Careers in biotech and pharma: Changing courses

This Advertising Feature has been commissioned, edited, and produced by the Science/AAAS Custom Publishing Office

Scientists who start their corporate lives in the research laboratory don’t have to spend their entire careers at the bench. The pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, in particular, offer researchers plenty of opportunities to participate in other facets of their companies’ enterprises. Such areas as project management, drug development, regulatory affairs, business development, and intellectual property protection demand individuals with strong scientific backgrounds. “There’s a spectrum of opportunities, from close-to-the-bench work to the commercial arena,” says Matthew Bell, senior director of discovery research at Wyeth. “Supporting scientists who have interests in other, nonresearch-based areas of our organization is extremely valuable for both the employees and the company,” adds Lex Van der Ploeg, vice president and basic research site head for Merck Research Laboratories Boston.

Abbott (
AstraZeneca (
Merck Research Laboratories Boston (
Promega (
Wyeth (

Scientists with all levels of training can qualify for work outside the laboratory. Individuals with Bachelor’s, Master’s, and doctoral degrees, and even postdoctoral experience, can move on to successful careers outside the research arena. The only essential element is the scientific background that permits researchers to bridge the gaps between the lab and the commercial arena. “We consciously do not place degree requirements on internal transfers,” says Promega’s chief technology officer, Randall Dimond. “They are based only on the perceived capabilities of the individuals.”

To make a success of careers outside the laboratory, researchers obviously need competencies beyond their scientific expertise. “There’s no doubt that cross-disciplinary skills are very, very important in industry,” explains Jill Mueller, group vice president for R&D at Abbott. “Scientists with a strong business savvy are very much in demand.”

Some of those skills, such as communications ability and an aptitude for leadership, are largely inherent. Scientists can obtain more concrete capabilities through training programs. Many pharmas and biotech firms organize their own courses in such fields as business skills, entrepreneurship, and intellectual property issues. And some will pay for their scientists to attend night school for specific qualifications such as MBA degrees and professional certificates.

Dual Career Tracks

Companies recognize that not all researchers want to leave the bench for other pursuits. Many firms offer dual career tracks that permit scientists to stay at the bench without sacrificing their chances of corporate prestige and financial advancement. “We’ve developed a scientific career path that allows scientists to stay at the bench and progressively move through larger responsibilities in science,” says Ellen Nichols, associate director for human resources in Amgen’s research group. AstraZeneca takes a similar approach. “In many cases, outstanding scientists feel they have to leave the bench if they want to advance their careers,” says HR vice president for discovery Jenni Hardy. “We have some of the best and brightest researchers in the world and we place incredible value on their contributions. That’s why we established our scientific career ladder which aims to recognize scientific excellence.”

Mark Rakic, director of human resources and staffing for Affymetrix, summarizes the basic philosophy of the twin track approach. “We give our scientists the opportunity to stay within the lab if that’s their passion,” he says. “We tap into their passion for the job whatever it is.”

For individuals who want to leave the bench, pharmas and biotech firms offer a wide variety of alternative career paths that start with pursuits closely related to research in the lab and extend to work that’s almost entirely on the commercial side. “Project and portfolio management are two common places scientists move to,” Bell notes. “Project management gives them the chance to remain in project teams but to be involved in the management and driving of a project; almost all our managers have scientific or medical backgrounds.”

Drug development represents another natural avenue for scientists who want to move out of research without going too far away. “The majority of our leaders in drug development are scientists,” Mueller says. “We have several vice presidents heading up therapeutic levels and even doing marketing, as well as life cycle management of drugs. Clinical trialing is another option. The majority of our global clinical heads are scientists.”

Business Benefits

Sales and marketing and related business activity have great appeal for certain researchers. “We have a number of scientists who have moved beyond the lab and are working in our sales organization in field applications. They provide a liaison between the sales person and the customer,” Rakic says. “We also have people in our genomics collaboration organization, which gives scientists the opportunity to move into more of a consulting role.”

Other aspects of business benefit from the understanding and feel that early work in research imparts. “The nature of business development is that you are still working with the science but looking at opportunities,” Bell says. “In business development you really want scientists to evaluate licensing deals, mergers and acquisitions, and other opportunities in the scientific world,” Mueller adds. “And scientific acumen is very helpful in the regulatory world.”

Some business tasks demand more technical competencies. Intellectual property protection, for example, requires at least some training in patent law and often a law degree. Lawyers with scientific backgrounds can also provide valuable help to business development departments that need to work out the details of licensing deals.

Even further upstream from the basic research lab are commercially focused pursuits such as medical writing and communications. “Here you also need the scientific background,” Bell says. “Many practitioners have Ph.D.s or even postdoctoral experience.”

Surprisingly, several firms expect scientists who move into sales to possess higher degrees. “Sales relies on people who are facile in their knowledge of the products, as they have to interact with Ph.D.s and postdocs as their customers,” Promega’s Dimond explains. “So they are usually people with Master’s or Ph.D. degrees.”

Successful Transitions 
Examples of successful transitions abound. Take the career path of Bell, who joined Wyeth as a researcher after earning his Ph.D. in neuroscience. “I got involved in management consulting and then strategy and business planning,” he recalls. “We have created a team staffed almost entirely by former scientists with business skills.” 

Nichols relates a slightly different story. “I came to Amgen 17 years ago from a clinical background; I was a nurse and I love patient care,” she says. “This is a company where you can expand your career after coming in with basic bench experience and go in many career directions.”

Merck Research Laboratories Boston offers a similar case. Its head of external scientific affairs, who deals with outside organizations on such issues as licensing and technology transfer, started life as a bench scientist. “There are many other cases like that in the company,” Van der Ploeg says. “There are opportunities for basic researchers in many departments across the organization.”

The career tracks of two Promega scientists with Master’s degrees in biology indicate that departure from the lab can be the first step in a journey without an obvious finishing point. Hired as a bench scientist, Eddie Pahuski moved on to jobs as group leader in food technology, process development manager, and technical operations manager before assuming his present role as vice president of quality assurance and process development. And research scientist Angela Ryan first became a technical services scientist and then transferred to the product management department before becoming marketing manager for clinical diagnostics. Now she is marketing manager for genomics.

Beyond Scientific Excellence

What characteristics do employers seek in scientists whom they want in jobs outside the lab? “Scientific excellence goes without saying,” Mueller says. “Vision is also critical. Scientists need to be able to develop a vision for science and business not only today but also for the future. And they need a passion for learning and for teaching others.” Nichols outlines two other qualities common to almost every scientist who wants to leave the bench – and even those destined to stay there. “To move into other areas, we need scientists who are very good communicators and team players,” she says. “People who want to stay in science also need training in teamwork, leadership, and communications.”

Employers generally agree that communications ability represents the most critical characteristic for scientists whom they want to move to jobs outside the lab. “There are no hard and fast rules about the qualities we need,” Bell explains. “But you have to have very strong communication skills – communicating with people and presenting your ideas crisply and in a way that’s understandable to nonscientists. A lot of scientists are very good at presenting lots of data. It’s a slightly different skill to take lots of information and boil it down to its essentials. A scientist who can transition successfully to the business side should be able to do that.” Affymetrix’s Rakic agrees. “Communication needs to be a high-end skill,” he says. “Scientists need to be able to translate scientific jargon into communication that the general public can understand.”

Scientists who want to move beyond their own research interests must also learn empathy. “You have to have the ability to take charge of your own tasks while being sensitive to the problems of others, and seeing where you can help solve those problems,” Van der Ploeg says. Bell echoes that thought. “We’re looking for people who can transition from a lab-based environment in which they’re thinking mainly of their own work to someone who can take a broader view,” he explains.

Experience Abroad

Experience beyond national shores also serves as a positive indicator for scientists who want to work beyond the bench. “Global experience is effective for scientists moving out of the laboratory,” Mueller says. “We look for that in internal candidates and when we hire people outside the company.” Such experience, she explains, can include both studying and working abroad. “Having experience in drug discovery overseas is very useful,” she continues. “It helps to give individuals cultural sensitivity.” Rakic cites an example of a scientist about to gain that type of experience on the job. Having joined Affymetrix after a postdoctoral fellowship, the researcher is moving to Japan to continue work on a project that he started at the basic level in the lab in the United States. “He wanted to move into a different role leveraging different skill sets,” Rakic says.

Specific tasks require particular skills. “We place a great emphasis on project leadership and people management,” AstraZeneca’s Hardy says. “We are a project-driven organization, and individuals who are skilled project managers will find a world of opportunity available to them across R&D and the rest of the company. We also look for scientists who can motivate teams to deliver results and who can create a climate that delivers innovative solutions.”

Sales and marketing have their own demands. “A person moving into the marketing or sales environment needs to be very gregarious, to have a different level of interaction skills, and to be able to connect with customers in a different way,” Rakic explains.

Companies have their own unique ways of identifying scientists with the talent and the desire to leave the bench. Approaches include monitoring scientists for clues to their nonscientific talents and relying on individuals to inform managers of their interest in life beyond the lab. Managers play key roles. “There is significant career counseling within a manager’s portfolio to ensure that every employee is on a steep learning curve, and to see the development of other scientific interests outside the employees’ fields,” says Merck’s Van der Ploeg.

Open Application System

Affymetrix exemplifies the range of possibilities. “We observe scientists’ management abilities,” he says. “As they grow in the lab they will take on larger projects and will lead research assistants or other scientists. We don’t use the title ‘manager,’ but in fact they are managers. So we observe and monitor them.” The company also encourages its scientists to apply for positions outside the laboratory. “We have an open system,” Rakic continues. “People can apply for all internal job postings. Scientists who desire to move into other areas have the ability to do so.”

Promega also posts its open positions internally. “Anybody who feels ready to make a move and has the right background can apply,” Dimond says. “We work on the individual level, but have a couple of things that facilitate moves. We require that supervisors participate in the career planning. And since we’re a pretty flat-structure organization that uses a lot of cross-functional teams, R&D scientists working on a new product will typically serve on a team with representatives of marketing, quality assurance, manufacturing, and sales. That gives them a more realistic view of what those people do. Supervisors might give a scientist who wants to move into a specific area a role on the cross-functional team relevant to the task.”

Abbott takes a similar approach. “A combination of both managers and individuals makes the decision,” Mueller says. “Individual scientists might bring up the idea of other opportunities to their managers. We also target our top talent through various avenues. We think very much out of the box; when we’re filling different jobs, we like to think beyond particular disciplines and move people from other groups.” Amgen also relies on both managers and scientists to identify new opportunities. “Managers have performance reviews and development discussions with each staffer,” Nichols explains. “That’s when interest in licensing and development and commerce can be found. If someone expresses interest, the manager may come to me, and I will maybe match the scientist up with a mentor in one of the areas.”

Means of Training 
The decision to move out of the lab – on the part of scientists and their companies – doesn’t necessarily happen quickly. “These things play out over the years,” Van der Ploeg says. “They don’t come about on short notice. It’s important to support, build, and maintain the best possible work force with the people you know.” 

Whenever it happens, scientists who transfer out of the laboratory need adequate training for their new jobs. That usually involves a mixture of internal instruction and outside courses whose cost the company covers entirely or in part.

Abbott offers several internal programs. “We have a professional development program that hits all disciplines,” Mueller says. “People can go through a development rotational opportunity to see how they fit in different tasks. We also have a marketing development program in which we’re looking for our commercial leaders and a leadership development for scientists program that has a very heavy curriculum for business and finance.”

Promega gives its scientists the chance to learn new skills on the job, as well as in conventional training programs. “Supervisors will put scientists into specific opportunities or give them formal training – internal or external, such as an MBA degree,” Dimond says. “If they want additional programs, whether a week-long seminar, a course, or a degree program, Promega will reimburse them if the course is relevant to work they do here.”

Many other biotech and pharma firms give scientists part or all of their tuition fees for degree courses. “We offer a robust tuition reimbursement program in some of our U.S. research centers which is highly competitive,” AstraZeneca’s Hardy says. MBA degrees are particularly popular. “Many scientists choose to take an MBA and use that as a pivot point,” Bell says. “If you want to increase your skill set, Wyeth will support you in doing that.”

Payment for Night School

Usually, firms encourage their scientists to study for their MBAs in night school. “Ours is a partnership in education. Staff members pursue their training in local universities outside working hours, subsidized by Amgen,” Nichols says. “Our Boston location puts us in the center of great universities where people can attend classes while successfully managing their daily work and family commitments,” Merck’s Van der Ploeg adds.

Some companies also pay for scientists to obtain legal qualifications, for future work in intellectual property protection. “We had one scientist in our chemistry group who is now working as a patent agent,” Rakic relates. “She had the technical domain experience. We funded her educational pursuit to get a patent certification.” Promega currently has a scientist studying for a law degree. “He came from R&D into business development and then into licensing,” Dimond says. “We’re paying for him to go to law school part time.”

Moving out of the lab requires self-confidence and willingness to take risks on the part of scientists and the provision of encouragement and training by corporations. But the rewards for individuals, who can pursue their career interests, and for companies, which gain a cadre of scientifically trained staffers for positions of responsibility, make the costs worthwhile.

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