A biotech career panel in the DIB Lab

Note: The below blog post was written by Dr. Marisa Lim.

(Thanks to Titus Brown, Abhijna Parigi, Tessa Pierce, and Saranya Canchi for reading drafts!)

On June 25th, we held a career panel discussion for the DIB lab on bioinformatics and biomedical data science careers. We invited four DIB-lab alumni and affiliates to be our panelists - Shaun Jackman, Lisa Johnson, Phil Brooks, and Olga Botvinnik - and graduate students and post-docs in the lab attended the event.

Each panelist shared their career journey leading to their current roles and then we discussed topics of interest from the audience, which roughly fell into two categories: 1) advice for finding jobs and interviewing and 2) a comparison of academic research vs. biotech industry careers.

Finding jobs & interviewing

Everyone agreed that you're more likely to land interviews and jobs when you've got a contact that can refer and recommend you to the hiring manager. This is why it's important to create a professional network, as cold applying (applying to jobs without any prior contact) is a more difficult approach to finding jobs. Here was the advice for online and in-person networking:

  • Have some form of public online presence, whether that be a LinkedIN profile, twitter account (functions as personal stackoverflow for asking questions and a place to advertise your own work), and/or personal website. These forums serve as public portfolios for your research and work experience.
  • Industry resumes are typically short, so one tip our panelists recommended was embedding hyperlinks in the text, so recruiters/hiring managers can find the resources listed above for additional information.
  • In-person networking might occur at conferences or at smaller group events. For example, you can request an informational interview with someone to learn more about their job (most people will be willing to chat with you!). This is a great option for a smaller group discussion, which may be less overwhelming than trying to talk to people at large conferences. Be sure to take notes from informational interviews! One panelist suggested making a new document (i.e., google doc) for each interview and time stamping the conversation to keep track of the information. An added benefit to doing informational interviews is that they might generate positions or lead to formal interviews. It was mentioned that a large proportion of biotech jobs are actually not publicly announced.

Besides networking, our panelists suggested keeping up to date on biotech company news - if a company has recently gotten an infusion of funding, they're likely to be hiring soon!

  • Read biotech news and blogs - i.e., https://www.genomeweb.com/
  • Get in touch with venture capital (vc) recruiter firms.

At the job search/application stage, a big concern is whether to apply for jobs if you don't think you meet all the exact requirements. Our panelists very enthusiastically made the following suggestions:

  • As long as you're interested and show that you're motivated to learn, go for it! Let hiring managers decide!
  • You can learn new skills on the job (this is something to look out for when assessing whether a job allows you to grow)

At the interview stage, our panel had this advice to share:

  • Have your list of references (usually 3 people) ready to go! Don't wait until you need them for a job interview and be sure they're people you trust to support you.
  • Nobody has all of the skills listed in job descriptions, but make sure you know the purpose of every tool, even if you don't know the exact details. During the interview, you can say you know what the tools are for and if true, that you'd like to learn more about how to use them for your job.
  • Don't oversell your skills however, because interviewers can tell and it's perfectly ok to say you're keen to learn.
  • Know what job you're applying for and why you're a good fit for the team. For example, if you're interviewing for a customer support role, it's less pertinent to go into the fine details about your research, unless you can link the story back to something support-related.
  • Interviewing is a skill too and takes practice. Even if it's not your dream job, if there's a chance you'd take the job, consider going through with the interview process to gain experience.

Recognize that interviews are a two-way conversation. In addition to answering interviewer questions, be sure to ask questions to help determine whether the company, role, and team will be a good fit for you as well. Olga shared 3 questions she asks at every interview:

  • What has kept you at company X?
  • What would you change at company X?
  • Is there anything else I should have asked?

What to do if you notice warning signs during interviews?

  • It's a good idea to ask about company culture during one-on-one interviews. It can really help to have a contact at the company to talk to about potential issues.
  • If something feels really wrong, it's ok to say you want to stop early on. This will save your energy and time, as well as that of the interviewers.

Academia vs. Industry

As students and postdocs with training and research experience primarily at universities, one of the most popular topics is comparing academic research and biotech industry careers. While we only scratched the surface of this topic during the panel, here were our main discussion points:

  • The 'balance' part of work-life balance is highly dependent on the biotech company culture, job role, and timing. In general, the workload in industry is not spread evenly over the year. For example, there may be more intense working conditions leading up to product release deadlines. However, our panelists said they generally get to schedule their own time as long as they are meeting their commitments. For companies with a global customer base, the schedule may require some employees to work at night to accommodate time zone differences - however this may actually offer some work-time flexibility depending on your circumstances. It's important to communicate early on with your team to determine work and working condition expectations.
  • Perhaps one of the more visible differences between academia and industry is that industry jobs tend to be team-oriented and focused on specific aims; communication and interdisciplinary teamwork are consequently very important to meet the responsibilities of your group within the company. Deadlines are determined by business decisions and are often less flexible. In contrast, academic researchers and faculty tend to work more independently within their lab group or department, and wear multiple hats - i.e., apply for funding, mentor students, teach, publish, contribute to department and other service duties, and manage their lab. Project milestones are often less defined and deadlines may be more flexible.

Before we knew it, 1 hour had passed and it was time to wrap up the panel!

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