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Project Management for Scientists, Part 1: An Overview

Whether it is a time of boom or bust, the key to the survival of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies is to place successful products on the marketplace. Project managers are becoming an increasingly integral part of that strategy. So, how can scientists help fill this niche in the job market? In this two-part series, we?ll hear from a scientist turned entrepreneur about the ins and outs of project management, training requirements, and the kind of financial rewards you can expect.

Would an advertisement such as ...

Project Manager, Cell Culture Development (Ph.D.) Major biotechnology Company; Location: San Francisco, California, area Compensation: $85K + bonus + stock options

... grab your attention?

You may wonder whether jobs such as these truly exist. Rest assured--they do. Contract research organizations, biotechnology outfits, and pharmaceutical companies all hire full-time project managers. There are even consulting companies in project management that hire and supply project managers to other organizations on a contractual basis.

The Need for Skilled Project Managers

Biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies face constant challenges in the course of developing new pharmaceuticals or other products. Typically, most drug development processes suffer from planning problems, as well as delays in development, unforeseen activities, cost overruns, and losses resulting from high turnover. These shortcomings are often due to poor project handling by managers who have little or no formal training in dealing with the complexities of today?s projects.

The problem is particularly common in many of today?s mushrooming biotechnology companies, where former academic scientists are often transplanted into management roles with little or no knowledge of the business side of science. It?s no surprise, then, that the field of project management is making major inroads into these industries, and certified project managers are becoming the most sought-after professionals and problem solvers. "There is a real gap for project managers in the marketplace, and it is expected that there will be a huge demand for project managers in the larger pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries in the near future," says Kathryn Pottruff, president of Micro Education Group Inc., a company specializing in strategic planning, project management, and consulting. "It is just a matter of maturation until these industries recognize the value of hiring project managers."

What Is Project Management

One may ask why companies need to focus on project management techniques and employ project managers. Can?t general managers and their teams carry out the same work? Well, the difference lies in how projects and project management are perceived. General management involves the overall operation and running of the company, as well as participation in multiple projects, including strategic planning, marketing, sales management, manufacturing, human resources, and financial planning.

In contrast, projects are temporary, one-off affairs organized to achieve a set objective or goal, with teams assigned for the duration of the project and strict attention paid to scheduling and budget. Project managers are hired to develop marketing programs, launch blockbuster drugs, run annual sales meetings, and manage clinical trials and drug development processes.

According to the latest edition of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, Project Management Institute, 2000), project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to a broad range of activities in order to meet the requirements of the particular project (see sidebar). These results are defined in terms of four factors: cost, schedule, performance, and scope. Cost is the budget allocated to the project, schedule is the timeline for the project's deliverables, scope is the magnitude of the job, and performance has to do with how well the team members do their work.

Project management in pharmaceutical companies confines itself to one project and focuses on the following:

  • Setting project goals

  • Putting strategic plans into practice

  • Increasing productivity and efficiency of staff

  • Establishing measures of success

  • Quantifying value commensurate with cost

  • Optimizing the use of organizational resources

  • Incorporating quality principles

  • Overcoming technical challenges

  • Standardizing routine tasks--for example, formulating standard operating procedures and reducing the number of tasks that could potentially be forgotten

  • Ensuring that available resources are used in the most effective and efficient manner

  • Planning and executing for clinical evaluation

  • Managing communications

  • Providing senior management insight into "what is happening" and "where things are going" within their organization

  • Reducing overheads

  • Successfully scaling up the drug from discovery to market introduction

  • Ensuring fast time to market.

Where Does a Scientist Fit In?

Believe it or not, every researcher brings some project management skills to the table. These are often skills that you would have picked up somewhat unconsciously along the way while struggling with a succession of failed experiments, manuscript and progress report deadlines, and grant writing. Not to mention the interpersonal skills acquired when dealing with uncooperative labmates and technical staff. If you have technical proficiency in your area of expertise; a bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree in science; and organizational and people skills, then you are off to a good start and project management could indeed be the field for you. But there?s more to the job than that, according to project management experts.

"First and foremost, not everybody can become a good project manager," says Michael Marmur of Michael Marmur & Associates. Marmur is a certified management consultant and provides strategic advice to project management teams. He emphasizes the importance of making sure that this is the right decision for you, and he adds that "most people don?t realize that there are many innate attributes and competencies that go into the making of a successful project manager." He recommends getting a psychological test done to evaluate your strengths, weaknesses, and suitability for this profession (see sidebar). "It can be an empowering thing to do for yourself," he says.

Marmur's Self-Assessment Test

  • Answer the following questions honestly:

    • Will I be able to change my mindset from thinking like a highly skilled, technical professional to thinking like a manager?

    • Do I have the ability to define a project, scope it out, talk to all the stakeholders in the project, make timelines, and work towards the successful execution of a project?

    • Do I have the ability to stick to the project scope, modify it depending upon the circumstances, and still be able to keep the specific end in mind? For example, in a road-building project, there is a definite start and finish. Engineers work out the type of road they want to build, the timelines, and the budget. Most scientists are used to planning an experiment and making changes along the way depending upon the results they obtain, particularly in the life sciences. Remember, however, that whereas a research scientist can probably afford to keep changing the scope of the project, a project manager cannot.

  • Get feedback from your colleagues, peers, and supervisors. Ask them to rate you on the following:

    • Supervisory and managerial skills

    • People and communication skills

    • Ability to complete a designated team task on time.

In general, project managers need to have very strong people skills, negotiating skills, and the ability to resolve conflict and communicate effectively--skills not necessarily emphasized for scientists, says Pottroff. "Project management," she says, "can easily be called a negotiation job, because you are negotiating with everybody all the way through the project. If you are basically a highly technical person, the transition to becoming a PM could be extremely difficult."

Stay Tuned ...

With every career transition, you go from expert in one field back to beginner in another. As the new kid on the block in project management, it is up to you to find a way to talk yourself into a job. Pottruff stresses that the key to getting that much-needed foot in the door is to keep networking until you find someone in the industry who will hire you.

In the next article, we?ll take a closer look at look some of the preliminary steps you should consider before leaping into the field of project management, including training and networking.

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