'd like to know what you think, and what steps I should take, you being someone who has worked in multiple departments at multiple companies. I was planning on emailing some folks at companies whose work I like or I have some connection to and asking similar questions I am posing to you, but thought you'd be an excellent person to hopefully start a dialogue with. I basically want to start figuring out now how to successfully navigate to a good career in biotech R&D, so I have the best chance of doing well, enjoying my job, and hopefully being sound financially before I'm 40, if possible. Thanks for your time, any help or pearls of wisdom you can share will be greatly appreciated.


To make it easier to address all your questions, I am going to break it into sections:

I spent two and a half years before grad school at a small company...

The fact that you have previous company experience is going to give you a huge edge. The transition from academics to industry can be difficult for some people.  Why is it difficult?  Couple reasons. Management style is much different. It will feel like micromanagement to someone who is used to being completely left alone. In a company, your boss is expecting you to make him/her look good and they are going to be watching you closely until you prove yourself.  Introverted people will hate it. Another change is the way you handle your time. Depending on your role, you won’t have the same flexibility in your schedule. And a big problem that I’ve observed is that some people have trouble with the concept that the project they are doing does not belong to them. Everything you do, everything you think about, every cool idea you come up with while working is owned by the company.  You may be an inventor on a patent, but you won’t be the assignee. Getting a new scientist to understand that can be a challenge.

...but I have many other research interests, like cancer biology, immunology, and virology and in a follow up email: “I have many scientific interests, don't want to be held back by not having chosen the right focus in my PhD”.

You can work in these other fields as long as you have the technical experience. What I mean is, if the project involves cloning, immunoprecipitation, or transfection, and you’ve done all of those things, then it should not be a problem to move into a new area. Virology has some specialized techniques so you may not be able to move into that area without prior experience. The main thing is whether or not you can hit the ground running. If you can, I’ll hire you.  As an example, if I need a microbiologist, I am less likely to hire someone who has studied cancer genetics for the last 5 years. Why? Because they haven’t been immersed in the current literature and because I’ll think maybe they are just applying to every job out there and not really interested in my job. This is where the cover letter is key. You would want to make sure that your cover letter is very specific to the job description and explain why you are interested in that company and that job.  It is important to me that the person I hire is interested in my area of work. I’ve received many cover letters where people go on and on about how interested they are in their current project, which has nothing to do our subject area, and never mention why they are interested in our job.

Should I do a postdoc at all? Are there advantages to doing a postdoc in industry?

It might be a great idea for you for several reasons. Getting in the door is the hardest part. While postdocs make less than the staff scientists, the pay is still really good and in this economy, companies are trying to save money. So if they can hire you for $70K instead of someone else for $80-90K, and you both look really good and interview well, I bet they go with you. 

What is a postdoc for? It is a period of training to learn how to run a lab and a time to learn skills that you don’t have. Many people do postdocs in areas where they don’t have experience or want to learn a new technique. So this might be perfect for you because you want to try a different field. This would be a chance to get into a virology lab and become an expert in that area. And, during this time, you can also take on opportunities to manage another scientist, maybe a lab technician or an intern. Management training is so valuable to employers. I have a friend who has 25 years of marketing experience and was turned down for jobs simply because he didn’t have enough management experience.

 If you know you want to be in industry and you have a new PhD, I would recommend getting an industrial postdoc and get in as early as possible.

 Ideally I'd like to lead a research team, or something of that sort, but I worry that the senior scientists are primarily accomplished academics who jump to industry relatively deep into their careers.

No, not usually. I think more often the senior scientists worked their way up in the company.  Loyalty is rewarded. I’ve known more R&D managers who came in directly after graduate school or postdocs and were promoted up. I know of one person who jumped to industry later in their career and after only one year he left the company and went back to academics.  I think the longer someone spends in academics, the more unlikely they would desire to be in the structured environment of a company.

I'm outgoing and get along with people really well, and consider myself a good scientist in terms of work ethic and creativity. I wouldn't mind being involved with the business side of a biotech, as long as I also was able to operate in research as well.

These are all excellent and important qualities that will work for you. Outgoing personalities do well at companies because so much of the work is collaborative. Everything you do is in a team so working well with others is, in my opinion, the most important quality.  Marketing departments are dying for scientists who are outgoing and want to be involved in the business side. Normally they are begging them to come to conferences and give talks. So you will be highly valued and appreciated.

Once you are in the company, you can move around to different areas, maybe get an MBA, and go into business development or strategic marketing. Once you are in, all the doors open to everything else there is to do in a company.

…but I'd like to know what you think, and what steps I should take, you being someone who has worked in multiple departments at multiple companies. I was planning on emailing some folks at companies whose work I like or I have some connection to and asking similar questions I am posing to you, but thought you'd be an excellent person to hopefully start a dialogue with.

Using your network is the best thing you can do. I got my last two positions because of my network. Your colleague at the Big Pharma company you mentioned is a great source for information. I am sure she knows a lot of people and her recommendation will be meaningful. I use for networking. Almost all biotech employees are on it and I am seeing more and more academics on it too. Many recruiters use it for finding candidates for jobs. 

My other recommendation is something you’ve already done. You have a publication coming out with biotech scientists. This will look great on your resume. I recommend that people who are interested in biotech positions set up a collaboration with a company they like so that they can get a better understanding of how biotechs communicate science. Many companies would love to have a customer do a project with them such as help in development of a product or to prove a product works in a new application. It gives them outside validation by an academic lab (more cred!) and it gives you a recommendation from industry researchers.  I currently have two such projects at university labs in progress. The lab is getting all of the supplies for free and I get answers I need.  In exchange my company will pay for their conference registrations so we can present the work at meetings. And, of course, there will be sparkling letters of recommendations in it for them as well.

I basically want to start figuring out now how to successfully navigate to a good career in biotech R&D, so I have the best chance of doing well, enjoying my job, and hopefully being sound financially before I'm 40, if possible.

I think you are doing everything perfectly to set yourself up to be a top candidate for an industry job. The postdoc position is a good way to go, especially if you will have a new PhD with no management experience.  If you have the opportunity as a PhD student to manage another person, take it. It is an essential skill that will give you an edge over other candidates.

The postdoc is a 1-2 year deal and if you don’t like the company, you can leave after a year. If you do like it, you’ll be nicely positioned to move into a management position and run your own lab in a couple years. But once you are in, you’ll be able to explore many more options and find out what you really love and want to do. And yes, I am living proof that you can and will be financially sound by the ripe young age of 40.

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Blog Comments

Disgruntled Julie
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Great advice, Jade.  I've been leaning more and more towards going into industry after my less-than-idea experiences thus far as a graduate student, so this are all good things for me to consider.

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Julie- I would totally hire you.

You can work your way up in a company and run an R&D group, even be a VP, without a PhD. I know people who have done it. And your experiences will make you a good leader. A good company singles out employees with drive and potential and creates opportunities for them to move up in the organization.  

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Great advice, Jade. I'm not on the biotech road myself but I am always trying to stockpile tips so that I can be useful to my trainees that are interested in this route. Thanks!

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You're welcome! It's great to allow them to know all their options for careers. It seems that when I was in grad school, most of my professors were anti-industry, so I adopted that mindset.  I think it made it harder for me to make the change. Well, that and other mis-beliefs. But that's probably another article.

Thanks Gerty-Z!


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One thing to keep in mind is that not all scientists that go into industry go into RND (I know you didn't claim that in your great post, but I always like to remind people of this).  After getting my degree, I went into Sales (which I loved, but covering 18 states and travelling 70% of my time is only sustainable for some people).  From there I moved into Technical Support, where I worked closely with RND in supporting the products that the biotech company sold.  It's not a job you can do without a heavy science background.  For me it was ideal because it was like puzzle solving all day long! 

The last prof I worked for, when he found I was graduating from his lab to become a sales rep, took me aside and questioned me for several hours and advised against industry.  For me, his advice couldn't be more wrong - while I was technically good at the bench, I'm never going to be a PI who comes up with the Great Novel Experiment That Solves All And Gets Cell Paper.  I'm ok with that - I lost the drive to work 14 hour days when I left the lab.  I've since learned my value lies in the fact that I am highly detail oriented and can manage several projects at once.  Also learned that there's nothing more than I love than an inefficient business process - it's a challenge similar to experiments in my mind - I approach it in the same way. 

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Thanks Krysten- excellent points. I did not go into R&D either when I began my biotech career. I actually started out in operations.

And technical support is a great way to get started in biotech if you are thinking about a future in sales and marketing (a lot of my friends started out in TS and moved to product marketing or inside or outside sales) and need to get your foot in the door. 

For TS, you need to love helping people with their projects but also have A LOT of patience.

I really appreciate your comments Krsyten- thanks!!

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Great article Jade, super informative! I think this kind of advice is sorely needed for young scientists looking down the road in their careers!

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Thanks Mito,

I very much appreciate your supportive words.

(Love your new avatar too!)

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Hi Jade!

I'll join the others and say great post.  I'm exactly in this situation right now- I've decided that I do want to go towards industry.   I agree that unfortunately, after spending so much time in academia for graduate studies, and now a postdoc, we get very little information to what's it's like in industry.

The question from me would be, what would you say is the biggest difference between academic research and industrial research?   You say you don't have the same independence- how does that translate day by day .  Does that mean that you're given a project and are told what procedure to do at every step?  Or do you mean, that you told you need to work on x and get y in whichever manner you can?

At an interview I had, the scientist talked about how the deadlines are different in academia and industry.  Would you agree and what does it really mean in "every day" work?

I realize perhaps it's impossible to describe, but what I'm trying to understand is how different it is to work in an industrial laboratory vs academic laboratory in a practical sense.  So far the things you're saying seems like an environment I wouldn't mind working in.  I like team work, I'm not sure that I'd mind that my ideas are owned by the company (surely productivity is awarded still?)... Not sure yet about flexibility (depends where that flexibility is limited exactly).

One thing that really interests me however is being "current" on the latest things in science. I like knowing what is the latest science "question" of the year.  I don't need to be doing that work, but I like the environment of hearing about these things.   Are industrial scientists encouraged in attending conferences, etc?  I understand though that people don't publish as much in industry (for obvious reasons) so I'm not sure how they approach this aspect exactly.

At the end of the day, I'm wondering what I'm expected to "give up" from academic industry...

sorry this is so long... :)


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Hi GreenMonster,

These are great questions. I am going to answer them in a new post. I will give you my perspective and will invite others to share their experience as well. Since tomorrow is a day off, I am sure I can post something for you then. Thanks for posting!



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Are you easy to find on linkedin? :)

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Yes, I would think so.

Prabodh Kandala
Texas Tech University Health Science Center
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Great post. On what basis are promotions given in industry. Do we get a chance to work on our ideas when we become head of R and D?

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I would say that a promotion happens when someone else has moved up or on. So depending on what you do, a promotion can be a long time coming, or may require changing departments when something opens up. Unless the company has a re-organization, you usually wait for a chance to go for a better spot.

The higher you go, the fewer there are. There are many scientist openings but maybe a dozen directors, and then only a handful of VPs. So you really need to work hard and prove yourself at each stage to get to the next step.

Getting promoted is mostly your hard work and proven ability to get things done, your numbers or stats, some part is being good at politics and being able to sway people your way, and then a part of it is making sure you are on the good side of the right people.

I think this is true everywhere you are, but it is important that you stay on good terms with certain people so knowing who they are, having a VP or two who thinks highly of your work, is going to help. Really just pick your battles, know when you are going to lose, so stop pushing the point, and move to the next thing.  I've seen good people put their entire career in jeopardy because they didn't know when to stop arguing a point with the wrong person.

Yes- you can work on your ideas...that is, your ideas on products for the company. When you direct the lab, you are essentially deciding the direction of the company )or division) and so coming up with the ideas is part of that.  In some companies, marketing is sharing that role, but they really need to be consulting with R&D.

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