I ssue No. 1: Management Careers in the Biotech Business

Question:

Dear Advisor,I have an M.Sc. in biochemistry and 3 years of working experience in R&D. However, I am finding that my interest is really not at the bench and I would like to go into the management of a biotech or related business.With my limited R&D experience in the area of biochemistry and molecular genetics, how could I get started in the biotech business?Do I need an MBA before I proceed on the career change? Or should I do a PhD first? Is there PhD training in entrepreneurship?Also, is there an advantage to learning the ropes in a small start-up before venturing into a larger company?Please advise.Giselle Goh

Answer:

Dear Giselle,

The good news is that there is a variety of options to move from the bench to management. The less good news is that none are easy.

The most direct way is to begin as a research scientist in industry moving toward management over the years by expressing your interest, doing some gentle internal lobbying, and taking relevant classes.

The advantage of this approach is that you stay employed, you get paid, and you gain industry experience while you're getting where you want to go. The disadvantages are that you may get "stuck" in a place, getting more and more qualified but in precisely the kind of position you don't want to be in. Whether or not you can move will depend largely on the flexibility in personnel management of the firm you're working for, and that's something you can ask about--in general terms--when you interview.

The MBA is the surest way to land on the management side of things, and you learn how to do it right. The drawbacks, of course, include the time and money you'll spend doing the MBA. You can avoid some of the financial penalty by either taking an evening course MBA, which would allow you to stay employed in the meantime, or getting grants.

Incidentally, companies often look for candidates with combined science plus management degrees; however, they'll still want to see industry experience, so your first job will likely start at the lower end of the ladder no matter what research experience you've had. But at least it will be the right ladder!

Jumping into entrepreneurship is, I suspect, the hardest way to get into management. There is no way to "learn" entrepreneurship through a PhD--getting a PhD means to learn how to study things that exist. Being an entrepreneur, by contrast, means to create things that don't (yet) exist, all by yourself. For this you need at least some good ideas beforehand, a lot of time, dedication, and a not insignificant dose of luck.

Any research PhD will only prepare you to do more research at the bench.

As for learning the ropes, it's actually best to do things the other way around--start at a big company before venturing into a small one or a start-up. Why? Well, small companies, and especially start-ups, may have incomplete internal organisations, combine several functions in one person, and may generally be marked by personal idiosyncrasies. Large companies, conversely, have been around for a while and have established sets of best practices in their internal organisation. They are more likely to represent a good example of the "average" or standard ways of doing business. Similarly, they will likely have all the elements and departments you would hear about in an MBA. So, once you have learned the ropes in a larger company, you will still be free to adapt them, as necessary, to the different situations you might encounter in smaller companies.

Good Luck,

Markus Karner

Director, Karner Consult Pte. Ltd., Singapore E-mail mbk@karnerconsult.com