Author: Cliff Mintz
Many PhD life scientists who have determined that a tenure-track career is not for them usually set their sights on entry-level R&D jobs at pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. While both pharmaceutical and biotechnology jobs are generally lumped together under the umbrella of “industrial careers” there are many differences between them.
Big Pharma: Is Bigger Always Better?
The pharmaceutical industry has been in existence for over 100 years and has successfully developed and commercialized thousands of products. Therefore, not surprisingly, big pharmaceutical companies are generally well-capitalized, multinational organizations that globally employ tens of thousands of people. Because of their large size and financial largesse, there are many advantages to working for a big pharmaceutical company.
First, big pharma companies usually offer high salaries, outstanding benefit packages and a variety of perks including flexible spending programs, onsite cafeterias and large annual bonuses. Second, because of their financial stability, R&D budgets at big pharmaceutical companies are generous and research need not be bootstrapped on being conducted using a shoestring budget. Also, as far as job security goes, it is unlikely that a big pharma company will ever go out of business because of bankruptcy! Finally, because of the large number and diversity of jobs at big pharma companies there are ample opportunities for career advancement or even career change
Despite the obvious pros with these companies, inevitably, the terms “large,” “bureaucratic” and “cumbersome” are typically used to describe the way big pharma companies operate. In general, organizational structure is rigid and inflexible, administrative rules and regulations are strictly enforced, collaboration is difficult and for some employees navigating internal politics can be extremely treacherous. Further, R&D projects are mandated by management and scientists have little flexibility in their day-to-day job duties and responsibilities are rigidly defined and adhered to according to job title. Finally decision-making is often painfully slow and multiple layers of management often impede the progress of research projects.
Biotech: “Take A Walk on the Wild Side”
Unlike the pharmaceutical industry, the biotechnology industry is only 50 years old. Yet, despite its youthfulness, the biotechnology industry has become a vibrant and essential sector of the American economy and is threatening to surpass the capabilities of many pharmaceutical companies.
There is general agreement among industry experts that the small size and entrepreneurial spirit of biotechnology companies enhances their scientific nimbleness, allows for quick decision-making (less bureaucracy) and tends to foster collaboration between employees.
Unlike big pharma companies, many biotechnology companies are often strapped for cash and funding ongoing research operations can be challenging. This forces biotechnology companies to hire fewer employees and exclusively focus on developing a single rather than multiple products at a time. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that biotechnology company employees frequently possess a wider range of skill sets and experiences than most pharmaceutical employees because it is likely that biotechnology employees (unlike pharmaceutical employees) will be asked to “wear many different hats” to scientifically advance a project.
Because of the smaller number of employees, the organizational structure of most biotechnology companies is less hierarchical and the culture at these companies is much more “relaxed” and less formal as compared with big pharma companies. Innovation is encouraged (and rewarded) at most biotechnology companies and collaboration between scientists is very common. This is in marked contrast with big pharma where so-called “silos” are prevalent, collaboration is nominal and innovation is difficult.
Despite the many “pros” associated with biotechnology jobs, there is a downside. First, starting salaries are lower and benefits packages are much less generous at biotechnology companies as compared with big pharma. Second, because the financial future for many biotechnology companies is uncertain, job security is an ongoing concern. Finally, unlike big pharma, opportunities for career advancement/change are restricted at most biotechnology companies because of lack of job diversity and financial resources.
Things to Consider with Industrial Careers
While there are obviously many differences between pharmaceutical and biotechnology jobs, the competition for industrial careers can be fierce. To that point, most jobseekers will not have the “luxury” of choosing between a biotechnology and pharmaceutical job to be gainfully employed!
Nevertheless, before beginning an industrial job search, it is important to determine whether big pharma or biotech is the best fit for you. For example, if you want financial security, don’t mind bureaucracy and are accustomed to a slower, more conservative research environment, a pharmaceutical company may be ideal for you. On the other hand, if money is not a high priority, innovation excites you and working in a fast-paced, rapidly changing environment is your thing then perhaps a job at a small biotechnology company may be a good fit for you!
Author: Claire Jarvis
As young scientists, we are often taught the academic notion of letting “your science speak for itself” and believing technical skills and research are our most important assets in obtaining a meaningful job. Indeed, when STEM professionals are hired into their first jobs those qualifications and strong technical competencies are important factors.
However, once they start at their new company, entry-level hires are often surprised when technical skills don’t seem as important in the eyes of management. They may also see colleagues with less skill in the laboratory climbing the promotion ladder faster, and perceive this as unfair.
It’s a disappointing and unfortunate truth that the promotion process is often unmeritocratic, and that climbing the ladder as a bench scientist requires self-advocacy and political skills as much as expertise and skill. The best way to make sense of this perceived unfairness is to understand that most individuals hired have cleared the minimum technical requirements needed to perform their job . Your organization doesn’t need STEM superstars: they need people who can get the work done. In that light, once you’re inside the company, your technical skills stop being the most important determinant of your value as an employer. Your soft skills and ability to work with others play an increasingly important role in levels of management and leadership.
How to Self-Advocate
Political (or more appropriately, interpersonal) skills aren’t disdainful or underhanded techniques to get ahead in the workplace. They demonstrate that you understand company culture and can act in a future management or leadership capacity. If people in management can’t get along with you as a colleague, why would they promote you to work alongside them?
Self-advocacy means highlighting your contribution to successful projects and documenting your achievements to leaders instead of hoping that you will get noticed.. The political side of the process means doing this is a way that doesn’t annoy those around you or take too much credit at the expense of others.
Self-promotion and interpersonal skills take time to develop and should be accomplished in a subtle, tasteful manner: it can be helpful to find a mentor outside your current company who can guide you through the process with a degree of separation from your chain of command.
There are personal brand marketing gurus that can offer lots of insight on the topic of self advocating: Seth Godin, Tim Ferriss and Gary Vaynerchuk among others.
Although learning to proactively promote your accomplishments takes practice and requires trial and error, it is an indispensible tactic in moving on to positions of increasing responsibility. Even if you worry you don’t deserve to – it is a difficult trick to master, and one that becomes important as you grow into your new biotech career.
Author: Claire Jarvis
If you’re a recent STEM graduate in the Boston area, or plan to relocate to the Boston/Cambridge area, it can seem like the place is home to more biotech companies than you can count! The large number and variety of biotech, biopharma and pharma companies with sites in the greater Boston area can make your job search daunting. How do you decide which companies to apply to?
First things first, you should consider the general culture of the company you’d like to work for. The working environment within a new biotech start-up is very different from a multinational company with a hundred-year history, and will suit different types of scientists. It’s important to think about what environment helps you be most successful so you can apply to places that will have the right fit. Here’s a broad overview of the main types of biotech companies, and company names to look out for if you are looking for jobs in the Boston area.
If you have a thirst for excitement and enjoy a fast-paced work environment, then joining a biotech start-up will make a lot of sense. The advantages of working for a start-up is that you can take on multiple roles within the company and are expected to be a team player, you work in a small team where each person’s voice is heard, and you can play a pivotal role in getting your company and product off the ground.
Start-ups can be a stressful place to work, and there is long-term uncertainty whether the company will succeed or still be around in a few years. The atmosphere and work culture within the company could also change dramatically in a few short years given the rapid pace of start-up growth and maturation. If you thrive on challenges and do well in a shifting landscape, then a start-up environment will be perfect for you.
New Boston start-ups to keep on your radar: EQRX, Imuneering, Korro Bio, Omega Therapeutics
Mid-sized biotech companies retain most of the dynamism of start-ups, but with more stability. As an employee you won’t need to wear as many hats, your role within the company will be fairly specialized and unlikely to dramatically change over time. Although what constitutes a mid-sized biotech company is fairly loose, it usually means the company has products in late clinical development (phase II or III trials), or has already brought 1 or 2 products to market. The number of employees will be somewhere in the hundreds.
Mid-sized biotech companies that are still growing: Acceleron, Akouos, Alkermes, Epizyme, Fortress Biotech
The large biotech companies employ hundreds to thousands of people and may have more than one location. There’s a broad portfolio of products for scientists to work on, and the company will have lots of approved products on the market. The larger the company, the more professional development and in-house training available to you, though you might also feel “silo-ed” within a large organisation where it’s impossible for you to know all your coworkers.
Some of the biggest biotech firms in the Boston area in 2021: Genentech, Moderna, Sanofi, Vertex Pharmaceutical
These days, many traditional pharmaceutical companies also develop biologics. These companies are truly multinational – their total employee counts are in the hundreds of thousands, and they have offices around the globe. The culture at these companies is often more conservative and risk-averse than at smaller, agile biotech companies, although each location will likely have its own subculture, and it’s worth asking questions about how your department fits into the whole. If you prefer stability and processes that are already ironed out, then a large biopharma company may be the best place for you.
Big Pharma companies with offices in the Boston/Cambridge area: Abbvie, Biogen, Novartis, Takeda
Are you looking for your next STEM job but are unsure about navigating the job market? At Sci.bio, we’re experts in the Boston biotech landscape. Our recruiters have spent many years helping connect talent to opportunities. Reach out and schedule a conversation with us today.
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?