For early-career scientists who are interested in an industry position, it’s a great time to start making some new friends.
Contributor Melissa Greven
“It’s the best time for biotech in more than 20 years,” said Kevin Bitterman, a partner at the venture-capital firm Polaris Partners during a panel discussion on the bioscience industry in Boston, Massachusetts. This observation was echoed by his fellow panelists, who came from a variety of backgrounds ranging from pharmaceuticals to non-profit biotechnology firms to contract research organizations (CROs). A few years ago, a lack of investment was expected to lead to the downfall of the biotech sector. But the biotech market swings up and down as does any other and, as with the stock market, the best investments often can be made while the market is in a down phase. Today, the biotech sector is booming thanks largely to an influx of start-ups (in disease, drugs, scientific tools and medical devices) and significant capital backing of them. And that means it is an excellent time for early-career researchers to try to gain entry to the field.
The panel discussion, where Bitterman was joined by Joanne Kamens (Addgene), Margaret Chu-Moyer (Amgen), Masha Hareli (ATR LLC) and was chaired by Heidi Ledford (Nature), was part of the Naturejobs Career Expo, a day-long science-careers conference on 20 May in Boston that was organized and presented by the Naturejobs department of Nature magazine.
Early-career researchers who are considering this route must shift their perspective away from the academic mindset to successfully transition to industry, panel speakers said. For one thing, academic research allows for a significant amount of creativity and freedom. But that is not the case in in industry, where research projects are collaborative and guided by regulatory standards. Moreover, speakers said, industry does not consider academic scientific research to be as rigorous as industrial research. The typical academic scenario, they pointed out, is that a researcher performs an experiment, often only once, and if she or he achieves success (e.g., a great sequencing run), no repeat is necessary. However, industry is held to more stringent standards, and researchers repeat their experiments several times to show that the initial result is not a fluke.
Having good bench skills alone will not get an early-career scientist through industry’s door, said panel speakers. One needs to develop non-bench transferable skills, such as being a team player – because industry projects are tackled by multiple people – and having good communication skills. An entrepreneurial spirit and a willingness to court failure are also hugely beneficial for those who do industrial research, speakers said.
A robust and targeted network is crucial for those who seek employment in the biotech sector, panelists emphasized. The key word here, they said, is ‘targeted’—job-seekers must focus their LinkedIn network, for example, on those in industry, attend the same industry networking events multiple times to underscore their interest in the sector and form personal relationships at professional society events. Kamens told the audience that she has produced a video detailing tips for those who aim for biotech research jobs. She stresses that relationships need to be built and nurtured—a contact list should be filled with people one meets and keeps up with, not just with people one exchanges business cards with. She also says that network relationships need to be mutually beneficial – an early-career researcher should be able to offer as much to their contact as the contact can to the researcher.
Where a postdoc is necessary, even crucial, in academia, it may not be so for researchers who seek industry positions. Some speakers said that they had skipped doing a postdoc, but emphasized that networking is also key at this juncture — they said that they had obtained positions because they had an inside connection with someone who worked for their new employer, and for those in a similar situation, a postdoc can be optional. For those who lack such connections, panelists suggested doing a 2-3-year postdoc and spending that time building a network.
The biotech industry contains jobs that need actual manpower, and thus will not ever be entirely virtual, panelists predicted. Additionally, not all jobs are outsourced, and a good deal of research and development is done locally in the Boston area, which has a rich biosphere. In particular, they said, biotechnology is booming in the Kendall Square area of nearby Cambridge. For early-career scientists who are interested in an industry position, it’s a great time to start making some new friends.