SIUConversations Frankfurt: Academic Breakout- Alternative Careers in Biotech

Images by Lisa Martin

Author: Vanessa Hübner Edited by: Ruth Sang Jones

On January 25th, 2018 SIU Frankfurt hosted an event on alternative careers in big pharma and biotech. We had more than 150 interested attendees, most of them currently pursuing their PhD or Postdoc. They had the opportunity to get informed and ask questions about how research is done in big pharma, how to transition into industry, which alternative careers are possible and which skills are helpful to be well prepared for a position outside of academia.

The first speaker was Dr. Jens Atzrodt, who is the Head of the R&D Hub Management Office at Sanofi Germany. Jens explained that as the global life expectancy will double until 2050, Sanofi’s aspiration as a health care provider is to care for patients by preventing and treating illness. This aim, supported by four global R&D hubs each comprising the expertise of specific research therapeutic areas, is achieved by more than 15.000 R&D employees. He described that Sanofi is a science-driven company, holding many patents and publishing scientific papers. It supports research and innovation by awarding scientists contributing to the scientific progress. Furthermore, Sanofi has intense collaborations with academia and biotech companies and offers training programmes for PhD students and Postdoctoral Researchers.

Subsequently, Karin Messer from H&R at Sanofi-Aventis Germany, explained the entry opportunities at Sanofi for professionals from a variety of disciplines at every stage in their career – be it the traditional R&D pathway or alternative careers in marketing, business, industrial affairs or human resources. She elucidated that in any job description, the profile of the prospective candidate comprises of academic achievements, such as a successful graduation, internships in industry, experiences abroad and language skills, as well as of the soft skills. Karin emphasised that soft skills like self-motivation, courage, analytical mindset, team orientation and intercultural awareness, would be just as important as academic background to land the offered position. Furthermore, she recommended that a previous Postdoc in academia or industry is helpful (but not a must!) to become an R&D scientist at Sanofi. For scientists who aspire to a non-scientific career, such as business, managing or administration, Karin recommended joining a trainee programme to get the opportunity to rotate between different fields in a company. 

The third speaker, Dr. José Airas, a Director of Inhouse Consulting at Merck, explained how he managed to transition from a career in academia to a non-scientific position at Inhouse Consulting of a pharma company. He described that PhD students in academia always follow a certain path: from PhD, to Postdocs, to assistant professor and finally to professor. However, while in academia there is one position people thrive to, in industry there are billions of possibilities that one can do. José could empathize with the audience, since he was on the same path: He did his PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt am Main and subsequently, Postdocs in the U.S., Switzerland and at Sanofi. However, during his third Postdoc, he realized that even though he loved research, he did not want to become a professor. At that time, he did not know how to switch from research to a non-scientific career. So, in parallel to his Postdoc, he joined a consultancy, working with pharma data and has continued this career path ever since. At Merck, he became a Director of Inhouse Consulting and oversees research projects, such as in IT, H&R or finance. José explained that his biomedical PhD benefited him with analytical thinking and problem-solving capabilities that are very helpful even in non-scientific positions. However, to get an insight into a company and gauge one’s interests as well as gain an incredible network, he recommended a traineeship as a good entry opportunity. Also, internships, student traineeships and other experiences outside of academia such as in non-profit organizations help to make an easier transition into an alternative career. Furthermore, José emphasized that skills in project management are essential – for a career in industry as well as in academia.

In closing, LaShae Nicholson, the communication lead of SIU Frankfurt, conducted a short panel discussion with the three speakers. Here, they also discussed courses on career development. 

Such courses will be offered at the University of Frankfurt in collaboration with GRADE.  They aim to help early career scientists build a core skill set, grow their network and collaborate with industry. Further, they will have the opportunity to  gather hands-on experiences in various fields to either pursue a successful academic career or have an easier transition into an industry career.

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