To Lab or Not to Lab?

by | March 31, 2009

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Given the breadth of choices in biotech, you might well wonder how to focus your own career aspirations. You may be turned on by science while in college enough to earn a major in a scientific discipline but not be sure you want to make research your life-long career. That's fine, as long as you have a sense of how to manage the critical early years of professional experience. To help you get a wide-angle view of the major career paths available, we have found it helpful to think in terms of two fundamental paths: laboratory research oriented and non-laboratory research oriented. Within each path are several different career tracks, discussed later.

Laboratory research-oriented career paths are found in the research and development (R&D) department. This area is also called "discovery research" because the work involves discovering new processes, drugs and technologies. These careers involve "bench work," referring to a laboratory bench, where scientists set up experiments generate data. In biotech research, two other areas - bioinformatics and animal sciences - are especially tightly integrated.

Non-research oriented career paths include everything else. Several functions - operations, manufacturing and quality - have an engineering bent and are primarily focused on the applications of science. Others, like clinical research, include all the jobs needed to set up and manage clinical trials and oversee submissions to regulatory agencies. Note that the "Clinical research" function includes all the jobs needed to set up and manage clinical trials. They are put here rather than in the research-oriented path since they require knowledge of medicine and occur in clinical settings - such as hospitals or clinics. Still others are business-oriented and include support functions, such as finance, administration, legal, IT, business development and sales/marketing. Finally many companies have a project management function that helps coordinate projects that overlap among several internal functions.

The common denominator is that careers in most of these functions require at least an undergraduate foundation in a life science. This includes the more generic business functions. Many careers require advanced training in science in addition to education in a functional area. For example, attorneys specializing in intellectual property often also have a PhD in a life science. Business development people typically have either a Bachelor's or a Master's in a scientific area in addition to an MBA. The industry sets these educational prerequisites for employment outside the lab because a thorough grounding in the vocabulary of genetics, an orientation to the basic concepts behind the products and a familiarity with the issues and challenges facing the industry is necessary to get people effectively on the same page. The bottom line is this: if you are up and coming in the educational system, you are joining a limited pool of qualified talent competing for the available jobs. That's good news if most of your career is still ahead of you.

Filed Under: Job Search

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