Bench to Business 2: Finding More Than Research Roles in Industry

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It’s not a secret that every year there are more scientists trained than there are new faculty roles in academia. If you have trained as a scientist you likely already know how in demand your research skills are in industry, but what about non-research roles? We’ve found more and more scientists are looking for industry careers that take them away from the bench.

We recently held part 2 of our panel series, Bench to Business, to examine these opportunities and how to obtain one. Read on for a follow up with some of our panelists.

Answering our questions today are:

Poornima Manavalan: Director, Business Development at Elevate Bio                                                    

Kira Henderson : Commercial Data Strategist at Cell Signaling Technology

Sohail Balasubramanian: Director, Business Development at Jounce Therapeutics 

Maya Dubey: Senior Technical Marketing Specialist at The Jackson Laboratory

On deciding if you want a non-bench role:

Scismic: Poornima, you mentioned that you started to feel stagnant at the bench, that you loved the technical aspect, but wanted to be closer to the translational aspect of science and getting treatments to patients. What would your advice be for students out there trying to decide between research and non-research roles?

Poornima: It all depends on your long-term career goals. I knew very early on that staying in the lab long-term was not a viable option. I didn’t envision myself in the lab and couldn’t see myself growing in my career. Hence, I decided to make the switch. A lot of people love the science and are hands-on and love working in the lab and see this as a long-term journey for themselves, but others don’t. Take a long hard look at your scientific interests. Can you stay committed to the science by working on roles that are outside of the bench or would you like to be in a research position? Talk to people who have moved away from research and perhaps into process development/manufacturing/supply chain/regulatory/IP or other aspects and see what interests you. It’s not an easy answer, but you are the best judge and with time, the answer becomes evident. If you feel miserable in your current role, you know it’s time for a change.

Scismic: Maya, you mentioned the importance of thinking about what you would like to do in 5-10 years in making career decisions. What other advice would you give to someone who is still deciding between a research career and a non-research career?

Maya: Go with your gut and start to network with people in different roles to get a sense of what they do and things that they like and don’t like about their position. It’ll give you a sense of what could be in your future.

On the ways to reach a non-bench role in industry:

Scismic: Sohail, your experience was interesting in that you initially entered industry in a research role supporting clinical diagnostics and then pivoted to business development by distinguishing yourself through additional projects. If a student knows they ultimately want a non-bench role but lack experience, does it make more sense to apply for bench roles first and then move within the company or apply directly for non-bench roles?

Sohail: This depends on the company, and I would recommend doing both. One could enter a growing, early-stage company that supports internal transitions which would make applying for a bench role at such a company appealing. This would be something to ask in one’s interviews regarding the company support for internal transitions. Applying directly to a non-bench role without experience may be a long shot but worth taking, especially if one’s network can be leveraged at that company to make an introduction or recommendation.  

Scismic: Kira, you actually went straight from being a bench scientist to scientific writing and editing, using your transferable skills and expertise as a subject matter expert. How feasible do you think that kind of switch both away from academia and into a non-bench role at the same time is, or do you think it is easier to initially change to a research role even if you know you ultimately want a non-bench role?

Kira: I hate this answer, but it really depends. It depends on both your personal skills and experience and where you are trying to apply. I went straight from academia into publishing as the manager of editorial review. This was a fairly lateral move for me where they tend to mostly hire right from academia to those type of roles. At that current company I took on a lot of stretch projects and built skills in marketing and digital strategy which I was able to add to my resume and help get my next job in the commercial organization of a biotech company. My recommendation if you’re trying to get out of academia is aim for your ideal role, but also apply to some other roles, possibly closer to the bench, as fall back/stepping stones. You absolutely need to customize your resume and cover letter for each type of role; I know it’s more work, but it makes a big difference.

On writing a resume for a non-bench role: 

Scismic: Kira, you made sure to emphasize that how you frame your transferable skills from academia to non-bench roles is very important, such as the ability to understand a customer as someone who has likely used the products in a lab. If someone is applying to non-bench roles does it make sense to include a resume that focuses on these transferable skills as much as the lab skills? 

Kira: In my opinion, yes. Focus on the skills that are relevant to the job for which you are applying. You can position your lab skills and non-bench skills in that context, such as ability to manage others if you did so (including managing undergraduate products), leadership skills from clubs you may have participated in, organizational skills, perhaps you managed the ordering for you lab, or you have strong communication skills from writing grants and papers or doing peer review, and you likely have a lot of collaboration skills which are important in every company. If you are a PhD or have a publication history, you can submit a full CV but it is not an expectation. I have converted my CV into a 1-page resume now that I am fully on the business side; the publication history is assumed in the degree I have and is no longer required for the job. You could always just provide a link to your linkedin profile or your researchgate profile so hiring managers could review your publication list as relevant.

Scismic: Sohail, you described how you felt a business development/alliance management role played better to your skill set and personality. Considering you now have experience in multiple types of roles would you limit a resume to just focusing on the ones with skills relevant to your role of interest or include one with a combination of all the skills you’ve accrued (bench and non-bench)?

Sohail: I would suggest a resume that includes a combination of skills accrued. A non-bench role still leverages a lot of the skills used in the bench setting e.g., detail-oriented, project management, communication skills, etc. I would then explain in a cover letter how those skills already accrued could be applied in that particular role.

On non-bench roles at small vs. large companies:

Scismic: Maya, you’ve worked with several different organizations after leaving academia, including both Jackson Laboratories and Agilent. Do you think there is a particular type or size of non-academic organization that is best suited for early-career scientists applying for non-bench roles without prior experience?

Maya: I think for early-career scientists, smaller to mid-size companies are great for a few reasons. Smaller ones are more likely to be able to carve out a role that is more tailored to help you acquire new skills and then take on new responsibilities. In fact, they may help you pay for courses if you’d want to take a few to help learn a specific skill set.

Scismic: Poornima, you have experience at both a large company, FujiFilm, and a smaller company, Elevate Bio. The differences in considering established companies and startups or mid-sized companies is a question we get often. If someone is looking specifically for non-bench roles coming out of academia, is there a difference in opportunity for them when applying to small to medium sized companies or big companies?

Poornima: It really depends on the type of role. If it’s a position in a company like a Thermofisher Scientific or a large consulting group, vs a lesser-known company, I’d think about the opportunity as a whole and your overall package and the type of network you can build by working at the big vs the other company. Every company will have its pros and cons. I would not restrict myself in applying to a small vs big, but should you get offers from both, I’d explore both options and create a pros/cons list, talk to people working in those companies and ask them about their experience and then decide. Landing a non-bench role out of academic can be challenging, and hence it’s advisable to not restrict the pool of companies and really broaden your search.

If you’d like to explore some non-bench roles in industry that are looking for your skill set you can create a free Scismic profile here. Our specialized algorithm accurately matches you to jobs that fit your skill set.

Additionally, we are happy to meet with you to learn more about your job search, career aspirations, and offer you Scismic resources that can help. You can book a call here to talk to us.

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