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How to transition to a biotech startup after your PhD

Baylor College of Medicine recently hosted Rachel Haurwitz, the CEO of Caribou Biosciences, to discuss her experiences founding the company. Named by Forbes Magazine to the “40 under 40” influential young business leaders, Dr. Haurwitz admitted she never saw herself in academia. She’s not alone. The National Science Foundation (NSF) reported a 10% decrease in academic positions held by science & engineering PhDs from the mid 1990’s to 2010.

A career in a biotech startup is an attractive move for scientists, providing a chance for work with a more direct and immediate impact than in academia. In addition to the work itself, biotech startups have an exciting and fast-paced environment, and they are celebrated for their cultures of innovation and creativity.

The key to landing a job at a startup is creating an opportunity for yourself through meaningful connections. Early hires at startups are recruited through good old fashioned networking. Biotech startups need to be scrappy and consolidated, maximizing the value of every hire. If they don’t know you or you don’t come with a recommendation, they’d be taking a risk to hire you. One traditional path to biotech is as a staff scientist, but here are a few other ideas for you to gain experience that will help you land your dream job.

Bench Science 

Post-doc – If your current PI is not well connected to the biotech world, consider using a post-doc as a launching pad for your biotech career.  Find the leader in your academic field of interest and establish a connection to them through a post-doc. A well established PI can vouch for your potential and experience with managing projects directly to biotech leaders they already know. The key is to get on their radar.

Keep in mind that some labs are distinctly entrepreneurial, and target these labs. Look up people in the lab to see if any members currently hold patents. Ask about lab alumni when considering a post-doc. Where are they now? Is the PI supportive of these endeavors? A biotech-focused lab culture will help you more easily move into a scientist role at a startup.

Research Associate– If your dream company isn’t hiring for staff scientists, consider accepting a job as research associate. This position will give you experience at a startup and also demonstrate loyalty to that company. As a PhD, you have room for growth and the potential to move up the ranks. Just be wary that potential employers may be skeptical of your motives: a PhD trained scientist is likely overqualified for a research associate position. Don’t sell yourself short, but, if you have a good reason and you’re really passionate about working for a particular company, establishing the connection is most important.

Industry Experience

If you are considering moving away from the bench completely following your PhD, these positions will give you experience in biotech before working at a startup.

Project Coordinator/Project Manager – Making a switch from academic or benchwork roles to administration/managerial roles requires experience leading and managing projects. Project managers and less-senior project coordinators are administrative positions that involve managing budgets, timelines, overall planning, and progress tracking for assigned projects. To be a competitive candidate, make sure you have well articulated experiences managing/leading projects with collaborators. Because hiring managers prefer to hire within the the R & D team, if you can’t land a job as a project manager right away, applying first as a project coordinator will allow them to evaluate your skills.

Medical Science Liaison (MSL) – A Medical Science Liaison is a scientist who provides medical data to health care professionals on behalf of a pharmaceutical company or biotech company. Essentially, you are the expert on all aspects of an assigned medical device or drug. MSLs build relationships between health care professionals and pharma/biotech companies. An MSL position at a large pharma or biotech company provides a crash course for developing effective communication skills across a host of audiences. Communication skills will undeniably transfer to work in the biotech space and help you feel comfortable in the business world.


Management Consultant– Management consultants strategize ways to improve an organization’s performance. Not only do you get the benefit of learning successful strategies for how to optimize company performance, but you also network with many smart, successful people who may want to hire you in the future. In fact, many consultants move on to work at biotech startups. Moreover, several entrepreneurs who now run successful startups worked as management consultants before launching their own companies.

This path requires brushing up on business concepts, often through case study competitions and internships. The hiring process for top management consulting firms usually includes multiple rounds of interviews and assessments. Check with your surrounding institutions to see if there’s a consulting club in your area to help you prepare. These clubs can also help you learn more about the daily work of a consultant and decide if the lifestyle makes sense for you.

Craft Your Own Path

Regardless of the path you choose to take, the main advice I received from Dr. Haurwitz is that startups value diversity. They look for different perspectives, creative ideas, and passion for the vision of the company. This means there is not one definitive “correct” path. Your unique path and opportunities will open doors for you as you advance your career. When making a career move, remember to play to your strengths. Craft a compelling story to your potential employer highlighting the value of your experience as a scientist.

Do you work for a biotech startup? Have other tips to share? Let us know in the comments section!

Featured image: Entering startup by Flickr user Dierken. Licensed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.


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