An interview with Henna-Maria Sihto-Birbaum, PhD
What is your name, your full job title, and the full name of the company you work for?
Henna-Maria Sihto-Birbaum, Microbiological Engineer (Senior Scientist) at MSD Werthenstein Biopharma GmbH in Switzerland (company is called Merck & Co., Inc. in USA and Canada).
What is your favorite part about working in industry?
My favourite part is that I have the opportunity to work with different people with different educational and cultural backgrounds. Through my experiences in the current position I have learned to embrace diversity more and more. I would go crazy if I had to work with the people exactly like me.
Working in a pharmaceutical company also means strict documentation practises. I like that the most of the actions are based on the company´s Standard Operating Procedures (totally a new concept for me when I started my job search in the industry) and are accountable to a specific person.
Can you describe what a typical day at your job looks like?
In the morning I catch up with the compulsory online trainings about Standard Operating Procedures, safety trainings, regulatory affairs etc. To communicate the tasks and priorities of the day, we held a stand-up-meeting with the engineer group including the manager and supervisor microbiology. Later I edit the most urgent document drafts like study protocols required for the process change, reports about microbiological investigation results of the drug candidates etc. I visit our microbiology lab in a daily basis, mostly to review and approve raw data generated by technicians. If any deviations occur (e.g. in environmental monitoring of classified areas), I am responsible for investigating the event. “Reseacher-me” gets out when I need to test and evaluate the suitability of new laboratory equipment. This involves collaboration with equipment developers or even with other pharmaceutical companies.
How is your current industry position different from your academic postdoc or experience as a graduate student?
I work now together with the team, the tasks are more variable and I have to react quickly to the unexpected changes. I have more responsibilities and my actions have more direct consequences than what I experienced during my PhD project. Deadlines are more concrete in my current industry position, since the batch release can depend on our reports or approval of the laboratory data. For me it means that my work has now more clear goals and purpose too.
Communication with the manager is much more structured (1:1 meeting every two weeks) compared to the communication in the academia.
Last but not least, I am paid for every minute I work and the salary is about 3-fold compared to the PhD student salary.
If you could go back in time, to before you received your job offer, and give yourself one piece of advice or encouragement, what would it be?
Be patient and active (networking!), ask for the advice from others. If you do not believe in yourself, nobody will. I also tried my best to avoid a “martyr/victim complex”, especially as a foreigner when you may feel that are being treated unequal. In the end, “What makes you different or weird, that is your strength” (quote by Meryl Streep). I would also advice to apply for the positions even if you would not be a best fit on paper.In my case it was so that I got chosen to another position that I originally applied.
What was the most memorable moment for you (so far) as a Cheeky Scientist Associate?
First of all, it was beneficial for me to discuss about the job search in Switzerland with my previous work colleague from the university because without her I would have not got aware about the Cheeky Scientist Association.
When I joined, I already had some promising interviews ongoing, including my current position. I was a bit skeptical if the modules would bring me much, or if they would be just a repetition what I have already seen. But when I read the first step in the first module about living with a purpose, I knew that I had made a right decision to join the association.
The first meet-up with Associates in Switzerland was a memorable moment for me as well, even though I already had found my industry position at that point.
What do you see as the next step in your career?
It is a difficult question to answer but in future I see myself as a group leader or a project manager. It would be also interesting to get an overview to a commercial manufacturing in addition to R&D.
How can the Association and the Association’s members help you continue to achieve your career goals?
In the form of active networking in LinkedIn, occasional Cheeky Meetup events and useful video clips in Associates FB group and Executive FB group.
Now that you’ve spent some time working in industry, what is the biggest takeaway(s) you’d like to share with those who are still executing their job search?
Piece of advice before landing in the job interview(s): Be creative in your job search, network, use resources that are offered to you (courses, CSA modules). Do not overlook contractor positions (depends naturally on the country/situation/field): I started as a contractor and after less that two months I was offered a permanent position.
Piece of advice for the interviews: Demonstrate your communication skills and show the interest on the people. Usually you would have not landed in the interview if they had been concerned on your level of technical knowledge. If possible, participate to a mock interview and get it recorded (especially useful to recognize unconscious body language gestures and other habits). Life and work consist of much more than cold facts; have a courage to reveal your personality behind your resume achievements and numbers.
To learn more about how you can transition into an industry career like Henna-Maria, 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.
Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.
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