So You Want To Get Into Biotech…Part 2: Banana Peel? What Banana Peel?

Although learning more about the many ways in which one can get an interview and first job in biotech and pharma helps, that’s not where it ends. Everyone I know in biopharma has stories of dealing with co-workers who just didn’t get what the industry is about, in the interview or during those pivotal first years. This despite a system that generally tries to help you succeed once you get in the door.

Photo of TR Contributor Kyle Serikawa

Kyle Serikawa

Understand: hiring takes a huge amount of time and resources; interviews and evaluations alone can take up dozens of hours of the hiring manager’s and human resources’ time. Opening a position is rarely done lightly. A full time equivalent (FTE) position represents a clear decision that a person is needed for the long term. The team on the company side has a strong interest in helping a new candidate interview well and, if hired, succeed. But still. Mistakes happen.

As I did with useful industry skills, I asked my colleagues about common missteps they had seen, either in the interview process or while a scientist made the transition to industry. Several themes stood out:

Key problem behaviors when interviewing and starting a jobNumber who highlighted (N=26)
Not learning and networking19
Ignoring the strategic way in which your project fits in the bigger picture with respect to the critical path13
Trying to go it alone and ignoring teamwork13
Not knowing and learning about the company11
Showing inflexibility10
Ignoring the nuances of the specific environment you’re in–academia versus industry and big versus little companies8
Trying too hard to impress6
Wasting growth/change opportunities6
Taking the path of least resistance rather than the job you really want6
Not presenting your work5
Missing out on mentors4
Telling people industry is your fallback position4
Not keeping your eyes open3


What a minefield! But fear not, forewarned is forearmed, so here’s a closer look on what people have observed so you can avoid these problems.

Chris Larson

When applying, networking is hugely important. Chris Larson, Vice President of Drug Discovery at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, felt applicants often don’t quite grasp how to apply to industry. “…most people still rely too much on simply applying for ads, and…confuse the ease of online applications with this route being effective. In my career, when I have posted a job ad, I have generally gotten many hundreds of applications, and several times have received more than one thousand. Applicants need to have a strategy for how they are going to get to being among the 10 out of 1000 that are paid attention to.”

“Never be afraid to ask for introductions,” said Sam Blackman, Senior Vice President at Silverback Therapeutics. “New positions are often considered and…internal candidates or referrals are screened first before the positions are publicly posted.” A Senior Scientist at a small private biotech company agrees: “I hate doing it, but networking has helped increase my visibility as an applicant for maybe half of the jobs I’ve held. Even if the referring person is a friend-of-a-friend who doesn’t know you directly, it’s still helpful to some degree.”

Irena Ivanovsca

Irena Ivanovska, Director at Celdara Medical, LLC, suggested a specific approach. “Tap into the network you already have – did any professors, postdocs or grad students from your PhD or postdoc institution transition to industry? Often, departments have ‘alternative’ career symposia when alumni share their experience – those are probably the best people to reach out to.” This approach was echoed by Laura Strong, Founder and CEO of Propagate Health. “People often want to work with people they already know – a known quantity. That means they are often reaching out to recruit colleagues as soon as they know a position might be opening up. Keeping your former classmates up to date on what you are doing and whether you are looking is an important and relatively low intensity way to network.”

Another element is preparation. Strong described it this way. “Getting a job is essentially a research project similar to your thesis. You need to learn about the different kinds of businesses in the biopharma industry and then about the different jobs that exist depending on stage and scale of the company and the products.” Chris Winrow, Senior Principal Investigator at Ironwood Pharmaceuticals, had similar thoughts. “It’s actually stunning to see people who come in for an interview with fantastic resumes but don’t know very much about the company or the position for which they’re applying. There have been times where I’ve asked: ‘So, what’s one thing in the pipeline that most excites you’ and they have no idea and may not even be able to name one of the drugs the company manufactures and sells.”

Stewart Lyman, owner and manager of Lyman Biopharma Consulting, also found this perplexing. “When I used to interview job candidates I would ask them if they knew which drugs Immunex made (easy question: we only had one marketed drug). I was shocked at how many people had done what appeared to be zero research on the company and could not answer that question.” Jim Watters, Vice President of Biology at Relay Therapeutics had some additional tips. “The vast majority of applications are more like form letters, where it is clear that the applicant has not taken the time to learn about the company and the opportunity they are applying for. Applicants should take the time to really learn about the company they are applying to — what makes it different? What are the core values? What are some important events that have happened recently? Before the interview, the applicant should take the time to learn about the people they will be interviewing with. Ask questions that are tailored to each person’s background.”

Cathy Thut

One last thing about interviewing: don’t present yourself as looking at industry as a fallback. “A common mistake new scientists coming from straight from a post-doc make is telling interviewers that they are looking for an industry position because they don’t think they’ll be able to find an academic position,” said Cathy Thut, Executive Director BD&L, Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research. 

Once a scientist is in the door, pitfalls still await. Many of the people interviewed for this piece emphasized just what a learning and growth opportunity biotech and pharma can be, and how sometimes new scientists don’t seem to realize this or take advantage of the environment. At my first biopharma job, my supervisor told me within the first week that there were a vast number of opportunities for learning and growth inside and outside of research at the company, and that biotech and pharma companies are somewhat unique in having the ability to transition among and between functions. Joe Wahle, Director of Immunology at Verseau Therapeutics had this to say. “(Biotech and pharma) is so much more than just working at the bench and generating data. The pharma industry is where business and science collide to sometimes hilarious results. (While) this can be seen as an impediment, for those with an entrepreneurial spirit this means there are a wealth of opportunities beyond just the bench. If this is a path you are interested in, explore them all and use your strengths to your advantage.”

Johnna Wesley, Associate Director at Novo Nordisk, also sees the environment as hugely helpful for growth. “(New scientists) still have so very much to learn…the diversity of knowledge and technical skills around you will be extensive. Take advantage of this and learn from your colleagues — listen to their input and ask questions. The technicians you work with will often be some of the best and they can likely do an assay better than you — accept it. Also, there are a lot of excellent scientists that don’t have a Ph.D. in industry. You can learn a lot from them.”

“Seek to understand all the types of science conducted in biopharma,” advised Bill Arthur, Director of Target Validation, Research & Development at Seattle Genetics. “Many (new scientists) focus on opportunities in the early pipeline or discovery research. However, there are many fulfilling and impactful career paths in translational sciences, process development, and other functional areas.”

Another pitfall for new scientists is the tendency to view their work through an individual lens and not taking a team-based approach. Chris Ramsborg, Vice President of Technology Strategy & Innovation at Juno Therapeutics, see this firsthand. “In my current role, I am building teams to develop very complex biological products. These products are beyond the ability of single person or department to fully understand. In this environment, overconfidence in one’s narrow area of expertise can lead to suboptimal decision making and team dynamics.” Wesley added, “(you should not have) the belief that you are solely responsible for the success/failure of a project. You’re not a post-doc anymore, you’re part of a team and multiple people are responsible for the project success or closure. You depend on many and many depend on you.”

“I’ve seen scientists transitioning to industry from academia struggle with the teamwork mentality,” said Jennifer Cox, Assistant Director of Biology at Inception Biosciences. “I am currently on a project team where we make decisions together, we have successes together, and we have failures together. There has never once been blame for making a wrong decision because we are all accountable on the team.”

And, possibly more than in academia, flexibility is valuable. Science as a business is fast-moving and initiatives can change quickly, even if the science is going well. “It is…helpful to demonstrate flexibility in the types of research you can perform and/or are interested in performing because you don’t have as much control over the selection of projects you will work on as you do in academia,” commented Thut.

On a practical level, “don’t be afraid of job insecurity – yes, restructurings will happen, projects/departments/sites will close, and the first one (or few) will be painful, but you’ll get over it,” said Ivanovska.

Related to this is that industry focuses on results and the critical path to a product, something that can be jarring to academic scientists accustomed to following where the science leads. “One of the things that distinguishes a good industry scientist from one struggling to make the change is that good industry scientists (clinical or research) are problem/solution oriented,” said Blackman.

“It’s easy as a scientist to fall into the trap of answering questions for science’s sake,” agreed Wahle. “Although that is a noble and fun pursuit, companies need to make drugs, and those drugs need to make a real difference in people’s lives. Figuring out how to drive towards that while still employing deep scientific rigor will take a person far.”

And once you’re there—relax. Trying too hard to impress can sometimes backfire. “Everyone in industry has been in academia – so don’t get overwhelmed about making the transition to industry – it has been done many times before,” said Ivanovska. Sonya Franklin, Director of Global Regulatory Sciences at Monsanto, recalled her response when new scientists want to move to a level for which they’re not quite ready. “When someone comes to me and says, ‘Give me a team and I’ll lead,’ I respond, ‘No, lead, and I’ll give you a team.’” In her experience at times new scientists can try to do too much before understanding the lay of the land.

New tools can help with learning, making connections, and getting your name out there.

Ethan Perlstein, CEO and Founder of Perlara PBC favors Twitter. “Hands down the most effective (and enjoyable) networking I do is on Twitter. I usually engage with folks online in a targeted manner first and then we meet in person to reinforce our mutual interests, or to explore potential collaborations or business opportunities. Without Twitter I don’t see how Perlara would have ever progressed beyond the idea stage.”

Jeffrey Reid

Jeff Reid, Executive Director of Genome Informatics at the Regeneron Genome Center, agrees. “Use Twitter as a platform for science communication and collaboration. In some ways Twitter is the ideal network-building tool for young scientists because it is a great equalizer in that it enables anyone to participate in the key scientific discussions that are propelling the field forward.”

Industry newsletters can help. “I have been advised to ‘follow the money’ – i.e. if you read (in FierceBiotech [or the Timmerman Report! Ed.], for example) that a company just closed a multi-million dollar financing, they are like to be hiring in the near future,” said Ivanoska. Cox agreed: “Anyone interested in a career in biopharma should be reading the industry headlines daily.”

Last, whether in your initial job or as you learn more about the industry, know yourself and keep working toward the job that fits best for you. “Develop a vision for what you want to do. It’s ok if it changes over time, but start with a goal in mind and try and steer your work, in any way you can, to prepare for that,” said Jared Odegaard, Senior Research Scientist at Gilead Sciences. Stewart Lyman, a consultant, agreed: “Be open to many possibilities, and take the job you want, not the job that others think you should take. Remember, if you take a job because someone else thinks you should, that person will not be taking your place if it doesn’t work out. It’s your life and your decision; you must find your own path.”

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