Academia vs. BioPharma: Young Scientists Between A Rock and A Hard Place


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what you are doing in ten years because you simply followed the guidance of your academic advisor, friends, or your parents (even though it wasn’t what you wanted to do). None of these folks will trade places with you if you eventually decide your career path was a terrible mistake.

• Ask questions of people who occupy jobs that you are interested in. Find out what the pluses and the minuses are. What sacrifices are required? How long will it take? How many job openings are there? How competitive a field is it? Make as informed a decision as possible. You may live with the consequences for a long time.

• Consider “offshoots and branches” of career trees you are interested in. There are numerous career opportunities in science writing, grant writing, administration, teaching, project management, or communications. You can become an intellectual property attorney, a patent agent, a science writer, or pursue any one of a number of other related careers that will make excellent use of your science background.

• Cast a wide net when looking for a job. Be flexible. Thinking there’s only one job out there that is an exact match for your skills and interests is a recipe for heartache. If possible, don’t limit yourself to one city, one company, or one field. Apply for a lot of positions. If you are lucky, you may find yourself with an actual choice of jobs, and not have to take the first position you are offered.

• Don’t be discouraged by the numbers saying there are X times as many applicants as there are open positions. There are lots of jobs out there, and since individual skill sets are often highly specialized, you are not really competing with as many people as you may think you are. I was trained as a molecular biologist as a post-doc, but it was the fact that I knew how to do site-directed mutagenesis that helped me land my first job. And after using that skill for the first few months, I never needed to do it again. I had moved on to new areas of research.

• A great job fit means more than simply matching the qualifications listed for the position. If a company states that it is looking for a team player, and you like to work alone, this may not be a good fit, no matter how well your scientific skills mesh with its needs. Cultural differences exist among different companies and academic research institutions, and these are important in determining how happy you will be once you have accepted a position and come on board. Act in haste and you may repent in leisure.

• Having said that, your decision isn’t a “forever” one. Taking a job doesn’t bind you to an employer or to a university for life. Circumstances change, or you may realize after some time in a new position that it wasn’t really what you expected. New leadership often means changes in managers, philosophy, and culture. All institutions change and evolve, and you will need to adapt to your surroundings no matter what your current position is. As Charles Darwin put it, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones that respond to change.”

• Promotions aren’t for everyone and can be counterproductive to your happiness. If you love working at the bench, stay there. Don’t put yourself in a position where accepting a promotion puts you in a job that you’ll enjoy less that your current one. I know a number of prominent scientists who, at the ends of their careers, returned to the bench because that’s what they enjoyed most. Remember the Peter Principle, which basically states that people get promoted until they reach a job that they cannot do very well. They will then either be fired from that position, or struggle to do it for a significant period of time.

• Understand your monetary needs. If you aspire to a lifestyle that requires a high income, then make sure your next job will meet those needs. There may be tradeoffs associated with that choice, such as long hours, frequent travel, or living in a place you don’t want to be.

• What does it take to land a job? For positions outside of academia, employers are focused on hiring people who they think can solve their specific problems. If you can convince them you can do this, you will stand a good chance of getting hired. Simply being a good scientist may not be enough to get you a particular job. Sports teams have been known to draft “the best available athlete” and then teach them a new position. Businesses, in contrast, like to hire people who can readily handle the task at hand without much additional training.

Final Thoughts

I’ve always thought that it was a special privilege to be able to study biology and to delve into the mysteries of how life really works. An optimistic outlook will see you through numerous challenges in both your career and your personal life. Let me close by sharing a few quotes for you to reflect on:

Do not take life too seriously; you will never get out of it alive.” Elbert Hubbard

If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.” Frank A. Clark

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Thomas Edison

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Stewart Lyman is Owner and Manager of Lyman BioPharma Consulting LLC in Seattle. He provides strategic advice to clients on their research programs, collaboration management issues, as well as preclinical data reviews. Follow @

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3 responses to “Academia vs. BioPharma: Young Scientists Between A Rock and A Hard Place”

  1. SciBiZGuy says:

    Excellent article. Thank you so much.
    I too… as one of the late 70’s pioneers in biotech am often asked to reflect on my path and give insight to the scientists of tomorrow… from middle schools to grad programs and post docs.
    I tend to speak of other avenues such as law, finance, sales and marketing as viable alternatives that folks in science should consider.
    But I have to comment on my disappointment of what our university systems (UC for instance encouraging more foreign students because the can charge more) and government (opening visa applications for hundreds of thousands coming up in May … excellent and less expensive workers for industry)….
    I hate to be a xenophobe, but I also hate to see so many American millennials coming out of school with horrible debt burdens (which my generation didn’t have to bare) and then watching their potential opportunities given away to the lowest bidder.
    As for research… We all talk about the investment community becoming more risk adverse as we watch the government slide its funding from big R programs to big D programs. I truly believe the investment community is being more risk averse because they can be. Why invest when the government is going to pick the winners and then fund them up front? It just makes more sense for them to back off until closer to commercialization.
    Yes, the university and government systems are dysfunctional at the expense of the upcoming generation (Yes, keep voting democratic kids, although the republicans aren’t going to be much help either). Somehow, we have to evolve a whole new system.
    I am encouraging my 19 yo to stay out of the system, study what he wants on line and with all the free or cheap resources available to him, and finish his studies outside of the regular four year degree box. Hopefully, he will find his own way and beat the system.

  2. CMCguy7 says:

    I too agree you have written an excellent summary and offer generally sound advice reflecting today’s world of Pharma/Biopharma Industry. Although I think you are partly correct regarding transition of large organizations today being more to search and develop modes a majority appear rapidly on the road to, or already at, a buy and sell model, where now Finance and not Science Driven Entities, recognizing much of the risks remain centered in the “D” of new drugs so want to avoid that valley of death area altogether.

  3. B.O.B. Jones says:

    You are not only missing Washington D.C. as a region, but also a as a job opportunity. Government has rapidly growing revenues and the frantic hiring pace will continue until at least 2016… and oh yeah, you don’t have to jump around… you can stay in one place so that your family stays sane and you can actually have real friends, not just acquaintances. That’s why so many millennial Americans are hearkening to the capital region to fill the spots being left by aging and overly liberal bureaucratic drones.