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Your Next Genome Job: How to Nab It


The market for genomics and bioinformatics talent is still strong. Don’t let the layoff trend stress you out.


By Adrienne Burke


Applied Precision, DNA Sciences, DoubleTwist, Genomic Solutions, Genomica, Genomics One, Incyte, NetGenics, Time Logic, Valentis. Those are just a few genomics-industry employers that have unloaded staff in the last six months. That news combined with the general economic climate would indicate that job hunting is tough going for genomics scientists and bioinformaticists.

But if you’re newly jobless, or just looking for a new gig, relax. The genomics job market is still hot, say headhunters and human resources directors. For employers, it’s as tough to fill a genomics position as ever. For talented employees, the choices are plentiful.

Opportunities have actually increased, not declined, in recent months, according to Mimi Hancock, leader of the biotech/genomics specialty practice for the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles in San Francisco. “I don’t think people in the bioinformatics industry have any worries,” Hancock says. “They’re highly employable.” In fact, biotech and healthcare recruiters are among her firm’s busiest. “The economy being lousy has not affected the hiring pace in this industry,” Hancock says.

While Hancock says the economy hasn’t affected compensation rates either, Amy Lurier, president of the Boston biotech and bioinformatics recruiting firm TechFind, has seen some decline. Entry-level IT salaries that had become inflated to compete with dot-com employers have come back down, she says. (“Someone with a PhD and zero postdoc [experience] does not deserve to [start at] $90,000,” Lurier says. “The going rate now is about $70,000.”) Otherwise she agrees with Hancock: In genomics, “there are more jobs now than ever.”

In fact, says Lurier, recruiting new staff is made more difficult for some biotech companies because professionals are more wary about changing jobs these days. She always advises against jumping to a new job just for more money. “If you’re going to change jobs it should be because the science is good and it’s going to advance your intellectual and scientific background.” And in the current economy, more people seem to be subscribing to that philosophy. “People are being really cautious,” Lurier says.

Add to that the fact that hiring foreign nationals has been made more difficult for US firms since since September 11 when H-1B visa processing slowed down, and you’ve got employers left with a lot of empty desks.

Susan Halstead, the staffing specialist at the Mountain View, Calif., microarray manufacturer Caliper Technologies, says the 250-employee company hasn’t had any layoffs, doesn’t intend to, and has 24 positions open. Joanne Harrack, VP of human resources for Integrated Proteomics in Toronto, which has a staff of 60, has 30 jobs to fill. “The war for talent has heated up,” Harrack says.

And Lurier says there are plenty of skilled workers in the industry looking to hop jobs. Despite the appearance that genomics startups offer exciting challenges and great corporate cultures, Lurier says “everyone is disgruntled.” She calls the genomics industry “a breeding ground for poor management. You have all these scientists who think they’re CEOs.” And while dot-coms and IT firms flounder, the numbers of professionals looking to transfer into the genomics field is increasing.

If you’re one of them, the recruiters and HR folks have some advice. Here are their tips for finding your genomics dream job.

Bypass the HR department. Inside big pharma, human resources departments are trained to send resumés right to the hiring managers. “They don’t screen, they forward them off,” says Lurier. But if you’re going for a job with a small genomics company, “It’s best if you can send your resumé directly to the person doing the hiring,” she advises.

Why? She’s not confident that the folks in human resources always understand the demands of scientific jobs or know how to read a scientist’s resumé. Case in point: a personnel manager for a publicly traded company listed on the Genome Technology Index (see p. 78) assured GT that the company is not in the genomics space.

Another recommended that scientists whittle their 15-page resumés down to one page. Lurier says that’s silly. “These are scientists,” she says. “I have a 26-page CV sitting on my desk. If I have someone with 200 publications versus one, I’m more apt to look at the 200.”

Avoid headhunters. The distaste seems to be mutual between HR execs and recruiters. If they can avoid it, HR departments would prefer not to deal with search firms. Caliper’s Halstead says that for the expense of a headhunter, sometimes as much as $20,000, “you lose control of recruitment and half the time the candidate would have seen the job on his own.

“If there’s a job open, it’s going to be on our website,” she says.

Know the job you’re applying for. “We look for someone who’s enthusiastic about the wonderful technology we’re working on,” says Halstead. She advises job candidates to research the company and apply to a specific position.

Adds Integrated Proteomics’ Harrack, “Don’t assume that what you’ve learned wherever you came from is immediately applicable. If you come from IT, don’t assume you can immediately flip those skills into biotech.” Harrack also suggests that applicants understand their own motivations. “What is it that interests you in this particular company and in this kind of company? Do you work for high risk and high reward? What value proposition is important to you?”

Mike Hennessey, who has had a hand in hiring every employee of the Ann Arbor, Mich., bioinformatics company GeneCodes, says it can be transparent when an applicant is just looking for a situation that’s not as bad as her current one, and that’s not the kind of person he wants to hire.

Get the right experience. More and more, genomics companies are looking for employees with drug discovery backgrounds. Celera and Craig Venter are the most obvious current example. Hancock, who happened to be visiting Tony White in Rockville on the day the CSO’s departure was announced, says of Venter’s successor, “Whether it’s an individual who comes in from biotech or pharma, that person needs to understand drug discovery and the pharma environment.”

Halstead says Caliper’s size doesn’t afford it the luxury to hire people who need a lot of training. “We’re looking for people with industry experience, not someone out of academia. We [prefer] someone who has actually worked at a biotech or pharma.”

Harrack agrees: “People with drug discovery experience of some sort are prime candidates.” And, she says, she especially looks for new recruits who will bring new ideas to the table. “We’re looking for people who demonstrate growth potential, interdisciplinary experiences, and small, fast company experience,” she says.

Executive recruiter Hancock says bioinformaticists should make sure their next job grooms them for future career advancement: “At this point in time, bioinformatics executives need to situate themselves in an integrated company alongside molecular biologists and cell biologists.”

Network. Recruiters and HR pros agree on one thing: your network is usually the best way of finding a new job. Caliper has had such success with hiring people recommended by its own employees that it established a rewards program for referrals by which employees can win movie tickets, massages, cash, and vacations for bringing in new hires. In 2001 the program brought in 350 resumés and resulted in 26 hires.

Marty Gollery, who submitted his resumé for Mimi Hancock’s review (see p. 72), says, “My situation is kind of odd because I am so self-taught. I don’t think I will get anything from my resumé, probably my best chances are from people who know me.” Says Hancock, “He’s probably right. Networking is always better than just a piece of paper.” But, she notes, “if your resumé is a dealbreaker, that’s no good.”

Get your resumé in shape. In a market this tough, “you don’t really throw out any resumés,” says Harrack. But that doesn’t mean the sloppy ones stand a chance.

The red flags are the same as in any industry. Halstead says job hoppers, unstable work histories, and incomplete resumés that leave her guessing don’t rise to the top of the pile.

And, if you’re trying to transition from another industry into genomics, “be able to point to accomplishments in your own industry and tell how they translate to this one,” says Hennessey. But having no biology background is no problem, he says. And he should know: he got the job of GeneCodes’ VP of operations with master’s degrees in Russian history and business administration.


Resumé Reengineering

Marty Gollery was laid off in January from his position as director of bioinformatics research at Time Logic, a developer of DNA accelerator instruments in Incline Village, Nev. Now he’s temporarily helping out a local startup, but looking for a permanent position. He courageously agreed to be the first victim of a GT Resumé Reengineering.

We asked Mimi Hancock, a genomics industry executive recruiter with Heidrick & Struggles in San Francisco, to take a look at Marty’s CV and offer some advice. While Hancock says it’s not unusual for her firm to restructure an executive’s resumé before presenting a candidate to a client, it’s also common for startups and venture-backed companies to request an un-retouched version. So, she says, “your CV needs to be as attractive and informative, without being verbose, as possible.”

For long-term career security, Mimi recommends that Marty get himself into a position that offers him broader experiences. “The era of the company that just specializes in bioinformatics is probably past,” Hancock says. “He should go to one of the larger biotech companies — a Biogen or an Amgen or a Genentech — that have groups that do what he’s skilled at. The advantage of being in that environment is that you learn new skill sets. My advice to him would definitely be to surround himself with other opportunities.” —AB


“What does that mean? What did he actually do? I’m not someone who believes the one-page resume is the best thing. If you want to get in the door you have to have a hook!”


“In what capacity? What was achieved? I really look for evidence that a person did something. Just a sentence as to how this was achieved.”


“Well, so what? Is he trying hard to find something to put down? If he’s trying to say he has international experience, he should say he did X, Y, and Z.”


“I’d encourage him to look at each of these bullet points and say, ‘What does this mean? Is there another way of stating the bullet point so it gives more information to the person at the other end?’”


“Marty has an awful lot of white space. He could format this so that he could allow himself to put more information on it. I’d like to see more than job titles.”


“I don’t usually put interests on a CV. That’s something we get into in an interview and personal conversation. I’d rather focus on work experience.”


“He could put more effort into describing his actual work experience and just say ‘publications and presentations available upon request.’ Or put the publications on a separate page as an addendum.”