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How Can I Position Myself for Working in Biotech or Startups While in the Lab?

As someone who entered a biotechnology startup out of grad school and have coached and interviewed PhDs for different positions within and outside startups, it’s clear to me that scientists can thrive in the breakneck, uncertain environment of startup companies.

Since science can be frustrating, ambiguous and in need of independent thinking and execution, academic researchers can often step up to the plate at startup companies and relatively smoothly into entrepreneurial situations.  It’s imperative that you do keep in mind that the priorities of academic research and business can be very different, and thus greatly impact the kind of work that you’re expected to do.  Imposter syndrome can hit pretty hard when you’re not sure if you’re doing the right thing – and no one else around you does either!

Here are a few things you should know about startups, which dictate the kinds of people they are often trying to hire:

  1. Startups care about hiring team oriented people.  In general, companies care more about your people skills than academia.  If you ruin a team’s mojo because you can’t get along with them, eventually everyone else in the company will suffer, especially if the company is small.  When you talk about yourself and what you bring to the table, do not make it just about yourself.  Remember to highlight group efforts and your desire to contribute to the broader team.
  2. Startups may prioritize specialist knowledge early on, but desire it within those who are skilled, adaptable and flexible. The pace of work in a young company changes rapidly and timelines can turn on a dime, so startups generally fear people who are rigid and single minded. This is an academic stereotype you will want to actively counter with evidence of practical, timeline sensitive work or skills that are vital outside an academic research environment, of course unless you’re aiming to do bench R&D research.
  3. Startups care about immediately relevant skillsets and leadership abilities right off the bat. Unlike larger organizations with established structures, startups may not have any pre-built internal training capabilities, which means they rely on new hires to hit the ground running and self orient as you go.  Startup companies are not for you, if you’re not a self-starter and can self-motivate to keep up with new knowledge while constantly managing new relationships. Seek out business and leadership experience in your time in graduate school, which is one of the easiest ways to demonstrate your ability to take control in ambiguous situations and create order out of chaos in a way that benefits a growing business.

“Start-ups are a baby company.  Like any baby, they may look cute and attractive from the outside, but once you live with them, you understand what the term “growing pains” means! You get novelty, excitement and growth, alongside volatility, frequent changes and too much to do.” – Free the PhD


By Vay Cao, Ph.D.


Adapted from my Quora response.

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