Regardless of where you are on the STEM career ladder, you’re never too old or too senior for a mentor! A good mentor can guide you into new professional fields, and increase your chances of landing your dream job or promotion. Mentors can act as a “sounding board” for job-related ideas, answer career-related questions, and provide emotional support when things get tough.
Who can be your mentor?
Broadly defined, a STEM mentor is someone more experienced than you who is willing to share their experiences and insights. You can be work colleagues, or be employed at different companies. Although you can be mentored by someone who supervises you (or is in your managerial chain of command), it is often better to choose a mentor who you don’t directly work with, especially if you need to have sensitive conversations about your workplace or job search.
It’s helpful to think about what you need from a mentor before looking for one: maybe you need help navigating your PhD program, or maybe you are considering a career in biotech and want to learn more about the options available to you. In the former scenario you might benefit from an academic mentor, in the latter scenario someone already working in industry might be more helpful.
How to find a mentor
If you aren’t sure where to find a mentor, here are some ideas:
● University or workplace colleagues
● Personal connections: friends, family or neighbors
● Networking events
● Professional organizations related to your STEM discipline
● Formal mentorship programs
When approaching potential mentors, it’s a good idea to explain what kind of advice or support you’re looking for upfront. You don’t need to enter a formal business relationship with a potential mentor – just ask them if they’d be willing to answer some questions you have and see where things go from there, as you would with other new networking contacts.
The act of mentorship can mean different things. You may email questions to your mentor when the need arises, or schedule monthly coffee meet-ups. A mentor in a formal mentorship program could send you away with “homework exercises” to complete before your next meeting. Mentors may be willing to review your job application materials or introduce you to their contacts.
Managing the mentor-mentee relationship
Most STEM professionals are happy to help younger scientists figure out their career paths – and many enjoy doing so. However, not everyone makes a good mentor. Some don’t have the time to discuss potential career pathways, or forget to reply to your emails. Some established STEM professionals may give outdated advice about the job market, or suggest career options that don’t align with your situation and needs. A person who looks like an ideal mentor on paper may be someone you struggle to carry a conversation with, and who you don’t feel comfortable baring your soul to. That’s OK! You’re never obliged to accept or act upon any mentor’s advice – and you can always politely scale back your interactions with a mentor who isn’t helping you.
It’s also important to know that one mentor can’t help you with everything STEM-related, and having multiple mentors doesn’t hurt. Maybe one of your mentors knows nothing about the current biotech market, but gives really good insight into handling interpersonal conflicts in your research lab. Another mentor may not have time to meet with you regularly, but is great at introducing you to useful people.
Above all – don’t feel shy asking for help! Your mentor may not know what assistance you need until you ask, and as long as you remain polite if they’re unable to help, you won’t damage the relationship. Navigating into new STEM careers can be difficult and confusing, and everyone deserves to receive help along the way.
Want job satisfaction? Look for a company that matches your size preferences
Do you belong in a sprawling corporate campus or in a small loft with a dog snoozing on the rug? Or maybe the open-plan wing of a tech hub?
Science grads searching for jobs in industry often focus on the salary and nature of the work, but ignoring the size (and thus style) of your prospective employer can thwart job satisfaction just as surely as an antiquated laboratory or paltry paycheck. Whether large, small, or somewhere in between, an organization that matches your “size profile” is a place where you’ll be happier, work more productively, and stay longer.
|● Big pharma: household names with a large, multinational workforce
● Small pharma: mid-size companies (fewer than 500 employees) with a leaner operational model
● Biotech/medtech startup: Companies with small teams and (typically) small portfolios
Many people feel a sense of pride at being attached to a large, well-respected organization. Statements like “I work at Vertex” or “I run a lab at Biogen” connote stability and competence, irrespective of your specific role. If you value status—and there’s nothing wrong with that—a large, well-respected organization will satisfy this craving.
It’s not just about dazzle, of course. A large pharma or biotech company gives you the greatest protection against changing market conditions—an important consideration if financial stability ranks high on your must-have list. Decades of experience means that processes have been worked out and standardized. Perhaps most important of all, a large employer offers multiple opportunities for vertical or lateral career changes. If you don’t click with one team, there’s every chance you’ll feel more at home in another department. Or country.
Some people thrive under pressure, while others do their best work in a stable environment. If you fall into the second camp, the stability of a larger organization can bring out your most productive and creative side.
And then there’s the water cooler. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the social side of work into stark relief: some people don’t miss it at all, while others ache for the human contact. If you’re a people person, a larger organization guarantees a baseline of social interactions and may provide more structured opportunities for connecting with co-workers.
While lacking the status of a big name, a small company nurtures your self-confidence in different ways. Chances are that nobody else in the group has your expertise, so your opinions and suggestions carry more weight. Moving quickly as part of a small team gives you more opportunities to take chances and get recognized for your efforts. In brief, you can be a big fish in a small pond.
Smaller companies also tend to have more fluid boundaries. You’ll likely have more responsibility than outlined in your formal job description—an appealing prospect if you thrive on change. If asked to take on a project that falls outside your area of expertise or comfort zone—perhaps researching new suppliers or designing a patient registry—“that’s not part of my job description” won’t get you off the hook. Additionally, you stand a better chance of convincing a superior to let you run with an original idea and you’ll have less bureaucracy standing in your way when you take action.
On the downside, it is possible to outgrow a small company; the next career rung you seek may simply not exist yet, or the organization may lack the funds or structure to deliver the training you need to get to the next level. Also, some people find a fast-paced environment with an ever-shifting landscape more stressful than inspiring.
Sizing up the benefits
Have a look at the table below.1 Don’t worry about what you “should” value—just pay attention to your instinctive reaction to each list. Which list speaks to you more? If you’re equally drawn to both, a mid-sized company may best meet your needs.
|● Opportunity to progress more quickly
● Greater autonomy and responsibility
● Exposure to a greater variety of tasks
● Often a less formal atmosphere
● Increased interaction with senior staff
● Greater agility in decision making
|● Less unpredictability in job requirements
● Better training resources
● Usually better job security and benefits
● Better networking opportunities
● More prospects for global mobility
● Greater investment budgets
Want to gain still more insight into your own size profile? Take this 9-question quiz to figure out if you would feel most comfortable in a large, small, or mid-sized organization. https://www.monster.com/career-advice/article/what-size-employer-best-fit-quiz
A caveat: such tools are a great start, but cannot substitute for an in-depth consultation with an experienced recruiter. As a biotech recruiting agency dealing with employers of all sizes, Sci.bio will be happy to walk you through the finer points as you weigh your next career move.
1. Smyrnov A. Which size pharma company is the best fit for you? Pharmfield. Sept. 2, 2019. https://pharmafield.co.uk/careers/which-size-of-pharma-company-is-the-best-fit-for-you/
2. Dottie C. What size company is the right fit for you? LinkedIn. Aug. 16, 2015. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-size-company-right-fit-you-christopher-dottie/
You’ve landed the biotech job of your dreams: ideal location, great compensation package, the perfect match between your qualifications and the job description. What’s the catch?
Well, reporting to a bad boss can turn a dream job into a nightmare you dread each morning. And on the flip side, a job that looks dissatisfying on paper could – with the right boss – be something that brings you years of happiness and fulfilment.
The hidden costs of a bad boss
A bad boss can – literally – suck the life out of you. A 2009 study of 31,000 Swedish workers found that employees who worked for bosses they perceived as unfair, inconsiderate and mercurial were more likely to suffer cardiovascular disease and heart attacks, despite differences in employee education level, social class, and how often they exercised. Even more concerning, the longer an employee worked for a bad boss, the greater their risk of a heart attack.
A bad boss can stifle worker productivity, slow your ascent up the career ladder, and drive you from a job that is otherwise ideal. Have you ever heard the expression “people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers”? Yes, a manager can make or break your experience at a company!
How to recognize a bad boss
Your supervisor or line manager doesn’t have to be a villain to count as a bad boss. A bad boss may be a poor communicator who gives unclear directions on a project before changing their mind, or admitting after the fact they wanted you to do something else.
A bad boss could be too hands-on, interfering in your work and tripping you up every step of the way, or swing to the other extreme and be inaccessible and vague with their instructions.
A bad boss could lack emotional intelligence and struggle to admit their mistakes, or seem constantly negative and critical of everyone. You may find it hard getting constructive feedback from them, or feel constantly stressed and fearful of triggering their displeasure.
The point is, “bad bosses” are subjective and one person’s ideal supervisor could be another person’s nightmare. Even a boss with good intentions and many positive qualities could still be the reason you dread getting out of bed on Monday.
It might be possible to adjust and work around a bad boss – in the best-case scenario you’ll be able to have a discussion with them about working styles and setting expectations, and they’ll make adjustments. However, you should never assume your supervisor will change. When faced with a bad boss, your options are most likely going to be transferring to another team within the company (which might not be possible) or finding a new job.
How to screen future bosses
Yes, it’s another thing to worry about as you’re interviewing for biotech positions…but it is possible to identify good and bad bosses during the recruitment process before you receive a job offer. After the initial interview, many biotech companies will set up interviews with prospective supervisors or team leads who can shed more light on the team culture.
Recruiters who have worked for several years with a particular biotech company often have great insight into the personalities of the hiring team and department culture, which they will be happy to share with job candidates beforehand. They may also have feedback on what personality traits or soft skills would help someone be successful in a particular team. Allison Ellsworth, Sr. Recruiting Partner and Director of HR at Sci.bio, explains that “it is easy to overlook whether a role is a good personality match, especially if the job and company seem perfect on paper. But taking the time to think critically about what you personally need to be successful can help avoid disappointment and a repeat job search in 6 months”.
When the interviewers ask “do you have any questions for us?” this is the perfect time to ask potential supervisors about their leadership style and the qualities they value in their direct reports. You’ll get a sense of whether these supervisors are a good match for you, and the general workplace culture. Potential colleagues are another great resource to learn more about the culture and how leadership interacts with team members. It is also important to ask why the position is open; this can give you insight into what sort of attributes are valued or a red flag if there is high turnover.
Interviewing for a new job is a good time to get to know yourself better too! Think about your own communication styles and the type of supervision you benefit most from. Be honest: nobody likes to be micromanaged, but do you truly work well 100% independently or is more frequent feedback and clear guidance important to you? How do you like to structure your workload? All relationships are two-way streets; it can be challenging or stressful learning how to “manage up”, but knowing what works for you personally and what you need to be successful is helpful knowledge to bring to the table.
At the bare minimum, you want to look for a line manager who doesn’t take their stress out on others. Basic respect goes a long way. What other factors and managerial skills are most important to you?
Are you considering a career change, or preparing to hunt for your first biotech job? Sometimes you might worry that your education and previous work experience isn’t enough to land your dream position. Perhaps the positions you seek are competitive, or you’re missing one or two things the job listing’s ‘ideal candidate’ should possess.
If that’s the case, don’t worry! Volunteering is a time-honored method of acquiring new skills and experiences to facilitate career transitions and secure exciting professional opportunities. The barriers to securing a volunteer position are usually lower than paid positions. Sometimes volunteering can take place while at your existing job…and it’s often a lot of fun! Recruiters and hiring managers often look favorably upon volunteering experiences, because they highlight the job applicant’s motivation and drive.
When volunteering becomes ‘strategic’
The term ‘strategic volunteering’ might be unfamiliar, but the concept is straightforward. Strategic volunteering simply means you choose volunteering roles based on technical or personal skills and experiences you wish to develop – as opposed to choosing volunteer positions solely because it’s a cause you support, or it’s convenient. But even with strategic volunteering, you want to choose causes you enjoy supporting or else you won’t be motivated to stick with it!
Strategic volunteering doesn’t just have to be about acquiring skills and experience – it can also be an opportunity to network with people who may be able to help move you to the next stage of your career. It could also involve applying the skills you already have in a new context.
All you have to do is think about the skills you’re missing, and what volunteering opportunities can help you address those deficits. For example, if the job positions you’re interested in list experience in Adobe Creative Suite as a recommended candidate skill, consider volunteering as a social media or marketing coordinator for a regional or campus science group, and use Adobe to create promotional flyers or videos for them.
Examples of strategic volunteering opportunities for scientists
It’s great if you already know what organizations you’d like to volunteer with! If you aren’t sure, here’s a couple of science-related volunteering ideas to get you started:
● Leadership or a committee role in a professional science organization
● Assist at a conference or symposium (e.g. helping at the registration desk or guiding attendees around the venue)
● Science outreach in high schools
● Participate in a crowdsourced science project
Getting the most out of your strategic volunteering
Once you’re sorted in your new volunteering role, here are a few things to keep in mind once you start, so you get the most out of every new position:
● Volunteering is a long-term commitment. It’s easy to identify someone who is just volunteering to add a few lines to their CV and put in the bare minimum effort and time while doing so. Although there’s nothing wrong with being strategic and honest about your goals as a volunteer, you want to cultivate goodwill among your fellow volunteers and make a meaningful impact on the organisations you choose to support.
● Be open-minded and say yes. The point of strategic volunteering is to diversify and strengthen your skill set, so don’t be afraid to try out new things that may take you in unexpected directions, even if you worry you’re not qualified.
● Align volunteering with your personal brand. Beyond simply a list of skills and experiences you hope to acquire, you want your strategic volunteering to fit within – and strengthen – your personal brand.
The biotech job market is often confusing for candidates, and the hidden expectations for listed positions can surprise even experienced professionals. The seasoned recruiters at Sci.bio will be able to identify skills gaps in your CV and help you chase your dream jobs. Get in touch with us today to schedule a chat.
Searching for your first biotech job? Much of the career advice for aspiring scientists focuses on creating and polishing tangible documents: CV, cover letters and a LinkedIn profile. Less discussed, but perhaps more important than anything else when it comes to job hunting success, is the creation of your personal brand.
What is a personal brand?
Your personal brand is composed of the qualities, values and strengths other people associate with you. It is both the image you actively promote, and the impressions of you people get from your online and in-person presence. The author Cynthia Johnson identifies “personal proof, social proof, recognition, and association” as the four pillars of a personal brand.
Why does my personal brand matter?
The biotech job market is competitive. A biotech company may receive hundreds of applications for every entry level scientist position advertised. Not only will a clear personal brand help your job application stand out, but it will give time-pressed hiring managers and recruiters an immediate sense of who you are as a candidate and what you can bring to the role.
How do I cultivate and market my personal brand?
1. Be authentic
Although it might take time to discover your personal brand, you should never pretend to be something you’re not, or misrepresent your accomplishments. A ‘strong’ personal brand is not a reflection of how impressive your accomplishments are, it’s about the consistency of your messaging, and whether the broad strokes of the brand you promote matches the evidence showcased in your CV, website, etc.
2. Identify your strengths and accomplishments
When starting their career, scientists are often taught to be modest about their achievements and present work experience in a ‘neutral’ fashion. In the world of personal branding, you are allowed to brag a little! Your wins and your talents should take center-stage on LinkedIn and your other professional websites and social media accounts. If you win a research award…post about it online. If you’re great at working in cross-functional teams…point that out in your job application.
Once you’ve written down your technical and personal strengths, it’s easy to translate the former into your area of expertise. Recruiters and hiring managers definitely want to see your achievements, but even more important is a demonstration of cohesive expertise in your research field. That expertise is what will get you an industry job.
3. Focus your brand
There are two meanings of the phrase ‘focused personal brand’ – and both are important. You want your personal brand to be concise: it should boil down to a couple of sentences and adjectives. An example might be “Creative microbiologist who specializes in E. Coli.” It shouldn’t take you five minutes to explain to a recruiter who you are and what you do.
In the other sense, your personal brand should be focused into a sub specialty, with a defined target audience. While it’s understandable that you don’t want to narrow your career opportunities down to nothing, your personal brand can’t be so broad that nothing about you stands out to recruiters and hiring managers. For instance, saying you’re “a medicinal chemist” may be true…but it’s less helpful than saying you’re “a medicinal chemist who specializes in oncology drug development and has experience using solid NMR.” Now you’ll attract the attention of recruiters seeking to fill oncology and solid NMR-based medicinal chemistry roles.
4. Build an online and in-person presence
Once you’ve decided upon your brand, it’s time to market yourself. Update your professional website, job application materials and LinkedIn profile to highlight your core skills, values and career objectives. When you aren’t posting about yourself on your professional social media profiles, you should be sharing and interacting with content that reflects your personal brand (e.g. breakthroughs in your area of expertise, news from the kinds of companies you wish to work for). You don’t have to produce a lot of content or be active on LinkedIn 24/7: but you should make a commitment to posting or sharing content on a regular basis, be it once a week or once a day.
Of course, you can also publicize your personal brand through in-person and virtual networking [insert link to networking blog]. When networking with recruiters and peers within your field, your elevator pitch should encapsulate the strengths and expertise already outlined in your personal brand. Once developed, consider engaging in professional activities that reinforce and publicize your personal brand, such as presenting at conferences or taking on leadership roles in professional societies.
When looking for your first industry role, the biotech job market can seem intimidating and overwhelming. Fortunately, the experienced specialist recruiters at Sci.Bio are here to help. Get in touch with us to discuss your career goals today.