Working Life

Three strikes and research is out

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Science  27 May 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6289, pp. 1138
DOI: 10.1126/science.352.6289.1138

After 14 years in pharmaceutical discovery research, the first day of my new career in project management was disorienting. I was still at the company where I had been working as a researcher, but now my office was on the opposite side of the building. It had taken me a long time, and a lot of fits and starts, to get here. Between graduate school and two postdocs, I had spent nearly 12 years preparing for a career in pharmaceutical research, and I was reluctant to leave it. But after giving research three chances, I decided that it was time to explore a different path. Now, two-and-a-half years later, I don't regret my decision to leave the lab, and I am enjoying this second act of my career.

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“After giving research three chances, I decided … to explore a different path.”

Early in my career, I thought my first position at a large pharmaceutical company, where I was surrounded by colleagues who had been there for 20 or 30 years, might be my one and only stop. It was a good entry-level job that allowed me to learn the basics of discovery research in big pharma, but after about 7 years, the company closed my site. Strike one.

I reasoned that these things happen, and it didn't take me too long to find a new job at a nearby biotech company. I was quickly promoted to a position that gave me a seat at the leadership table. I helped shape key decisions, and I was happy—until 18 months after starting, when I was laid off following a U.S. Food and Drug Administration decision that severely compromised the company's value and ability to raise capital. Strike two.

I felt defeated and taken aback by the capriciousness of corporate science. I saw that a corporate bench research position was no recipe for security. I reasoned that a career transcending specialization in one therapeutic area would be more stable and potentially allow me to cast a wider net. So, for my next job search, I considered nonbench careers for the first time.

I had colleagues who had left research careers for related fields, such as clinical trials management or patent law, that required either extensive further education or a drastic pay cut to land an entry-level position. I didn't want to take that route. Instead, I began looking for jobs that leveraged my research experience and leadership abilities and required skills I could learn on the job. My first nonbench job offer, for a medical writing position, felt a little too far from the bench, and I declined it. I interviewed for a sales and support position with a startup company but quickly realized that it was not for me. I even applied for an intriguing position with an investment firm hiring Ph.D.s to research financial opportunities—a job that I never imagined was possible for a Ph.D. scientist.

But I ended up declining an interview for that job (though I now wish I had learned more) because I had just accepted a principal scientist position at another big pharmaceutical company. I couldn't resist the familiarity and comfort. I had spent so much time and effort preparing for this career that I decided to give research one last chance.

I enjoyed this job tremendously. Unfortunately, there were still more reasons to lose a job than those I'd already experienced. This time, the company decided to cease work in my therapeutic area. Strike three.

So, finally, I chose to actively seek a change, and I ultimately moved into project management. The desire for a more stable, or at least more fungible, career was the practical appeal. The professional appeal was the opportunity to interact with and learn from professionals working across the full spectrum of pharmaceutical development, from discovery to brand launch and life cycle management. I enjoy the broad perspective and jack-of-all trades nature of the job, and I hope it will be my last career change.

Some former colleagues ask, “So, you're not doing science anymore?” Nothing could be further from the truth. My job cannot be done well without understanding both the science and strategy behind the programs I manage. I use my training every day, and I will always be a scientist at heart.

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