Three Categories of Rules

Michael Zigmond of the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania runs the highly regarded “Survival Skills and Ethics Program” seminars held each year in Aspen, Colorado. He told me recently that he believes there are three categories of rules that we come across in our work lives. The rules themselves may differ, but Zigmond’s categories hold true no matter where you work.

“First off, there are rules that are true and which deserve that distinction. In academia, one example of this category would be the rule that ‘Research equals experiments plus publications,’ ” Zigmond explained to his class in Aspen. “Another type of rule is one which is true, but which shouldn’t be. Some examples are ‘Always have preliminary data for proposals,’ or ‘Always do hypothesis-driven research.’ Lastly, some rules are not true but should be. ‘Good teaching is essential to promotion’ is an example that I point to from the world of academia, where countless students have wondered how some people have moved up the ranks.”

Sometimes a rule from the university clashes with a rule from industry. Consider Michael’s first example: Research = Experiments + Publications. Would you land a job at a top-tier biotech company if you went to an interview espousing that as a guiding rule for your career? No way!

In industry it looks like this: Research = Experiments + Products.

The single most important evidence of productive research in industry is the development of research applications that can return value on shareholders’ investments. Most of the time this means products. Although at some point in a well-run research organization you will be able to publish your work, it only ever happens after the company has protected its intellectual property.

Three categories of rules

Sometimes in this column I point out how a rule really works or make you aware of a rule that you may not have known about. That’s my job here. Sometimes I try to help you learn to work within the rules. And sometimes my columns tell you how to work around the rules.

This month, I provide some examples of rules from the biotechnology industry indexed into Dr. Zigmond’s three categories. Studying rules from the three categories will help you come away with a better understanding of how company policy and politics impact life in a company and why, on occasion, it is better to circumvent rules than to follow them.

Rules that are true and which should be

– “Good communication skills are essential for success in any job.”

Read the job ads and you’ll notice that good communication skills are mentioned in more than half. Insiders know this is more than standard HR-speak. Employers can’t help but be impressed with good communicators, because anyone who runs a job ad knows these people are few and far between. If someone asked me what the #1 skill is that impacts hiring decisions, it would be this one. And communication skills are critical for moving up the ladder once you have that position.

– “Networking is a great way to find a job.”

Ads, job fairs, the Internet, headhunters, networking—don’t miss any of these when you go looking for a new position. But stay particularly close to your networking contacts. Networking is a life skill and not just a job-search tool. Like communication skills, networking can help you get a job—and then help you perform well once you’ve got it. Those who learn it early and practice it often are among the successful people in science. Years from now, you’ll have new opportunities thanks to the contacts you make today, assuming, of course, that you make those contacts.

– “Industry success requires teamwork and interdependence.”

Rules that are true but should not be

– “It takes a 60-hour work week to be a success in science.”

Is there any job in the biotech industry where successful people work a normal 40-hour week? I don’t think so. “Normal” was replaced long ago by early-morning meetings, evening work, and Saturdays in the office or lab. Success in either track—academic or industry—starts at 50 hours a week and may average 60 to 65. Wouldn’t it be nice for your family and outside interests if this rule were not true? A recent work-life balance feature in Science Careers featured an article on part-time scientists and another on corporate work-life policies that include part-time work. So this rule may not be universally true, but it almost is.

– “It’s really hard to find a job once you are over age 45.”

Let’s hope all your job searches occur while you’re still young. Once you’re past about 45, searching for a job becomes very difficult, assuming you’re approaching it via the usual anonymous application. Although it rarely rises to the level of overt age discrimination, employers often note your years of experience and use words like “overqualified” to describe you. It’s wise to have a large bank of networking contacts, an established reputation, and a head of steam when you face a sudden, unexpected, late-career job search.

– “You generally have to relocate to the coasts in order to find a biotech job.”

It would be great if there were biotechnology clusters equivalent to San Diego, San Francisco, or Boston in all regions. But despite the many states where policymakers promote biotechnology as a future economic-development engine, there probably never will be more than 10 or 12 major biotechnology clusters in the United States. Very likely, in the future as in the present, the great majority of good biopharma jobs will be in biotech centers at the coasts. It’s a tough reality for a person wanting to stay in the Midwest. Of course it’s always possible that other biotech centers could develop, such as agritech in the Midwest or nanobio in Texas.

Rules that are not true but should be

– “Evidence of strong leadership skills is required for promotion.”

Strong leadership skills are the first thing you’d think of when someone moves up the ladder into a management job. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes the person the most skilled in company politics gets promoted instead of the one with the best leadership skills. Then, there’s that excellent communicator who just talks his or her way into the job, despite their lack of leadership ability.

– “Good science always sells itself.”

Many scientists were taught in academia not to worry about a job—to focus instead on doing good science. Unfortunately, for a lot of people this approach doesn’t work. In industry, you have to be able to communicate your strengths, which can be really difficult. You need to stand up for who you are and what you are good at—a type of ethical self-promotion that is very difficult for many scientists to get their arms around. Moving past the ethical point—to self-promotion not grounded in ability—looks like playing politics. That kind of self-promotion is risky.

– “Bright scientists have excellent people skills.”

People skills and scientific skills don’t necessarily go hand in hand. There’s a lack of interpersonal-skills training and evaluation in academia, which leaves many technical people believing that decisions about their future will be based upon their scientific credentials and not those “soft skills” I talk so much about in Tooling Up. Of course, it’s possible for really brilliant scientists to succeed without social skills—we’ve all known first-rate academic scientists who succeeded via sheer brilliance, never mind the fact that no one could stand working with them. But unless you’re really cocky about your science—or totally lacking in social potential—your chances of success will be better if you bathe, communicate, and treat your colleagues with respect.

Different rulebooks for different environments

At a recent AAAS seminar in San Francisco, our invited panel included two of our Science Careers Discussion Forum advisers and two senior executives from the local biotech industry. The goal that night was to discuss the lessons our speakers had learned along the way, what mistakes they had made, and to pass their wisdom along to the younger folks in the audience.

The common thread in all the speakers’ remarks was that the “rulebook” is different in industry. All these professionals had succeeded, but for every one there was a time in their careers when they were poised between jumping over the wall between academia and industry and falling through the cracks. Only by learning all three types of rules—and how they differ from one job sector to the other—did they navigate the move from an academic lab to an industry job.

ShortTerm Science

Mastering Your PhD: Writing Your Doctoral Thesis With Style