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His Mother Cried When He Went Into Sales

With Dick Woodward, Ph.D.

I enjoy learning about what makes successful people tick. As a recruiter, I am offered regular opportunities to discuss personal matters like career decisions and philosophies with some very interesting people. One of these is Dick Woodward, a biotechnology sales and marketing consultant who works in the Philadelphia area. Dick and I became acquainted a number of years ago when he was an executive with Ajinomoto, the large Japanese food and chemical company.

At the time, I was on a very difficult biotechnology search. We were looking for a vice president of sales and marketing for a growing specialty laboratory that sells its services to scientists in industry. We were asked to find someone who had the experience necessary to develop a marketing plan, roll out a sales force, and manage a highly specific technical-services effort. To top it off, this person had to have a Ph.D. in the life sciences and speak the language of the biopharmaceutical company. That's how we happened to find Dick, who turned out to be a very successful placement for us.

Since then, I've kept up with him through industry meetings and business interactions. I'd like to introduce Dick in this column because I have watched him recruit and train a number of great business people who all started out in the lab. To them, "sales" was a dirty word before they met this fellow.

Considering the Business of Science?

Dick recently made a presentation at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, entitled "My Mother Cried When I Went Into Sales." Here are four reasons why he suggests you might currently be considering a position, sales or otherwise, in the business end of science:

  • You still enjoy science, but you're tired of the lab.
  • You feel the need for more interaction with people.
  • You have skills that you don't get to use in the lab.
  • You're interested in the big picture of how a company works.

Contrast the above with his four reasons not to move to the business side:

  • You're basically in it for the money.
  • You think you won't have to work as hard.You think it won't be as competitive.
  • You believe that anyone with a Ph.D. can run circles around those MBA types.

"Most people who look at moving from the lab to the business side do so because they are somehow unfulfilled in the laboratory," Woodward told me in a recent interview. "A key step for anyone considering this move is some serious--perhaps brutal--self-assessment to find the reason for this void. If you feel that benchwork is only a small part of your skill set, that you have other abilities that are applicable in business, or that you like more personal contact, by all means look at the business side. On the other hand, if you really don't like science anymore, then business may not be for you, either," he says.

I asked him about this last comment, because it seemed to me that if a person were burned out on science, he or she might still be an asset to a company in a business capacity. Dick's answer: "Above all, be certain that you still like science! You may not care for reading the primary literature, or may be tired of the tedium of lab manipulations. But all this is irrelevant if you still enjoy the idea of discovery. If you lose the sense of 'Wow, that's cool' that brought us all into science, you'll be ineffective in the business of science and should seriously consider another career."

Where Can the Ph.D. Thrive in Business?

Next Wave has already featured a number of alternative careers for Ph.D.s interested in business. To recap, here are a few of the job areas where a Ph.D. could do very well:

  • Sales
  • Marketing
  • Technology Assessment
  • Licensing and Technology Transfer
  • Strategic Planning and Project Management
  • Business Development
  • Senior Management

Our office manager, Linda St. James, is the person in our company who looks at the most résumés. She points out that Ph.D. job applicants often make the mistake of targeting senior-management jobs instead of something more realistic:

"We see a lot of cover letters that state a desire to be in 'biotech management,' almost as if the very fact of earning a Ph.D. would lead a person to this naturally," she states. "In fact, reaching a management job in biotechnology can happen very quickly, but not without paying the dues first." St. James agrees with Woodward, who points out that two of the best ways to enter the industry in a business role would be through sales or marketing.

"Sales and marketing are absolutely the best ways to enter the business side," Woodward advises. "The barriers to entry are low, the visibility is high, and you learn the business from the ground up. The skill set needed for success in sales and marketing includes interpersonal skills, a detailed knowledge of your product, a grasp of the customer's wants and needs, a firm understanding of the business, and the ability to sell yourself and your ideas." As a headhunter, I can assure you that these same skills are those required to be successful anywhere in an organization.

Understanding the Difference Between Marketing and Sales

While speaking at "Career Day" events around the country, I am often asked about business opportunities in industry. I like to mention sales and marketing, because I find these positions are not as visible as others. The word "sales," however, has some very negative connotations (usually involving used cars or laboratory supplies). And it seems to me that the distinction between sales and marketing is not clear to many people. I like to describe this difference as similar to that between "cooking" and "eating." You can plan and strategize the launch of a new product, but if you don't have a sales force ready to go out and get it sold, nothing will happen.

Dick Woodward describes it in this way: "I look at sales and marketing as parts of a continuum, as they are both ways of bringing a product or service to a buyer. Marketing tends to be a bit more indirect and strategic in nature, because it focuses on large numbers of customers. Sales is more direct, as it generally involves contact with one or a few customers at a time."

Woodward is the consummate sales guy. But why is it that some people react negatively to that title? Why do companies prefer to call their salespeople "Business Development Representatives"?

"Marketing seems to be generally respectable--you can get a college degree in it, after all--while sales conjures up images of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Herb Tarlick on WKRP in Cincinnati, or any other sleazy stereotype," says Dick. "This is why my mother cried when I went into sales--her son started with a perfectly good Ph.D., moved into marketing, and then ended up a salesman! Actually, she didn't really cry ... but she was sure skeptical for a while," Woodward confesses.

I would agree wholeheartedly that these stereotypes are utter nonsense. In the real world, only professionals succeed. And for anyone thinking about an alternative to bench science, there are a lot of Ph.D. professionals out there like Woodward who are now succeeding in the world of sales and marketing.