So let’s just say, hypothetically, that you’re defending your thesis in 2 months and it’s only recently occurred to you that “I really should figure out what I’m doing after grad school.” Or you’re a post-doc whose boss just informed you that they’re interviewing for a position 2 time zones away. Or you’re a technician who’s just curious what else is out there for you.

Regardless of your situation, there’s a good chance that if you’re reading this article, you’ve thought about making the leap. What leap, you ask? The leap into biotech. So I’m here to give you a sense of what to expect, and not to expect, once you make the plunge.

The hierarchy

In academic labs, there’s a pretty clear path to take to get right to the top of the food chain and have a conversation with your PI. In fact, there’s a decent chance they come by to talk to you on a regular basis.

In biotech, organizational charts are the name of the game. At the top of these charts are the executives – CEO, COO, CFO, and CSO (chief executive, operations, financial, and scientific officer, respectively) — and the bigger the company, the further away from them you will be starting out. Your work-related interactions will be focused around a smaller group answering to the same person, be it a director, vice-president, or manager, and that person can also be many steps away from the top.

This may take some getting used to, but it is designed to help increase efficiency and keep people focused on their areas of responsibility. This stands in direct contrast to a lab experience where it is expected that you will contribute to lab meetings and experiments that may or may not have anything to do with the goals you have to accomplish that day. Hey look, a nice segue into…

The day-to-day

You know how great it was getting to show up at the lab every morning at 10 am, because hey, your boss didn’t even show up ‘til noon? In the biotech world, you can kiss those days good-bye. Your clock turns into the company clock, and the company clock revolves around the customers, which is usually 8 am to 5 pm, with an hour for lunch.

In some ways this is bad news, because let’s face it, 10 am is a pretty great way to start your day. But you know what? Suddenly, when your day is over, it’s over, and when it’s the weekend, you’re not expected to come into the lab to finish up experiments or start new ones for the coming week. In addition, you will also have a good idea when and where people will be at a given time, which tends to increase efficiency and generally make your job easier. Structure is great for some people – for others, not so much.

Getting things moving

This biotech structure also has a significant impact on the kind of work you’re going to be doing. In an academic lab, if you have a crazy idea, no one’s going to stop you from chasing it around for 2 weeks and see if it leads you somewhere awesome. If you fail, no one will probably notice, so why not, right?

In biotech, you’re not going to be chasing ideas down these rabbit holes anymore. These ideas are still there, they just take a while to get moving. They generally get talked about with your boss first, then their boss, then you might have to give a presentation as to why you want to do it and how it benefits the company, and THEN you might be allowed to move on the project. As long as it’s not detracting from other work.

Why?

Because companies exist to make money (more on this later). No matter how noble the cause of a company, if they can’t turn a profit, they will ultimately cease to exist. If your idea is using money and doesn’t show promise to make more money down the road (think “return on investment”), then it won’t happen. And remember, that investment is not just a monetary one. Your time is money to your company, and if your time is not being spent well, they’re losing money.

The relationships

If you’re working in a lab right now, there is a high probability that literally every person you’re surrounded with has at least an undergraduate degree in science, if not a masters or doctorate. This will not be the case in industry. Sure, your immediate group might have similar backgrounds, but you’ll be working on a regular basis with people with backgrounds in sales, marketing, accounting, manufacturing, safety, and maybe even things like advanced media production, construction, or may not even have a college degree.

These effects are twofold: First, you have to learn how to work with and talk professionally about your work with non-scientists. This can be a major challenge for some. For others, they’re desperate for this. Secondly, your degree means something. As I mentioned, in academia, you’re probably a Ph.D. in a sea full of Ph.Ds. Now? Your degree stands out. At a company of 80 people, you may be one of 5 that carry an advanced degree. Once you’ve shown your value, the responsibilities can come fast, so be ready.

The benefits

Let’s not kid ourselves here – Ph.Ds and post-docs don’t make great money. You can expect to at least double your income with your first stint in biotech with a masters or Ph.D., and that’s likely higher if you consider the other benefits.

  • Bonuses are a real thing
  • Raises actually exist
  • 401K plans get paid into
  • You get a number of paid time off days per year, and you can actually use them
  • Your hard work pays off. If you perform for a company, the chances of being rewarded for that performance relative to others not performing is very high.

As a Ph.D., your ceiling is going to be higher than an employee without one. Will you ever have the stability of a tenured professor? Probably not. But the opportunity for a different road than a life at an academic research institution is there, and it may just be calling your name.