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How to Handle the Backwoods of Biotechnology

"Biotechnology is one of the most dynamic high-tech industries in the USA. Enhance your future potential by developing a career in biotech through the new 2-year certificate program at ABC Community College."

Several years ago, I read an advertisement much like this one for a new biotechnology program offered at an Arizona college. At first, I was happy to hear that some parts of our local community were beginning to recognize the growth occurring in industrial biology. "Perhaps," I thought, "we might finally see some of that biotech business cross over the state line from California." Some time later, I found out that it was the new graduates who were crossing state lines. Lesson: Biotechnology companies haven't proven to be flexible about the turf in which they blossom.

At Home in the Biotech "Boonies"

I live in the backwoods of biotechnology. It can be tough, because my firm competes with other companies located in major biotech centers on both coasts. However, I travel to see my clients and work the telephone completing my consulting projects, so we do just fine. This may not be true, however, for some of my Arizona friends who are scientists, who feel they are forced to make quality-of-life decisions to stay employed. They've had to move from their home state because they have found that biotechnology primarily flourishes near existing centers of the industry. Both biotechnology and pharmaceuticals are industries with very specific geographical hot spots, and in the case of biotech, this is due to the geographical concentration of investment money and the scientific talent.

For years, U.S. universities and some 2-year schools have been adding biotechnology-related courses to their curricula. This has contributed to the increase in interest in biotech-related jobs. However, based on the number of job seekers versus the number of available positions in their regions, I am not sure if the programs are being built up because of future demand or because it is the educational "in" thing to do.

In one of my first columns on Next Wave, I discussed the existence of these biotech hot spots. Since then, I have discovered much pent-up frustration in scientists who have had difficulty locating positions when extensive long-distance networking and interviewing is involved. I'd like to share some of the feedback I have received on two topics: the frustration involved in this type of job search and the ways others have successfully bridged this geographical gap.

Anger and Eventual Success

Recently, I asked a wide variety of scientists about this problem in a forum that we set up for discussion of this sort. One graduate student shared his feelings with me:

"When I began my work at this university, I thought that I might want to go toward a job at a biotechnology firm someday. All of the news about gene research fed this interest. But I found out soon that there are no Amgens or Genentechs here in the South. I believe that universities are doing their students an injustice by not telling them the true state of the job market for graduates in their locale. Sure, many companies will be looking for entry-level people, but what good does that do anyone here when the bulk of these companies are in San Francisco or Boston? I feel like I am going to get stuck in some water-treatment plant in Georgia or Alabama trying to identify coliforms for the rest of my life. That is not what I had in mind when majoring in microbiology!"

Another scientist, now working in a West Coast biotech firm, experienced the boonies problem when he lived in Colorado and was eventually interviewed by his current employer. He said, "After I was hired, I found out that the company has a policy not to hire entry-level people who come from out of state. When they do that, it costs them about $6000 or $7000 more than hiring a local person. That's what was holding me back."

R. Cody Buchmann, an M.S.-level biochemist now working with a major midwestern pharmaceutical company, explains his frustration this way: "Many companies don't bother interviewing people from outside their region, but yet they'll advertise in national magazines and solicit your resume. It's somewhat deceptive." Nonetheless, Buchmann developed an excellent strategy for working the job search by remote control, and I have incorporated some of his thoughts into the following recommendations.

What You Can Do About It

It's obvious that you can't easily reduce the reluctance associated with long-distance hiring. Companies want to hire employees at the lowest possible cost, and relocation can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for H/R departments, even at small companies. Because there isn't much either you or I can do to change the system, you will have to maximize your visibility to these companies. Here are some ideas:

  • The first and most obvious option is to move to a "hot" area on your own and begin the job search while living in a biotech-rich environment. This is the most costly step you can take, but is also the most productive for developing a face-to-face network of job leads. If you are a grad student now considering a postdoc, one of your predominant selection criteria should be the geographical location of the lab and how it works for your next job step.
  • Some scientists have succeeded through long visits to hot biotech areas, staying with friends or relatives. They have even incorporated a "local" address and phone into their CV or resume--basically eliminating any difference between them and other candidates applying to jobs in that region.
  • Short visits to an area, preceded by a very targeted networking campaign, can produce informational interviews (or better yet, real job interviews) and open doors that a mailed CV just can't. Of course, one disadvantage is the cost of significant long-distance telephoning in advance of your trip.
  • My recommendation is to leverage scientific meetings. (This is the way I handle networking with our client companies.) Invest in yourself by increasing your attendance to scientific meetings in hot biotech regions and use each trip to explore the area and make contacts. Arrive a day or two in advance and stay an extra couple of days after the meeting ends. To get as much out of that local-area trip as possible, make sure that you've done your networking "homework" in advance of the session!

Don't forget that despite the fact that over 80% of the biotech and pharmaceuticals hiring will take place in these hot spots, it is possible to find employment elsewhere. Buchmann, the Chicago-area biochemist, spent a lot of time and money exploring the job market outside of his hometown. Just when potential job leads were finally emerging, he found his current position without having to leave home.

"My best option," Buchmann remarked, "turned out to be right here in the resources that I had locally!" And with the networking skills he learned along the way, he'll be prepared should he ever need to tap those job-search contacts again.

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