How Can Science Graduates Actually Have Successful Careers

Korina Karampela talks to Lauren Celano – Founder and CEO of Propel Careers – about how science graduates can improve their career prospects.

  • There is a lot of discussion whether in the current economic environment people are better off being ‘experts in a specific field’  vs. ‘generalists’. What is your opinion?

Expertise builds and defines your “professional brand” and can create job security. This allows you become the “go-to” person for a specific task – i.e. ELISA assay development, cell culture, statistics, etc.  Equally important though, is the ability to adapt, learn new skills, work well with others, and appreciate areas outside of your expertise. Ultimately, the value of being a generalist or an expert depends upon the type of role and company a person is looking to work for. 

Take for example a large company with thousands of people, each with different skills that together make up a well rounded team.  These companies hire people for their expertise.

Compare this with an entrepreneurial company, i.e. a 15 person biotech company. While you may be hired for your expertise, (cell culture and assay development), you will quickly find yourself taking on new tasks and developing skills – communicating with partners, interacting with vendors, preparing the research lab budget, hiring new employees, etc.

In this situation, excelling in your area of expertise is not enough – you need to stretch yourself and contribute meaningfully to areas outside of your core expertise – this is critical for success. So, in summary, if you are an expert or a generalist, you will be most successful if you narrow your search to roles that value your skill set.

  • What is the most common mistake that people with strong scientific backgrounds do during their job search? 

I think they don’t appreciate all of the potential career options and companies that could be a fit for them.  Scientists are trained to do research on a very specific topic, therefore many don’t realize they can do so much more.  For example, a Ph.D. scientist with a degree in Biology can certainly apply for a bench research scientist role at a large pharmaceutical or biotech company.

Career options for scientists

“it is important to find ways to apply existing skills to new areas” says Lauren Celano

In addition, there are many scientific roles at non-profit organizations, disease foundations, chemical/consumer goods companies, contract research organizations, academic institutions and the government. Also, many roles exist that utilize a scientific foundation, but are not bench research based, such as market research, consulting, medical science liaison, clinical research, medical affairs, etc.

Hundreds of options exist. To be more informed, scientists should reflect on what really makes them happy, and not just what they can do.  Additionally, they should do informational interviews to learn about what is available and what role(s), companies, and career paths may be the best fit.

Ideally, they should start their search a year or more before they are ready to graduate, to give themselves enough time to learn about all of the available career options.

  • Knowledge becomes obsolete at a very fast rate. How can people with scientific and technical expertise do to ensure long-term employability?

For long term employability, they should familiarize themselves with trends in research and be at the cutting edge of a new area.  For example, personalized medicine, next generation sequencing, and bioinformatics are all growing areas.  Areas such as reimbursement and pharmacoeconomics are growing, and companies understand the pricing and economic landscape surrounding technology development.

I also think it is important to find ways to apply existing skills to new areas.  For example, a scientist with experience using microfluidics for cancer diagnostics could apply the technology to other diagnostic areas, such as CNS diseases or food diagnostics to test for salmonella contamination.

  •  What are the 3 ‘Dos’ and 3 ‘Don’ts’ scientists who want to improve their job prospects need to be aware of?

The Do’s are:

  1. Do Network.  Many people are hired because of a referral, so find ways to connect with people relevant to your area(s) of interest
  2. Do informational interviewing to learn about roles, companies, and career paths. This will help you focus on the roles that are really a fit for you.
  3. Do tailor your resume for each role that you apply for and remember that your resume should tell a story about your experiences – it is not a list of everything you have done.

The Don’ts are:

  1. Don’t send your resume to hundreds of places without making sure that the company and role is a fit.  This shows that you are not serious about your search.
  2. Don’t send the same resume to all jobs you apply for.  Make sure you tailor each document and cover letter for each role.
  3. Don’t assume that because you are highly trained and have a good scientific pedigree that you will be hired for jobs that you are not well qualified for.  Actively build skills, if you need to, so that you can become competitive for roles you are interested in.

The bottom line:  There are many opportunities around for those science graduates who continue to be at the cutting edge in their field and position themselves accordingly.

Korina Karampela is the founder of b4iapply, author, consultant and speaker. She works as an executive in the pharmaceutical industry and has an MBA from MIT Sloan. Her blog b4iapply has been recommended by The Guardian for professional development.

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