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Is a PhD required for career advancement in computational biology?

Yes. For an academic career, our experts agree that having a PhD is both necessary and appropriate for advancement in computational biology. Though it may matter less for a career in industry, Philip Bourne says it is nonetheless better to have a doctorate than not. "It's just a general perception of the level of training one's had going into the profession, and it seems important," he says.

What are the best networking opportunities for making the transition to a career at a biotech startup?

There are several places to look for networking contacts in order to move to a career at a biotech start-up. According to Bourne, industry-oriented conferences — like those organized by the Cambridge Healthtech Institute — are good places to start. Also, he adds, professional networks like LinkedIn are becoming increasingly important to make and maintain new contacts and to catch up with former colleagues. Such contacts could be important networking tools when you are looking to change jobs.

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Ellen Clark advises those looking to break into biotech to check out smaller companies and submit résumés to them. "You have a much greater chance looking at the Web site and sending in your CV [at a small company] than you would at a Merck or a Pfizer where it would just get lost," Clark says. In addition, Web sites that have job listings such as Bio Space and sites that list recruiters like TheLabRat.com are good places to check whether the companies are looking to hire, and the types of people they are looking for.

Clark also advises biotech job hunters to get on LinkedIn. "Type in 'HR' and the name of a company and most likely that person is going to come up, and then you can send them a message," Clark says. "Everybody's using LinkedIn and it's really very professional and very good." Also, she adds, make sure your LinkedIn profile is complete so that a recruiter or HR manager can find you. And, of course, if you know anyone who has gone into industry from your lab, they could be a great resource for information.

Do you any have recommendations, other than doing an MBA, for someone with a life science research background who wants to work in tech transfer or business development?

Our experts agree that an MBA isn't necessary to work in technology transfer or business development. In fact, they say PhDs or MDs are far more useful as those degrees denote someone who is familiar with the science and technology that the university or company is trying to commercialize.

"Industry experience is very valuable, as is knowledge of intellectual property and law, because the vast majority of technology transfer has to do with licensing," says Jim O'Connell. "Maybe one of our 10 licensing officers has an MBA and the rest have PhDs. It's a matter of understanding industry needs and understanding the intellectual property that you're selling, so anything you can do to expand your knowledge of industry needs and the value of intellectual property in the market — I think that's the best thing you can do."
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Similarly, Clark says that what most companies want to see is experience, a history of making deals, and a knowledge of the science. If you are working in a lab and want to move to business development, go to the business development office where you work and express a desire to join them, Clark advises. They can start you off with a small project, and with time, you can gain enough experience to do the job full time. "Business deals are more important than an MBA," Clark says. "Work first within your company and get the business deals."

In order to get your foot in the door at your institution's tech transfer or business development office, a willingness to learn goes a long way. Internships are very important, and many people who work in tech transfer start as interns to familiarize themselves with the area and see how it's done, says Rick Silva. Bourne also advises those interested in tech transfer to start with an internship. "You can get some on-the-job training," he adds.

It's also necessary to have drive, curiosity, and the ability to learn; having a research background is important as it shows that you already have the necessary traits and skills like persistence and the ability to work hard, Silva adds.

What is the general perception of people who switch careers between academia and industry?

For those who want to make a switch from a career in academia to one in industry but worry about how they will be perceived, our experts say there isn't much cause for concern. The key to advancement in academia is publishing, and if you go into industry, the likelihood of maintaining a high rate of publication is unlikely, Bourne says. However, there are skill sets you can establish in industry that would be useful in an academic environment. Also, he adds, the line between academia and industry is blurring as academia has found itself in need of partnerships with industry more often. "In terms of perception, I think it may have been that, at one time, people looked down a bit on people moving to industry. But I think the caliber of people now in industry [is high] — there's enough interaction to know that they're of equal caliber," Bourne says.

Clark says that while some established scientists in academia still see the switch to industry as selling out, there are many good researchers in industry, and most people "don't care about that anymore."

What is the best way to go about getting tenure?

Although each institution has its own requirements for tenure, the simple answer, Bourne says, is "publish, publish, publish. Money, money, money. Or rather, money, publish, money, publish, money, publish." Bringing grant dollars in and showing the university that you can be a productive and prolific researcher is the way to making an impression on those who wield the power to grant tenure. Of course, teaching and community service are also usually required.
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What can I do to negotiate a better salary?

From an academic point of view, bringing in grant money and publishing papers work well for salary negotiations as well as for getting tenure, Bourne says. Being productive gives you leverage, which is important in negotiating a better salary. "If I'm doing well on grants, and I'm bringing significant money into the institution, and they have to pay me a portion of that back in a higher salary, they'll do it because it's to their benefit," he adds. Being involved with a high-profile project or one that brings a lot of visibility to the university also helps create leverage for salary negotiations.

For a job in industry, Clark says it's important not to play games with hiring managers. Let the company start the conversation by providing a number, and go from there. If they offer significantly less than you'd like, ask why.

Additionally, Clark says, men usually negotiate their salaries, while women tend to accept what is offered. As a result, she adds, women "generally get a lower salary, and that's really sad." It's important to negotiate if you think you're worth a higher salary.

Our Panel of Experts

Philip Bourne, professor of pharmacology at the University of California, San Diego's Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences
Ellen Clark, president of biotech and pharmaceutical recruiting firm Clark Executive Search
Jim O'Connell, program director for the Coulter Translational Research Partnership at the University of Michigan
Rick Silva, director of the University of Colorado's technology transfer office

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