So You Want To Get Into Biotech…Part 1: Many Stories, Many Paths

When I’m contacted by young scientists finishing up their postdocs or PhDs, far and away the questions I hear most are about the biotech and pharma industries. How do scientists break in, exactly?

Photo of TR Contributor Kyle Serikawa

Kyle Serikawa

There’s a lot of interest out there—not simply as an alternative to academia but as a primary goal for bright people wanting to make a tangible difference to human health. And while I have some general advice to give based on my own experience at small and large companies in Seattle, I’m also a big fan of crowdsourcing and diversity of experience. I reached out to several colleagues across organizations and compiled their responses to several questions. In this and a companion piece I’ll be sharing their thoughts and experiences, and looking for trends.

The first question I asked was “What was your first position in biopharma and how did you get it (that is, were there specific experiences, research expertise, or other factors that helped you)?”

Below are excerpts from each person’s experiences (edited lightly for clarity) and some general themes.

Theme 1: Sometimes cold-applying to advertised positions works! But persistence helps…

“My first position was at Dendreon…I applied online and went through the whole interview process. I was originally told that they’d decided to go with another candidate. A few weeks later, I noticed that the position…was still up on the company’s job site and (I) emailed the hiring manager. I said that I noticed the job was still posted and knew from the interview that the team had a great deal of work to do and not enough people and deadlines were approaching, so, I volunteered to work as a limited term employee to help the team out while they looked for the right candidate…I met the hiring manager for coffee the day I sent the email and he offered me the position. Basically, I was persistent and took a chance…and it worked!” – Dr. Johnna Wesley, Associate Director, Novo Nordisk.

“My first position coming out of an academic postdoc was at startup Immune Design, just after their announcement of Series A financing. The job description lined up reasonably well with my experience, which was in in vivo animal models at the time. I was excited to apply for the position, which turned out to be a good fit.” – Dr. Jared Odegaard, Senior Research Scientist, Gilead Sciences.

“My first job was as a scientist at Novo Nordisk. For me I think it was a case of the right skill set at the right time. My immunology base coupled with a deep knowledge of immuno-receptors fit the need of the company at the time. For me there was a lot of luck involved as I didn’t have a lot of connections to help me make first introductions.” – Dr. Joseph Wahle, Director of Immunology, Verseau Therapeutics.

Theme 2: …but more often networks and contacts can open doors.

“I totally got my (first) position through nepotism. My hiring manager knew me from graduate school. Also my expertise in autoimmune diseases and working with human samples made me a fit for the position.” – Dr. Philip Kong, Associate Director, Translational Medicine, Alector LLC.

“My first position in biopharma came in 2001 and was at a small (~ 25 – 50 employees) biotech called CEPTYR, which focused on drugging tyrosine phosphatases. I was brought in to lead the target validation group. I am quite certain that I got this position based on the fact that I knew both the founder (Nick Tonks) (and) the head of the Scientific Advisory Board (Ben Neel) quite well from my graduate school days…Nick and Ben both organized an annual meeting on tyrosine phosphorylation through Cold Spring Harbor…When it came time to apply for a position, I was already well-known to both Ben and Nick through years of attending and speaking at their meeting.” – Dr. Richard Klinghoffer, Chief Scientific Officer, Presage Biotherapeutics.

Ethan Perlstein, founder and CEO, Perlara

“My first position in biopharma was as an intern working at a small company called Sunol Molecular in my senior year of high school (1996-1997). My step-grandfather was Dr Ron Cape, the founder of Cetus. He was on the Board of Sunol and he opened the door for me to apply for an unpaid internship…Around that time emails were just beginning to appear in papers as a means of correspondence with the authors. An email exchange with Dr. Ron Germain at NIH led to multiple internships in Bethesda during the summers in college. You can draw a straight line from where I am today to my internship at Sunol over 20 years ago!” — Dr. Ethan Perlstein, Founder/CEO, Perlara PBC.

“My first position was Research Scientist in bioinformatics. Before I got it, I was working at the University of Washington as a research scientist but my position had limited prospects. I let my friends know I was looking for a job in the industry, and one of them gave my resume to a hiring manager who had difficulties finding someone for a position. It turns out I was a perfect fit, so he contacted me to ask me to apply for the position.” – Senior Scientist at a large agricultural biopharma.

“My first position was as an assay development scientist in a tiny start-up company on the opposite coast (from California)–I’m sure that my technical background was a strong factor in getting the position, but the fact that I used networking to get my resume seen probably helped a lot (I got in touch with a professor I had interviewed with for a postdoc, since this person knew one of the company’s founders and kindly submitted my resume to him).” –Senior Scientist at a small private biotech company.

Theme 3: Don’t forget serendipity.

“My first experience was atypical. I took a post-doc in a lab that was working on ways to make drug discovery more efficient. My boss set the vision for a technology and said we want to show a such and such a result…After some work, we showed that result to some consultants. Before the advisory meeting they said it wasn’t possible. But when I showed the results, they said “Stop everything and start a company.” So my first position in biopharma was when I joined that company…You could say it was being in the right place at the right time, or you can say it was by the hand of God.” – Senior Principal Scientist at a large biopharma company.

“I was a postdoc at the Salk Institute in San Diego, and I had the opportunity to work with Digital Genes Incorporated. That was a nice project to do some expression analysis in the early days of those types of technologies and it was a very small startup company and I got to see how a platform company functioned. So that was a good experience to understand, what’s important in building that type of a company and then from there…I joined a larger company in Merck.” – Dr. Chris Winrow, Senior Principal Investigator, Ironwood Pharmaceuticals.

Sam Blackman, SVP and head of clinical development, Silverback Therapeutics

“My first position was as an Associate Director in Experimental Medicine/Oncology at Merck. It’s a funny story about how I got it. I was a 3rd year pediatric oncology fellow…at Dana-Farber. The 2008 financial crisis was looming and my wife and I had just started a family, and I was worried that I wasn’t going to get a tenure-track position. So when a headhunter called to pitch a job at BMS to me, I figured, ‘What the hell.’ I knew nothing about what it meant to be a medical director in pharma…But I took a chance and went on an interview to BMS (and they) offered me a job, but before I took it I called Stephen Friend who was running the oncology franchise at Merck. He was a pediatric oncologist who trained at Dana-Farber and after talking he encouraged me to consider a position at Merck and facilitated the interview. It resulted in a job offer, which I accepted.”– Dr. Samuel Blackman, Senior Vice President, Silverback Therapeutics.

“I somewhat backed into it, so to say. I had studied using electronic devices to measure chemical species and learned that others were using similar devices (biosensors) to make measurements on biological samples. I became interested in biosensors and took a post-doc position with Paul Yager (now at the University of Washington) at the Naval Research Lab to work on a device to detect neurotoxins. From that position onward, I continued to work in measurement technologies in the biosciences” – Dr. Thomas Fare, Director Strategic Alliances, Planet Connect.

“My current role, head of genome informatics at the Regeneron Genetics Center, is my first biopharma job. I suspect I got it mostly by working in the right area (large-scale genome sequence production computing in the cloud) at the right time, but one thing that helped a lot was experience handling budgets, timelines, project planning, execution, and management from being at a large-scale sequencing center” – Dr. Jeffery Reid, Executive Director, Genome Informatics, Regeneron Genome Center.

“I never intended to be in industry…It just wasn’t on my radar. I was a tenured professor and you would think, ‘why on earth would you leave academia and go into industry after being in academia for the first many years of your life?’ For me, the push was that I was at that point where, although I loved my work…I also felt like my ability to learn and think and do interesting science was becoming more and more narrow, more myopic. So I was in a place where I was looking around…and I got a call from a recruiter, and he said, ‘Hey, there’s this really cool job doing protein structure-function work and design, are you interested?’ And I was like, ‘what the heck, here’s my CV.’ Then the call came, and I was so impressed by the quality of the science (at Monsanto), the breadth, that sense of ‘we need to get over there and figure it [the science] out!’ And so my first position was to move from a protein design and engineering and structure lab as a PI to leading a small protein sciences group.” – Dr Sonya Franklin, Director, Global Regulatory Sciences, Monsanto.

Theme 4: Specific skills and expertise help…

“My first job in biopharma was as a staff scientist at Immunex. I was hired (along with a number of others) because the company had struck a deal with Kodak to screen many of their photographic chemicals to see if any of them might be suitable drug candidates (the answer was no)…I was specifically hired because I knew how to do site-directed mutagenesis and also (because of) my familiarity with receptors.” –Stewart Lyman, Ph.D., Principal and Founder, Lyman Biopharma Consulting.

“My first position in biopharma was as a Systems Engineer at a medical device company developing hematopoietic stem cell therapies…When I applied for the job, I had just finished a year of bioreactor design research at the Technical University of Berlin as a Fulbright Scholar. I’d also completed internships at BASF in Germany in large-scale polyurethane manufacturing and at a material science company developing non-linear conducting gels to protect telephone equipment from lighting strikes. I’m a chemical engineer by training. The medical device company was German and the job required travel to Germany, so I think my industrial internship experiences as well as my knowledge of German language and culture helped me get the job.” — Christopher Ramsborg, Ph.D., Vice President, Technology Strategy & Innovation, Juno Therapeutics

“I obtained (my first) position after six years in graduate school and four and a half years as a postdoc. My postdoc project focused on T cell development in the thymus…My efforts on this project led to several publications and established connections with the research lead at Rosetta Inpharmatics (a subsidiary of Merck). Upon completion of my postdoc, Rosetta was looking for someone to join their efforts to use gene arrays to identify novel immune regulated genes and characterize their function. It was a good fit and progression from my post-doc project, so I took the job.”—Dr. Michael Carleton, Director, Translational Research, Bristol-Meyers Squibb.

Theme 5: …except when they don’t.

“(My first position was as a) Senior Research Biologist at Merck & Co., Inc. A Rosetta employee and I had both done our postdocs at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (in different labs). He contacted my advisor about my candidacy and the resulting recommendation eventually led to an interview. I learned later that my offer was largely a result of recommendations from colleagues at the Hutch, the perception of my seminar and communication skills, and the potential value of a mechanistic biologist (experience in unraveling molecular mechanisms of signal transduction and tying that to cell biology/phenotypes). To be clear, I was NOT hired for deep expertise in a particular technique or field of research.” – Dr. Bill Arthur, Director of Target Validation, Research & Development, Seattle Genetics.

“My first position was as an entry level scientist in small public biopharma (500 people). I identified the opportunity through networking (a graduate student a few years ahead of me was already working at the company). At the same time, I identified other opportunities through ads in scientific journals…Like most people straight out of a postdoc, I lacked experience in specific disease areas or specific areas of biology on which the company focused, so I assume I was hired more on the basis of general scientific credentials and interpersonal display.” Dr. Christopher Larson, Vice President, Drug Discovery, Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute

“I was part of a cooperative education/internship program during my undergraduate degree at the University of Victoria in Canada. We would interview for work terms lasting 4-8 months and my second internship was at a small company called AnorMED Inc. Getting the job wasn’t very difficult–I interviewed alongside three other students with similar levels of experience as me (pretty much none!). It was probably my good attitude and strong understanding of enzymology that set me apart.” Dr. Jennifer Cox, Assistant Director, Biology, Inception Sciences.

Theme 6: And sometimes what it takes is having a plan and a vision.

“My first position was a research scientist position at Merck (individual contributor, PhD entry level scientist). There were a few things that helped me get this position, involving both research expertise and networking. I realized shortly after entering graduate school that academia was not for me. So for my postdoc, I chose a lab and a research project that I thought would be most applicable to the types of research performed in biopharma. In my case, that was understanding how genetic variation impacts drug response (pharmacogenetics).” – Dr. James Watters, Vice President, Biology, Relay Therapeutics.

“I went straight from my PhD to consulting. To get the job, I spent a lot of time over the last two years of my PhD pursuing opportunities that would expose me to the business side of the life science industry — this included taking courses, participating in part-time internships, and working with student-led consulting and biotech clubs. These experiences, the ability to communicate an understanding and interest in the life science industry, and lots of case prep helped open up consulting opportunities when I graduated.” –Dr. Matthew Murphy, Consultant, ClearView Healthcare Partners

Laura Strong, founder and CEO, Propagate Health

“I started my career in industry as the first employee of a biotech company based on  technologies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I defended my thesis one week and started the company the next week. I “got the job” because I was willing to step out of my comfort zone of chemistry. While I was in grad school, I took on a number of projects that strengthened my communications skills (presentations at conferences, writing review articles). Those skills were critical for me to take the leap.” Dr. Laura Strong, Founder and CEO, Propagate Health.

Across this anecdotal survey it was clear that no single path always succeeded, nor that a given approach (for example, cold-applying) was doomed to fail. Experiences were more nuanced. A big theme, however, was that having an industry position as a goal in itself and preparing accordingly increased the probability of success (so, by the way, does understanding the phrase “probability of success” and how it applies to business projects).

I also asked these diverse scientists about the kinds of skills and experiences they felt industry is looking for today. The consistency of their thoughts intrigued me and I compiled a rough tally of how often certain topics came up:

SkillNumber who highlighted (N=26)
Being flexible and adaptable and able to learn new things16
Able to work well in teams15
People skills–Emotional intelligence12
Being able to communicate11
Strong scientific acumen (experimental design, analysis and interpretation)11
Specific skills (eg, bioinformatics)7
Ability to finish what you’ve started7


It fascinated me that the top desired skills related to flexibility and teamwork. For many commentators, industry has been moving rapidly and doesn’t have the luxury of the academic approach in which a given problem can be lingered over (as long as grants continue). “Having an open-mind and willingness to learn new areas will serve you well should the company decide to move out of a particular area and into another,” said Cathy Thut, Executive Director BD&L, Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research.

A similar perspective came from Chris Winrow, at Ironwood. “If you look at most people who’ve worked in the industry, they’ve likely worked across a number of different disease areas, certainly across a number of different targets, and you know maybe have done a number of different jobs within a company, so I think that openness to try different things and be adaptable and responsive to the landscape is important.” Dr. Irena Ivanovska, a Director at Celdara Medical, LLC, had this to say: “Flexibility is key – being willing to switch projects, departments, and geography can be really helpful (if not essential) in securing a job, keeping it, and for career advancement.”

As for teamwork, Chris Larson of Sanford Burnham Prebys commented, “…we are centuries past the point where meaningful scientific progress is made by individuals, although the publishing and publicity paradigms in science still tend to obscure this situation.”

Teamwork may not be cultivated in certain academic labs, but it’s essential in industry. Mike Carleton, at Bristol-Myers Squibb, pointed out how important teamwork is to growing one’s career in biotech and pharma: “You must be able to work collaboratively and productively across groups and areas of expertise. If you are a person who likes to own your work and draw a fence around what you do, you will likely struggle to advance in biopharma.”

In addition to these primary skills, the soft skills of emotional intelligence and communication were highly valued. Dr. Peter Linsley, who has held several scientific leadership roles at companies including Merck and Regulus Therapeutics, indicated, “People skills are very important,” when asked about what he looks for in industry scientists. Dr Sam Blackman, at Silverback Therapeutics, emphatically stressed emotional intelligence. “High emotional intelligence is critical. You’ll interact with a far broader group of people, especially in pharma. Or if you’re in biotech, you’ll interact with a smaller group of people but with much higher stakes. Knowing how to read and adapt to the needs of people is critical. High emotional intelligence requires high self-awareness – especially if you’re looking to grow. One of the main barriers to growth in your career in industry is an inability to see your own limitations, flaws, and areas for development.”

Others called out communication at several levels—to your superiors, peers and reports; to external and internal stakeholders; and in both written and verbal forms. Matthew Murphy of ClearView Healthcare Partners stressed how this comes out in the initial interview. “Communication — this is an important aspect of any industry job…and being able to demonstrate the ability to distill information and clearly communicate key points is critical during the interview process.” Rich Klinghoffer of Presage added: “The ability to communicate in a biopharma setting is ridiculously important on so many levels. If you can’t communicate well, it hampers your ability to contribute to your organization.”

It was also striking that scientific acumen, while important, was not one of the top skills most frequently mentioned by survey respondents. This may be because a decent scientific training and background are such a basic prerequisite for getting an interview and a job offer. A few respondents pointed to the importance of scientific skills. Jared Odegaard of Gilead Sciences stated that, “there is no substitute for the ability to design experiments and interpret data.” Phil Kong said: “Of course being a good scientist is a must,” but he also went on to add, “(still), super-stardom is not necessary (though always helpful). You are not gunning for the Nobel when you go into biopharma.”

With these concepts and ideas on ways to approach getting into biotech and pharma, an applicant can, with some luck, get her foot in the door. But how to avoid messing up the interview and the first year or two? That’s a topic for part 2.

You may also like

So You Want To Get Into Biotech…Part 2: Banana Peel? What Banana Peel?
Start of a Drug: Square Pegs, Round Indications (part 3 of 3)
Start of a Drug: Blueprint for Building a Bridge Across Valley of Death (part 2 of 3)
Start of a Drug: A ‘Fortuitous’ Collaboration (part 1 of 3)