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Mastering Business

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So you’re sick of the lab. You want to make more money. And those folks over in marketing always look like they’re having more fun than you. If you’re looking to move from the bench to business, getting an MBA is a good option. But, according to several experts GT interviewed, it’s certainly not the only one.

Life sciences recruiter Karen Skillen spends her days interviewing upper-level managers. Skillen is the managing director at BioQuest, a San Francisco-based executive search firm that focuses on venture-backed, small to mid-sized, early to mid-stage life science companies. In her opinion, those people that are most successful in this path tend to have made an investment in learning about business. “I would say that, looking at the background of people who are successful at the most senior level, quite often they will include both a science qualification and an MBA as well,” she says.

Arash Thranian, director of clinical and business intelligence at Oncology Therapeutics Network, a leading specialty distributor to community oncology practices, decided to go back for his MBA in finance immediately after getting a PhD in genetics from the University of California, Davis. He thinks it’s a good strategy if you want to get out of the lab and into business, but have no real experience in industry. However, he warns, “MBAs are a dime a dozen.”

He adds, “My recommendation is either get into a top 15 MBA school, or don’t even bother,” since it’s so costly to attend a full-time program. Going to a top school is advantageous because there is a higher caliber of teaching and access to greater resources, according to Thranian. Most importantly, he adds, you have “exposure to top companies and their CEOs,” which could lead to a better chance of being placed directly out of school.

Thranian started his career at then-Amersham Pharmacia Biotech as an application scientist, and then moved into financial analysis by parlaying his MBA. “Once I was in the door, the MBA came in handy,” he says. “At the very least, it gives you some picture of how this whole system works.”

MBA Alternatives

The MBA acts as a form of classical training that’s one way for people with no business experience, such as scientists who have spent their careers at the bench, to move from research to marketing, business development, or management.

But getting formal business training doesn’t necessarily mean investing time and money into a full-time MBA program. Some companies will offer executive training seminars or other career development business workshops. Or there may be a mentor or someone in a leadership role who could offer instruction and guidance on the job.

The industry is becoming increasingly competitive, says Skillen, and offering career development training courses — large companies today will often reimburse employees for part- or full-time programs — is being used to attract quality employees. “More and more we are seeing the question come up, ‘What is the company going to do for me?’ Something like offering an MBA program is a very good way of answering that question,” Skillen says.

And if you’re not so lucky to work at an organization that offers that, plenty of universities offer introductory business classes on weekends or in the evenings. For many non-bench jobs, that may be all the business training you actually need. Alternatively, you can try to find more business-oriented opportunities within your existing organization as a way to hone your skills. In academic settings, for instance, scientists who work at a core lab get the chance to develop project management skills and learn to work with a budget — two factors that go a long way in the business realm.

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