Carrer Paths in Life Science
Ever since I started studying at KTH, I have been thinking about what I want to do for work after finishing my master’s in medical biotechnology. When I started my bachelor’s, all career paths sounded abstract and far away. But gradually, they have become more distinct and easier to grasp. I would like to find something that requires continuous learning in an area that feels stimulating. I want work to be a puzzle piece for improving something, perhaps a pressing problem of our time.
A few years ago, I was certain that I wanted to pursue a doctorate. But nowadays, I’m questioning that. Being a scientist and researcher has always sounded like the most amazing job to me, for as long as I can remember. The joy of discovery and exploration is alluring. What made me doubt pursuing a doctorate? Currently, I want to work in different areas of life science first to explore what is out there. I’ve also heard very mixed things from different people about the whole experience. Pursuing a PhD is still an appealing thought though.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I reached out to people working in the life science sector as a course assignment to discuss work experiences and culture clashes. This was helpful to get a clearer picture of what a career path can look like. In total, I had meetings with three different people: one who is pursuing a PhD, one who works as a consultant, and one who mainly works with innovation. For privacy reasons, I will not disclose specific information.
Now over to the interesting part, what did I learn from them?
Let’s start with the person who is pursuing a doctorate. She described it as a stimulating environment with a lot of freedom to structure the work. The main challenges were a lot of personal responsibility to do the work, finding a balance between work and spare time, and a big emphasis on continual personal development within the field of research. According to her, one of the best parts is attending conferences, both meeting people who are enthusiastic about the same field and the travel. Other aspects that motivated her were finding the work meaningful and learning new things. When weighing the options of pursuing a doctorate or not, she said that working in the life science industry with a master’s didn’t feel that stimulating in Sweden currently, in her experience.
When asked about cultural clashes in a research-driven environment, the conclusion was that the scientific community has its own culture. For instance, publications are very standardized. She added that it’s always important to look up customs when traveling to new countries. Her experience was that one of the few differences was regarding presenting at conferences, the attribution of who did what, and the credits for that work. When asked about what to consider at the start of my career, she said that it’s important to ”strategically position yourself”. She elaborated on that by saying to choose your master’s thesis work with careful consideration, create relevant contacts during your studies, and try to become an intern for a research group. In the end, we also discussed the future of biotechnology, and her closing remark was that the future of Life Science is data-driven – that’s where both the big problems and solutions will be.
The second person I talked to works as a consultant and recruiter at a large company. His work was centered around managing a trainee program. He gave some good advice to people at the start of their careers: showing interest in a workplace by showing up and asking for five minutes to speak with a relevant person there about the company, and then talking about what you want to bring to the company with humility. He emphasized the importance of trying different things at the start of your career. Another point he made was reflecting on career choices, such as whether you want to become a generalist or specialist.
We also talked about the importance of mentorship. His philosophy in this area was asking for a few minutes of the potential mentor’s time – clearly stating why and then asking for more minutes the next time if it goes well. An example of how to ask would be ”You seem to know a lot about [insert topic]. Do you have ten minutes to chat about it with me sometime?” One of the great insights he had was, when asked about good leadership, he said that he had heard about 10,000 different answers to this question, and that there is no simple answer – but that you should choose your boss with great care. Another interesting thing he mentioned was the importance of interaction between different bubbles – technology, science, soft skills, entrepreneurship, etc. This ties in nicely with an additional point he made; the weight of letting people develop a broad range of skills to make these bubbles overlap more.
The third person I spoke to started by doing a Ph.D. and worked with Pharma research for a long time. After completing her work in Pharma, she began working with innovation in the Life Science industry. Her vision for the industry is to make pharmaceuticals affordable for everyone globally. When asked about the biggest challenge, she answered that it was communicating clearly. The example she gave was that saying one thing can be interpreted as something completely different depending on the other person’s perception. I also asked her about what she would have done differently if she had started over. She answered that she should not have stayed for more than three to five years at a single company at the beginning of her career. With this, she highlighted the importance of trying different things.
One particularly interesting thing she said was that the best advice she had received from mentors during her career was talking about the questions they discussed one level above. In her current role, she works with both academia and the industry. She described the biggest difference between them as working by exploring to understand, versus working towards a distinct goal. When working with innovation, she describes it as two phases; the exploration of solutions and development. Her biggest insight for working with innovation is having close contact with the client.
In conclusion, Life Science is a broad field with plenty of options. If you want to become a generalist, then a Ph.D. might not be the right path. However, if you want to specialize and do research, a Ph.D. can be a great advantage. The one thing they all highlighted was the importance of inclusion in the workplace and trying out different roles at the beginning of your career. Another common point was the importance of strategically positioning yourself in a favorable position. In the coming year, I will try to implement as much of the advice I received as possible. Stay tuned!