Careers in Biotechnology and Drug Development

1. You mention 'making the transition' in your first chapter. Making the transition from where?

I am referring to people anticipating a move from academia, medical school or private practice, from a different industry, or to people who would like to make a career change. Transitioning into the biotechnology and life sciences industry can be difficult due to the overwhelming amount of information and domain knowledge required. Additionally, it is common to 'burn out' from doing bench work and the book describes other options.

2.How should your resume, cover letter, and interview differ from the usual when you are pursuing a career in biotechnology and drug development?

Basically, biotechnology resumes are very similar to those prepared for other industries, except for the following:

  • The biotechnology industry is focused on specialized therapeutic areas, i.e. oncology, neurosciences, etc. You should list the therapeutic areas that you have specialized in and your technical discipline in your summary section.
  • Research departments tend to be more academically oriented and as such, place a greater emphasis on degrees. Advanced degrees should be listed following your name at the top of the resume.

3. Can you choose a couple of the specialty areas in these fields and tell us about the kind of work that a person might be doing?

Three such areas are regulatory affairs, marketing and research. Someone in regulatory affairs might be interacting with the FDA and working with the project teams to draft filings. A person in marketing might be working with the project teams to estimate the market value of a product in development or conducting market research. A discovery research or preclinical scientist might be doing bench work or managing projects.

4. How much on the 'business' side of things does someone in biotechnology and drug development get involved?

It depends on what position you are in-some areas are focused entirely on the business side, whereas for other positions, it is beneficial, but not necessary to have a business background.

Drug discovery and development is a volatile industry, and, as such, employees should for their own career's sake, be aware of high level business economics: the patent landscape, regulatory and clinical hurdles, market opportunities, competition, venture capital funding, the IPO window, and more to fully appreciate the company's potential and likelihood of success. It is important to pick the most promising companies to work in and therefore, a business perspective is beneficial.

For those interested in the business side of biotechnology, consider careers in the following areas: project management, marketing, sales, management consulting, venture capital, business development, or transactional and corporate law.

5. Are there a lot of politics involved in the industry side of it?

I would presume that the biotechnology industry is no different than other industries when it comes to politics. People in biotechnology tend to be more altruistic since their focus of work is to develop products to treat diseases and help save lives. This is an additional especially unique and pervasive attraction to such occupations. As such, individuals are motivated more to develop products to help people and are less likely to let politics get in the way.

6. What if a person is like a kid with a chemistry set -- he or she just loves pure science. What is the best fit for them?

There are plenty of great opportunities to continue working at the bench. Career areas to consider are: discovery research, preclinical studies, the process sciences, a couple of areas in clinical development and quality control.

7. How frustrating or disappointing can this career be? In terms of failures in clinical trials and such?

This work can be frustrating and disappointing due to the high failure rate of projects. This is especially true in the discovery research and development departments. At each step of product development, there is significant risk of failure. There tends to be more job security in the larger companies which have multiple products in the pipeline so that, if one project fails, employees can work on other programs. A small biotechnology company with a failed clinical trial may result in the closing of the company. However, when a product is successful, it represents a tremendous achievement and is ultimately worth all the extra time and effort committed--even the disappointment for the previous failed projects.

8. What are some of the pitfalls that can be avoided?

One thing to look for is to join a company with a large drug development pipeline. Therefore, if one project fails, you can work on other projects. In addition, when considering companies, you should review who the investors are. A company with top notch investors with biotechnology experience will have a greater likelihood of being successful.

Due to the high failure rate of drug candidates, job security can be tenuous. There are several things that can be done to mitigate this. First, try to find employment in one of the biotechnology hubs, so that if there is a project failure, you will not need to relocate. The three largest biotechnology hubs are San Francisco, Boston and San Diego. Secondly, learn new skills and stay flexible in your career so that you will be more marketable later. Try to stay at the cutting edge, so that you'll remain knowledgeable about the latest science. And finally, build up your network and keep an updated resume in case economic downturns affect your employment status.

9. You mention 'big deals' in the corporate world. Can you tell us something about this?

Pharmaceutical companies are relying more and more on biotechnology companies to fill their R&D pipelines with innovative products. A common scenario is that a pharmaceutical company will initially partner with a biotechnology company and if the technology is promising, the pharmaceutical company will acquire the biotechnology company. There is also a lot of merger and acquisition activity in the medical devices industry.

10. Is there anything else you would like to add for readers of the website?

Everyone has unique talents, skill sets and interests. I recommend self assessment and reading about all of your options to find which career areas interest you most and would be the best match for you before embarking on a new career direction or a degree. The life sciences industry is deep and vast and the amount of knowledge is growing exponentially. It takes a long time to learn the processes and technology. The industry is populated with highly motivated and bright individuals who are driven to play their part in developing products that will possibly save lives. So, I recommend first finding where you fit best and can contribute the most to and where you can ultimately be most successful and contented with your work.