Tooling Up: 'Culturing' Your Marketable Skills

It's either a great time to be in the job market or a really lousy one. It depends on what you read. The whole system behind science careers--the profession, not the publication--seems to be under stress from factors that seem contradictory. For example, both of these statements are true:

  • In a recent Bloomberg article about the lack of biomedical scientists hampering biotechnology industry growth, the CEO of one of the nation's largest life sciences employers stated: "We're hiring as many good people as we can, but there isn't an infinite number of terrific people."

  • Simultaneously, the same employer has opened research associate jobs to Ph.D.s. These positions, long the bastion of B.S.- and M.S.-level staff members, are now being filled with science doctorates because of the sheer number of job seekers who want to work in industry--and who are willing to take lower-level positions.

How could a company feel that its future growth is likely to be hampered by a dearth of biomedical scientists and at the same time put Ph.D. job applicants into B.S.-level jobs? The answer lies in a single word in the comment made by the CEO: "There isn't an infinite number of terrific people."

So what makes a biomedical scientist "terrific"? Partly, it's technical skill--but I don't think that's the only thing this CEO is referring to. This month's column will help you understand what industry considers "terrific."

Like growing a cell line

In a talk I gave a few years ago, in an effort to relate to an audience of microbiologists, I told them they needed to grow their marketable skills "as you would an organism in a petri dish."

A successful microbiologist has good science training combined with what could be called a green thumb. (The expression often refers to gardeners who enjoy success with plants.) Whether your specialty is Yersinia or CHO cells, if you're in this field you know that there is both science and mystery in how organisms grow and flourish. Similar elements--technical prowess and something harder to pin down--are also present in the organisms (the scientists) that set out to develop those cultures.

Scientists often seem to expect their careers to follow a logical path. Like an experiment gone awry, however (and going awry is not always a bad thing, long term)--you can sometimes find yourself in new and unexpected territory. No matter how well you plan your career, you will be influenced by outside factors. Still, very few of the factors that will make you successful are out of your hands.

The ingredients that make you effective and highly marketable--"terrific"--are things you can control. For some people, a green thumb may come naturally, but even if it doesn't, in time people can learn to control the seemingly mysterious elements that make you look terrific to an employer.

Four success factors

As you review the following, I'd like you to think about how much you control each factor. You may think you don't have much control over some of them. But you will notice, as you progress in your career, that some people seem to be far less affected by the winds of fate than most.

1) Technical skills

Yes, you need to have first-rate scientific ability, but technical skills won't land you a job all by themselves. That CEO above would tell you that your scientific prowess is an important part of your application. But often it's how you present these skills--how you package them--that gets your ticket punched in industry. And many scientists who work in industry find that early in their professional development, their technical expertise is overtaken in importance by their contributions in other areas.

2) Working well with others

There are dozens of best-selling books on teamwork and teambuilding. An acquaintance of mine, Jim Lundy, is an author and consultant to industry. He uses a really hokey acronym for the word "teams," but companies eat it up because they realize that this is the reality inside a company. "Together Each Achieves More Success," says my friend. Yes, it makes me cringe, too, but that doesn't make it less true.

In the fast-paced environment of the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, there is no better way to get things done than through collaborations with others. In companies all over the world, interdependent teams have replaced groups of traditional scientists. No company wants to have a "group" based on a scientific discipline. In industry, teams of scientists from many disciplines work closely together on common scientific (and business!) objectives.

As the emphasis with scientific employers shifts to flatter and more cooperative approaches, culturing skills in the people-and-relationships area will pay off more than any other single factor--and this is something else that is totally within your control. You don't have to be a natural.

In some labs, it's very difficult to pick up teamwork skills when your boss has instilled a culture of individualism. If this is your situation, focus on collaborations while managing your relationship with your boss (see item 4). Find ways to motivate colleagues to join forces and solve a problem together. Teamwork pays scientific dividends, and even the most individualistic boss will appreciate your efforts if you improve the lab's productivity without being heavy-handed. And those are exactly the skills you need to work effectively as part of a team.

3) Communicating

Sometimes a highly competent technical professional will be held back because she can't express herself well. If you can't present an effective seminar at the job interview, you won't be able to sell management on an idea for a new research direction 5 years from now. An inability to clearly express oneself is considered a problem by those who must hire and promote you. You need to culture that skill right now.

Beth Fischer of the University of Pittsburgh's Survival Skills and Ethics Training Program suggests that grad students sign up for a Toastmasters group at the school, and the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania has quite an active section consisting of scientists young and old. I've been a part of Toastmasters in the past as well, and despite how cringe-inducing the topic may be at first, check it out. It's a friendly environment that forces you to think, and communicate, on your feet. Scientists usually deal with facts and figures, but industry puts just as much credence on hallway conversations as in the meeting room.

4) Managing your relationship with the boss

In my first position as a recruiter, I ran into some severe personality conflicts with my boss. I didn't realize how bad it was until I accidentally uncovered a memo he had written to the owner of the firm. In that brief note, he stated that he had examined the evidence of my progress and that there was a "zero probability" that I would succeed in the job. From that moment on, I knew I had to take control of that relationship or it would be the end of my new career.

Many people think they have no control in this relationship and that "culturing" this relationship is impossible because that's the principal investigator's job. Actually, although your boss holds almost all the cards, the relationship is a two-way street. Everyone can change, but the most useful assumption you can make is that the boss will always be the way she is and that any improvement is going to have to come from your end.

It's dangerous to be too slick, too manipulative, or too cynical. On the other hand, in a team setting, you're expected to nurture your relationships--with your boss and others. You need to strike a balance between sincerity (needed to cultivate trust) and purposefulness (careful choices to make sure the relationship flows along smoothly). Start with your current boss. Decide to work to make the relationship work as well as possible, combining straightforwardness with a deft touch. It is possible to influence even the worst adviser/advisee relationship.

Are you a terrific candidate?

Take advantage of the control you can exert over these four success factors, and you'll find yourself in the fast lane. Caring for and culturing those marketable skills can make you a "terrific" scientist!

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