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How to Shine in a Small Biotech Company

Posted in: Career Development and Networking
How to Shine in a Small Biotech Company

So you finally got your PhD (or your masters or batchelor’s) and you are making the big switch to a small biotech company.

You will probably have been hired for the specific skill set that you have built during your training, but now you have to learn to apply those skills to solve real world, commercially-driven scientific problems. The future of your new employer, and your job, will depend on it.

Working in a small biotech company is completely different from academia. There is much less of a support structure around you so have to learn to support yourself and others. You need to tap into the experience and knowledge of those around you, contribute to the knowledgebase and take responsibility for your own development.

A small biotech company needs to be a team much more than an academic group does. They need to pull together to reach their goals. And you need to be an integral player.

More than that, to make sure that you and your career prospects shine, you should set out to be the star player. Here are some tips that I think will help you to do this:

1. Keep the company’s goals in mind

The first thing you should strive to understand is the company’s commercial goals and how your work fits into them. Understanding this will help to keep you motivated, but it will also help you to stay focused in your research. Your company wants results that will build a path towards the profits it needs to make it a success. It does not care about the “interesting” detours and neither should you, but to stay on the path you need to know the intended destination.

2. Don’t assume others know what approach is best

In the first biotech company I worked for, I came straight out of my PhD and landed in an excellent group of people who were all trying to solve the same problem. Within two weeks, I had actually pinpointed a crucial flaw in their approach, but I assumed that I was wrong. 6 months later I started talking about what I thought the problem was and stimulated a discussion that ended up with a radically new, and entirely successful approach. Obviously I should have started talking much earlier as it would have saved a lot of time, money and heartache.

My mistake was that I deferred far to easily to those around me, assuming that they knew much more and had it covered. Thinking like this is not good in any organisation, but is especially damaging in a small biotech company because the team tends to be a lot more threadbare.

It could be that the people who are more experienced than you are having to wear a number of different hats so are more likely to miss small details, or it could be – as it was in the case I just described – that the problem fell between the cracks of the different disciplines being applied to the problem.

Whatever the case, in a small biotech company, perhaps more than in any other early career scientist position, your opinion matters and it is your job to voice it.

3. Go cross-disciplinary

Many biotech companies are trying to solve problems that are interdisciplinary, which means that the solution lies in the no-man’s-land between the disciplines, as was the case in (2) above. It is very difficult for employers to find people who are cross-disciplinary so to prosper in a company like this, you should learn about the other disciplines involved in the project and help to plug the gaps. You can do this by reading or just actively learning from your colleagues.

It takes a lot of effort to do this, but it is worth it because it is in that no-man’s-land that you can help establish yourself as an expert in the problems that the company are trying to solve and become a vital member of the team.

4. Teach others what you know

As well as trying to plug the inter-disciplinary gaps in your own knowledge. It pays to freely share your own knowledge with your colleagues. Think of it as Karma. You help them, they help you and you all benefit, as does the company.

5. Write SOPs

The ultimate way to share your knowledge is through writing standard operating procedures (SOPs) on the procedures you perform. SOPs are vital for ensuring that things are done uniformly across the company, but they are often overlooked because everyone, especially the management, are too busy to think about them.

If you are new to the company, a great thing to do it to start to establish an SOP-culture. It is easy to set up a word template for writing up SOPs, set aside a folder to keep them in, and an Excel file to list them. There are more advanced ways to do it of course, but even this is infinitely better than having no SOPs. Talk about it with your manager and your colleagues to get their buy-in first of course.

6. Ask questions – promote discussion

In any lab meeting or discussion you should aim to actively contribute. Its easy to sit back and listen, but that’s not your job. You should be trying to contribute new ideas or increase the understanding of yourself or others on the subject being discussed.

If you are nervous about this, one great way to get started is to challenge yourself to ask at least one question at each meeting. It does not matter what you ask – just ask something, and you’ll soon get into the habit.

7. Push new technologies and ideas

In a hard-pushed company and without a large community of scientists around it is easy to become isolated from new technologies and ideas. Strive to keep abreast of the new technolgies in your field and if you find something you think is useful, research it carefully to ensure you know what you are talking about and then put it forcefully to the group. Whether or not your idea is taken up you will be doing them a service.

8. Improve your existing skills

I have talked so far about branching out into new areas of knowledge to help become an integral part of your group. But it is also very important to polish your core skills as highly as possible. Whether you were brought in to group because of your specific abilities, or you were given a specific role to learn, your company depends on you to be an expert. You might even be the only one that they have.

9. Keep meticulous records, and make them as accessible as possible

During your PhD your lab book was your own, and if you didn’t keep it well it was only you who suffered. But in your close-knit biotech research team, anyone could need to access your results.  And more to the point, your results are the property of the company you work for.

Make a point of keeping your records very accurate and easy to navigate and you will not only be doing a great job, you will also gain a reputation for being accurate and reliable. A simple lab notebook admin system might help.

10. Dress for the part when needed

Whenever you receive visitors, go out to a collaborator or attend a conference you are representing your company so jeans and t-shirt might not be the order of the day. You need to dress for the part, which – shock horror – might involve wearing a suit, or even shining your shoes! Check with your boss what the dress code should be for events like this, and stick to it.

11. Don’t let your science get sloppy

Often your work will not be published when you work in biotech, but it will remain part of the internal knowledge of the company. But just because your work is not peer-reviewed does not mean you can afford to let your science get sloppy. In fact in many ways it is more important than ever to be stringent with your work because the tools you make or the conclusions you draw will become part of the framework upon which your colleagues build.

n=1 is not good enough and neither are plasmids checked only with a quick digest. You have to be meticulous and you should be vocal in ensuring that others in the group are doing so too.

12. Don’t talk about your “results” until they are in the bag

I think I have finally got expression from that plasmid. Oh wait, no, it was just a squashed fly on the gel.

I was very guilty of this when I worked in the lab. I got so excited about possible results that I would blab about them before I had confirmed them. This is not a good strategy because if you do it often enough it will damage your reputation. Keep things under your hat until you are certain about them.

13. Never, ever  make your boss look bad

This is true in any job. And the title says it all.

14. Learn to resolve conflict

In any small team, conflicts will arise. Try to work on being the kind of person who snuffs out conflicts at source, rather than the sort who lets things rumble on and on for months or even years. The reduced stress alone will probably add years to your life!

15. Be cheerful

Life can be tough in a small biotech company. There are a lot of pressures, especially when the science isn’t going well. Strive to be cheerful and inspire those around you to do the same. Cheerfulness, even in adversity, is a great attribute to have as a team member, but also marks you out as a great leader for the future.

Those are my tips for prospering in a small biotech company. Do you agree with them, or do you have some of your own? Let us know in the comments.

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  1. Parham Mirshahpanah on February 10, 2014 at 4:08 pm

    Thanks for the post Nick, really great points. I have a follow up question on point 11: why wouldn’t work be published at a biotech? Is it not as relevant/important for biotech’s to publish? What purpose (if any) does publishing serve at a biotech? Are there other forms of communication that serve the same purpose?

    Thanks in advance for your thoughts!

  2. mehere on November 26, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    great post,thanks able to fully identify myself with the wet up iam in…

  3. Daniel on August 6, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    I think there is a lot to learn from this article, not just in the science sector.

    Many of the these tips can apply for any type of work, and I wish they would actually be followed more, especially the be cheerful part. I also wish I could heed some of these better, like “12. Don’t talk about your “results” until they are in the bag”.

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