“Cost of Hubble Telescope Replacement is Astronomical”
NASA: “We're better rocket scientists than accountants”
NASA: “We’re better rocket scientists than accountants”
Think you could use that
excuse as a scientist working on a project in a biotech or pharmaceutical
company? The above titled AP story that appeared
on the web last week discusses the significant cost overruns NASA is
experiencing in developing the James Web Space Telescope that is to replace the
aging Hubble. Original estimates were
about $3.5 billion with a targeted launch of 2007. The current estimates are about $6.5 billion
and an estimated launch not before 2015. If you are a postdoc considering a
move to industry, you should read on.
NASA’s explanation that
they are better scientists than accountants is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but has a
real ring of truth to it. Scientists at
NASA are driven to develop the best, most cutting-edge technologies possible
towards their mission of understanding aeronautics and space science. Period.
NASA is not a business in
the sense that they are not driven by a profit motive, or a need to be
competitive with other companies. They
are the epitome of man’s quest for knowledge.
And that’s a good thing and has its place. So it is not surprising that the scientists
at NASA — those in the trenches — are not really concerned with business
considerations. Similarly skilled
scientists working at a for-profit company, like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, or Northrop
Grumman, probably couldn’t get away with the same kinds of budget and timeline
The distinctions are a good
backdrop to the different competencies academic scientists must become aware of
as they prepare for careers outside the ivory tower of academic research. While doing academic research, particularly
as a postdoc, the focus and pressure are on producing science. Just like those NASA scientists. Experiments,
data, publications, and presentations are how you are judged.
But once you venture
outside the ivory tower into business, a whole new world of competencies become
important to consider: innovation, collaboration, tactical thinking, project management, risk management, negotiation,
delegation, team building, advanced communications skills. And, yes, the dreaded “financial acumen.” These are the important business competencies
that are valued by the largest pharmas to the smallest startups. In fact, they
are critical for the businesses’ survival.
Competing for jobs outside
academia means competing with dozens of other very capable scientists with
similar scientific/technical credentials to the ones you likely have. The differentiator, then, is to show that you
also have those non-scientific skills as well.
Whether you realize it or not, businesses are screaming out in their job
ads for those credentials.
How often do you see the
phrase “excellent communications skills?”
That doesn’t just mean you can talk to your science peers (something we
call “technical literacy”). Can you talk
to people in other non-science professions and get the point of your work
across (“style flexibility”)? Can you
adjust the emphasis of what you do to relate to what is important to the
mission of whomever you are talking with (“social intelligence”)? Can you successfully and effectively
communicate with someone who is aggressive and highly critical of what you are
doing without getting emotional yourself (“emotional intelligence”)?
Then there’s that other
common phrase in almost all industry job ads:
“works well in cross-matrixed teams.” That does not mean you can interact and
communicate well with different kinds of scientists, but also with project
managers, middle and upper management, IT representatives, finance people,
engineers– people with very different backgrounds. That’s what a cross-matrixed team is. You have to use that “style flexibility” to
effectively communicate on these teams.
Other commonly required
skills include “project management,” being “innovative,” and “leading multidisciplinary
teams.” The good news is that you
probably do have some experience with many of these skills, as they actually
map to things you do as a postdoc. The
trick is to learn what you’re good at, understand what is desired by the hiring
companies, communicate that in writing and interviews, and figure out how to
fill the gaps. That’s the beginning to
your short-term and long-term career planning.
If this seems really foreign to you, it would be a
good idea to have a talk with your career development office and see what they
have to offer to get you some of this training.
If that’s not available to you, or you want to learn more, you can also
get a good primer on these competencies by visiting www.sciphd.com,
where you will find instructive videos about preparing for careers in
industry. Our self-assessment will also
give you the opportunity to evaluate your own skills in 24 competencies valued
by industry as a first step in getting your career plans defined.