Leaving the bench: How life sciences grads can enter the business world


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One aspect of my role here at MaRS is that I get many requests from graduate life sciences students who wish to make the leap into the business world. Having done so myself (albeit many moons ago) it is a pleasure to be of help.

What I’d like to share here is a condensed view of the advice and comments I usually provide.

Are you sure?

It takes a lot of time, effort and money to obtain a higher degree in life sciences. At the conclusion the graduate is expertly qualified to do one thing – deeply investigate biological phenomena. While there are some fields in the business world that are analogous (e.g. conducting applied research in a pharmaceutical or biotech firm), for the most part the skills required to succeed in business need to be added.

Therefore, before resetting the clock, it is worthwhile to consider what was it about the life sciences that fascinated you in the first place? Which aspects of research excite you? What are the perceived shortcomings of a research career?

If the negatives are primarily interpersonal or financial then it would likely be a better bet to switch labs rather than switch professions. Living from grant to grant is highly unsettling but as your publication record builds up funding will probably become more stable and abundant.

There are also some important points to consider about the practical realities of a business career before making the move:

  • You will be expected to be punctual, accountable and deliver results.
  • You will not have job security – there is no tenure in the private sector.
  • Your primary mission will often be to make your boss look good.
  • You will not be applauded for being smart, only for being effective.
  • You will need to work well in a team environment.
  • You will need to communicate clearly and concisely.
  • You will need to continuously develop your business and interpersonal skills.
  • You will not enjoy the same amount of freedom as you had in the lab.

Finding your specialty

If the spark has truly gone and you are certain that research is just not your bag then what can you do? Some examples of careers that post-grad/post-doc life scientists have successfully pursued include the following:

  • Technology transfer
  • Pharma/biotech R&D
  • Patent law
  • NPO/Government (e.g. research, health, education)
  • Pharma/medtech sales
  • Investment (analyst, VC)
  • Health news reporter
  • Entrepreneur

I would recommend that you consult the vast array of videos and articles on our Entrepreneur’s Toolkit to get an idea of what’s involved in some of the job functions listed above. Check out the websites of the companies involved and any trade discussion boards to build a more detailed picture.

Once you have an idea which sector is most appealing, I would recommend that you perform some primary market research. Contact individuals currently in the roles that you aspire to via their company websites and ask if they would be prepared to meet you for a coffee or have a 10 min phone conversation. Bear in mind that these folk are extremely busy and their time is at a premium. Make sure you know what questions you’ll be asking in advance and remember to follow up to thank them profusely afterwards.

Getting in

If all signs are positive (or acceptably so) then the next step is to find a way in. Having a higher degree in life sciences may show your prospective employer that you are bright and can work hard but you’ll need to do more than that to be considered for a role.

Experience has shown that one of the most effective ways to assess a potential employer and also get a job offer is to volunteer for a period as an intern. You’ll get to see the company from the inside and if you do a stellar job you stand the chance of being offered a position. This approach is much more effective in my opinion than sending out numerous resumes online via job sites.

Another approach with a high success rate is to network with former research colleagues who have successfully made the transition. These people know you and should be able to provide valuable advice.

Your experience matters

All I have provided here is a very superficial overview – it would be of great value to the community if you could share your experiences of making the switch (or your attempts to do so) as a comment. You are guaranteed an eager audience!

I would also recommend that you keep checking here for employment opportunities in the Discovery District and beyond.

Good luck!

Note: many thanks to John Buckingham and Caitlin McCabe for their help with this article.

John McCulloch

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Life Sciences > Biological Sciences > Biotechnology