Selling Science


After years of intense study to master genetics, or biochemistry, or physics, sales might seem like a pushover. But a leap into instrument sales is not to be made lightly.

Personality is paramount. You needn't be gregarious, but you need to be reasonably outgoing and to enjoy talking to people, says Jaymie DeWitt, a sales account scientist at Uppsala, Sweden-based Biacore, which sells instruments that monitor biomolecular interactions in real time without the use of labels.

For DeWitt, inspiration came early on in her professional career. After getting her undergraduate degree in biology at Olivet Nazarene University in Kankakee, Illinois, she worked in academic labs for about 4 years before returning to the bioanalytical chemistry department of Aventis Behring Pharmaceuticals, where she had worked while in school. "It was fulfilling work, but I never felt it was what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life," she recalls.

In search of a social outlet, DeWitt attended "one of those home parties that women go to." Operating in a manner that will be familiar to anyone who's been to a Tupperware party, the company--called PartyLite--sold candles. "You sat there and watched the little sales spiel, and afterwards you bought whatever you wanted." The sales process intrigued her right away. "That was kind of what pulled me into it, watching this person stand up there and talk about the product. You watched people go from having been dragged to this party to being interested in this candle."

She went on to run her own PartyLite business for 3 years, throwing her own parties and keeping a percentage of sales on the candles she sold, while paying a percentage to the salesperson who recruited her to the business. Whenever she set someone else up, she received a percentage of that person's sales. "You get people to have their own parties and it snowballs from there," she says.

The business was a no-risk way to try sales. "I wasn't giving up a job I was happy with in a lab to go into something that was a black box to me."

Satisfied after a while that sales was something she wanted to pursue but still enjoying research, DeWitt took her time looking for a position. She'd heard good things about Biacore and took a position as a technical support scientist with the company. Her job focused on customer phone support and training, which eased her into learning about the technology and its applications.

When an academic sales position opened up about a year later, she took it. She finds it challenging to keep up with her customers' science, but that is part of the appeal of the job. Sales "gives me the opportunity to never really be removed from the research lab. My research knowledge and experience is more diverse and expansive than it ever could have been had I stayed in one department, no matter how many projects I had my hand in," she says.

Of course, not all who enter instrument sales follow DeWitt's path. Michael Cuthbert didn't know that he wanted to do sales, but he nevertheless took a more direct path to it than did DeWitt. Cuthbert was trained as a physicist at Glasgow University and Imperial College in London, where he earned a PhD in high-temperature superconductivity. Later, he did a postdoc at the University of Bristol, where he worked on the pulsed magnet facility, developing a nonmagnetic dilution refrigerator.

That research brought him into contact with the UK company Oxford Instruments, which, focusing as it does on high magnetic field, low-temperature environments, supplied some of the technologies Cuthbert used in his research. After 3 years and success at the project, he decided to leave academia, and Oxford Instruments, which is based in Tubney Woods near Oxford, UK, seemed a natural fit.

Job security motivated him. "Postdoc work in [the] academy is pretty precarious ? because you're always on a short-term contract, and you have no continuity for planning the rest of your life. I wanted something with a more sure footing but that was still technically challenging," he recalls.

Unlike DeWitt, Cuthbert had no thoughts of sales. He inquired about engineering and design jobs, but the only jobs available were a sales position in the United States and a job as a technical support engineer in Japan.

"I was quite interested in both options, because I guess I had kind of pigeonholed myself, thinking that [physics] was my experience and this was the kind of job I'd be useful for, without really understanding the other functions in the company and the kind of people working in those roles," he says. The Japan position particularly appealed to Cuthbert because it was an opportunity to live and work in a foreign country. "My wife and I had talked quite a bit about living outside the UK."

The more involved he got in sales and marketing, the more his interest piqued, but it also evolved along with the company. When he started in Japan, Oxford Instruments was focused on producing customized instruments. "Localized expertise was crucial to make sure that the level of customization was understood in the UK, but also by the customer. [In time], we pushed for more standard products, and so my role went from being highly specialist to getting more involved in technical marketing and really understanding the customer applications, and to try to fit those applications to standard products that we could offer. It's quite easy to sell a one-off special because the customer gives a wish list of what he wants, whereas trying to persuade people that a standard product is a better option in terms of reliability and ease of manufacture has some different challenges."

Cuthbert spends much of his time now preparing technical literature for standardized products, as well as giving seminars and workshops about how to use the technology. He recently left his position in Japan and is now Oxford Instruments' sales manager for America.

Like DeWitt, he appreciates the chance to stay involved in the technical side of things. "It's the ability to have the best of both worlds--there are commercial opportunities but you are still talking to customers who are doing highly technical research. [It's better than] feeling that you have to leave it all behind."

What's more, the business of science has yielded an unexpected benefit: He is now fluent in Japanese.

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