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How to Have a Successful Career in Biotech

Wednesday, July 19, 2023


WHO is the future of biotech?

If you’re hoping it might be you, you’ve clicked on the right article! I spoke with an array of industry leaders (including Arda Ural, PhD, EY Americas Industry Markets Leader, Health Sciences and Wellness) at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) 2023 convention in Boston this summer and asked how current PhD students and postdocs can prepare to make an impact in the rapidly-changing biotech industry, and here’s what they said.


Spoiler alert: if you have or are working towards a PhD in the life sciences, you’ll be able to find a job. The analytical and business (think: project management) skills you’ve developed alongside your technical expertise make you a highly sought-after candidate for many biotech jobs1. Keep reading for tips on how to best market yourself to get not just “a” job, but “the” job of your dreams!



WHAT is the future of biotech?

To prepare yourself for success in your future biotech career, it’s important to know what the biotech landscape will be like in that future! Lucky for you, many indicators point to a bright future for the biotech industry. Analyses of recent historical data by EY, CBRE, and the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation all project a strong future for the biotech industry relative to the rest of the economy.


The biotech industry has seen an incredibly strong last 20 years. The number of research jobs available has NEVER decreased over the last 20 years, even during economic dips and recessions2. Furthermore, the number of life science researchers has increased by a whopping 87% compared the national average of 14%2. These trends suggest that the life sciences industry is likely to remain stable during possible economic downturns in our future.


Given that the target audience for this article is PhD-level scientists, I’ll note that more recent trends also support projections of continued growth (as we know, a lot of changes can be masked across a 20-year dataset). Over the last year, the growth rate of life science research jobs was 3.1% compared to the overall USA job growth rate of 2.2%2. These data are extremely encouraging and show that the biotech industry is both economically resilient in the long-term and continuing to experience growth (and subsequently needing to hire more people) in the short-term.


Industry leaders (like Arda Ural, PhD) predict further job growth at the PhD level for more futuristic reasons as well. Most low-hanging therapeutic fruits have already been “picked,” which means that new targets now require more intense research (which requires PhD-level scientists like you) to develop new therapeutics. Additionally, many large drugs are coming off of their patents in the next few years, so there will be financial pressure for biotech companies of all sizes to innovate (which requires PhD-level scientists like you). All of this seems likely to hold true, even in the face of pressures on the industry from the Inflation Reduction Act, which might drive job losses in the pharmaceutical industry due to caps on drug prices3.


Overall, it seems like the biotech industry will be a good career-building environment for years to come.



HOW can you become the future of biotech? 

headshot of Dr. Arda Ural
A headshot of Dr. Arda Ural.

The majority of the below recommendations come from Arda Ural, PhD at EY. Dr. Ural was kind enough to share his time with me at BIO 2023 in a one-on-one interview where we dove into the details of how PhD-level scientists can prepare to transition into and succeed in the biotech industry. Dr. Ural’s educational background is in business and engineering, but he has extensive experience in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. He is also a thought leader in biopharmaceutical strategy and is a co-author of EY’s 2023 Biotechnology Report.


Note – all these recommendations will only help if applied carefully and discerningly to your specific context. What might work for one position or person might not apply to another.


Choosing a door:

  •         Think carefully about your decision to pursue a career in biotech. Making the transition to industry is a matter of knowing your appetite for risk. Careers in biotech allow scientists to use their hard-earned expertise as they strive to make the world a better place. However, there is an increased risk of job security, since profit-driven companies can be more immediately affected by economic conditions than academic institutions. “There’s no right or wrong” choice between academia and industry – it is just your choice, says Dr. Ural.
  •         Transition out of academia and into biotech whenever it feels right for you. There are conflicting data and anecdotal evidence about whether you should do a postdoc before transitioning to industry, but ultimately “you can’t plan life. What you did up to that point prepares you for what comes next, but you can’t plan long-term” with great success or accuracy, says Dr. Ural. You can’t know whether you’re missing out on earning capacity by doing a postdoc, nor are you guaranteed to make more money with that extra qualification. Therefore, Dr. Ural encourages you to “take a leap of faith” and transition when you’re ready to do so.
  •         Consider ahead of time what size biotech company you’d like to work for, and what kind of role you’d like to have (there are lots of options). A PhD graduate who highly values their work-life balance/boundaries with a lower tolerance for risk might make a great analyst at a larger company, while a PhD graduate with a passion for curing a particular disease and a high tolerance for risk might make a great biotech company founder. Self-reflection upon your values and desires will help you make the right decision for you. (Paraphrased from Dr. Ural)


Getting in the door:

  •         The number one thing biotech companies are looking for in new hires? Showing a passion for making things that will cure patients, according to Kevin Parker, PhD, founder of Cartography Biosciences.
  •        Market the “soft” skills you’ve gained from your PhD experience. Working well in groups, problem solving, the ability to learn, and quick critical thinking skills are all highly valued assets in biotech and beyond (BIO 2023 Panel).
  •         Frame your skills clearly and specifically. Depending on the job you’re interested in (especially if you’re interested in bench work), it can help to emphasize your expertise in specific techniques that might be valued in this new position. Having experience in “RNAi” or “animal model experimentation” might play a bit better than generalized experience in “biotechnology” or “biochemistry” research (BIO 2023 Panel).

o   Depending on the company, experience with cell culture techniques can be particularly important. in vitro systems are not only a workhorse of discovery, but they are also the foundation of compound synthesis used in many areas of biotech (BIO 2023 Panel).

  •         Thematically, there seems to be a shift towards cell and gene therapy projects across the biotech industry. Biomanufacturing endeavors are also projected to continue growing (BIO 2023 Panel). If your research experience doesn’t fall under these categories, consider gaining extra experience in techniques like gene editing or cell culture through collaborations at your institution.


Making an impact:

  •         Make use of the quick learning abilities you honed during your PhD training. As you rise through the ranks of your company, you will have to learn new skills like budgeting (finance) and interviewing (human resources). Your ability to learn quickly will help you climb the ladder to wherever you wish to be in your career (Paraphrased from Dr. Ural).
  •         Experiment with using AI to supplement or streamline your work. As cleverly stated by Dr. Ural, PhD-level jobs will not be replaced by generative AI, but “the people who know how to use generative AI will replace people who don’t.”
  •         Understanding and incorporating into the work culture at your new job is critical to your success. Flipping your mental model of how you view your work is one of the biggest changes to navigate when transitioning from academia to biotech. Your new job will (most likely) be with a for-profit institution. “The moment you make the leap of faith to a for-profit institution, there is now a metric you have to meet on a timeline,” says Dr. Ural. This contrasts with many situations in academia, where you’re accountable to your institution rather than to a profit margin, and your business or job is not at risk for disappearing on the turn of a dime. Keep this contrast in mind as you adjust to your new position and be willing to make changes to your work style if necessary.

WHERE is the future of biotech?

In a rapidly changing environment, where you work can have a big impact on your career. Excitingly, San Francisco and Boston are no longer the only places to have a career in biotech. Companies are starting, relocating, and/or expanding all over the country. Some rapidly growing biotech hubs of note include Atlanta, GA; Dallas/Fort Worth, TX; Miami/Ft. Lauderdale, FL; Denver/Boulder, CO; Phoenix, AZ; Philadelphia, PA; Sacramento, CA; and Salt Lake City, UT2. While there will likely always be plenty of opportunities in established hubs like Boston, MA or San Francisco, CA, analyses found that biotech salaries do not correlate with cost of living2. Given this conclusion, those looking to start new biotech companies or to get the most bang for their buck might consider choosing to live in a growing area with a lower cost of living.

A map of the United States highlighting rapidly-growing biotech hubs with little explosion icons. Existing hubs in the new england area are also highlighted.
A map of the United States of America highlighting rapidly-growing biotech hubs across the continental USA with pink and green explosion icons. A zoomed-in look at New England highlights the many established biotech hubs in green, demonstrating the high density of biotech opportunities. Map image acquired from the US Department of the Interior.

Furthermore, I wanted to feature our New England neighbors in greater depth since many people who train in New England choose to stay there. Additionally, some of the top biotech environments in the country are located in New England, including (#1) Boston/Cambridge, MA; (#4) New York / New Jersey; (#6) Philadelphia, PA; (#17) Worcester, MA; (#23) Pittsburgh, PA; and (#24) New Haven, Connecticut2. I took the opportunity to speak with some of our New England neighbors while at BIO 2023 to find out why people should launch or grow their biotech careers in their state. Check it out!

  •         Massachusetts has the most biotech capital raised4 and is still home to two top-twenty biotech hubs (Boston/Cambridge and Worcester)2. Furthermore, MA life science jobs are growing at a faster rate than the USA overall1. The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center is soon to announce a major initiative that will transform the biotech landscape in MA (from a conversation with Vidhartha Deonarain from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center).
  •         Connecticut has a high quality of living at a good cost. It has great infrastructure for small companies and purposefully cultivates creativity and collaboration through existing innovation incubators like Yale, UConn Ventures, and Connecticut Innovations (from a conversation with Dustin Nord from Advance Connecticut).
  •         Maryland is the place to be if you want to be a part of new up-and-coming unique ideas and projects. As a hub in the making, there’s flexibility to pursue innovative and higher-risk / higher-reward projects (from a conversation with Alex Haarich with the Maryland Tech Council).
  •         New Jersey has the best education system in the country and strong initiatives to retain graduates from that education system, making NJ a great place to start a new business and hire great talent. The state also works closely with universities and industry companies to align goals and actions in pursuit of stability and innovation (from conversations with Kara Moore from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, Rena Sherman from Choose New Jersey, and Sho Islam from the Life Sciences & Food Innovation Division of Middlesex County, NJ).



WHEN is the future of biotech?

As soon as you join the biotech industry!


I hope the wisdom so generously shared by our many experts helps you as you prepare to transition into biotech. My sincerest thanks to those who shared their time with me to write this article, especially Dr. Arda Ural from EY.


If you have more questions about transitioning from academia into biotech or if you’re already in biotech and have more advice that wasn’t covered in this article, tweet us at @UMassChan_BMB or email us at bmboutreach@umassmed.edu.


If you’re interested in preparing for a career in biotech by doing a PhD or a postdoc, our department is a great place to do so! We have outstanding career development resources, we’re in close proximity to a major biotech hub (Boston, MA) and are a growing hub ourselves (Worcester, MA), and our research can help directly prepare you to make an impact in up-and-coming areas in biotech. Please contact bmboutreach@umassmed.edu with any questions.