Changing careers into biotech

by | March 31, 2009

If the prospect of changing careers leaves you feeling so queasy that the impulse to jump into bed and draw the covers over your head until the impulse is expelled from your mind, think again. Career experts predict that young people entering the workforce to day are likely to have as many six careers in their working lives.

The most significant rewards of career transitions are likely to be internal and non-monetary. A better fit with your primary colleagues and work environment, more personal satisfaction from the new focus relative to the old, greater self-confidence and self-esteem, and generally, an overall greater sense of happiness with life - these are the main rewards of successful career transitions.

On the other hand, career transitions can be costly - both in monetary terms, as a result of the need for retooling, and in terms of professional status, as you will likely have to reenter the workplace at a less-senior level than you were in the old career.

"Most recruiters work with people inside their existing skill set," asserts a leading recruiter. "It's pretty tough to transition to new careers in this economy. Most companies don't want to hire someone who has to ramp up. There are too many people with the specific skills sets needed."

In a scientific field like biotechnology, the three main possible career transitions involve transitions from:

  • Scientific to non-scientific field (e.g., discovery research scientist to operations manager)
  • Technical to administrative field (e.g., research scientist to business development)
  • A discipline/field outside the biological sciences to one within the industry

    Below are some examples of how you might carry out a career transition.

    Case 1: A scientist wishes to leave discovery research to focus on developing products for commercialization. This transition is one that involves moving from basic science to applied science and engineering. Although it may seem straightforward, this type of transition requires a fundamental shift in intellectual focus, which is often difficult for many people.
    Strategy: Coursework in engineering is a definite plus, and may be required for senior positions. In addition to academic work, exposure to engineering environments is critical, as it will provide you with the crucial "reality checks" needed to make informed choices.
    Assessment: At the heart of this transition is a need to solve more concrete problems than basic research allows and a desire to obtain solutions to practical problems. It also helps to be passionate about bringing a promising product or technology "to the real world."

    Case 2: A Master's level chemist wants to focus more on business issues. This is a common transition, which many scientists at the BS/MS level make after a few years at the bench. For scientists who choose to not earn a PhD, career prospects are limited. Many opt to enter administrative fields instead.
    Strategy: An excellent way into such a field - finance, sales, marketing, etc. - is to earn an MBA. For those with only a few years of experience at the bench, a regular, full-time program is probably the most attractive option, as it will give you an opportunity to immerse yourself in new concepts and network with colleagues who are also making their own transitions. For others with substantial experience, or for those who do not want to disrupt their earning power, an executive MBA (EMBA) program might be a better option. An EMBA program will expose you to other working professionals and give you a rich source of contacts for opportunities post-graduation. A final alternative is a custom EMBA program; these are designed for specific companies to train business executives more narrowly focused on the company's needs.
    Assessment: Biotech companies often require MBA degrees for their most senior executive positions.

    Case 3: An intellectual property attorney specializing in electronics and high-technology wants to transition into biopharmaceuticals.
    Having a JD plus experience in prosecuting patents for high-tech firms is a significant achievement by itself. Our attorney, who had originally planned to go to medical school, already had several undergraduate-level pre-med courses. Biotech firms, however, are extremely particular about who handles their patent, licensing, and other intellectual property issues, as that often represents the core of their value. Most companies require a PhD in a biological science followed by a JD - ideally, in that order, according to industry insiders. So how to make the transition?
    Strategy: Our resourceful attorney identified the Technology Licensing Offices at several universities with well-established biotechnology research programs. He applied to simultaneously a PhD program and to a Licensing Officer position. The university permits employees to attend courses during the day and reimburses tuition expenses. In addition, the office encouraged his efforts and was generous in designing a work schedule that was flexible enough to attend classes during the day.
    Assessment: This strategy will keep you earning a salary, while completing coursework. The schedule is full and most of your waking hours will be consumed with work and study. However, the end goal - a dual professional credential of PhD/JD - is a most valuable asset combination and will position you well to handle the intellectual assets of a biotech company of your choice.

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