December 1, 2007 (Vol. 27, No. 21)

Quirks and Perks of Employment in the Life Science Field

A diverse array of career opportunities within the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry awaits both the scientist just beginning his or her career and established scientists hoping to alter career paths. Deciding which job best matches one’s short- and long-term goals, when to transfer positions within a company, and how to ensure job satisfaction throughout one’s career are some of the critical decisions that scientists hoping to pursue an industrial career must consider.

A recent study, “Tips from the Inside: How to Survive and Thrive in the Life Science Industry,” conducted by The Science Advisory Board (, offers insights into working at biotech and pharma companies. Over 600 scientists participated in this study by answering an online survey in June.

One-half of the study respondents had worked in the pharmaceutical and/or biotechnology industry for greater than 15 years. However, 48% of the scientists had been in their current positions for less than five years, suggesting that there is a significant amount of turnover in the industry. In fact, only one in five scientists with 20+ years experience had actually been in a single position for that same amount of time.

Scientists considering a job in industry should, therefore, expect to hold multiple positions within a single company and/or work for multiple companies over the course of their careers. Such a dynamic career trajectory is due, in part, to an upsurge in the number of mergers and acquisitions in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry.

While such changes often cause uncertainty, stress, and lifestyle adjustments, they also provide opportunities to acquire a diverse skill set, learn new technologies, and establish a broad network of colleagues.

Long-term Career Satisfaction

For many of the scientists who were surveyed, a successful career in industry depends upon being able to make a positive contribution to society, and finding the appropriate balance between basic and applied research (Figure 1). In fact, many pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies invest heavily in basic research (i.e., either internally or externally through licensing, acquisitions, and mergers), viewing it as fundamental to maintaining a productive research effort.

Furthermore, as a result of technology developments in such fields as genomics, proteomics, and bioinformatics in the mid- 1990s, the strict division between basic and applied research began to dissolve and is now often nonexistent. This dissolution has made it possible for many pharmaceutical and biotech scientists to conduct both basic and applied research within the scope of their responsibilities.

Managing Career Missteps

Of the numerous career objectives assessed in the study, scientists admitted that they have had the most success with achieving autonomy, setting their own work hours, and obtaining job security. These same scientists, however, confessed to having less success in securing promotion opportunities or obtaining recognition and prestige.

Promotions are an important contributor to job satisfaction because scientists tend to view them as a reflection of their self-worth. Some key benefits of promotions may be material (i.e., a salary raise), while others are of a social nature (i.e., recognition from one’s company and increased prestige among colleagues and coworkers).

Many of today’s pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, however, no longer offer the promotion opportunities of the past. This new reality is due to the fact that companies, in order to remain competitive, have been forced to reduce costs, streamline research, and market their products more effectively. Nevertheless, scientists may find that lateral moves could provide for challenging work that will allow them to achieve some of their most important career goals.

When hiring new employees, both pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies look for a specific set of research abilities that best matches the requirements necessary to perform a particular job. In addition to these job-specific technical skills, employers also require certain professional skills. The good news is that most scientists possess these abilities to some extent. The better news is that scientists with weaknesses in these areas can improve their aptitude through training, professional development, or coaching/mentoring from someone who understands how to achieve the desired competencies.

With nearly 9,000 collective years of experience in industry, the pharmaceutical and biotechnology scientists surveyed, indicated that flexibility/adaptability is the most critical skill that young scientists should master. Scientists must learn to become flexible team players who thrive in environments requiring them to prioritize and juggle multiple, concurrent projects.

Additionally, scientists who are exceptional listeners and communicators will be in a stronger position to convey information and make themselves understood, which are prerequisites for achieving one’s career goals.

While there are many aspects of their job that help to make scientists working in the life science industry feel contented, compensation is a critical factor in the fulfillment equation. One-third of scientists surveyed indicated that attaining a higher salary and/or promotion—a goal that they have not yet accomplished to their satisfaction—would make them happier in their jobs (Figure 2).

Salary Critical to Fulfillment

Compared to salaries of other professionals with similar years of training and experience (e.g., physicians and lawyers), on average, scientists’ salaries remain somewhat lower. With a median base salary of $85,000 per year (i.e., excluding bonuses, benefits, or stock options), the majority of those surveyed make between $75,000 and $105,000 annually.

There are also some striking differences in a scientist’s annual base salary by gender. For example, when looking only at group leaders or directors with more than 10 years of industrial experience, it was found that 63% of men earn more than $120,000 per year, while only 35% of women earn $120,000 per year. Similar trends were observed for respondents holding other job positions in this industry with comparable levels of experience.

A desire for a higher salary and/or promotion typically manifests itself after a scientist’s first year on the job. Before that, most industrial scientists are concerned with being sought after for collaborations. Interestingly, those at their current positions for more than 20 years had the highest percent of respondents who indicated that a yet-to-be achieved salary raise or promotion would increase their job happiness despite, presumably, having had ample opportunity for advancement and pay increases over the years.

Avoiding Workplace Frustration

While internal politics is the most common workplace frustration—regardless of whether scientists are employed at a public or private company—there are differences in the percent of scientists affected by this and other on-the-job aggravations, based upon their corporate sphere. For example, more scientists working at public companies complain about internal politics and lack of advancement. Alternatively, more scientists working at private companies complain about excessive obligations and inadequate project funding.

Additionally, depending upon the size of one’s company, the frustrations one experiences also vary. The scientists working at small companies (i.e., less than $50 million in annual revenue) tended to be more concerned about securing adequate project funding than scientists working at the larger companies. Fewer of these scientists complained about internal politics as compared to those scientists working at companies making over $50 million in annual revenue.

The advantages of a career in the life science industry are numerous. The ability to contribute to the betterment of society, a stimulating work environment, the prospect of shaping the therapeutic focus of the company, and an innovative and creative corporate culture are only a few of the perks. However, being prepared to handle the insecurities arising from the challenges associated with this industry is critical to success.

The life science industry is an unpredictable one in many respects, with one of the most visible transformations being the degree of turnover of its scientific staff. Whether this is a reflection of personal choice or corporate realities—or some combination of both—the result is that many scientists hold multiple positions over the course of their industrial career. Developing and honing the skills one needs to successfully make these transitions will help to ensure that one’s career is productive and rewarding.

Tamara Zemlo, Ph.D., is the director
of syndicated research and analysis for BioInformatics (, which sponsors The Science Advisory Board (
E-mail: [email protected].
For information on obtaining the full report, please contact Catherine Seguin.
E-mail: [email protected].

Previous articleScientists Temporarily Reverse Effects of Skin Aging in Mice
Next articleBuck Institute and Neurobiological Technologies Converge to Find Huntington’s Treatment