This job makes great use of a scientific skill set and is criminally underrated, says Issa Moody.
Let’s face it. Job prospects for PhD candidates and postdoctoral scientists are dismal. In 2012, a study on the biomedical research workforce, conducted by the National Institutes of Health and pictorialized by the American Society for Cell Biology, showed that there is a significant number of biology PhDs in the US who have resorted to doing non-science jobs. Those who stay in science face financial penalties: one 2017 Nature Biotechnology study demonstrated postdocs, on average, forfeit 20% of their earning potential within the first 15 years of completing their PhD program.
While enrolled in my PhD programme, I realized long before completing it that I had no interest in staying in academia for much longer. Ideally, I wanted a scientist position within industry without first doing postdoctoral research, which I viewed as less important for scientists who have no plans to become professors. During the last year of my graduate work, I applied to between 60 and 80 industry positions to no avail.
Eventually I began to consider other career options. I participated in case study events hosted by management consulting firms and enrolled in investment management courses to test the waters in those sectors.
Eventually, I followed the path of least resistance and started a postdoc in an X-ray crystallography laboratory at the University of California, San Diego. I continued to apply to industry scientist positions from day one of my postdoc and gave myself an ultimatum: ‘If I don’t have a scientist job within 1.5 years, I’m joining the MBA programme and transitioning to the business side of the biotech industry.’
One-and-a-half years passed. I joined an MBA programme. This was where I first became aware of product management. Ranked #9 by Glassdoor on the list of top 50 jobs in the US, product management represents an exciting career option for scientists as it provides an opportunity for them to leverage their technical training and stay closely engaged with the scientific community.
Product management is the field I work in now. I hope the rest of this blog explains why.
What does a product manager do?
Put simply, the primary function of a product manager is to make stuff. More specifically, it’s to make innovative products and services that address customer pain points and unmet needs within the market. In addition to launching new product offerings, product managers also dedicate a significant proportion of their time to tweaking and improving existing products. This may involve changing prices, closing down a particular product line, or training sales teams, for example.
At its core, product management is about generating revenue growth for a company by creating value for customers. A product manager is responsible for shepherding the thing a company makes and sells from the beginning to end of development.
Skills necessary to be an effective product manager
Scientists are well-suited for a career in product management as many of the skills required to be successful are developed during graduate school.
Working in teams is one example. Research has become increasingly collaborative over the past several decades. Manuscripts are often published with authors listed from various institutions if not different countries altogether, and funding agencies encourage collaboration of all kinds. This is excellent experience. Product managers are similarly required to work across an organization with various groups including finance, operations, legal, quality control, manufacturing, and project management.
(Albeit a less common path for scientists to take than product management, project management requires excellent organizational skills and an ability to delegate action items to group members. Project managers make sure a specific project, rather than a product, runs smoothly and swiftly.)
Other notable attributes required to be a successful product manager are the ability to multitask, communicate effectively, and maintain a strong entrepreneurial drive. In my experience, these skills could describe a scientist. Scientists often juggle three or four projects simultaneously and independently and must deliver regular public presentations of technical information.
How to leverage skills developed in the lab to get your foot in the door
Transitioning from research into product management can be challenging as employers often prefer experienced professionals. It is the age old conundrum: everyone wants to hire someone with experience, but nobody wants to give it to you. These are some tips for breaking into the industry:
- Familiarize yourself with basic marketing and finance principles.
Because competition can be stiff, it’s definitely to your advantage to differentiate yourself from fellow competitors in as many ways as possible. One surefire way to achieve this is by developing a basic understanding of some core concepts important to all product managers. There are lots of places that will help to facilitate this. Online platforms like Udemy and Coursera, free YouTube lectures, micro MBAs, and certificates thru university extension programs are all good starts.
- Demonstrate your ability to identify problems and formulate solutions.
Since a critical aspect of a product manager’s job is to identify customer needs, having one or two solid examples to discuss in an interview is important. For instance, my postdoctoral lab wasn’t particularly well organized, which made it difficult to find specific DNA plasmids and sometimes resulted in lab members having to remake plasmids that had previously been created. The inventory system I developed using a combination of QR codes and Evernote significantly enhanced the organization of the lab and gave me an opportunity to explain how I identified a community problem and helped solve it.
- Apply to associate-level positions.
Companies value the years of training and dedication required to complete a PhD. But whether or not it’s enough to allow you to move into a product manager position often depends on the size of the company. You may be able to transition from PhD candidate or postdoc to product manager at a small to midsize company. But larger, more established companies often have stricter requirements around experience. Therefore, it’s in your best interest to apply both junior and middle/standard positions. Moving straight from research to a senior product manager position without experience is unlikely irrespective of the size of the company.
- Create your own product.
It could be something as simple as a blog. Any hobby or side project you have that provides value to others will enable you to illustrate how you were able to identify a need and what you did to address it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something that makes you money either. Ideally, you would also be able to show a growing readership, outline any actions taken to expand your audience, as well as describe the methods you employed to facilitate engagement with subscribers.
Issa Moody earned a PhD in molecular biology & biochemistry from UC Irvine and an MBA from Rady School of Management. He works in product management and is creator of the course Product Management for Transitioning Scientists. You can follow him on LinkedIn or Twitter.