Back in high school I had one goal that made all other career choices unthinkable: I wanted to become an F16 pilot. Today, 20 years later, I am a consultant for the recruitment agency 2KB, Recruitment for Life Sciences. Now don’t go and think that I gave up on my dream job, it simply changed along the way. Although my father always supported me, he wasn’t particularly thrilled about my pilot career and was rather pleased that I failed to pass my exams at the end of high school. This gave me an extra year to think about my career, and my wish to make impressive moves high in the sky changed into the desire to be a bit more down to earth. I realised that my second interest, the human body and genetics in particular, was probably a better career path for me.
So I studied for an M.Sc. in medical biology at the Free University of Amsterdam. I had and still have the idea that genetic research holds the key to the cure for many diseases. But if I wanted to contribute to the field, this didn’t mean I wanted to become an R&D scientist myself. Most of my friends did a Ph.D. and some of them have become excellent researchers, but it was clear to me that I wasn’t your typical researcher, even though I enjoyed working in a lab. I wanted to broaden my knowledge of the life sciences rather than focus on a single subject.
So what were at the time the other career possibilities for a newly graduated medical biologist? Well, it was quite simple. You could either become a clinical research associate or a sales representative for a supplier of R&D products. I was then left with only one option: becoming a sales representative.
Still, my choice to go for a commercial function raised a few eyebrows around me. The perception was that you had been studying to become a scientist, not a sales representative. Visiting all sorts of labs and trying to sell products for R&D purposes … No, that was not the status most of my friends were looking for. But through sales I visited hundreds of European and American labs, all with their own projects and techniques, and met the most interesting scientists in the world. So after 13 years of being a company representative and commercial director, I can say that this was, at the time, the right career choice for me. It certainly gave me an excellent overview of the field of life sciences and fulfilled my ambition of supporting R&D.
But what I also observed during my visits was that many labs and researchers failed to find each other on the employment market. Due to the fast growth of the field in the 1990s, employers had many vacancies becoming available and were struggling to find the right candidates. On the other hand, researchers were complaining about the lack of new, challenging jobs. This didn’t make any sense to me, and I wanted to do something about it.
It was obvious I had to make use of a concept that had been around for quite a while, the one of a recruitment agency, and I set up 2KB, Recruitment for Life Sciences in 2000. What was new, however, is that before then there was no recruitment agency dedicated to laboratory people in life sciences in the Netherlands at all. As commercial director, I had been in touch with several agencies for salespeople, and even there I experienced that the consultants did not have the right technical background to understand the position and to select the right candidates.
In the 4 years it has been in existence, our agency has helped many researchers find new challenging jobs (and thus many employers to find the right candidates). This was through the use of our own vacancy database, personalised advice, and information about career possibilities.
Becoming a recruitment consultant in life sciences has again definitely been the right next career step for me. Bringing together the right employees and employers, and thereby contributing to the advancement of life sciences, is giving me true satisfaction.
Unfortunately, the employment market for life sciences has dropped in the last year and has hit Ph.D. graduates particularly hard. Research technicians tend to have better opportunities if they have invested in technological expertise during their studies. In any case, it is important to distinguish yourself from other applicants, and by giving a personal example, I would like to emphasise just this point.
Thirteen years ago, when I first became employed as a sales representative, the employment market was also poor, and the reason the company hired me is really quite simple–during my studies, I had also gained 2 years’ experience in a lab where I worked with cutting-edge technologies in molecular biology. Working as a sales representative means not only knowing what you sell but, more important, understanding R&D projects so that you are able to come up with a dedicated solution to help accelerate your customer’s R&D project.
Today, it is still very important that you invest in yourself during your research experience at the university, as an M.Sc. or Ph.D. student. So make sure that you have access to the forefront technologies in your own lab or somewhere else via collaboration. What I mean is that employers do not take a close look only at the courses you have been taking or the lab you have been working in. More and more often it is the technological experience and your personality that will make you stand out.
And when you finally find that challenging job, try to keep up with the new developments in the field. How do I do that myself? By reading publications, attending symposia, and visiting exhibitions. This represents a great deal of work and is challenging, but it is also very satisfying. One such instance was when I recently read about the development of a promising therapy for Crohn’s disease by genetic engineering at the AMC Hospital in Amsterdam. I know that our sales company supplied them with R&D products in the mid-’90s and that some people are currently working there via our 2KB channels! This is especially important to me, as I happen to know from my entourage how much a good therapy can improve the quality of life of these patients.