From the Other Side of the Fence, is the Grass any Greener?

Professor + Idea = Biotech Company. So is it industry, academia or somewhere in between? Having spent 14 months in a biotech company, learning the ropes of industry before jumping into graduate school, I thought I would share a few of the important things I learned while earning a pay cheque.

The Corporate Ladder
I had always thought that the hierarchy of jobs would be straight forward. As a technician, I assumed that I would be the strong base of that corporate triangle, but I quickly realized that either I had forgotten the basics from grade school geometry class, or things were slightly skewed in the world of biotechnology (Figure 1). I was correct in assuming where I stood in the pecking order, but industry seemed to have too many scientists for the number of technicians, and a vice president for everything.

Figure 1: Schematic of the structural organization of academic laboratories and biotechnology companies.

While the route to success in academia seems to be a linear path – from graduate student, to post doc, to professor, I couldn’t see how people jumped ranks in industry. A B.Sc. made you a technician, a M.Sc. made you the fine owner of the same title, and a Ph.D. gave you the well-deserved title of scientist. And to leap to VP or CEO required time spent with a major pharmaceutical company, successful biotech company, or an academic collaboration with the CEO. The main issue at hand, is that there are very few ranks to move through before you are staring at the glass ceiling above you wondering where you should go next…and for me it was right to grad school.

Beware of the pink slip
We have all watched or participated in the stress of finding funding, whether it was for our own graduate scholarships or our advisors’ operating grant. And for some, the outcome may determine whether they will be casting their own gels or purchasing the pre-cast ones, fixing the old broken equipment or buying it brand new. Yet through it all, we consider our life as a graduate student to be safe and secure. Have you ever heard of a graduate student being asked to leave due to a lack of funding? We’re the cheapest labour out there!

This same job security isn’t apparent in the biotech industry. CEOs talk of ‘burn rates’ and ‘money in the bank’, leaving that constant taste in the back of your mouth that your job is never secure. With no products on the market, start-up biotech companies rely on investors, and as of late investors have little confidence in the biotech world. Once a biotech company gets off the ground, with an attractive product pipeline, they tend to be eaten up by larger companies, more often taking the merchandise but not the employees. And large pharmaceutical companies with drugs on the market provide no more comfort as they are plagued with mergers and subsequent job cuts. At least they attach a severance package with the pink slips to take away some of the pain.

Tainted by money
In graduate school, some of us work for ourselves seeking out the satisfaction of self-accomplishment, others work for their advisors looking for the rewards of respect and responsibility, and still others work for reasons unbeknownst to the rest of us. Regardless, our ultimate goals are still the same: to participate in novel and interesting science, to finish in a decent amount of time, and to publish, publish, publish. As a naïve young technician entering the biotech world, I wanted to make a scientific impact. I had joined the biotech world to participate in solid, meaningful research while reaping the benefits of a pay cheque and a rather luxurious health plan. But the reality of the biotech world is that you work for a company, a company that is owned and operated by shareholders. Shareholders see dollar signs, not meaningful research; shareholders mean business, not science.

I poured my heart and soul into my first project. I got data, I wrote reports, I moved forward with my new-found discoveries, and then one day everything changed. The shareholders decided there was no obvious financial gain from my project – it was over, discarded like contaminated tissue culture plates into a biohazard container.

With a knife through my left ventricle, I was assigned a new, financially savvy project. And off I went, with a little less enthusiasm and a lot less hope for this world I was working in. If you’re comfortable with unpredictable change, this is the industry for you; and if not, beware of what you’re getting yourself into.

And a few last little tidbits
Location, location, location. Do you like big city life? Ever considered moving south for better weather and taxes? The biotech sector in Canada is limited to large cities, mainly Montreal, and to a lesser extent Toronto and Vancouver, and compared to our neighbours, the opportunities are few and far between. If you’re patriotic and against brain drain, be prepared for few work options and little control over where you live.

You ain’t getting rich. The job posting reads ‘Ph.D. with 2-5 years experience’. Interpretation, you’re off to do one or two post-docs before you’re heading to industry. So you’ve now been out of high school for 12+ years, and are ready for a real paying job. Just to give you a heads up, the salaries of scientists in the biotech world are rather insulting considering all of the hard work you have put in to your career to get this far. But don’t pout, if you can figure out how to get through that glass ceiling into a VP position, you can buy a few of your dream cars!

Still a bit of academia hanging around. Unlike many science-based industries, which are plagued by QC (quality control) and SOPs (standard operating procedures), biotech companies are typically formed by academics striving to take a brilliant idea to the market. So rather than following tedious, brain numbing protocols all day like some science jobs, the biotech world is a work environment that applauds the scientific curiosity that got us all on the road we’re now traveling on.

It was a learning experience indeed: fourteen months, two projects, one pink slip, and a severance package. I think I experienced it all. And would I ever think of returning? In an instant, especially since I’ll be looking at a different glass ceiling than last time!

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