By: Sonal Gahlawat
As a graduate student, I thrive on the successful feeling of an assay finally working after months of failure and optimizations. The highs of one successful experiment outweigh the lows of multiple failed experiments. That being said, the hyper-competitive environment, where one is continuously pushed to produce as many papers as possible or else question their self-worth, forces the next-generation of scientists to look for alternative careers without that don’t abandon their love for science. So, are you someone who loves experimenting at the bench? Does a career in academia not appeal to you because of needing to write grants, recruit students, wait to get tenured, or many more hardships? You can still fulfill your love for science by becoming a scientist in industry, either in pharmaceuticals, biotech, or medical device company.
On July 12, 2022, graduate students and postdoctoral associates learned more about industry scientists and what happens on, and behind, the bench. Let’s meet our event panelists and get to know their career paths from graduate school to landing their first job in the pharmaceutical and biotech worlds.
Dr. Maryam Alapa is a Senior Scientist at Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS) with a doctoral degree from Rutgers University and New Jersey Medical School. During her graduate school, Maryam learned about different career trajectories with a Ph.D. through the opportunities offered by the iJOBS program. Although her main interests were medical writing, regulatory affairs, and science communication, Maryam landed her first job as a Translational Scientist at Celgene (now BMS) through a referral (highlighting the importance of networking)! In her current position at BMS, Maryam researches myeloid diseases in collaboration with the clinical group and studies company assets (an industry term for products like antibody treatments or medical devices on the market) in the therapeutic areas. Maryam’s long-term goal includes transitioning into the clinical aspects of myeloid research.
Dr. Edwardo Perez is Chief Scientific Officer at Signum Biosciences with 15+ years of R&D experience in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry and a doctoral degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of NJ (UMDNJ). Following his graduation, Edward received a prestigious fellowship offered by the state of New Jersey to pursue an industrial postdoctoral research experience at Signum Biosciences, a start-up at that time. What attracted Edward to the biotech industry was the opportunity to wear multiple hats, allowing him to get on-the-job training in grant writing, regulatory affairs and IP, communication, business development, and more while doing translational work to help patients. Fast forward three years, Edward realized his love for leading and managing people and shifted gears toward the company's business development and medical writing side.
Dr. Tapan A. Shah is a Senior Scientist in the Translational Pathology department at Merck with a doctoral degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from Rutgers University. Like Maryam, Tapan also attended several events organized by the iJOBS and learned about different roles in the pharmaceutical industry. After doing almost 100 informational interviews, Tapan connected with a scientist at Advanced Cell Diagnostics, who eventually referred him for the Technical Support Scientist job. It seems like a match made in heaven: Tapan is an RNA biologist, and the company specializes in RNA scope. Tapan also worked at Atreca, an immune-oncology company, where he utilized his knowledge of histopathology and biology assays for various preclinical efficiency and toxicology studies. One of the best pieces of advice from Tapan is to focus on being the best fit rather than the best candidate for a job position. While the best fit and the best candidate could be the same, the best candidate might not necessarily be the best fit for a job. Working in an industry is more about being a one-man show and requires you to be a team player, communicator, collaborator, leader, and possess other soft skills besides your scientific skills.
Dr. Eric Himelman is a Scientist at Ultragenyx Pharmaceutical with a doctoral degree in biological and biomedical sciences from Rutgers University. During his graduate school journey, Eric started utilizing LinkedIn and his network to figure out the next steps after graduate school: postdoctoral associate in academia, pharmaceutical industry, or biotech industry. This is a familiar situation for all of us at some point in our meandering graduate school life. After doing a great deal of soul searching and a short 6-month postdoc, Eric realized that he wanted to work in industry to do something directly related to improving lives and helping patients. Eric currently works in preclinical settings to develop therapies for rare and ultra-rare genetic diseases.
Dr. Brandon Trainor is a Senior Specialist at Adaptimmune with a doctoral degree in cell and molecular biology from Rowan University. Brandon currently works in the Quality Control Analytical Services and Technologies department to develop novel CAR-T pipelines for solid tumors. Both Maryam and Brandon started their careers as contract employees. While Maryam got the contract position through an employee referral within her network, Brandon utilized Eurofins, a staffing agency, to get his first industry job. It only took two weeks for Brandon to get from the job application to an offer in hand. To further ease your anxiety, almost 100% of the contact positions become full-time, either at the company you are contracted at or a different one. You can learn more about staffing agencies through another iJOBS blog post here!!
Of course, as graduate students, we have always been told, "you need postdoctoral research experience to get an industry job." But is it a myth, or is there some truth to it? Let's find out. All our panelists were newly minted Ph.Ds. when they got their foot in industry without requiring an academic postdoctoral research experience. So, one thing is clear, you and I definitely don't need postdoctoral expertise to get our first industry job whether you are an engineer, a biologist, or a chemist. Yet, there is always an option of an industry postdoctoral associate if you want to diversify your skillset outside your graduate work or fill in the gaps in your technical knowledge.
Naturally, after busting your biggest myth about finding a job in industry, you are curious about the application and the interview process. According to Maryam, hiring managers look for people with good communication and technical skills. After an hour-long phone interview, Maryam was invited for an on-site interview with at least six company employees from various levels, including scientists and directors. After the final round of interviews with her hiring manager, Maryam got her offer letter just two days later. While preparing for the interviews, it is essential to know about the company's background, current and future directions, and most importantly, how your research will apply to the company's mission and portfolio. This last piece is one people often miss.
Another essential part of the on-site interview process is the scientific talk; can you deliver an excellent scientific story to engage your diverse audience? Importantly, Tapan suggested focusing on how your scientific accomplishments might fall into the company's research, whether it be scientific skills or background knowledge. Another tip: keep your slides to a minimum to effectively communicate your science while selling yourself as a great independent scientist during the interview. Remember, quality over quantity! As a seasoned player in the field who has hired several fresh Ph.Ds., Edwardo advised focusing on a good narrative and keeping more time to personally interact with the company's employees. Moreover, he emphasized on being the best fit for a company in terms of work culture and getting along with your colleagues. Coming from the biotechnology sector, Edwardo recommended working for a small start-up company if you want more opportunities to grow in a dynamic environment while charting new territories and having the flexibility and freedom when it comes to your schedule or the approach to the work itself. In a nutshell, if you can show excellent communication skills, can work in a diverse team, and think independently and on your feet, you will thrive in a start-up environment.
Everything sounds great so far about the bench scientist positions in industry. But your primary question may still be unanswered. How is research in an industry different than academia? The short answer lies in the availability of money or, in professional terms, funding. While as graduate students, we often had to write multiple fellowships and grant proposals just to get a tiny bit of funding for our research and/or living expenses, funding tends to be more abundant in industry. As per Eric, one doesn’t need to be concerned with making their buffers or designing cost-saving assays. Rather, one can buy pre-made reagents and kits to save time and ensure reproducibility. Overall, the goal of industry research is to produce good quality data efficiently, and robust funding further helps support the goal. Brandon considers industry research to be fast-paced, working hours between 9-5, still lower than your typical Ph.D. research, where we have worked 24/7 at times. This is because our Ph.D. research involves discovering something new while juggling multiple side projects with your coursework, teaching assistantship responsibilities, extracurricular activities, mentoring, and many more. In contrast, industry research is focused with the entire team working toward one overarching goal, which can include optimizing assays, streamlining procedures, or changing a manufacturing process. Balancing the time spent between bench and meetings, a bench scientist could spend 50-70% of their time doing experiments on the bench, which again depends on the job responsibilities. Of course, you are also curious about the starting salary range for a new Ph.D. Sorry to disappoint you, but starting salary varies dramatically depending on the geographical location, research experience, size of the company, i.e., start-up vs. small vs. giant, and most importantly, the title.
Good news. You are almost ready to apply for that dream job at your perfect location. Any last-minute advice from our panelists as you begin your journey of soul searching and job hunting? One of the best words of wisdom I ever heard from a Ph.D. scientist was given by Brandon: once you have landed your first job, please remember that just having a doctoral degree doesn't mean you are better than anyone. As a new hire in industry, be humble, respectful, confident, and hungry to learn new things as you grow professionally. If you missed the event, you can read the key takeaways from our amazing panelists below.
This career panel was power-packed with tremendous amount of information that I didn’t know before. Like so many other graduate students, as I finish up my fourth-year of graduate school and ask myself A-to-Z questions about R&D positions in industry, I am finally figuring out their answers through iJOBS events or networking on LinkedIn (a skill that I have been actively working on). I sincerely hope that you, yes you, will continue to push yourself as an independent researcher and identify your goals, and most importantly, “figure out who you are and what you want”, as said by Edwardo Perez. This was a wrap-up for Day 1. Stay tuned to meet the second panel of industry scientists to get more of your questions answered.
This article was edited by Junior Editor Shawn Rumrill and Senior Editor Natalie Losada.
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