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Tooling Up: Little 'r,' Big 'D'

Credit: Kelly Krause, AAAS

The current economy -- including hiring -- is especially unpredictable. The media has been predicting upswings, but hiring just keeps on stagnating, with every halfway-decent month followed by a disappointing one. A month or two ago, I reported in my column that things were looking up and that hiring is increasing, but the latest numbers from Washington (which admittedly aren't focused on science) say that we haven't made any progress at all.

I still believe, based on the number of senior hires companies are now making, that downstream job openings should soon start picking up. But it doesn't pay to prognosticate in such a wacky climate. The best approach is to make your best guess based on solid workforce trends.

The development team -- and its hiring manager -- has different priorities than the discovery folks.

The big trend in biosciences industry is away from research and toward development. R&D is now "little 'r', big 'D'." Couple this trend with our current economic mess -- some say it will take 6 to 8 years to fully recover -- and it's clear that anyone considering an industry career should give some thought to going over to the "D" side.

As opportunities in basic research and discovery decline, operations, manufacturing, and support positions are becoming more numerous. For a while it looked like smaller companies were stepping in to the discovery void left by the bigger companies, but today even small startup companies are shying away from looking like "research boutiques." Instead of doing their own basic research in-house, companies are licensing molecules that are closer to development, often from academia. So although what evidence we have suggests that industrial hiring isn't exactly vigorous, it's probably a lot better on the development side than it is in basic research. In this month's column I will suggest some ways that scientists with roots in academia can prepare themselves for the development side of today's biopharm industry.

Different mindsets

Hiring managers downstream in development don't operate the same way as their colleagues in basic research and discovery, and these differences are reflected in the people they want to hire. (An important caveat: There will always be exceptions to generalizations like these.)

A hiring manager in a discovery position works with less-definite deadlines and timetables than the person who runs the department charged with, for example, scaling up a biomolecule. Although there is never an endless supply of time, there's a sense on the discovery side that deadlines are guidelines, important but nonbinding. The discovery manager knows you can't rush discovery.

But when a product candidate is handed off to the director of process development, the deadlines get a lot more serious. That tells us something about a major difference in the way that these managers look at your application.

Many managers in the discovery area hire like academic departments do: They look for the best labs and plenty of publications, and they like to hire from relevant postdoctoral positions. The development team -- and its hiring manager -- has priorities different from those of the discovery folks. They are less interested in your elegant science and more interested in what you can do to keep their project moving. They care about your ability to get stuff done and the specific skills you bring to the job. They pay more attention to what techniques you've used and what equipment you've had experience on, and less to the number of publications you display. These differences should affect how you structure your application.

Four strategies

Transforming your experience in an academic niche into something that appeals to the fastest growing parts of the biopharm industry requires some retooling of your CV and your plan. Here are my four strategies:

- Refocus the skills and abilities section in your application. If you've got the right experience, you can get yourself ready for a big-D career just by changing the way you're portrayed in your written materials. Refocus your CV on your project-management experience and emphasize skills and techniques you know are in use by the development team you'd like to work for. This works only if you've already put together a strong package, but if you've got relevant skills on your list already -- most people list about 10 skills -- moving skill number three to the top position is an easy and appropriate fix. For most people, though, it takes more than just shuffling items on a CV to make a convincing case.

- Take, and list, certificate courses and extended education. It might seem strange that, after all the high-end education you've had, a course at a community college is what you need to get hired. But sometimes a couple of relevant courses, listed up top with your other educational attainments, can go a long way toward getting you noticed. For example, GMP (good manufacturing practices) skills are essential in many departments downstream from research. Local courses are available from community colleges, trade associations, and independent GMP training companies. You may not need an expensive certificate program; sometimes just a course or two will show you are headed in the right direction.

- Emphasize affiliations with professional organizations. Interested in a development niche like quality assurance or regulatory affairs? Professional associations that specialize in those fields (such as the Society of Quality Assurance and the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society) are worth paying attention to and perhaps joining at an early stage of your career. When your affiliations with organizations like these are mentioned on your CV, hiring managers notice. Trade organizations also have professional coursework designed to assure employers of a certain level of knowledge across the organization. Certifications generally are awarded only to people already practicing in the field, but that doesn't stop you from starting the process. Showing that you have started your Regulatory Affairs Certification program can open doors in the regulatory affairs department, for example.

- Do another postdoc. A lot of people consider doing another postdoc -- extending the period of underemployment by another year or two -- a first option. That's only because postdoc opportunities are out there and not so hard to find. But consider another postdoc a last-ditch option, one you should pursue when the other options fail. If you don't have any alternatives left, find a postdoc with a close tie to industry, or even an industry postdoc, that gives you marketable experiences for the development niche of your choice.

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