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How To Transition Into Technical Sales Jobs At Biotech Companies Without Sales Experience

PhDs as technical sales specialist | Cheeky Scientist | mastering technical sales
Written by Karin Weigelt, Ph.D.

Academia turned out to be a depressing experience.

The bullying and hazing of PhD students that takes place at many Universities was very disturbing and left me disillusioned.

Before I went to graduate school, I imagined that academia would be the one place where I could share my ideas openly, scientific or otherwise.

I pictured myself having friendly and creative discussions with my academic advisor and other PhD students and postdocs.

Unfortunately, this never happened.

Instead, academia seemed to be a breeding ground for negativity and political back-stabbing.

I remember one day during my postdoc, when my colleagues and I were sitting in a meeting waiting for our boss—the principal investigator in our lab—to arrive.

Suddenly the door burst open.

“I can’t stand working with…, she’s too stupid to be here!”

Those were the first words out of my advisor’s mouth.

We all sat there afraid.

No one said anything for minutes.

We knew whoever said anything would be picked on next.

That’s when I realized just how disenchanted I had become.

I was fed up with academia.

I refused to end up as just another bitter supervisor, riding on the coat-tails of my graduate students and postdocs.

Instead, I started applying to non-academic positions.

I applied and applied but never heard anything back.

My self-confidence started to drop and I started to develop a weak PhD mindset.

A few weeks later, I decided to make a change.

I updated my LinkedIn profile and started sending LinkedIn messages.

I started networking and reaching out to biotechnology and biopharmaceutical recruiters and hiring managers.

One day, I talked with an industry recruiter who asked if I’d be willing to do an informal interview with a sales manager.

Usually I avoided sales people because there seemed to be an unspoken rule in academia that scientists who went into industry sales jobs were “sellouts.”

But since I really wanted to transition out of academia, I decided to take the interview.

Once the interview started, I was surprised by how knowledgeable the sales manager was.

Contrary to what I expected, the manager told me how a technical sales job would allow me to meet many different types of people and do very diverse types of work.

He told me that I would be able to stay close to science instead of “collecting dust behind a lab bench.” 

This wasn’t what I expected.

After talking with him, I decided to continue pursuing technical sales positions.

Before I knew it, I had a formal interview, got a great job offer, and signed a job contract, all without any previous sales experience.

Why Companies Hire PhDs For Technical Sales Positions

There was a time when companies were hesitant to hire PhDs for sales positions.

This is no longer the case.

Increased complexity of technical products means that there is an increased need for experienced researchers to join the company ranks and help to liaise between customers, marketing, and engineers.

The job outlook for technical sales specialists is very positive. 

A report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that employment in this sector will grow by 9% from 2012 to 2022.

PhDs are especially well-suited to selling scientific instruments, reagents, and other lab items because they have actual experience using these products.

As a result, PhDs are both empathetic to the needs of target customers and capable of speaking to these customers at their level.

This makes PhD job candidates very valuable to biotech and biopharma sales managers.

Technical sales positions are a good fit for many PhDs because these positions offer high salaries and a chance to stay closely connected to bench researchers and to scientific research in general.

The Wall Street Journal and Labor Department report that sales people in specialty markets earn a median annual wage that is more than twice the median for all workers.

That’s right—salespeople make twice as much as non-salespeople.

They also get many benefits, including a company car and spending allowance.

Most importantly, technical sales people get to maintain and deepen connections with other researchers, often setting up industry-to-academia collaborations with labs.

technical sales jobs for PhDs | Cheeky Scientist | technical sales consultant

How To Get A Technical Sales Position In Industry

PhDs with research experience and sales experience are highly valuable in industry.

At the same time, there are many sales positions in industry right now.

Salespeople are the life-blood of any biotech or biopharmaceutical company because without sales and without profits from those sales, the company ceases to exist.

Why aren’t more PhDs in sales?

The problem is that very few PhDs apply to technical sales positions.

Most PhDs fail to apply for one of two reasons.

First, they think they need sales experience to get a sales job.

Second, they think that salespeople are manipulative or “bad” in some way—like they can’t be a scientist and a salesperson at the same time. 

Both are incorrect.

As a technical salesperson in industry, you can apply your scientific skill sets to a variety of labs and projects, not just one lab or one project.

With your PhD in hand, you will maintain your credibility with customers and key opinion leaders, while having more resources and more support to help these professionals solve their problems.

If you’re interested in a technical sales job, realize that you have already developed the transferable skills you need to get the job.

You don’t need more skills or more experience.

You just need to start thinking like a salesperson. Here’s how to start a career as a technical sales specialist in industry…

1. Stop being afraid of contacting people you don´t know.

You will never get a technical sales job (or any industry job), if you’re too afraid to reach out to people you don’t know.

In academia, reaching out to someone you don’t know because you want something might seem strange.

But in industry, it’s completely normal.

In fact, it’s expected.

Industry people want to connect with other industry people.

They want to hear about new products and services that might help them.

They want to exchange value and make deals.

Of course, there’s a right way and a wrong way to reach out.

You should ask questions about them and give value to them first.

But you shouldn’t wait until things are perfect. You shouldn’t wait until you feel 100% ready. You never will.

Most importantly, when you do reach out, whether to a hiring manager or a customer, don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” or “I’ll get back to you on that.”

Once you’re hired into a sales role, you’ll have some learning to do.

Your manager will understand that you don’t know everything there is to know about the company’s portfolio or products yet.

That’s okay.

You must get used to reaching out to customers you don’t know to solve problems you don’t understand anyway.

In sales, you must get used to learning as you go.

You will be in the field (in labs working directly with customers), which means you’ll constantly be getting feedback.

As such, see contacting people you don’t know and learning new things about your products as a continuous process, not as an endpoint.

2. Start finding ways to help people solve their problems.

Salespeople are expert problem-solvers.

As a technical sales consultant, more than anything, your job is to solve problems.

This means identifying customer pain points and figuring out how you, your company, and your company’s products can alleviate these pain points.

How can you add value here and now?

That’s the question that should play over and over in your head when you’re with customers.

The best way to figure out how to add value is to ask.

By asking the right questions, you can figure out the customer’s problems as well as when and how to solve those problems.

Only then can you offer a solution that suits your customers’ needs.

Remember, you have been in your customer’s shoes before.

If you’re a technical sales specialist in the biotech or biopharma industries, your customers will be scientists like you.

This is how it will work…

You will accumulate sales leads through visiting labs and networking, or via your sales manager and company support team.

These leads are simply PhDs like you who have a problem and need a solution. 

They are working towards publications, grant funding and their next big scientific discovery, and they need your input to make their work more efficient and more technically sound.

By developing a relationship with these customers based on mutual respect, you will continually fulfill their needs (and continually get paid for doing so).

3. Believe in the product and company you are selling.

There’s nothing worse than working on a research project you don’t believe in.

Maybe your PI got an RO1 grant a few years ago and needs to show some data for it so he creates a side-project for you, even though the grant’s hypothesis was dis-proven 6 months ago.

This can be infuriating.

It can also completely take away your motivation.

The same is true in industry when you’re asked to sell and support a product you don’t believe in.

If you want to be a successful salesperson, you must make sure you believe in the company you work for and the company’s products.

If you don’t believe your company’s products are high quality or will benefit your customers, you’re at the wrong company. 

On a larger scale…

If you don’t believe in the process of selling products and exchanging value with customers in general, you’re in the wrong role.

The only way to be successful as a technical sales consultant is to believe in the sales process and believe in the product you are selling.

You must also believe in the company, their values and their service.

If you can align yourself behind a product and company, you will be rewarded for it.

This is easier than it sounds.

For example, if you’re a PhD student or postdoc, you already know which instruments, reagents, kits, and other products in the lab are high quality.

This gives you a starting point for applying to jobs.

Don’t apply to companies whose products you avoid using in the lab.

Instead, apply to the companies who manufacture the products you love using in the lab.

4. Enjoy working independently AND as a team.

You do not have to be an extrovert to work as a technical sales specialist.

Many of the world’s best biotechnology and biopharmaceutical sales specialists are introverted PhDs.

You can be introverted but you must know how to communicate effectively.

As a technical sales consultant, you’ll spend most of your time working from home or on the road while traveling.

Therefore, being self-motivated and self-disciplined is a must.

At the same time, you will have to work very closely with your marketing team at headquarters and with other applications and support staff in the field to implement your company’s overall business strategy.

You will continuously meet with salespeople, developers, and upper-level managers to discuss your progress and to relay customer feedback from the field.

The good news is that if you have a PhD, you already know how to work well independently and as a team.

You’ve had to carry entire projects to completion on your own in the lab while also communicating your results (or lack of results) with your labmates, advisor, and thesis or postdoc committees.

The key is to leverage your transferable skills in this area to both get into the technical sales position you want and to be successful in the position once you get the job.

5. Stay focused on the bigger picture without forgetting the details.

As a salesperson, you are the eyes and ears of the company.

You speak daily with scientists conducting the latest research and help develop the technologies that will make their innovative ideas a reality.

You have to balance keeping the company’s best interests in mind, while looking out for both you and your customers.

The more you can align these three things—the company, your customers, and yourself—the happier and more successful you will be.

Keeping these three things aligned requires a lot of day-to-day activities.

You must constantly meet with customers in person and follow up with them by phone and email.

You must work to move your customers through your sales funnel and product funnel without treating them like just another number.

You must also keep your manager informed and work to understand his or her management style.

With all of these activities, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture—your overall career advancement.

A technical sales job can be a gateway to higher-level management positions if you know how to network, create sponsors in the company, and, of course, hit your sales numbers.

Under the technical sales umbrella, you can get hired as an account manager, where your main priority is to build strong relationships with your customers by providing solutions that fit their needs.

Or, you can get hired into more specialty sales positions like medical device or capital equipment specialist positions.

If you’re more interested in the technical features and applications of your product, you can also easily move into application scientist or instrument specialist roles. 

The key is understanding what you want to do in the long run and working to make progress towards it without getting lost in the daily grind of your sales cycle.

When transitioning into a technical sales career, market your problem-solving ability and your interest in the business of science.  Set up informational interviews with the technical sales representatives that come to your lab as you are already providing them with value by purchasing and giving feedback on their product. Research companies where you feel you would be a good fit given your technical expertise and market that expertise in your resume.  This will allow you to move away from the bench and apply your scientific knowledge, as well as your technical and transferable skills, in a more rewarding way.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Karin Weigelt, Ph.D.

Karin Weigelt, Ph.D.

Karin holds a PhD in Molecular Cell Biology and has training in professional sales. Currently working for Bio-Rad Laboratories as an Account Manager in the Southwestern part of the Netherlands, she understands both the technological and the commercial aspects of the life science industry.
Karin loves innovative technologies and to help people in science to implement or combine these new methods and technologies so both science and patients can profit of technological progress and applied science.
Karin Weigelt, Ph.D.
  • Sissy MacDougall

    I do in-home interventions and often work with distressed families. Some of them are on medication, and I discovered recently that the salesperson who works for some of our associate doctors is actually a PhD. It surprised me on one hand to find a PhD working as a salesperson, but on the other hand, it made sense to me because the pharmacological salesperson must be well-educated, able to think independently, and comfortable with reading studies. Also, a PhD has invested a great deal of energy, time, and money in pursuing a higher education, so it stands to reason that a PhD would like a position that allows a good income in addition to a challenging field. I think anything less might have been boring for this particular individual.

  • Winona Petit

    This makes a lot of sense. I got my PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities quite some time ago, but I can see why some of my friends in the biological and chemical sciences were so discouraged with academia. Believe me, there were some ridiculous power trips going on in our department, too.

    The thing that seems refreshing here is the idea that PhD’s can branch out and do what you do – join the results of biological sciences research with the people who need to apply those results most urgently, in the medical field.

    I’m definitely going to recommend this article to a couple of friends.


  • Harvey Delano

    I’ll give this some serious thought. When I graduate with my degree in Chemistry and Chemical Biology, this might be something to think about. I’m leaning towards becoming a biochemist.

  • Andrea Robinson

    I know someone who sells pharmaceuticals, and it’s a mentally demanding job, but she really loves it. You really do have to keep up on the science behind all the various medications as well as being very organized and conversant with the medical professionals. I think that in the past, they did not curtain their hiring to such well-educated people, but as the field evolves, they’ve got to see the advantages of hiring very bright, very responsible people. And PhD’s have to have all those qualities.

  • Madeline Rosemary

    I’m graduating soon and ordered your ebook. It’s an interesting idea, I don’t know if I could do sales.

    • Winona Petit

      Madeline, anyone could do sales if it’s in an area that they like, for a business that they trust, and if they can get along and talk to people. I know if you’re almost done with your PhD, you could probably talk to doctors without any trouble. Don’t be afraid to think out of the box a little. I got out of my comfort zone when I was younger and it was a very powerful decision for me and brought me a lot of success. If you don’t want to do it, that’s one thing, but if you do and you’re just afraid, I’m here to tell you as an older person that you can do anything you want to do. Best of luck to you in your final studies. You should be very proud.

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    Well, I’ve got less than a year to go before I’m done. I recently read of a superbug that can pass its genetic coding on to other forms of bacteria in the form of RNA. This means that antibiotic-resistant bacteria could be carrying this RNA, which is easily transmitted to other bacteria. This is research that came out of the South China Agricultural University, and the fear is that this superbug can recreate its DNA in other strains, creating super-resistant strains of bacteria. So there are a lot more challenges in store for all of us. The question is, are we more beneficial working in the lab developing new antibiotics, or are we more beneficial bringing newly-discovered treatments to doctors as reps of the pharmaceutical companies? Yes, I know salary is an issue, too.

  • Sonja Luther

    This is an important discussion to have. If the researchers are in the labs developing new treatments, but there aren’t any companies selling the products, then new discoveries in medicine aren’t getting into the hands and bodies of patients.

    I’m sure that almost nobody goes into the field of medicine solely because of financial gain. I think that doctors are constantly wanting more access to promising medications as they’re tested and released to the marketplace. It seems to me that there’s a beneficial relationship between the doctors and the people who supply the medicines.

    Yes, I know there are problems too, but the system is not going away and we need people on all sides of the spectrum. So to me, there’s no shame in selling pharmaceuticals as long as you’re doing it legally and ethically.

  • Maggie Sue Smith

    Look, I’m no PhD, but I do think it’s good that these young people who worked so hard can find an industry where they get to use some of their knowledge and help people while making a decent buck. I’m all for it, especially for those people who need to get out more and meet people. I think it would be very claustrophobic working in a lab.

  • Kathy Azalea

    Thank you, Karin. I think it’s great advice to choose the right company and products if you do make a choice to go into this field. I think a lot of people don’t want to go into sales because they don’t want to be out of integrity and be squeezed into trying to sell something they don’t believe in. I’m also surprised that sales can lead to a promotion to sales management. I guess I just never thought about it very much before. Good article.