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


Xconomy Seattle — 

I’ve reached the stage of my career where I’ve been invited to give “career retrospective talks” to grad students and post-docs at academic institutions. It’s been an interesting and enjoyable experience meeting a new generation of young scientists and hearing what’s on their minds.

After delivering my seminar and sharing lots of stories and advice, the discussion quickly turns to jobs: what’s available out there, and how do you get one? Future employment is a big concern among this group. Only 15 percent of grad students and post-docs will ever land a traditional tenure-track academic position at a research university. With federal cutbacks in the funding of National Institutes of Health grants and the elimination of large numbers of R&D jobs in biotech/pharma, there appears to be a job squeeze at present in both academia and industry.

A recently published paper in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by a number of academic heavyweights lays out a strong case for remaking our nation’s entire biomedical enterprise. “Rescuing U.S. biomedical research from its systemic flaws” reveals that the system, as it currently exists, in unsustainable. While we are constantly hearing about the need for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) researchers from the nation’s politicians, this requirement is not evenly distributed among every discipline. It appears that there is an overabundance of those trained in the biological sciences. I can see why some of the people I’ve met are feeling disheartened and nervous. Look at the titles of the some of the articles I found during a casual web search:

Does the U.S. Produce Too Many Scientists?
How to Exploit Postdocs
For Graduate Science Programs, It’s Time to Get Real
Yes, We Have a PhD Glut…
Say NO to the Second Post Doc!
Scenes from the Postdocalypse

Getting Good Career Advice May Be Difficult
One common theme that I hear from young people in academia is that good career advice is often unavailable from the very people who are providing their training, i.e., the professors who run the labs in which they work. Many of these investigators have no personal experience with biotech or pharma, so they can’t advise their students on how to proceed. Others aren’t interested in talking about alternatives to traditional academic investigator careers, and may even relegate those inquiring to “second tier” status within their labs just for asking. After all, who wouldn’t want to be an academic like them? This bias against alternative careers may not be that much different from how it used to be back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Luckily, some forward-looking institutions have put in place programs that provide a variety of resources for young’uns looking for career advice. For a great example, look at the website for the Office of Scientific Career Development at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Days of the Forever Job Are Gone
This is true for industries across a wide spectrum of the economy, not just biomedical sciences. The days of working for one company for your entire career disappeared with my parents’ generation. Now one can expect to have to change jobs often, and this may entail moving frequently to a different city, state, or country. In the days before biotech, many positions in Big Pharma were considered stable, forever jobs.

With global competition and a dearth of innovation at the top of the food chain, those days are long gone. Financial stresses have ratcheted up the expectations of how soon companies can come out with their next drug, and how much revenue it will generate. This has put tremendous pressure on large organizations to cut back on R&D. The “re” in research is disappearing. The model is changing from one based on “research and development” to one that focuses on “search and development.” Why discover drugs when you can buy them? Valeant Pharmaceuticals has become the poster organization for serial acquiring, slashing jobs at each company that it devours.

Basic Research Still Needs to Be Done
These days everyone is pushing translational research. They want to turn the output of the nation’s labs into new products that benefit everyone. There’s nothing wrong with looking for practical applications of scientific discoveries. However, if everyone is doing translational work, where will the future basic research discoveries come from? If one looks back at the Nobel prizes awarded in physiology or medicine, it is clear that the awards have mostly gone to basic research, with few having direct translatable value at the time that they were awarded.

I believe there should always be academic and even industrial jobs for people who want to do basic research. The balance between basic and applied research will be driven, in large part, by the funding available within the two hemispheres of academia and industry. Political and other economic forces factor into the equation as well. It is possible, career wise, to move back and forth between academia and industry, and the number of people taking this zigzag career path will likely increase in the future.

BioPharma: Do A Lousy Job, Or Even a Great One, And You May Get Fired
Imagine getting a shiny new job as a research scientist in the land of biopharma. What are your future prospects? If you bust your butt, but you and your coworkers are unable to come up with a new drug, you may all get fired. No surprises there. What happens, though, if you happen to do a great job and come up with a promising drug candidate? Paradoxically, you may still wind up getting canned. Why would that be? If you work at a biopharma startup, the next step in your company’s evolution will be to get the potential drug you came up with into the clinic. And this means hiring medical directors, clinical trial folks, regulatory experts, etc., or outsourcing this work to a contract research organization (which is actually a contract development company). If you’re working at a small company operating out of a tiny pool of money, the funds needed to pay for the development of a new drug sometimes can only come if they fire the people who created it. So to hire the new employees, the old ones must go.

If you work in R&D, don’t lose sight that D generally costs a whole lot more than R. Clinical trials are very expensive, whether your company runs them directly, or whether it farms out those studies. Finally, if another firm acquires your company, then all bets are off. This could be great for your career, or you may find yourself on the street in short order. It all depends on how much the acquiring company values R&D, and how they’ve penciled out the cost of the purchase. Sadly, R&D folks are often seen as expenses and not resources, as demonstrated by recent layoffs at Pfizer, Roche, Sanofi, and GlaxoSmithKline. Merck axed most of the R&D folks after buying Cubist, and Amgen, not wanting to miss a trend, is eliminating about 300 jobs after acquiring Onyx Pharmaceuticals.

3 Doors CartoonWhat’s a young scientist to do? I offer some suggestions below. For another perspective, check out these thoughts as well.

Ten Bits of Career Advice for Young Scientists:

• Listen to your heart and take the advice of others (even me) with a grain of salt. Do what you want to do; this is your life and your career. You don’t want to find yourself hating 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

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.