Calandra, Bob Toward a Silver-Tongued Scientist: Employers seek researchers with management and communication skills. Sep. 16, 2002. The Scientist. 16:42 (original link)

During his career in the pharmaceutical industry, Jim Richman often recruited scientists. Job openings always attracted a bounty of talented people. But finding applicants with the complete package of scientific excellence and social savvy could prove challenging. "I did see a lot of green folks come in with PhDs and postdocs who had no sense of what corporate life was all about," says Richman, now an executive coach and trainer. "If I gave them advice it was that you can never do enough training around your overall communication skills. It really adds tremendous value back to you."

In today's competitive job market, those valued communication skills may make the difference between employment and unemployment. Institutions and companies searching for the best researchers look beyond science credentials to the other skills candidates can bring to the table. "The most successful scientist is the one that knows [his or her] science in and out but can manage people," says Patricia Abbot, principal consultant for Cambridge Lab Consultants in Massachusetts.

Specific skill sets vary with each employer, but most want to sign scientists who communicate well, work well with a team, and can manage people. Survey results show that salary levels reflect the importance of management skills.1 The median annual salary for life scientists jumps from $45,132 for those with no routine supervisory or management experience to $67,000 for those who supervise less than five professionals. The median rises to $143,000 for those who manage 20 or more people.

Management skills are especially important in small startup companies, where the life or death of a business may depend on the success or failure of a single product. "The smaller the company the more you need to play at multiple levels," Richman says. "If you are the star bench chemist and a horrible communicator, that company is doomed."

Pharmaceutical industry employment trends reflect those of biotechnology companies. Human resource executives and product-line managers smile on resumes that feature industry summer internships, involvement in the student chapter of the American Pharmaceutical Society, and attendance at national meetings. "Those are nice things to show that the person is doing extra things other than the minimum requirement," says Mickey Wells, product-line extension manager for GlaxoSmithKline.

THE ELOQUENT ACADEMIC In academia, where jobs are scarcer than ever, a new assistant professor obviously will have outstanding research credentials. But search committees now dig deeper for other skills to distinguish finalists for appointments. They want the same people and communication skills that industry seeks.

"How you deal with people is an extraordinarily important skill," says Bette Sue Masters, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas Health and Science Center in San Antonio, Texas, and president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. "The ivory tower is a thing of the past. We don't work in a vacuum."

But Masters and others oppose requiring nonscience courses on top of heavy graduate and postdoc workloads. After all, the purpose of postdoctorate work is to do science at the highest level possible. Vern Schramm, a professor of biochemistry at Albert Einstein MedicalCollege in New York City, agrees with Masters. He says graduate and post doctorate programs must remain focused on science above all else. Still, many universities are adding courses in grant proposal writing and are encouraging students to become more socially adept by joining professional organizations.

"We have a mentoring program in our department so that when a new assistant professor writes a research proposal going out to a funding agency, we pass it around to very experienced faculty to review it and make suggestions to improve it," he says. "We could require it but we tend not to because research is, above all, an individual idea and an individual effort to take an idea from hypothesis to a result."

Industry often loathes the lone-wolf mentality that has helped many academic scientists become superstars. In fact, some recruiters won't work with scientists known as solo researchers. "I don't want to represent someone if they can't prove they can make the transition from academia to the corporate world," says John Gasbarre, president of the Haystack Group, a placement service that specializes in finding scientists for biotech and pharmaceutical companies. "I don't want their learning curve to ultimately be a factor that has them fired after three months because they can't make the adjustment."

Other recruiters and human resource executives are willing to give academic researchers a chance to make the transition. But ultimately scientists joining industry must become good communicators and team players who can easily move from assignment to assignment.

"What we want are people comfortable moving a field," says Geoff Roach, director of human resources for Targeted Genetics in Seattle. "They have to be open to the idea that what they are doing today may be very different from what they will be doing six months from now. Not everybody likes that."

Some scientists may not like constant change, but most can learn to do it, says Robert Schemel Jr., who will teach a course called 'From Bench To Management' this fall for the American Management Association. Schemel says scientists new to industry have to do a lot of unlearning and new learning. "What many managers trained as scientists find is that their most fundamental problems ... are people problems," he says. "Lacking the training on how to approach people, they often feel lost."

Whether the scientists are new post- docs or older university professors, they must readjust to a more practical outlook if they become biotech or pharma managers. "At a university I don't question that I should have total autonomy," Schemel says. "I don't have to look for the practical value in my research. Take that assumption in most business settings and people are going to call you very impractical or worse. Business exists ultimately for profit and the profit is measured in terms of money."


This article was originally published and posted by The Scientist. © 2002. All rights reserved.