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Seminar Explores Career Options in Life Sciences Industry

By Padma Nagappan and Mika Ono

If you are a good communicator and someone who can roll with the punches, you already have two of the top ten personality traits that determine success in the biotechnology field, says Toby Freedman, a scientist-turned-life sciences recruiter.

Freedman, who heads Synapsis Search Recruiting, was in La Jolla to speak with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at The Scripps Research Institute. She began by telling the audience at the well-attended workshop that career options in the biotech industry are not for everyone, but if you are doing what you love, then it’s not really “work”, so it’s important to find that perfect job.  

“Biotech is a risky endeavor—there's significant attrition, a lot of money and lot of risk,” she said. “The science of business and the business of science is truly fascinating. [And] it's a very altruistic industry, it’s about the greater good.”

Freedman shared key pointers from her book Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2009), which is based on detailed interviews with 200 people drawn from a cross-section of the life sciences industry. There are more than 100 career options, from discovery research to product development, from medical writing to sales and marketing, each with pros and cons and more.

Hot Fields, Top Jobs

For those looking for lucrative careers, the big money is in sales and investment banking, but these jobs come with long hours and tremendous stress. For someone looking for work-life balance, she suggested product support as a good line of work.

“Product support and quality control—these are very 9-5, very family-oriented, and they love to hire Ph.D.s for these roles.”

What's a hot field? Regulatory affairs, especially if you're looking for job security and good pay, but she cautioned some describe the area as detail-oriented. Bio-IT also comes to mind, since few people can bridge IT and life sciences. In healthcare, Freedman said there’s demand for health information technologists.

The services sector—contract research organizations and manufacturers—is also hiring. Opportunities in venture capital are coveted, and postdocs are  hired for “associate” positions, she said.

Working on human diseases will help ease the transition for young scientists looking to switch from academia to industry, as will showing leadership.

What are the essential personality traits one needs to succeed? In addition to communication skills and the ability to adapt to change, success comes to motivated team players who are easy to work with, have a can-do attitude with a sense of humor, and the ability to multi-task. It also helps to see the big picture, understand the end customer's point of view and engage in creative problem solving.

Networking, LinkedIn, Resumé

To prevail in the all important job hunt, Freedman advised participants to get help with their resumes and seek training for interviews—services that the TSRI’s Office of Career and Postdoctoral Services offers.

Freedman stressed the importance of networking, recounting how someone sat next to a CEO in an airplane and by striking up a conversation managed to land a plum job.

This led to a tongue-in-cheek reaction from a workshop participant: “I don’t think CEOs fly economy though."

Undaunted, Freedman then led the audience through an exercise where everyone introduced themselves to people they didn’t know and shook hands, focusing on avoiding the limp handshake and vigorous pumping.

Her tip on how to make a great first impression: Firm handshake, a compliment on what someone’s wearing or working on (to break the ice), two sentences about what you do, then asking for their card and move on. The audience practiced this with some success.

Everyone is on LinkedIn, but she pointed out how some profiles are more effective than others and that using key words and listing your publications will help when hiring managers search for particular skill sets. Including your email on the profile will enable people to get in touch, since LinkedIn charges recruiters $5 per email to reach out to potential job candidates. Linking with power users—the LinkedIn open networker— will also help expand your profile.

She threw a question out at the participants—why do companies want to hire graduate students or postdocs? “We’re cheap,”  “we’re motivated” and “we can be molded” came the answers. “Yes, but they’re also looking for your technical expertise, so be sure to highlight them clearly.”

On approaching recruiters, Freedman had this to say: “There are a lot of bad recruiters out there, they may not give you the whole picture, since they’re just after a commission. Also, if they blast your resume out to companies, with or without your consent, and you happen to apply to one of the companies directly, they may not want to hire you even if you’re a good fit, because your resume reached them first through the recruiter and they’d have to pay the recruiter a fee.”

Freedman had this final tip for interviewing, straight from a vice president at Merck—“Don’t interview like a postdoc.”

For information about different career paths, a sample chapter of Freedman’s book and top job sites, see


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“The science of business and the business of science is truly fascinating.”
—Toby Freedman