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Career & Employment

February 8, 2010
Volume 88, Number 6
pp. 65-67

Skills For Success

Pharma firms are seeking adaptable scientists with the aptitudes to meet new business needs

Susan J. Ainsworth

Merck & Co.
TEAM PLAYERS A Merck research associate mentors a scientist in the preparation of protein lysates from a chemotherapeutically treated tissue culture cell line.
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Monique Spicer
Jock McDonald
Focused Exelixis chemists spend most of their time at the bench rather than directing assistants.

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When Jennifer Chu learned that she was losing her job due to the sale of her company last year, she expected that competition for finding a new position would be fierce. However, after only three months of searching, she landed a position as director of pharmaceutical development at Ikaria, a Clinton, N.J.-based biotherapeutics company.

Like many other candidates, she had the requisite education for the job—a Ph.D. in chemical engineering—but she also had other qualities and complementary skills that gave her an edge, according to Daniel Gold, who helped fill the Ikaria position as vice president for the research and development practice at Fairway Consulting Group.

One plus was that she had worked both for Pfizer and for a very small virtual-biotech company, "so we knew she was an adaptable individual who could successfully transition between different kinds of work environments," an important trait in the ever-evolving pharmaceutical business, Gold says. In addition, during the course of interviews, "we found that she has a real thirst to learn something new and a comfort level outside of her safety zone, scientifically." She also had the personality needed for this high-profile role. "We found Jennifer to be a dynamic and personable individual, who walks around with a smile on her face. It was easy to see that people would gravitate toward her and enjoy working with her."

Although there's no substitute for technical excellence, that alone is not enough to open doors to opportunities in today's job market. Drug firms are hiring cautiously, if at all, after shedding tens of thousands of jobs in 2009. Consequently, they can afford to be choosy as they pick through the multitude of candidates.

Job-seeking scientists who "have standard-looking CVs that show dime-a-dozen skill sets are in a tough position right now," Gold says. However, those candidates who have developed a distinctive scientific skill set coupled with strong communication, information technology, or leadership skills, along with an affinity for teamwork "may actually find themselves in a power position," he adds. Regardless of the state of the job market, "there is and will continue to be demand for high-caliber talent."

Those who can demonstrate a flexibility that allows them to adjust to shifting business needs may also have an advantage in the job market. "We live in a world where things change very quickly," says S. J. R. (Rupert) Vessey, site head at Merck Research Laboratories' Boston site. "New data emerge, there are new technological advances, and information travels around the world much more quickly than it used to. As a result, businesses have to be able to reshape and react," he says. Having employees who are "able to maintain focus and adapt to new ways of doing things is really important in the current climate."

When screening candidates, especially those for leadership roles, Vessey looks for people who have had diverse experiences with their former employers. He likes to see that they have been able to successfully transition between multiple therapeutic areas, deal with changing strategic directions, or come up to speed on a variety of new technologies. "Those experiences give people different ways of looking at programs," thereby helping Merck to adapt to future sea changes in the pharma industry, he says.

While companies will call on some employees to map out new corporate strategies, they will need others to simply find new ways of getting their jobs done. For example, in the current business climate, firms are eager to find those rare scientists "who can adapt to working leaner and smarter, while still remaining innovative," Gold says.

At small- to medium-sized companies, "the perception—true or false—is that folks coming out of big pharma, biotech, and device companies have historically been spoiled by substantial technological, financial, and human resources," Gold says. When hiring these experienced scientists, companies want to know that new hires can still be productive when operating with fewer resources. They want assurance that new hires can "roll up their sleeves and take on operational-type job responsibilities" in a new, possibly leaner environment.

South San Francisco-based biotech firm Exelixis also aims to hire scientists with a strong work ethic, says John Nuss, the company's senior vice president for medicinal chemistry. "We are looking for the kind of people who are going to grab the wrench and fix the tire themselves instead of calling AAA," he says. "Exelixis is a lab-driven company," says Nuss, adding that he hires mostly new Ph.D.s, postdoctoral students, or people from various biotech firms around the area. "We make sure that prospective employees know that they will be working at the lab bench rather than merely directing the work of assistants, as has been the case in many big pharma companies."

In the course of recruiting, Exelixis also looks for scientists who "are more willing to take career risks" and stick with a biotech firm over the long haul, Nuss says. Historically, most scientists have gravitated toward working for large drug companies, "where until recently, you were pretty much guaranteed to have job security, a fairly stable career, and a promotion every five to seven years," he says. "We need to hire a slightly different kind of person—someone who accepts that working for a biotech firm can be like pulling the arm of a slot machine—you could come up big or you could come up empty."

Some companies also welcome risk-takers for the innovation they bring to the lab. Millennium, the cancer drug arm of Takeda Pharmaceuticals, looks for scientists who are willing to "take risks and think creatively" to help it gain an edge in the "extremely competitive" field of oncology, according to Shannon Murphy, the company's staffing specialist.

At the same time, companies need employees to make scientific contributions that are aimed at furthering a collaborative effort. "Even in early-stage projects, we work within complicated team structures in which scientists from many disciplines bring different skills to the table," Merck's Vessey says. "There's very little room for individual pursuit of a goal as we take on these very complicated challenges" in areas including oncology, as well as bone, respiratory, inflammation, and endocrinology research.

Consequently, as Merck screens job candidates, even people entering the industry for the first time, "we are obviously very interested in their ability to communicate effectively and clearly articulate their ideas," Vessey says.

Still, communicating and working within a team structure does not come naturally for chemists just coming out of school, Nuss says. Up to that point, students have been "involved in self-centered exercises such as conducting individual research or vying for first authorship on a publication, he says. "We look for people who are willing to make that shift in the way they think and work."

Scientists who "have standard-looking CVs are in a tough position right now."

However, not all scientists are cut out for teamwork, says Ving J. Lee, who serves both as chief executive officer and chief scientific officer of contract research organization (CRO) Adesis, in New Castle, Del., and as senior vice president of research at Limerick BioPharma, in South San Francisco. When interviewing or considering job candidates, Lee looks for clues that might indicate that a scientist "lacks a proclivity for collaboration," he says. "If every line in a résumé or introduction letter begins with the word 'I,' it may be an indication that the candidate is focused on his or her own ego and does not understand that research is a team endeavor."

In addition to looking for scientists who can work within multifunctional teams, companies also seek people who have the potential to lead them. Having a leader who can "bring out the strengths of biologists, chemists, and other scientists is paramount to the success of all teams," Lee says.

Even when hiring for entry-level positions, "I am always looking for people who I think can be leaders," Nuss says. Those people tend to have a "strong sense of self-confidence that stops short of arrogance. In addition, they are generally not afraid to ask questions or challenge the status quo."

Nuss also favors candidates who have a military background. "I've hired a couple of people who did grad school after they got out of the service, and they're generally fantastic. In addition to having leadership ability, they are incredibly disciplined, very organized, and driven," says Nuss, who admits that he comes from a military family himself. He is also partial to candidates who have held some kind of leadership role in graduate school. "If they have run the student seminar program or managed the group stock room, it tells you that they are willing to take charge of something."

As they seek leaders for their organizations, drug companies are increasingly looking to hire scientists who have strong program-management skills. These skills are becoming more important to chemists and other scientists as they are called to manage research work that is being increasingly outsourced. "Fifteen years ago, a Ph.D.-level synthetic organic chemist hired into a large pharmaceutical company would undoubtedly be doing his own lab work at the bench, but now more and more of these scientists are involved in managing the work that is being sent to CROs," Lee says. Those scientists must now have the skills "to communicate and cooperate with CROs or other labs to facilitate the research in an effective and professional manner," he says.

Companies also need employees who have strong competencies in managing information produced both inside and outside of companies. There's growing demand for scientists who can extract, analyze, and assemble data produced by tens of thousands of employees in a company like Merck as well as burgeoning volumes of public information being shared via the Internet and other technologies, Vessey says.

For example, within the area of human genetics, where experiments need to be huge and require collaboration across multiple academic environments, "we've witnessed an explosion of disease-specific molecular profiling data coming into the public domain," Vessey says.

Accessing that kind of information is increasingly important in the current business climate. "Our scientists will have a competitive advantage if they are able to use information that is readily available rather than relying only on information they generate themselves."

Developing information technology skills and other competencies needed in the evolving pharmaceutical industry can be challenging for chemists and other scientists. Although many benefit from the professional development programs offered within most drug companies, the programs don't help those trying to enter the workforce.

Recognizing this need, some universities have developed professional science master's (PSM) programs in chemistry, biochemistry, biotechnology, or related sciences. These programs provide students with opportunities to earn an M.S. degree through nonthesis, interdisciplinary programs that require internship experience and integrate graduate studies in science with training in communication, business management, ethics, and computer applications, according to Stephen Lemire, executive director of the National Professional Science Master's Association.

The University of Delaware is in the process of approving plans for PSM programs in biotechnology and in bioinformatics and computational biology, which will commence in the fall of 2010, according to John E. Sawyer, UD's associate provost for professional education. In addition, UD has developed a master's degree in software engineering designed specifically for professionals, he says.

The university's PSM program in biotechnology "is an interdisciplinary program that will pull courses from every college on campus," Sawyer says. Students will have the flexibility to choose from a broad array of courses in applied biological, chemical, and computational sciences, including health sciences. The PSM program in bioinformatics and computational biology will allow students to focus on life sciences or on computational sciences.

In addition to completing a practical internship or professional project, the university requires students to take 12 credits of coursework in business or public policy to prepare them to work in industry or government.

As it developed these PSM programs, UD sought input from industry members from large and small biosciences-related companies in the Delaware region, including member companies of the Delaware Biosciences Association, Sawyer says.

Although scientists can sharpen their professional skills in special classes and courses, sometimes they can reach the same goal through less formal means. Often, "these skills are best learned by peer interaction and mentoring and through real life experiences," says Adesis' Lee.

Fairway Consulting's Gold advises young scientists to seek out mentors. "Find someone who has had a successful career in a relatable scientific discipline and have an open, ongoing dialogue with them," he says.

Making the effort to develop specialized skills that support a strong science background will pay big dividends, Exelixis' Nuss says. "Although most everyone I've interviewed for a medicinal chemistry position has been an outstanding chemist, few have exhibited strong communication skills or leadership potential," he says. "Those are the qualities that elevate someone head-and-shoulders above other candidates. And given the competitive nature of today's job market, that's a good thing."

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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