Veterans from the field offer practical advice for scientists early in their careers. Genome Technology invited readers to submit career-related questions, and then tracked down experts who could provide clear, useful answers.
I’m a bench scientist but I’d like to get into the marketing or management side of the company. What’s the best route? Should I get an MBA?
Nate Lakey, CEO of Orion Genomics, started out on the technology and science side of the field and made the transition to the business front. He credits much of that with the volume of business reading he did, including topics like statistical process control and total quality management. “I was interested in the processes behind science,” he says. “Pretty quickly you find yourself getting into business questions.” That led him to accept and excel at an operations position, which paved the way for his business career.
Linda Kirsch, a professional executive recruiter who specializes in life sciences, says she considered getting an MBA when she realized she wanted to go from science to the business side, but decided that for her, the cost/benefit analysis didn’t make sense. She recommends that scientists take executive and other business training classes, noting that most highly regarded management schools offer short weekend or evening programs on very specific business topics.
Jane Krug, a former scientist who now runs her own marketing consultancy, says her path involved spending time in the sales department as her transition period. “I was really glad I had that experience,” she says. She also notes that this kind of move can be easier in a startup environment, where boundaries aren’t as rigid as they may be in large companies with long-established infrastructure and organization.
I’m about to start my own lab. What factors should I consider?
Rob Mitra, assistant professor in the genetics department at Washington University, says that the most practical considerations are equipping your lab, choosing staff, and selecting a research goal. “Be focused and figure out exactly what you’re going to do in the next two, three, four years,” he says. That information will help you with the other key steps: “Figure out what equipment has to go in the lab. … [And] try to get the best graduate students and postdocs and technicians that you can,” he says.
I am an unhappy postdoc. How do I get out of this lab before my project is completed?
Mitra at WashU advises people in this position to sit down with their PI and talk candidly about the situation. “I think it’s important to have a frank discussion as to what it is that makes you unhappy,” he says. “Your PI shouldn’t be surprised.” He says that in a case where there is no clear way to come to an agreement, a PI would be likely to release, and even help find a new position for, the postdoc. “It’s the honorable thing to do,” Mitra says.
How do I know when it’s time to move on?
“If you’re feeling stale or bored or underutilized, it’s time to look,” says Laurie Irwin, a biotech recruiter who works for Fortune Personnel Consultants. She says if you find that you’re no longer being challenged, you’ve accomplished what you set out to do, or that the organization is not doing well, you should take stock of your situation and seriously consider a move to another place.
Kirsch says obvious situations include those where “your needs aren’t being met [or] when there are situations that you know you can’t correct.” She says it’s common for people to try to ride out bad times with a company, but it may be time to go in cases where that’s actually hurting your livelihood or ability to provide for your family.
Should I get a PhD? Will just having a master’s limit my advancement?
“A PhD in the sciences really takes you a long way,” says Kirsch, noting that very few senior level people in academia or industry don’t have a doctorate. She says opportunities are more open in areas like sales, marketing, or field operations for people who do not have a PhD.
Laurie Irwin says smaller organizations, like small pharma or biotech, are more likely to advance people who have a master’s degree. Jodi Greco, senior employment administrator at the Broad Institute, says that having a PhD is more critical for academic careers than industry ones.
“Often [organizations] still weed people out that don’t have PhDs,” says Rhonda Knudsen, HR director at the Institute for Systems Biology, adding that that trend is slowly changing. “It’s fundamentally hard to change that bias.”
I know networking is important, but how do I do it?
There’s no trade secret for how to become a well-connected person, but experts agree that many simple steps can help the process. Consultant Jane Krug says when she gets someone’s business card, she writes a note on the back about where she met the person or about some aspect of their conversation that she wants to follow up on. In cases where she wants to keep in touch with the person, she says, “I’ll often e-mail them right after and say it was great to meet you.”
Krug also encourages people to walk the exhibit hall floors and attend social functions at conferences — and don’t stand “with the people you know,” she says.
Meeting people at a conference may seem about as appealing as cold-calling for a telemarketing firm, but once you get past any reluctance it can be quite painless. “If you’re shy, you can overcome that by asking people questions about them — people like to talk,” says Nate Lakey at Orion Genomics. “I try to really reach out. If I meet someone who’s new I proactively introduce them to everyone I know. They’ll return the favor and introduce you to people that they know.” Lakey also cautions scientists to keep their expectations reasonable. “It takes about three to five years” for most people to feel solidly connected, he says. “You’ve got to pick a meeting and go to it for three to five years.” At the end of that, he says, you’ll come away “tired but with a great network.”
ISB’s Knudsen recommends joining associations — alumni, scientific, social — to meet more people. She points out that if you move, often associations have other regional branches and become a great way to plug in to a new community. “You have to put yourself out there,” she says.
Which areas are poised for growth or slowdown in the next several years?
Laurie Irwin sees hiring trends in academia and government more so than industry at the moment. Within the field of bioinformatics, she says, she sees companies looking for expertise in specific therapeutic areas and statistics in particular.
Kirsch says that “employers are spending more money closer to the product, no matter what the product.” She’s noticed people who were in earlier-stage research heading down the pipeline to pharmacogenomics, for instance, or other clinical areas.
I want to stay at my institution, but I’d like a promotion. Is it wise to get an offer from another organization to use as leverage?
No way, says Laurie Irwin. “It’s like a cheating spouse,” she says, pointing out that arriving on your supervisor’s doorstep with a competing offer “could be perceived as a threat.” The better course of action, she says, is to “sit down with your boss or manager and talk about reasons why you’re feeling a little stale.” She notes that in a case where somebody did use another offer as leverage, a company that six months down the road had to downsize might look at that person less favorably.
The content here is excerpted from Genome Technology’s annual salary survey, which ran in our June 2006 issue. For this version, GT editors selected the questions and answers best suited to scientists early in their careers.