Introduction to Working in Biotech
This bird’s-eye overview explores the attitudes, approaches, and actions that will make it happen.
It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Actually, it’s both—and a whole lot more. Whether you’re new to the biotech industry or a veteran between jobs, a plum position in this red-hot sector is unlikely to fall in your lap. To get the biotech job of your dreams, or even that steppingstone position, you need patience, perseverance—and above all, a methodical approach.
This overview puts all the must-have information at your fingertips, from the prep work you need to do before starting the search to the extra touches that will help you stand out before and after the job offer. Follow the links to dive deeper into specific areas of interest or challenge. If any questions or concerns remain, Sci.bio is happy to walk you through them.
CHARTING YOUR COURSE
First things first: deciding what you want to do and where you want to do it. Confronting these decision points early on will pay dividends in your job search and career satisfaction.
A Question of Degree
Do you really need a PhD to get a good job in biotech? That depends on the career trajectory you have in mind. If you aspire to the halls of academe, you’ll obviously need the credential. A doctorate also positions you for medical science liaison jobs. Leaving such specific scenarios aside, success in biotech does not depend on a PhD, and the years of toiling for the designation could even set your career back. The only thing a doctorate guarantees is that people will call you “doctor”—it certainly doesn’t entitle to you to a job.
Think of a PhD as an adventure in personal and professional development: hop on board if it resonates with you, but don’t feel you have to get on—or stay on—the PhD track if it doesn’t appeal. Consider, too, that many biotech recruiters and companies put real-world experience on par with advanced qualifications. Biotech companies continue to hire many people with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and the time-honored pairing of an undergraduate science degree with an MBA still opens doors within the sector.
The Great Divide
Many PhDs see their colleagues transitioning to academic post-doc positions and conclude it’s simply the “thing to do.” But basic research and the grant-application machinery don’t suit everyone, and recognizing a poor fit can spare you years of frustration.
The academic life comes with an attractive package of intellectual rigour, collegial culture, and freedom to explore your own research interests. That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, responsibilities outside the lab can interfere with research time and the pressure to obtain funding can take its toll.
Opting for industry doesn’t mean giving up on your career as a scientist; the biotech industry produces a steady stream of research, often with a more clinical bent. If the lab bench doesn’t call to you, however, industry offers almost limitless opportunities to rise through the ranks and experience the high of working in teams. You’ll find more details about the pro and cons of each choice in this article about academia vs. industry.
There’s big pharma and there’s small pharma—companies that employ fewer than 500 people. Arguably the safer choice, big pharma will take you through a formal training process and give you access to a steady stream of learning opportunities. With size comes bureaucracy, of course. The red tape can slow down processes and create distance between the work you put in and the final result. Even so, consider going big if you value a mix of predictability and opportunity—and a good night’s sleep.
At the other end of the spectrum, a job with a biotech startup offers unparalleled excitement and collegiality, as well as a good chance of seeing a product going through a full development cycle. Or you may find your sweet spot in the relaxed culture and fluid roles of a small pharma company—the preferred option of an increasing number of biotech job seekers.
Off the Beaten Path
If you’re like many science graduates, you know a lot more about science than about science careers. Most post-secondary programs fail to educate students about the possibilities ahead, leaving graduates with a blinkered view of their options. If you’ve made it to the PhD level, you may see little beyond a postdoc or medical science liaison in your horizon.
The world of biotech is a lot bigger than that. Less common biotech careers that flow naturally from a PhD include market research analyst, business development manager, and medical communication specialist. And it’s not true that you need an MBA to snag a business consultant gig: the rise of technology-based business sectors has created a demand for consultants with STEM PhDs.
Then there’s the cannabis industry, a high-growth sector that rewards both creativity and business acumen. From extraction techniques to quality control, needs for scientific expertise in this area continue to grow. If you thrive on human relationships, you could find your niche in biotech recruitment, which combines uncapped earning potential with the unique satisfaction of helping other people launch their careers.
READY TO LAUNCH
Once you’ve established your desired destination, it’s time to lay the groundwork for a smooth and fruitful biotech job search.
Where to Look
Start by working backwards: make a list of companies where you’d like to work and check out the careers pages on their websites. You may be able to set up automatic alerts so the system notifies when suitable positions open up. Next, scour job boards that focus on the life sciences, such as the job pages on BioSpace or the Life Sciences Network.
Don’t discount general job boards, either. Many employers cross-post their vacancies on a number of job sites, including all-purpose sites like Indeed or Workopolis. A recent Indeed search for Boston-based biotech jobs turned up vacancies for a senior scientist in in-vitro pharmacology, a quality control analyst in microbiology, and a bioinformatics associate, among others. Even Facebook has its own job board.
There’s also the question of when to look for a job: while there’s no hard and fast rule, your odds of success rise and fall at certain times of year. More important than the season is the time between the job posting and your application: make it as short as possible.
Start by making a list of networking prospects—friends, acquaintances, and business associates who may be able to offer advice or job leads. Ideally, this list should include people with positions you aspire to. Send each of them a brief email detailing your situation and your ask. If you get no response after a few days, don’t assume they’re willfully ignoring you. Far more likely is that they’re busy or disorganized, and everything less than urgent gets pushed into their “later” file. Follow up with another respectful call or email. Rinse and repeat.
Once you’ve heard back, aim to schedule a meeting over video (or in person, if/when Covid protocols allow it). Keep the meeting short and real: show interest in the other person, but get to your point. Seek advice about how to brand yourself and ask for new introductions or industry insights.
While looking for a job can easily become a job in its own right, consider breaking up your day with volunteer work. Not only does volunteering boost mental health, but the people you meet can become part of your informal network. Along similar lines, choose a couple of professional events to attend, either in person or virtually. Have a well-rehearsed elevator pitch so you can approach people with purpose and confidence.
Leveraging Social Media
Whether you love it or hate it, you can’t avoid social media when looking for a job. As evidenced in a recent survey on career building, social media now plays a significant role in the hiring process: not only do employers use social media to research candidates, but nearly half have a bias against candidates without any social media presence at all.
If nothing else, you need a LinkedIn profile to be seen as a serious candidate. Take the time to list significant accomplishments, awards, and testimonials on your LinkedIn page. Regular engagement on Twitter, while not a requirement for a successful job hunt, can demonstrate knowledge of your industry. Blog posts showcasing your communication skills and interactions with a prospective employer’s social media accounts can add further credibility to your social media presence.
If your social media profile is less than squeaky clean, you’ll need to do some scrubbing. Revealing photos, discriminatory comments, bad-mouthing previous employers, lying about an absence could easily land you on an employer’s no-hire list. No matter how many likes you garnered from such posts, delete them.
Working with a Recruiter
On the face of it, there isn’t much downside to working with a recruiter: it gives you access to an inside track hidden from public view. But the wrong recruiter can do more harm than good—for example, by sending you on interviews for ill-fitting jobs. A strategic approach to finding a biotech recruiter will help you avoid this outcome.
Rather than simply contacting the biotech recruiters that pop up in a Google search, attend networking events in your industry, where many recruiters congregate to build relationships with clients and meet candidates. If you’re a woman, you owe it to yourself to check out the events run by Women in Bio, an organization dedicated to giving women more visibility in the life sciences.
If you have your eye on a specific company, you may be able to connect with internal recruiters (i.e. recruiters who work within an organization) by using LinkedIn to locate employees with such titles as hiring specialist or employee success manager. If you’d like to learn more about how Sci.bio can fast-track your job search, we’ll be happy to arrange a conversation.
RISING UP FROM THE CROWD
Whether you have an impressive track record or no track record at all, taking extra care with your self-presentation can give you a meaningful edge.
Not sure where to start? This Science Magazine article about scientific resumés can help you decide between an experience- and skills-based approach. Whichever option you choose, you can’t go wrong with tried-and-true resumé-writing principles such as simplicity, lack of visual clutter, and logical progression. Resist the temptation to list all your accomplishments: while the assay you developed deserves pride of place in your resumé, you can probably leave out the time you took minutes for a departmental meeting. Less is more.
It goes without saying that you should adapt your resumé to each position you apply for, focusing on the experiences and accomplishments that most closely match the job requirements. When crafting the accompanying cover letter, avoid duplicating the content of your resumé. Instead, aim for a couple of short paragraphs that reveal something about what you want and who you are.
For still more detail about the fine points, check out this compendium of resumé mistakes to avoid, while this article on crafting a professional resumé can help you neutralize red flags such as a lack of experience or a gap in your employment history.
Phoning it in
Phone interviews are like the door to the waiting room: a mechanism to control the influx of candidates and weed out those who don’t meet basic requirements. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, phone interviews may enlarge their scope and replace some interviews that used to occur in person.
Have your resumé and a few key points at hand so the interviewer’s questions won’t catch you off-guard. It’s also a good idea to prepare some questions of your own, which signals seriousness of intent. Avoid bringing up salary—such conversations are best left for face-to-face meetings—unless specifically asked.
In addition to confirming your qualifications, a phone interview gives the interviewer a glimpse of your professionalism. Choose a quiet space for the interview (or ask a family member or neighbor to take the dog out) and turn off all electronic devices. During the interview, speak calmly and clearly and avoid jokes or sarcastic remarks—this is not the time to show off your edgy humor. And don’t even think of eating anything, let alone chewing gum. To make sure you avoid such gaffes, check out this list of 10 phone interview tips.
Acing the Interview
In the post-pandemic world, face to face doesn’t necessarily mean in the same room—it just means that you and the interviewer(s) can see each other. At this stage, consider “well groomed and well dressed” to be the price of admission.
Be ready to answer standard interview questions like “why are you interested in this job” or “where do you see yourself in five years.” To address the obligatory question about your weaknesses, focus on a deficiency you have overcome or are working to overcome. Think of the question as an opportunity to demonstrate both your honesty and your work ethic.
Most important of all, you’ll need to make a good general impression: fail at this task and you’ve lost the job. Fortunately, the key ingredients of a good impression—a positive and confident attitude—lie within everyone’s reach. If you’re unsure you can pull it off, rehearse with a friend or colleague.
Taking Setbacks in Stride
Learning you didn’t get a job after what seemed like a stellar interview counts among life’s most demoralizing experiences. While mentally steeling yourself for this outcome won’t take away the sting, it can help you recover more quickly and with your confidence intact.
It pays to remember that personal biases permeate all human transactions, and job interviews are no exception. That elusive quality called “fit” doesn’t always work in your favour. In some cases, a position may have been earmarked for an internal hire, but due diligence required it to go through a formal solicitation process. Of course, it’s also possible that you came off as more arrogant or boastful than you intended, and it never hurts to ask a friend for feedback on your self-presentation.
For further insight into “the job that got away,” check out this article on getting rejected for a job after acing an interview.
MAKING IT WORK
A job offer is only the beginning. What happens next can set the stage for you career.
Negotiating an Offer
You got the job! By all means convey your excitement to your new employer, but resist the impulse to immediately accept the terms of employment: the offer will not evaporate if you negotiate. When discussing compensation, don’t get stuck on the annual salary, as many companies offer bonuses and stock options to top up the base pay. If you come up against a hard compensation limit, ask for alternative perks such as flextime, option to work remotely, or support for continuing education. The fine points of negotiating an offer also include tackling one issue at a time and knowing who holds the decision-making levers.
If you’re already working but suspect your salary doesn’t reflect your worth, reach out to a recruiter to get feedback on industry norms. If you believe you’re being underpaid, you’ll earn your supervisor’s respect—and quite likely a raise—by stating your case. Presenting your accomplishments and knowing your boundaries will serve you well when negotiating a salary increase.
Fast-Tracking the Culture
Company culture, also known as organizational or working culture, refers to the attitudes and behaviors of a company and its employees. It encompasses ingredients such as work environment, leadership style, working style, and expectations. Figuring out the company culture as quickly as possible will help you fit in, feel comfortable, and work productively. To get a read of your new employer’s culture, look for the mission statement and client/employee testimonials on the company website. Most important, observe your co-workers: see how they dress, carry themselves, and interact. Figure out whether that happy-hour Zoom meeting is expected or optional.
Whether you’re working on-site or remotely, make an effort to build relationships with your colleagues. Showing the “real you” to people inspires trust. Even a single work buddy can help you integrate into the culture, and connecting with people outside your rank can help loosen the barriers between managers and employees.
There’s no shame in making strategic connections, either. Start with a focused “career talk” with your supervisor, which demonstrates commitment to your growth within the organization. Identify the key stakeholders in your new role and arrange to meet them. One of them could turn out to be the perfect mentor for you.
The Publishing Pressure Cooker
Scientific research has become a highly competitive endeavor. If you’ve chosen academic research as a career, sooner or later you’ll confront the “publish or perish” imperative. At the same time, rushing to publish can compromise the quality of your work. Indeed, a study of scientific publication determined that pressure to publish led to poorer-quality output and a bias toward positive results.
Fortunately, many experts have voiced concerns about the push to publish at all costs, suggesting the tide may be turning. As noted by Cambridge University researcher Kanad Mandke, “the slow science movement [an antidote to publication-oriented science]…is gaining a lot of traction among eminent scientists.”
While the pressure to publish isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon, a focus on quality over quantity and will serve you well in the long run. A methodical approach to getting published in scientific journals, as well as a set of strategies to manage the pressure, will help you stay sane along the way.
Even a dream job can lose its luster over time. New management, a new R&D direction, or even a new supervisor can tip the balance from great to not so great. Sometimes the whole work environment can turn poisonous over time. Signs of a toxic workplace include harassment, unaddressed conflict, and harsh top-down management that leaves employees feeling unheard and unappreciated.
If you’re wondering whether to stay or to go, consider these five reasons to switch jobs. At the same time, a vague feeling of dissatisfaction does not automatically signal a need to get out. A change of responsibilities, departments, or working conditions could help you recapture your enthusiasm. Respectfully approach your supervisor to explore such possibilities.
If you lean toward leaving, it may help you to contact a reputable biotech recruiter to gain insight into current market conditions. Aside from having deep industry connections, a good recruiter can alert you to career paths you hadn’t considered. Once you get a new job offer, your current employer may attempt to lure you back with a raise, a promotion, or all manner of promises. While flattering, such counteroffers rarely result in mutual satisfaction. Unless the counteroffer provides a clear fix to the problems that led you to look elsewhere, honor your instincts.