“Cursed is the man who has found some other man’s work and cannot lose it.” – Mark Twain
What is your work, anyway? Not your research project, but your work. The sort of job you’re really suited for.
If you got a traditional biologist’s education, you may not be sure. Academia is a remarkably diverse world in many ways, but the kinds of roles it offers are not. Almost all biologists are trained to be researchers and teachers, although many people take on roles as administrators or writers as their careers progress. It can be very difficult to figure out what other sorts of work people make careers out of, or how you might bridge the gap between your training and these positions.
If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably already considering a career shift into the bioinstrumentation business.
To help interested people make the jump, I surveyed a few hundred job listings that bioinstrumentation companies posted in 2014. Collectively, they’re a useful snapshot of the kinds of work you might consider, and what you’ll need to get there.
And no, the obvious answer is not “researcher”. Maybe you actually do belong in R&D (I did, and that’s what I do), but most positions that would be appropriate for biologists are in other areas. Your best strategy is to consider your personality and priorities, so you have a better chance of finding your own work instead of someone else’s.
The first thing you should ask yourself is whether you prefer working with people or things. I’m a mildly eccentric introvert myself, pretty much a “mad scientist” without the fuzzy hairdo or thirst for world domination, so I tend to prefer more inward-facing roles where I’m thinking or writing or tinkering a lot.
That’s a common personality type for a scientist, but I’ve had a lot of colleagues who find long hours in the lab tedious and isolating.
If you’re the sociable type, you can probably find a very happy home in one of the more outward-facing roles. One of my friends, a product rep for a big bioinstrument firm, says that many of her co-workers are former research scientists who were tired of being stuck at the bench, and they seem to do well since they have a high energy and have a strong personality. Some production jobs are a good choice for people-oriented workers as well.
If you’re more of an “interacting with things” person, you should look more closely at positions in R&D, information work, or some of the other aspects of production. R&D people design and develop new products, and the information folks create, protect and curate information. Most people in these jobs either design something the company sells, or make sure the company can keep earning money by selling it.
Marketing, the ultimate extrovert’s job, sometimes makes academic scientists a little nervous. The thing is, in the current research and funding environment, you’re already selling to other scientists. In fact, there are entire books about how to do it. The transition may be easier than you think, especially if you’re working in your own field of scientific expertise, and have an opportunity to develop a long-term relationship with customers.
Some skilled product reps I’ve known actually wind up being a sort of collaborator – they know their technologies so well that they can really improve the science.
Salespeople are the most obvious category of marketer, especially the people who make site visits, but other jobs also have a strong marketing component. Product advocacy is very customer-facing:. You’re taking the new technologies your company produces, and convincing the research community that they’re good and useful.
Tech writers also need to spend time thinking about customers, and the best ones talk to them often. If what you write isn’t clear to the end user, you’re not doing your job properly.
Production people spend a lot of time interacting with regulatory bodies, suppliers, and distributors, so they are also somewhat outward-facing. They also have to meet deadlines associated with marketing campaigns.
Biologists will usually fit into a few areas of production, mostly in QA, process validation, and regulatory compliance.
QA jobs involve making sure that the devices your company manufactures actually do what they’re supposed to. If you enjoy developing rigorous procedures like clinical assays, this is probably the job for you.
Process validation is a broader field. It encompasses designing processes that should yield the desired product, understanding where the processes can go bad, and making sure that the well-designed processes are being followed consistently. An experienced lab manager would probably be quite good at this.
Regulatory jobs involve understanding what regulations apply to your company’s work, and developing procedures and policies that comply with them. In some cases, customers need to buy devices that have compliance certification, so you may also need to work with customers to figure out how you can help them comply with their regulatory requirements.
R&D jobs, surprisingly enough, are often difficult for biologists to get. Most companies are looking for engineers and computer scientists, so a biologist will need to show the company how he or she can fit into the role. Research your target company carefully. You should consider firms where you have some sort of obvious expertise in the specific area they work in. For example, my embedded computing interests were useful for my company, since we build and sell computer-controlled equipment, but I would be pretty useless at an optics firm or one that developed plasticware.
If you know enough about the current state of the field to be able to identify missing equipment, things that the customers need, but don’t have, that will be a big plus.
Information jobs mostly include intellectual property and information curation. Tech transfer officers and patent agents are involved with securing intellectual property, so that it can be commercialized. Patent agents are admitted to practice before the Patent Office, but they aren’t attorneys. Patent attorneys are in this category too, but you’ll have to go get your JD for that. Many patent agents have Ph.D’s in the areas they specialize in, and the deep subject knowledge is valuable when evaluating possible claims.
Some bioinstrument companies, especially ones that build information-driven tech like high-throughput sequencing, also need people to manage and curate their information libraries. Informaticians and ontology managers classify information, ensure its quality and reliability, and build logical structures that allow it to be used and understood. People trained in fields like bioinformatics, taxonomy, and museum science would probably do very well.
None of these particularly appealing to you? Or, do you feel like your skills overlap several of these categories? If you can find a company that seems like it would be an excellent fit, you might try proposing a job description to them. Companies sometimes do build a job around a very appealing candidate. It’s more likely to work at smaller firms, where almost everyone switch-hits anyway, but it is definitely worth a try.
Good luck, and please write in if you’d like to share your success stories.