Last month I met Toby Freedman, PhD, Author and Founder/President of Synapsis Search. (http://www.synapsissearch.com/about.htm)
According to her bio:“ Toby launched Synapsis Search in 2006 after completing her book, Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development (www.careersbiotech.com). She formed her company with the goal of providing quality executive recruiting services for emerging biotechnology and drug development companies.”
Her scientific background is in molecular evolution and gene regulation, and she has a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has been an NIH Fellow, and did postdoc research at Harvard University and at the University of Texas-Austin.
To create the narrative of her book, Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development, Dr. Freedman interviewed over 200 industry executives. She explored more than 100 different careers in the life sciences, ranging from venture capital to discovery.
She grouped jobs into four main branches and 20 vocational areas…R & D positions like clinical development, commercial operations jobs including a wide array of business activities from medical affairs to sales and marketing, production jobs like quality control and IT, and support services that like legal, HR and finance.
She does more than merely map the landscape for employment in biotech. During her lecture, she defined the pluses and minuses of pursuing a career in industry, jobs that can provide some very attractive opportunities.
She pointed out that you will be contributing to science. The environment, especially on the R&D side, is extremely collegial, generally working in a team with shared goals. The activities are focused on productivity and output. Your efforts will focus on getting things done, not just theorizing about them. Industry provides opportunities for vertical ascent and for lateral growth, moving from perhaps the science side to business or regulatory or clinical operations. Within a large pharma or biotech, there will be no end of smart people, and one is challenged and stimulated every day. One may be given the chance to advance through “natural selection,” survival of the “fittest” being an operant force (though how you define fitness may differ from how your company defines fitness).
Through contact and communications with thought leaders and key opinion leaders, and researchers within academia, you will be able to maintain a high degree of interaction and communications with the top people in your field. And, though at one time moving into industry killed any chance of an academic career, this is no longer true. The move to industry is no longer a one way door.
Within large pharma, you will have access to immense resources. And you will get excellent compensation and benefits. At many companies, you will have most weekends off and generous paid vacation and, within a multinational, the chance to work overseas. Most large companies offer mentoring and training and, if you move into management, your company might pay for an executive business degree.
Wow, Where do I sign up?
Wait…there is a darker side too. There is less job security in biotech and pharma than there used to be. This arena has contracted dramatically in recent years…in part due to mergers and acquisitions. But more importantly, management of many companies has been focused on short term gains, much to the neglect of long term development. Between 2009 and 2012, some 150,000 positions in pharma disappeared, and a high percent of those job losses were in R&D and sales. There is also a high degree of job turnover now in these companies.
As a scientist, you will find out that decisions regarding the direction of R&D are not always controlled by the scientists, but by the executive team. You may not have control or input in directing critical paths or plans. You will have stressful deadlines. Many jobs in pharma demand 20-30% travel. If you hate airports and flying, this may be a rate limiting step.
Given the high degree of regulatory oversight, there are innumerable rules and regs governing everything you do. And big pharma = a big bureaucracy with little flexibility.
Within your scientific domain, you may have less autonomy (less than where else I am not sure), less freedom to explore your own interests, and sometimes less public recognition for your accomplishments. Your successes belong to your team. And your success may matter less than your failures.
So You Want a Piece of the Action?
What personal traits should you possess to succeed, and to be happy in the industry? According to Toby, personal attributes that help along the way include:
● Being a team player
● Being optimistic
● Having good communication and interpersonal skills
● Having a positive attitude and a sense of humor
● Being able to multitask
● Having the ability to see the trees through the forest
● Understanding the customer/consumer point of view
● Cultivating creative problem solving skills
Your ultimate success in an biotech or pharma job will be determined by your ability to excel, and while hard work does not guarantee success, effort does count. Supporting the team is a must. Taking on managerial responsibilities will help with advancement. Say yes to demands that may be outside of your comfort zone, and couple this to flexibility and adaptability. Find a mentor. Be a mentor. Learn the fundamentals of business (while this is supposed to be health and science, it is always a business). Take advantage of training opportunities. And cultivate the ability to communicate with investors, since you may be called upon to explain your work to the people with the money.