Starting at the bottom rung

This post was prompted by some conversations I’ve had recently with recent PhD graduates at industry networking events.  These kinds of events are great opportunities to meet people working in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors. You can learn about the day-to-day reality of the industry, get insight on recent developments, and sometimes get leads on new opportunities.

However, I’ve met a few people at these events who make a terrible impression. They pout and complain about the challenges of the job search, and generally appear shocked that biotechnology companies didn’t knock down their doors with fabulous offers after they graduated. It’s an attitude of entitlement that is very off-putting.

Look, I get it.  You’ve spent years of your life, and probably tens of thousands of dollars in real and opportunity costs to earn a specialized, rarefied degree that places you among the elite of the educational system. You’ve worked incredibly hard, spending long hours in the laboratory and developing advanced skills in technically challenging fields.  You’ve managed complex projects; you’ve published in prestigious journals; you’ve presented at conferences with leading experts.  You’re self-directed and motivated. And then, when you get that degree and walk out of the lab, looking to put your smarts to work away from the bench… employers aren’t interested.

It’s a shock to the system to realize that after spending years developing your skills, managers consider you unseasoned and inexperienced. If you’re lucky, they will offer you something with entry-level responsibilities — and a salary to match. It’s a blow to the ego — and frankly, feels insulting. It’s especially toxic when you compare yourself to successful new lawyers and MBAs, or to the lucky few PhDs who manage to step from the lab into high-paying roles, such as medical science liaisons. Believe me, I know — I’ve been there.

My advice is: Get over yourself.

There’s no shame in starting at the bottom rung — and employers are right: the business world is very different than academia. There are different stakeholders, different pressures, and different priorities. Getting your feet wet at the entry level gives you a chance to learn those differences and then prove yourself. All those skills and personal strengths you developed in grad school — project management, determination, perseverance and communications — will let you advance quickly once you’ve had a chance to adapt.  The thing about post-PhD careers in the pharmaceutical industry is this: getting in is the hardest part. Once you’ve opened that door, you will have the opportunity to follow a very satisfying trajectory.

Don’t settle for something terrible — but don’t let your ego stop you from taking a first step, either. You may have earned a PhD, but in the business world, you’ve still gotta pay your dues.

Good luck in your search.

Posted: July 15th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments »

5 Comments on “Starting at the bottom rung”

  1. 1 Joe said at 5:18 pm on July 23rd, 2011:

    Which roles within Pharma are considered good stepping stones to build into a career as a Medical Science Liaison.

  2. 2 Headhunter said at 7:49 pm on July 26th, 2011:

    Hey Joe, that’s a great question. To some extent it would depend on which gaps in your profile you were trying to fill. For example, taking a position in clinical research could help a recent PhD grad become familiar with the pharmaceutical industry environment as well as the processes and regulations that govern clinical trials. Another approach might be to try to transition from a sales role, where you can prove you are able to communicate effectively with physicians and deliver key messaging about the products in your portfolio. You could also consider working your way up from a medical education or marketing role.

  3. 3 Ani said at 7:48 pm on August 3rd, 2011:

    I am interested in getting into clinical trials. The term clinical research is pretty broad. Can you be more specific? Are you suggesting a Clinical Research coordinator position or a Clinical Research Assistant? As far as I know, post-docs in clinical research are pratically non-existent if your looking for a subject that falls under the typical biomedical Ph.D.

  4. 4 Headhunter said at 12:02 pm on August 7th, 2011:

    Hi Ani — yes, a coordinator or assistant role would be a good way to build knowledge of how clinical research works. If you’re considering a post-doc, look for a lab that does work directly related to human disease, as this will provide a more direct linkage to pharmaceutical industry interests than most ‘pure science’ projects. Thanks for your comments; it’s great to know that people are reading this blog!

  5. 5 Virginie said at 9:17 am on October 30th, 2012:

    You are so right!
    “It’s a shock to the system to realize that after spending years developing your skills, managers consider you unseasoned and inexperienced.”
    I’m specialized in oncology and I’m trying to get into industry for a few month. I’m facing the hard truth : no company is interested in hiring a recent PhD graduate with no experience.
    My 5 year goal is to become a MSL, so I was very interested by the answer you gave to Joe. That’s what I’m doing with no results. Do you have any advice of how I can increase my chance to get my first pharma job?

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