Opportunities Abound In CROS for Scientists: A conversation with Martin Egeland

Can you tell me a little bit about your scientific background?

I am a neuroscientist by training. I did my PhD at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. I’m a Danish citizen. Then I did a postdoc at the University of London Kings’ College London, and towards the end of that, I switched over to another PI. That PI then moved to UCLA and asked me to come along, so I did a second postdoc with him. Then once I was in the US, again, still working in neuroscience, I decided I wanted to stay here. For many international postdocs, it’s a little problematic; you don’t have a Green Card, so you don’t have many options, so I stayed on. The PI I came over with then left for St. Louis, so I moved on to another PI in LA. Eventually, I got lucky and won the Green Card Lottery. That changed my situation dramatically and allowed me to look for non-academic positions.

It sounds like you didn’t always know you wanted to work at a CRO, so what led you to pursuing a role at your current company?

When I got my Green Card and my situation changed, I was ready to tackle the move to Biotech. I wasn’t particularly aware of CROs beyond knowing what they were, and certainly not as a compatible job opportunity. Through contacts at different organizations I have been working with, and that I suggest other people get involved with, such as Bioscience Connection Los Angeles, I became aware of CROs as a viable job opportunity. I became aware people with academic skill sets are actually a good fit. I wasn’t particularly searching for CRO work because as a postdoc you feel that you are trained for a specific type of research- in my case neuroscience. Whereas when I started looking for jobs, and started having interviews, I found a lot of companies were looking for other skills that I had and wasn’t even aware that I had. You aren’t particularly aware of the possibilities until you start looking. Unfortunately, many research institutions don’t put awareness of these opportunities into the curriculum, so often it is other organizations that must pick up that slack. Finding organizations that focus on non-academic opportunities that are out there are crucial to getting your foot in the door in biotech.

Did you feel you were able to transition from a postdoc into your role at the CRO smoothly?

The honest answer is no; it was more of a splash into the deep end! Academia is a different ball game. It may sound like it wasn’t a good experience, but actually, it was- because it made me realize that I did have other abilities that were highly valued in biotech that weren’t really valued or used in academia. Academia is so focused on producing papers and research results, that you don’t realize that as you are doing that research training you are also developing other skills, like people skills, problem-solving and project management skills. Jumping into that deep end, you just realize, wow I can actually swim.I do have the tools to do this!

What would you say to people who are considering that career transition and unsure or hesitant because of that learning curve?

A lot of it is just understanding what the job entails and that takes time as with any new job- and you are given that time. After spending so much of your research career being research results-driven, there will be a difference in tempo and mindset- often you only work on a part of a project and you are working on many projects at once. I’d say give it a chance. It does take time, but you might be surprised how well prepared you are once you get into the requirements of your new role. As a trained academic, you do have the capabilities; you just have to learn to repurpose them. For me, it took two to three months to really understand what the job required, then I began to flourish.

Was there anything you felt you could’ve done during your postdoc that would’ve helped you make this transition smoother?

Yeah, the bottom line is you are working for a corporate company - whether you are moving over to a CRO or any other biotech. There is a lot of business lingo going on in client calls, internal meetings, and personal development sessions with your mentor, and I did feel a little out of my depth there. I do get a little sad and frustrated that most universities do not prepare trainees for anything other than academic careers. If I had taken a small business course it would have helped me a lot both to see the opportunities outside of academia but also the mindset and language that is used. Right now, I am filling those gaps on the side, but it would have been useful to have that knowledge as part of my actual training.I believe research institutions should face the reality that the majority of their trained academics will end up in industry so at least look out for their best interest and give them an introduction to that while in academia.

What do you find are the most exciting aspects of your current role?

What is really rewarding about it is how diverse a weekly schedule is from my research career. In a research career often you’ll be working on the same project/techniques for months on end, before moving over to something else, usually with little daily variation. While in my current role, I really do wear many different hats, sometimes several times a day. It’s like going from being a people person; convincing clients of specific strategy- to working in the lab; solving scientific problems with your colleagues. It’s really varied throughout the day. Another thing I find quite different and very rewarding is that there is a lot more interaction. As researchers it can become very insular, of course you do have colleagues, but often you are working things out on your own. This is never the case as far as my experience goes at a CRO or in biotech. You are always on a team working towards a common goal and you do have that support from all sides. Another thing I like about the job is that you have a lot of short projects. A research project can take several years before you finally publish that paper, and sometimes that sense of reward you feel for completing that project can feel quite short. Whereas, since there are so many small projects constantly moving forward at a CRO you really feel that sense of accomplishment almost on a weekly basis. I would also say you get a lot of feedback, from mentors and supervisors as well. Everyone is helping you along the way telling you what you are doing well and helping if you are struggling. One last thing that’s really great about my new role is the aspect of remuneration. You feel your time is valued, and it’s expressed to you in many ways, including tangible like raises, bonuses and great (fair) salaries.

How do you envision yourself growing from this role? What would the next step look like for you?

When you first arrive, you might be very focused on what’s the obvious sequential step as it has been in academia- masters, PhD, postdoc? What’s the ladder here at the company? Then once you join a company you realize the world is your oyster. You can develop in whatever direction you want to do as long as you have ambition and drive to do it; skills can be learned- the ladders go in all directions! What I’ve seen from other individuals moving “up” the career ladder is that it’s really determined by you- there’s a lot of possibilities. I’m still figuring out what I want to do, but I’m often informed that if I am interested in A, B, or C, I can pursue it and managers want to help you develop those skills and knowledge. People want you to move forward, it’s really encouraged and you are given the support to do it. It’s really encouraging.

So, if someone came in as a scientist doing R&D and wanted to eventually move into project management or regulatory affairs there would be avenues to do this at a CRO?

There are many options, I see a lot of people moving from department to department working on many different things - which is useful to the company as well! You can take your expertise from one department to inform the people in your new department what the challenges are in another department. So, it is definitely encouraged, and if you struggle to move into a new role you will have the support to tackle that. For example, now I have the opportunity to contribute to certain aspects of business development for the company. What direction should we be going? What techniques should we focus on for future development? What expertise in the field will we need in 5 years’ time? How do we meet these goals? They do want a good set of eyes to identify these and as an academic, you are well prepared to do this..

Do you have suggestions for navigating the application and interviewing process?

Networking, it’s extremely important and crucial. I got my role through networking; all the recent postdoc hires came in through networking. It Is important to reach out to individuals or groups working with companies so you can get in contact with people who work directly at those companies. I would even say if you are interested in working at a particular company, be bold, reach out to someone on LinkedIn. People won’t always respond, don’t take that as rejection. Some people will respond, reach out to as many people as possible. When I got my interview, they were looking for someone with immunohistochemical expertise. Which I had done, but not on the scale of working at a CRO, and not with the same technology of automated platforms. I was very hesitant if I was a good fit after reading the job description. However, in my interview process, I realized they’re really just looking for people who are able to learn. Who can come in and problem solve quickly? - Think about that before your interview. Projects come and go quickly in the industry and are very diverse, but they are looking for people with problem-solving skills. Work through some answers to questions where you can demonstrate this. Especially as a postdoc, you’ve problem-solved a million different things, use those as examples to show your versatility. I think academics take it for granted but we really are good at thinking up creative solutions to complex problems- not everyone in the world is- show your prospective employer that you have this valuable ability!

Is there anything you would like people, who perhaps have just heard about CROs, to know about working at a CRO?

Don’t take whatever the CRO specializes in as something you need to be highly familiar with. They are looking for skilled people for individual tasks. Quite often they are looking for specific technical skills, problem-solving skills or business skills and you can learn general aspects while on the job. I would say they are great places to work for! The big allure I would say is that it is a great step into the biotech industry. You get a great oversight into the biotech industry, seeing what the priorities of many biotechs and Pharma companies are and what they are working on. It’s very useful for your career whether you want to develop within a CRO or move into Pharma. You will develop a lot of expertise in the area in a very short amount of time.

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