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Biotechnology
In Reply To:
Caution on DNA's Pipeline

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By FushiTarazu
September 17, 2002

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Joseph,

I can't promise to be witty, but here are a few random thoughts I can add to Cliff's excellent post:

1) The industrial job market for staff scientists at good companies ("good" to me meaning either a well-established company or a start-up in a very hot area) has certainly become a lot more competitive over the past decade. I can't comment on Big Pharma, other than they pay more than we do (just as we pay more than academia). I have noticed that we are hiring a lot of Big Pharma people (for their development experience), but everyone leaving our company stays in biotech (presumably by preference, or perhaps biotech experience doesn't count for much in Big Pharma).

I can get 50-100 applicants for a PhD level job, and obviously I'll only interview 2-4. Often these candidates have been very successful in academia and have tenure-track options there, so I'm directly competing with the universities. I don't think having a Nature paper or two is essential to obtaining a job in industry, but I'm as easily impressed as anyone else. However, the most important criteria is that they know how to do something we need done right now, not that they are just generically smart. Smarts comes later when we kill your project and transfer you to something you have no experience in!

In contrast, when I was completing my PhD, I remember two faculty positions in our department attracted a total of 800 CV's (what academics pretentiously call a resume). That was on the high end, but typically academic slots attract many more candidates. This is probably due to familiarity and the large number of academics backlogged in non-tenure track positions and daydreaming of independence. Although less prevalent these days, brainwashing has something to do with it as well. There is little opportunity in academia to learn more about industry, and most professors are clueless (even if they happen to be figure-heads on a Scientific Advisory Board or two, they wouldn't know a business plan if they tripped over one).

Interestingly, I just came back from a typical academic basic research conference (where about 15% of the attendees were from industry, but only 2% of the talks or posters), and the most common topic of conversation I had over beer was "what is it like in biotech?" The subject literally never came up when I was going to meetings back in graduate school.

For non-PhD's, academia isn't much competition for us, since the salaries, benefits and advancement opportunities for those with BS or MS degrees are dramatically better in industry, particularly if they have a few years of experience working in academic labs. It's not unusual to find that every technician in an academic lab is less than 4 years out of his or her BS. They either leave for Medical/graduate School, or jump to industry the first chance they get. You can make a career with a BS in industry; if you try that in academia, you'll most likely dead-end after 6-8 years.

The level of competition for positions in industry is likely due to the increasing amount of exciting basic (really applied basic) research that is being done (all the press associated with the human genome project has noticeably affected the perceptions of candidates--although large-scale sequencing is hardly the most exciting thing to do), as well as the increased difficulty in finding a good tenure-track academic job at a top-100 research university (and more importantly, the funding to keep it). A Drosophila (fruit fly) researcher can actually find an industry job "fly pushing" today, which was impossible 10 years ago.

Dot.com stock option envy probably has something to do with it as well. Not that my stock options are doing @#%&!

In contrast to Cliff's experience, we don't hire many newly minted PhD's that haven't completed postdoctoral fellowships. However, this varies from company to company, and from specialty to specialty (mine is molecular biology/genetics--whereas I think Cliff said he was a chemist). Unlike some companies, we don't have a real postdoctoral program (DNA, incidentally, is well known for theirs).

To answer your original question about HGSI, I think good press plays a big role in helping young scientists decide what are the "good" companies. As Cliff noted, and I can speak from experience, a young scientist doesn't know much about industrial research or business. When I got my first job offer, I was lucky to know half a dozen people in biotech that I could call for advice, but even then it was kind of like jumping off a 10-meter diving platform for the first time.

One thing I find very annoying is when candidates turn to on-line stock boards (or the Biotech Rumor Mill) for advice about a company they are considering joining. I have had several instances where a candidate I've offered a job to suddenly gets cold feet because they read some clueless post by a short on one of our stock boards. Never take advice from someone with a financial interest in the subject!

HGSI received a lot of good press during the Human Genome Project and the associated Biotech Bubble, which probably made it easy for them to hire good scientists. They were hot. Now the bubble has burst, and although they are still considered one of the top handful of genomics companies (in fact much of their competition is in danger of going the way of the Dodo), they have had some clinical failures recently and their image (and stock price) is a bit tarnished. If it weren't for the fact that a lot of small biotechs have completely stopped hiring (or are laying off), they would probably be having more trouble hiring. As it is, I suspect they are not.

Personally, I'd love to have a headhunter call and ask me to go for an interview at HGSI, as I've never been there. However, I really dislike their CEO, Bill Haseltine. Unlike TMFTom9, I don't know anything about the rest of their management team, but I think most people would now agree that having a stand-up CEO is important. Bill has too much of the "used car salesman" feel about him for me to want to work for HGSI.

Interestingly, HGSI's website lists 67 open positions. Of these, only 2 are for PhD-level basic researchers. Not much opportunity for newly minted PhDs and postdocs without any drug development experience.

Let me close with the caveat that I'm speaking from the biology side of biomedical research. Clinicians, chemists, process engineers...might have totally different perspectives.

Fushi


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