College education is extremely important for those aspiring to work in a scientific field, but there are also many things that a university cannot teach you about the intangibles that come with real-world, on-the-job experience. Having been in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry for more than two decades – in roles spanning from R&D to manufacturing, for both small and large organizations – I have gained a unique perspective that I hope can provide helpful insight to young science major graduates before and after they enter the workforce. There is a great deal of opportunity in the sciences, and the following guidance is meant to help you effectively assess and focus in on the career path that best fits your unique skills, interests, and personality.
It Starts in Your University Years
It may sound counterintuitive, but the best time to start gaining real-world experience is while you are still in school. Many companies will partner with universities to offer student internship programs in the hopes that they can bring promising young scientists on board full-time once they graduate – and what better opportunity to get to know an organization and what a career there would be like? In just a few months, you’ll gain a solid understanding of the skills necessary for the job and the kind of experience you can only get in a professional setting along the way.
If you begin interning early – even during your first year of higher education – you’ll have a chance to try out several different internships with a variety of organizations, which can help you determine the type of role and company that is the right fit for you. And, you’ll have more opportunities to make a variety of professional connections, giving you an invaluable head start on building your network and even the chance to obtain recommendations or referrals.
Assessing Your Options at Graduation
There is an expectation that once you graduate, you will know exactly what you want to do for your career. That may be true for some new grads, but certainly not all of them. Hopefully, extracurricular activities and internship experience will have helped you narrow down your focus, but if you still feel overwhelmed by the decision then you may just need longer to figure out your true interests – and that’s okay. For early career scientists that are still unsure about their best-fit career, I’d recommend looking in the biology and chemistry science industries as a starting point: namely in pharmaceutical, biotechnology, contract manufacturing, contract research, and regulatory professions.
These industries offer vast opportunities to individuals with scientific backgrounds – from responsibilities focused on project management to those involving people management, R&D, quality assurance and control, commercial operations, business development, or even patent law. They are also comprised of diverse organizations, from small startups to multi-national corporations. Based on your unique interests, passions, and preferred corporate culture, you can begin to drive down the path toward your role and company of choice. Do you have an interest in QA/QC? Then a larger, well-established company might be your best choice, as you can learn from experts seasoned in regulatory best practices. Are you looking to support innovative studies? Then project management at a smaller organization may be the route you want to take, since they tend to be flatter in structure and would give you more opportunity to touch a variety of assignments and departments.
It is important when making these career choices to consider not just a position that enables you to grow professionally, but also one that accommodates your personal preferences and desires – for example, do you enjoy the excitement of travelling for work, or do you prefer the consistency of working close to home? Having the proper work-life balance is a key part of thriving in your career long-term.
Building Your Skills on the Job
As scientists, we should always be learning; our field is constantly evolving and your education will not end at university. It is of particular importance to use the early years of your career to build up the skills in your ‘toolbox’ and to take advantage of new learning opportunities. In the field of science, conferences and meetings are a great place to start; and to get the most out of them, make sure the events are aligned with where you are in your career. Smaller, specialized workshops are great for early career scientists to gain a deeper understanding in particular areas of interest. As your career evolves, larger global meetings – where industry best practices on a plethora of topics are discussed – will become more meaningful. In either setting, these events provide a chance to network with and learn from other engaged scientists, and to contribute your own insights to help better the industry as a whole.
Map It Out
The good news is that there are plenty of possibilities for those starting out in the sciences. But, it will be important to begin researching your career options early into your higher education to ensure you are well-prepared and positioned to take advantage of the right-fit opportunities. For each role that might interest you, proactively look into the position’s prerequisites, and make a list of pros and cons aligned with your interests. This will help you keep your personal goals top-of-mind, and guide you to the most beneficial professional development opportunities – setting you up for long-term career success.