Experience Needed for an Industry Managerial Career

Jan. 31, 2017

You've finally landed a job in either the research and development or clinical research division at a pharmaceutical or biotechnology company. After spending a few years mastering your job, you might be thinking of moving from the scientific into the business side of your company and wonder if you are competitive enough for a managerial position. In agreement, one reader asked "How much business experience/background do I need to be competitive for a management position within industry?" We interviewed Dr. Alita Miller, Head of Bioscience at Entasis Therapeutics and Dr. Sarah McHatton, Director of BioAg Microbial Physiology at Novozymes to get their insights on this question.

In general, both recommended that in order to be competitive for potential managerial positions that arise within a company or elsewhere, learn as much as you can about the business strategies and terminology once you've entered the industry sector.

Do people need a MBA or do they learn the majority of management skills on the job for a prospective managerial position?

Dr. Alita Miller:
Management positions can take many forms, so it depends on the type. For something like a director of research, like me or the Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) of our company, then no formal business training is needed. Even our CEO has no formal business training. People who traditionally have a science background learn the needed management skills on the job. However, it certainly doesn't hurt to have formal management training, especially if the position of interest is related to the administrative, financial, legal or commercial aspects of the business; for some of these positions, an MBA is a must.

Dr. Sarah McHatton:
It might vary from company to company, but in my experience, managers with formal business training on top of science degrees are the exception, not the rule.

How long does it take for someone to move into management? Where do they typically start?

Dr. Alita Miller:
How long it takes for someone to move into a management position depends on the type of industry. It is more likely that an individual with less experience could land a management position in a biotech, or startup companies than in large pharmaceutical companies. I know of several examples where motivated, promising scientists have taken leadership positions in these types of settings. In a larger company, such a position is more likely to be obtained after being "at the bench" for several years.

From my personal experience, I was hired at Pharmacia after my postdoc to run a lab overseeing several people and contributing to a couple of projects. After two years, we were acquired by Pfizer and as I gained experience, my responsibilities grew to project team leader and then to being responsible for certain aspects of a portfolio over the course of 8 years. When Pfizer shut down their infectious diseases research group, I joined AstraZeneca as an associate director for two years and then when Entasis spun out from AstraZeneca in 2015, I became the Head of Bioscience.

For people currently working in industry, what can they do to learn about the business aspects of the company?

Dr. Sarah McHatton:
Regardless of your title, it's important to learn basic business terminology and strategies to keep up with your company's performance and actions, and these terms can be learned in many ways that don't involve a classroom or a diploma. Here are some ways to learn about business terminology and strategies:

  • Attend All-Employee Meetings: Some companies conduct periodic all-employee meetings where financial performance and terms like "top line" and "bottom line growth", "capital investments", "ROI" and "EBIT" are defined and discussed.
  • ​Read Shareholders Annual Reports: Scientists can read the annual report for shareholders and perhaps befriend a colleague in the Finance department for tutorials and perspectives.
  • Participate in Cross-Functional Projects: Researchers participating in cross-functional projects where sales and marketing are represented, will get exposure to the business side of the technology or products they are developing. Even better, when scientists are chosen to lead those projects, they might gain experience managing budgets, and accounting for the people and equipment resources assigned to their projects.
  • Join a Task Force: Many companies run task forces to address broad topics or issues beyond the lab and volunteering for these efforts could educate you in a myriad of business terms and practices.

While not having a MBA is okay for some managerial positions, understanding the business aspects while your career progresses, will make you a well-versed candidate when a management opportunity arises.

Do you have any career questions? Email us with your questions and we might feature them in our next article!

Author: Shilpa Gadwal

Shilpa Gadwal
Shilpa Gadwal is the Career Resources Specialist at ASM.