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While doing career seminars or Next Wave events, I am often asked about getting on the business track. Something about the prospect of combining science with business fascinates a lot of people. In the Tooling Up column this month, I want to elaborate on how technical people can succeed in business--without MBAs!

Here's how one meeting attendee recently described her concern: "I'd like to work in some kind of business job," she began, "a position that doesn't emphasize working alone at the bench. But I really don't think that I could get my foot in the door for those kinds of jobs without an MBA."

As I thought about my response, I realized why so many grad students and postdocs express this same concern. Scientists, who have been through rigorous training and sometimes several academic degrees, tend to believe that only by gaining another degree can they move into a new field.

It is my belief that it is not only possible, but for many people preferable, to launch a career in science and business without the extra couple years and thousands of dollars required to get the MBA. This degree does have real value, but it is critically important to time it well: It is often better to get some work experience first. And it is possible to do this, because the business side of science operates on fundamentally different rules than does basic research.

Three Differences That Can Open Doors to a Business Career

When I look at the personalities of the hiring managers I have worked with over the years, I find that the manager of research at a biotech company isn't a great deal different from the professor or hiring committee in academia. Hiring decisions are made for many of the same reasons (such as the "pedigree" of the applicant--the person's lab, number of publications, and so on).

Hiring managers on the business side are very different. These differences can have an impact when you are applying for a science and business position. Here are three of them:

  • Experience, not just education, counts. Although you may not get a lot of business experience doing your graduate degree in the sciences, these hiring managers look beyond the degree for any relevant examples of past work. This is the time when showing your leadership skills, part-time marketing experience (perhaps as a Next Wave campus rep!), or even retail sales background might make sense on the résumé.

  • Businesspeople are not afraid to take risks. The very nature of those who succeed in business can work for you. Biotech entrepreneurs have taken innumerable risks to get their businesses up and running. Bringing that same attitude into the hiring process means that many new employees get hired because they can convince management that they will work hard and succeed. Business hiring managers are not afraid to use their intuition or "gut feeling" when making hiring decisions.

  • Enthusiasm can actually make the difference. When applying for purely scientific jobs, most people count on their technical merit. Employers for these positions also consider enthusiasm, but it is an unwritten requirement that sits on the back burner. Employers for business positions, on the other hand, bring it right out in the open and even put it on their lists of "must haves." In a business interview, enthusiasm can replace all the other hiring parameters and become the deciding point.

Launching Pads for a Business Career

A few job categories traditionally work very well to launch a career in the arena of science and business. These jobs require a strong technology background combined with an eager interest in business and a love of working with people.

Sales, Marketing, and Technical Services

There is no better way to launch a business career than by taking a shot at a sales or marketing position. The best jobs for scientists are with supplier companies, the firms that make the instruments and reagents that you use daily in your research work. As you can imagine, these employers are growing with the biotechnology industry; this growth means that they continually need knowledgeable staff to market their goods to scientists. The field is wide open. (See "His Mother Cried When He Went Into Sales")

Many different jobs can fall into this category. There are sales rep positions, typically paying between $50,000 and $70,000 plus commission (often close to $100,000 total). These are a bit more difficult to land, because companies look for previous sales experience. However, applications scientists work closely with the sales reps and have a very strong track record of moving into sales. Applications scientists assist with the technical presentation of products to customers and also do training sessions and installations of new apparatus. In the case of a Ph.D. applications scientist, starting salaries begin in the high $50,000s and can run as high as the mid-$70,000s. There are certainly some B.S. or M.S. applications scientists as well, depending on the type of company and product. Salaries for those jobs run from the low $40,000s to the $60,000s.

In some cases, support on products comes over the telephone, from the technical services department. Like applications scientists, tech services employees help customers properly use the products. (See "Technical Services: What are Hiring Managers Looking For?") Salaries are roughly equivalent to those for the applications scientists positions mentioned above.

Quality Control and Regulatory Affairs

In addition, positions in quality control have allowed some scientists to move into the world of business, most notably into the regulatory affairs arena (see the Next Wave feature Careers in Regulatory Affairs). By itself, moving into regulatory affairs is tough because none of this work is taught at the university, and in regulatory affairs, experience rules. When you ask successful regulatory professionals about their background, however, you find that many of them started by taking a technical position in the quality control department before moving laterally (see the Next Wave feature Careers in Quality Control).

If All Else Fails, Get Your Foot in the Door

An MBA can be a very important advantage to the development of your science and business career. It is not, however, absolutely required in order to get started in these kinds of positions. In fact, it may be better to sample the world of business before diving into a commitment this large.

Some employers--almost all of the large ones and an increasing number of biotechnology companies--offer to subsidize business education that will benefit them in some way. My recommendation is to think of adding an MBA after getting some work experience that will increase the value of what you study.

If you have had some difficulty making inroads in your job search for a nonbench business position, don't feel that you are alone. It is hard to find a job, period. Add to this the fact that you are trying to break into something totally new, and you may see why many people opt to get their foot in the door first and later move to the company's business area. Getting known in the firm-- developing an internal network and supporting champions--can be a very logical first step toward a business job. So, if all else fails, take a serious look at that job offer for the research scientist position to see whether the company will later offer you an opportunity to look at alternatives that might make you happier in the long run.

There is a very bright future in the next decade for those who combine a science education with an interest in business. Perhaps this lies sooner down the road than you had imagined!