Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Tooling Up: The Project Management Career Track

(Bill Bradford)

Recruiters will tell you that the three words “project management experience” are golden on a curriculum vitae (CV). In my biotechnology search practice, I've found that smaller employers have a ferocious appetite for people with these abilities. Such companies have learned by trial and error that keeping a dozen balls in the air is not a task that you can assign to an entry-level scientist!

Project management is an established discipline, with degrees, techniques, and professional certifications. Yet many of the people who do this kind of work in scientific industries do it without this formal training–or they pick up that training later. Furthermore, project management is also a toolbox used by those in other lines of work.

Every company has relationships that extend beyond its labs, and each of those companies has someone to manage it from inside. That post is the perfect jumping off point to a project management career.

In this month's Tooling Up, I highlight one scientist's successful journey into a project management career at a biotechnology company. No matter what industry sector you consider for employment, you will find employers readily hiring people like Todd Pray–people who show that they have the detail management, communication, and people skills that it takes to manage projects.

Influence without authority

“I started to develop an interest in this type of work back in my graduate school days, because the lab I came from was such a collaborative environment,” says Todd, the associate director of project management at Amyris Biotechnologies, a San Francisco Bay–area company involved in medical research and biofuels. Todd did his Ph.D. in biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), where his mentor, a professor with strong ties to industry, fostered strong collaborations. Todd quickly discovered that collaborative science works best when one has the ability to get things done without necessarily being in charge.

“They say that project management is a job of influencing without real authority,” Todd says. Here, Todd isn't talking about the technical discipline of project management but about one of the biggest challenges to getting things done in complex organizations, which is the job, ultimately, of most project management pros in biotech and pharma. The ability to motivate and influence people who don't report to you is a very subtle business, and it's a core skill that's essential for any job that involves project management.

Managing details, communication, and collaborations

Todd didn't jump into a project management position immediately after graduate school, and most people won't. By the time he finished his Ph.D. in 2000, he had considered several postdoc positions. But he really wanted to be closer to the applications of the science he had been working on in his lab. And, like many others, he was anxious for a full-time income instead of a trainee's salary.

Todd landed a position as a research scientist at Rigel Pharmaceuticals, a biotechnology company with 120 employees, where he worked on assay development for drug targets and did experimental biochemistry. “I saw how it is possible to produce results in a highly coordinated way. This was so much better, it seemed to me, than having one or two people working in isolation in an academic lab. That 'team thing' I had heard about really seemed to have some merit.”

At that early point in his career, Todd didn't show any formal project management responsibilities on his CV. But his new job taught him how important influence, detail management, and communication skills would become to him in the near future. “I became our company's scientific contact for work that was being done by an external collaborator, and so it was my job to keep both parties up to speed on our mutual progress,” Todd says.

Todd believes that working with outside collaborators is a great way to learn the basics of what could become a career in project management. Every company has relationships that extend beyond its labs, and each of those companies has someone to manage it from inside. That post is the perfect jumping-off point to a project management career.

Creative job searching

In 2003, the biotechnology industry headed into a nosedive that hadn't been equaled in the industry's history–and wasn't until 2009. Those were tough economic times, and Rigel's layoffs included Todd. He was forced to look for work.

Soon he found a great temporary position with a new commercial unit at UCSF. “A screening operation for small molecules was being set up at the university, and I had the opportunity to introduce this new service to the biotechnology industry. My job centered on business development and even marketing, something I had no experience with at all.” It didn't take Todd long to bring in the unit's first industrial contract, putting some valuable business experience onto his CV.

Todd had another contractor role with a major biotech company before jumping into the world of start-up companies in 2004, at Acumen Pharmaceuticals. There, he had the chance to work at the bench while assuming a project manager job, coordinating shared interests with his employer's external partner, Merck and Co.

“Only in a small company can you get the experience of working ... in the lab as well as managing a relationship with a partner as important as this one,” Todd says. “After a couple of years of working with Merck, and an evening MBA program at UC Berkeley, I was as ready as I could be to take a full-time project manager role.”

Todd had maintained his network of friends from his grad school days. It was through that network that he heard about a hot start-up company that was working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on malaria. He moved to this company, Amyris, in 2006 as a research manager for all malaria projects. Today, Todd's title is associate director of project management for Amyris Biotechnologies. He has moved from malaria research to concentrating primarily on biofuels.

“I am the interface that our project leaders have every day into other functional groups, such as manufacturing, legal, business, or accounting. While I'd love to manage one project and have the joy of watching it move from the lab into the field, with the number of projects we have here now, my job has shifted to one of facilitating the whole portfolio.

“My day consists of doing all that I can to support our project leaders,” he continues. Whatever tools and support a project leader needs in a research group, it's up to Todd to provide. It might be budgeting and planning assistance, software, or communication training or assistance. He's also the person who is between the project leader and that person's sponsor in management, so this is where clear communication becomes so critical.

“My role is to see that both parties in that relationship get what they need to keep these projects moving. It's critical to clearly articulate the vision for project objectives and requirements at the outset. In fact, over-communication is key to keeping people informed, on board, and on track,” Todd told me.

Todd's recommendations

Project management isn't something that you can move to directly from academia, but you can take certain actions during your graduate school training that will help you further on in your career. Todd was noticed, for example, because of the collaborative laboratory he came from and his resulting people skills and ability to communicate effectively.

But even if you don't have a lot of industry collaboration in your lab, it's possible to get training with outside coursework on project management. There are hundreds of such programs offered as certificate programs or weekend seminars and workshops all over the country. Like many hiring managers, Todd looks for candidates who've sought out such training and experience in the CVs that he reviews.

“Along with outside training on project management, it's interesting when you see an individual [who] has the common tools we use, like software programs, listed on their CV: Microsoft Project or @Task,” Todd says. “It's a good way to show that you have the intent to work in project management.”

Photo (top): Bill Bradford

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers