Tuesday, July 27, 2010
In between topics to rant about, I thought I would tell you a little bit more about what it's like to be a biotech scientist. I've been in many different sized biotechs and even between them, the culture can vary quite a bit. Therefore, I'll try and describe it in general terms to give you an overview of the life of an industry scientist in research and development (R&D). Of course, some people will disagree. Just like academics, there are good labs and bad labs with good managers and bad, and in some companies you get to do mostly R (which is the most fun) and in others it's mostly D (which can be tedious and not as inspired) and this will make a big difference in your perception of industry science.
These are my own perspectives but feel free to leave comments about your experiences if you like.
Let's start with your freedom. In biotech companies, your time is heavily monitored. Unlike the days in academics where you could disappear to the library for a few hours to read or write, or have a coffee break at any time of day as your schedule permits, this is not possible in biotech. People will miss you. People will look for you. It doesn't matter whether you work long hours- or weekends- you are expected to be at the beck and call of your co-workers at all times. I did work in one biotech where my time was not so monitored and that was nice. But it was only because the powers above me knew they could reach me 24-7, so if I took off for an hour, no one cared. That, and a laptop was glued to my hip so I could always be reached immediately should shit hit the fan and no one know what to do.
But in general in biotech, your time is not your own. And this is probably mostly due to the fact that these days, people are doing the work of two or three people so even a 30 minute absence is felt. Panic sets in and decisions are put on hold. Definitely I think one of the biggest adaptations people going from academics to biotech have to make is the loss of freedom and being under the watchful eye of "Big Brother".
Now, work hours are another story because this varies quite a bit. I know plenty of biotech workers- scientists and marketing- that just work their 8am-4pm or 9-5 pm or whatever hours they keep. Not just the "coasters" as I mentioned previously. One thing that biotech does allow, if you really just want to work your 5 days a week, 8 hrs a day, you can. You may not be promoted as quickly as those of us who work 24-7, but you can work your way up slowly and surely and not put in extra time or effort.
Biotech scientists virtually never work weekends. I have almost never seen it happen. It just isn't expected. It isn't the way. No one expects it of them. I personally have worked weekends in the lab when I was desperate to figure out why something wasn't working, or if I was worried about missing a deadline for a product launch. But I would never ask my staff to work weekends and I would never expect them to do it. It is their time with their families and I want them recharged and ready to give me 100% the next week.
Of course I have the best staff in the world, having picked them myself, so they make a lot of progress Monday through Friday. I give them the freedom to manage their own time. It's a win-win situation.
However, there are companies, I won't mention names, but there are some where weekend work is expected and demanded. After talking to friends working in these companies, I find that many of them are miserable, but glad to have a job while waiting for a better opportunity to become available.
The work hours are much different in marketing however. In marketing, work never stops. While I have known a few people who were able to set boundries in their work time and be successful in marketing, the majority are working round the clock. It is just the way it is and it's why marketing jobs earn the big dollars. If you have no life, no kids (ok, you can have kids, but you won't see them much), and you have workaholic tendencies, try working in marketing. You'll excel quickly. But burn out, you will, and you'll begin to question your sole purpose in life and think about having kids (if you don't have them) just so you can have a reason to go home early, pass off that business trip to someone else, or actually take a sick day.
Managers and Supervisors
Bosses in biotech can differ quite a bit. Having two postdocs under my belt prior to moving to a company, I can say that the personalities of PIs and managers in biotech are not too different. You can have some seriously deranged people running a lab no matter where you go. If you think that you're more likely to have a normal boss in biotech, it ain't necessarily so. The difference is that in biotech, in general, everyone is collaborating and has to be more outgoing, communicative, and work together. You won't do well in industry if you are introverted and selfish.
In biotech, we HAVE to get along or things just won't get done. We can't let difference keep us from getting a product to market. In academics, I have seen bitter feuds between labs last years with no reconciliation at all. This just won't work in a company setting. If people don't get along, someone is going to get moved- either to a different group, different position, or shown the door. One thing that being a scientist in biotech can teach you is how to get along with people you don't like.
Most of the fighting in biotech occurs between R&D and marketing anyway. Marketing tries to tell R&D what to make and R&D tries to tell marketing to shut the fuck up, although usually not successfully. Depending on the company, marketing can play a small to major role in the R&D pipeline. I can understand this dilemma from both sides of the fence. There is no right or wrong approach. It really depends on how involved the R&D teams are with speaking to scientists and getting out of the lab and meeting with the researchers using products and hearing their feedback.
My suggestion to any readers considering the switch to biotech science is to collaborate with academic labs whenever you can, and to travel as much as possible to conferences so you can hear about the latest and greatest research and know exactly what new needs people have. Because if marketing is doing this and you're not, expect to become marketing's lapdog.
And my second piece of advice is, if marketing is saying stupid shit (and I promise you, they will) and you want to tell them to shut the fuck up, try saying it like this: "why don't you do a survey and see what customers really want."
This will buy you a month to 6 weeks to get the data you need together to have the feasibility part of the research completed. When they come back with the conclusion that you were right all along, you won't have lost precious time. I say this from experience, having myself delayed a research project thanks to a marketing person who was afraid to make a decision, when one month later, exactly what I said was correct.
What about the sales reps? What role do they play in this biotech triangle of players? The sales people are the eyes and ears of the company and they have the most valuable feedback of anyone. Make friends with the sales people. The sales people are the good guys. 'Nuff said on that.
Is it Real Science?
Of course a disadvantage of biotech science, to some, is the inability to ask questions and perform experiments because of the pure desire to know the underlying function or reason behind a mechanism or system. We aren't paid to understand how a micro RNA causes or prevents cancer. We are paid to figure out how to test for the microRNA's absence or presence so that YOU can figure out it's role in cancer. The biotech scientist, in essence, is the unknown legend. The one who plays a part in discovery that is never really recognized for it.
You do all realize that all those kits you use were invented by someone, right? Someone spent thousands of hours testing formulas, researching genes, and designing assays, performing hundreds of experiments before it got to you. All to save you buckets of time and energy for a single step in your process. Us biotech scientists have learned to accept and be happy with the fact that our method, kit, or assay played a role in your great discovery.
It's a pretty exciting moment in a biotech scientists life when the very first reference for a product you created is published. It is the validation that the 9-12 months spent agonizing over making it perfect was all worthwhile.
But there are plenty of ways to quench the thirst of wanting to be a part of the bigger picture as well. My company collaborates with highly recognized scientists, publishes papers with them, and, yes, even co-publishes advertorials (a dirty word, apparently).
Advertorials cost an incredibly excessive amount of money to have printed in journals. They have excellent science in them and cost way more than a journal article (we're talking up to 5 figures, for just one page). We just don't have the luxury of waiting 6-12 months for it to come out in print.
The best biotechs are on the cutting edge always. We need to be first. So do academics but this is different. We are competing not only on the science side but also on who has the bigger marketing budget. A company who is first to market will always be the leader no matter how much money the bigger biotechs spend on advertising. Being first is everything.
Mentally, making the switch to corporate science wasn't easy. It wasn't part of the plan I had set for myself. If you had asked me when I was 21 years old if I thought I would be working at a biotech company, I would have told you no way, no how. But I did what I had to do when my plan fell to shit. There isn't much worse than having to endure the disdain of your family and relatives who constantly remind you in a voice dripping with disappointment "but you used to do cancer research".
Yeah well, cancer research doesn't always pay the bills, my friends.
Biotech? Pays the bills and then some.
Did I talk about the pay?
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