The Biotech Company Experience

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The Biotech Company Experience

Postby Philip G. » Tue Mar 08, 2005 11:46 am

I see that a lot of the discussion on this forum is "academic" in nature. However, I know that no more than 15% of us are going to land those jobs . . . So, why not more discussion about biotech companies etc? Personally, I find the idea of putting my science to work in solving disease problems to be a strong plus. Reading an interview with Dr. Jennie Mather, CEO of Raven, it seems that many people are drawn to industry because they can actually see their work benefit others.

Can I ask what this group's impressions are of employment in the biotechnology industry? Why so much gnashing of teeth regarding postdocs, etc? Let's talk about BEYOND the postdoc!

Philip G.

The Biotech Company Experience

Postby J.J. » Tue Mar 08, 2005 12:54 pm

Actually, you just jumped into this forum at a particularly academic-heavy time. We are usually very industry-focused....although all of the academic job-hunting stuff has been fascinating.
Another reason you might not see that many company life posts is that many of us are in the early stages of our careers.

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The Biotech Company Experience

Postby Shawn Baker » Tue Mar 08, 2005 1:16 pm


I think what we're seeing is that the majority of those posting are the ones who are unhappy or uncertain about their future. It can be quite a downer reading about the 8 year post docs, year long job hunts, etc. Then I get really depressed when Dave tells me what a disaster it is to be trained in Plant Biology ;-) (I have both a B.S. and a Ph.D. in Plant Biology).

Then I snap out of it and realize that I have a great job. I work for a biotech company that I?ve seen grow from fewer than 20 people to more than 200. I get to work with people from a variety of disciplines ? biology, chemistry, engineering, bioinformatics, marketing, customer support, etc. I?ve been a part of projects that go from an idea to a product ? it?s quite gratifying to see someone else get excited about something you?ve helped create.

In an effort to ?get beyond the postdoc?, how about this: How have people managed their career transitions? For example, going from the bench to management, or going from R&D to Marketing or Sales.

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The Biotech Company Experience

Postby Dave Jensen » Tue Mar 08, 2005 2:02 pm

Great thread . . .

Hi Shawn. Sorry, didn't mean to depress you, and if you think about it, your success story should really be more evident on this forum. You've moved to biotech, with a Plant Sciences degree! This is wonderful. Goes to show you that you should NEVER, EVER take one person's comments to be a hard and fast rule . . .

If you haven't noticed already, I have certain pet peeves. I just gave a talk at Yale, and I had a section in my presentation called "Pet Peeves and Things I Love to Complain About." The audience was a bit taken aback!

My pet peeves include Plant Sciences candidates who think it is an easy transfer into a healthcare biotech company, the whole system of extended postdoc'ing, erroneous degrees such as "bioengineering," and academic professors who don't help their people learn the success skills that they need to survive in the real world.

Yesterday my wife and I were driving over to a meeting in San Diego. We were driving a car that she picked out, and which I hate. She told me that "You always complain. All you've spoken about for five hours is what is wrong with this car. I happen to love this vehicle. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, will you?"

In some career choices, such as plant science, sometimes the best advice to just sit back and enjoy the ride, disregarding grumblers. Once you are past the point of change, you have to live with it. For me, once I bought that car, I shouldn't have had one single word of concern. The time for that was before we invested. I guess the analogy is that my advice on this forum about plant science, bioengineering, etc, is that the advice is to be used before you become "invested" in that career choice.

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The Biotech Company Experience

Postby John » Tue Mar 08, 2005 2:07 pm

This is a good thread to post a message that I recently sent to a friend about "why I chose industry for a career."

1. No more endless grant writing, manuscript rejections for indefensible reasons, and the politics are relatively limited -- your work is judged internally and you are well rewarded for those contributions. I've encountered <10% as much politics in industry as I did in academia at a major cancer center.

2. Greater benefits and higher salaries to help pay off those loans from too many years of academic life. In start-ups, there is the chance to get in on the ground floor of something big (limited to the young at heart, perhaps) and benefit financially.

3. Much of industry has caught up with and surpassed academic research in quality and depth (our Scientific Advisory Board informs me this is true and they are undoubtedly leaders in elite academic research centers). Many biotechs actually do fundamental basic research. In this sense, you have your proverbial cake and eat it too. Of course, companies may not publish what they discover, depending on the intellectual property and competitive advantage as seen by corporate counsel and management.

4. Biotech and Pharmaceutical is where the zeal of making drugs for real human health challenges resides ? from biodefense initiatives to chronic and life-threatening disease. We have numerous, some might say enough pathways, to make drugs for many dreadful diseases for many years to come. But even in industry we can never understand the pathway/target well enough and biotech/pharma must make continuous investments in drug target understanding, especially as the compound moves into the clinic. Hence, the room for basic research will always be there and the extent of the pursuit will depend on corporate culture.

5. There are new arenas opening in industry ? as an example, translational medicine, especially biomarker discovery and validation that might help us select the right patients and predictively monitor for adverse events earlier than ever possible. This area is very applied, yet requires comprehensive and unbiased approaches that are arguably best suited to industry. So, industry continues to create new fields of study out of necessity to sustain growth and limit attrition. When you have to produce it's harder for a good-old-boy network to become entrenched. Your data either enables actionable decisions, or not.

Strikes against industry careers -- harder to revert back from industry to an academic position than to make the jump from academic to industry in the first place. Yet, I've only known two individuals who jumped to biotech and ever wanted to go back to academia (and both are still consultants to industry). That alone tells me something.

Another strike against industry careers -- reality of corporate downsizings that happen due to unforeseen events -- sudden drug toxicity, shareholder lawsuits, etc. So, industry is not for the faint of heart in this respect.


The Biotech Company Experience

Postby Val » Tue Mar 08, 2005 10:30 pm

Philip G. wrote:

> what this group's impressions are of
> employment in the biotechnology industry?

Biotechnology is at an embrionic stage of its development now. Its state can be compared to the state of car industry in the beginning of the 20 century.

In the future, the techniques of "biotech" will become an order (or two) of magnitude more complex than now. To operate those techniques, an order of magnitude more intelligent and experienced specialists will be required. However, universities and industry as they are now will be unable to educate and train the biotech professional of the future. The current industry looks for narrow-trained specialists and produces narrow specialists as well. The current system is supported by influx of cheap skilled labour. You need lots of them -- by the scientific law, if you want to have one productive scientist, you need to maintain employment space for ten scientists. With cheaper salaries, it is easier to maintain a large army of scientists. But the US might not be able to attract skilled foreign nationals and the aspiring locals forever. There are scenarios that teh US will prosper and that all science will go from the US, leaving only service industries and money management function for the whole world.

In the condition of an increasingly complex biotech science of the future, the employers will be looking for the people capable of independent and original thinking. You better maintain your skills and brains, and do not worry about the future -- and the bright future will come upon you by itself.


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The Biotech Company Experience

Postby Val » Wed Mar 09, 2005 3:28 am

I would like to elaborate further on my previous posting. Take, for example, physics. The consensus is that physics as a science is finished. No principically new discoveries were made in the past few decades. The number of scientific journals mushroomed lately, and the numerous publications are of low quality.

And yet we know that those who claimed that physics was dead, turned out to be wrong later. For example, in the beginning of the 20th century, physicists claimed that there will be no further development of physics and its fundementals are laid: mechanics of Newton and molecular physics adequately describe the world. However, as we know, the relativity theory and quantum physics were brought into life which considered a different universe (e.g. sub-atomic) and gave us e.g. nuclear bomb, transitor and laser.

Up to now, physics has been about ANALYSIS of phenomena. It is now the time to do SYNTHESIS of known facts. For example, we know that the forces in the surrounding world are of 4 types: electrical, gravitational and two types of sub-atomic. However, some people claim that there is just one type of force, and those mentioned 4 forces are just particular embodyments.

We know what kind of organic molecules living organisms consist of, within the discipline of molecular biology. But we know almost nothing about what is the functionality of a living organism if we know the properties of the molecules the organism is made of. As an illustration, suppose the aliens got hold of a TV set. They sliced it thinly and learnt how its incestines are made. But can they derive what s the purpose of TV set from the analysis of its sliced incestines ? No !

The science of biotechnology is at its infancy. Biotechnology is about fabricating living systems with known properties out of simple molecules with known properties. People are just starting to learn about what is the behaviour of the system given the known properties of the constituting chemical elements. The tools are bioinformatics and bio tests, and they are still grossly inadequate for the task. The life scientists of the future are posed with the task to invent those tools, and this task is an order (or even two) of magnitude more complex than any life science work made up to date.

The life science of the future will demand an order of magnitude greater amount of scientists. However, those future scientists will have skills totally different to the skills of today's scientists. Today's scientists will not be able to work in the laboratories of the future. One cannot learnt the skilols of the future in any university of the world.

Then, people may ask: what should they learnt in order to enter the workforce of the future ? The answer is "nothing", as no university now can prepare them. However, learning the todays' scientific tools cannot be discarded, as the science of the future will have in its fundament the achievements of today.

You cannot learn the trade of the future, so I would advise to my younger contemporaries to keep their learning capabilities sharp. One should experience the feeling of achievement from the completion of a today's project -- this will prepare one to be qualified to work on the projects of the future. In order to complete the project, one should first of all enjoy doing it. Do what you like to do, and the rest will somehow (perhaps through some amount of inevitable suffering) will come to you.

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The Biotech Company Experience

Postby Polly » Wed Mar 09, 2005 6:49 am

Ohh thanks. That´s it. I think that is what we young and frustrated scientists (especially when you are nearly at the end of PhD) need to hear. Some positive things that will motivate us and make us think happily about what we are doing. So this forum can sometimes be really positive...

Best regards,

The Biotech Company Experience

Postby Lora » Wed Mar 09, 2005 11:03 am

Things I Love To Complain About: Training New Hires. I was a low-level scientist, so most training and orientation fell to me.

Val said: "people may ask: what should they learnt in order to enter the workforce of the future ? The answer is "nothing", as no university now can prepare them."

-Universities do not require soft skills as a condition of employment. As Madison pointed out, the rule in high-powered research is competition, not collaboration, and many highly successful folks are real jerks. In any company, including biotech, only the CEO is permitted to be a real jerk, and everyone else had better be at least civil to each other, and friendly for preference. I suspect this is why hiring is done by networking, rather than by skillset per se.

-Universities do not make clear what the end result of their program will be. University of Wisconsin-Madison seems to be the exception, as they specify in their program website that an undergrad degree is intended to make you a decent technician, a MS will make you a senior technician, and a Ph.D. will teach you to think for yourself. Most schools don't seem to have any clue what their students should have accomplished in their program, or what their degree should mean. The end result is that industry has to spend a lot of time teaching aseptic technique to a BS in microbiology, concentration/volume calculations to a BS in chemistry, and hydraulics calculations to newly-graduated MechEs. Wish I were kidding, but I've often wondered if it wouldn't be worth industry's while to simply buy a university, and have the entrance exam consist of soft skills and HR/business regs.

-The tenure-qualifying requirements of universities and the teaching load distribution tends to produce a lot of students who can't cope with a steep learning curve. They get all the way to their junior or senior year before they hit a serious course with a retirement-age codger who doesn't care if everyone flunks. Then they're astonished that sometimes, you have to read a book you weren't assigned, or make extensive use of Google or PubMed, all without being told to do it. I had techs who absolutely would not do things unless you stood over them and watched every move, because they thought working in a lab would be like lab classes or manufacturing line work, where someone holds your hand.

The Biotech Company Experience

Postby J.J. » Wed Mar 09, 2005 11:37 am

This is slightly off topic, but Lora's post made me think of it.

Only the CEO gets to be a jerk: so true. As a related rule-the more junior you are, the less crap people will put up with from you.

On soft skills: If networking is so crucial to success in the job market, why do people continue to put their worst foot forward? Think of all your friends-who would you hire to work for you? Your friend who is always late and cancels at the last minute? Your pal in the next lab who steals your buffers? Whoever that friend is who is your "most likely hire," figure out why and emulate.
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