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Why PhDs Need Deep Domain Knowledge To Secure A Job In Biotech And Pharmaceutical Industries

what is domain knowledge | Cheeky Scientist | business domain knowledge
Written By Arunodoy Sur, Ph.D.

I thought I had it all mapped out.

PhD → Postdoc → Professor

However, as I neared the end of graduate school, I slowly started to realize that this scenario was unlikely.

Unlikely turned into impossible.

I reviewed the academic hiring trends over the past few years and realized that my chances of staying in academia and making a decent salary was exactly that—impossible.

I needed to change career tracks fast.

Academia was no longer a career (or lifestyle) I would tolerate.

I prepared my industry resume and started to research alternative career paths.

I even reached out to people on LinkedIn and set up informational interviews with employees from industry companies.

To my surprise, the CEO of a start-up company agreed to meet with me for coffee.

We discussed his career trajectory and day-to-day work at his biotech company.

It was an informational interview.

Like most PhDs, I prepared for the informational interview by reading a little bit about the CEO’s company, brushing up on my elevator pitch, and preparing a short list of questions about the position I was interested in.

As we sat down to coffee, I began with the list of questions I had prepared.

I opened with “What does a typical day look like for an analyst at your company?”

Brilliant question, right?

Not so much.

That’s when the meeting got turned on its head.

The CEO gave a brief answer  and then asked me, “How do you predict the market for our flagship product will change over the next five years?’


“Do you think we should invest more resources in this product?” he pressed.


An informal conversation turned into an interview that I was not prepared for.

I was less than impressive and ended up missing out on a great opportunity.

I felt amateur and unprofessional.

I knew I had what it takes to transition into the biotech or pharmaceutical industry but now I had to prove it.

I needed to increase my commercial acumen and knowledge of industry trends.

I needed to gain insights into how companies in this sector operate and how they are evolving.

Over time, after a lot of reading and after joining the right professional networks, I achieved a strong understanding of industry trends.

This understanding put me on a different, higher playing field than other inexperienced PhDs who were preparing for industry interviews.

The tables had turned in my favor and I was eventually able to secure the industry job of my choice.

Why PhDs Must Have Domain Knowledge In Industry

Employers are often untrusting of lifetime academics.

They are untrusting because they want to know why a PhD, such as yourself, has finally decided to transition into industry.

Are you simply frustrated with your academic advisor?

Are you simply experimenting?

Or are you legitimately ready to add value to their company?

It’s okay to want out of academia.

In fact, wanting out can keep you motivated in your job search.

But this is not enough to out-compete the job candidate sitting next to you in the waiting room before an interview.

It’s not enough to beat out the candidate with five years of industry experience.

If you really want to stand out, you need to show your aptitude for industry trends and how these trends will affect the company you’re applying to, both positively and negatively.

Which candidate is more impressive…

The one who simply recites what he or she has done in the past?

Or the one who knows what the company does, who the company’s competitors are, and where the company is headed (or should head) in the marketplace?

Taking the time to research industry trends shows your potential employer that you didn’t just answer a job advertisement because your publication fell through.

But unfortunately, researching industry trends and gaining solid domain knowledge is something very few PhDs or academics in general are willing to do.

healthcare domain knowledge | Cheeky Scientist | pharmaceutical domain knowledge

3 Trends To Help PhDs Expand Their Domain Knowledge

Industry employers are hesitant to hire PhDs because of their lack of domain knowledge.

According to a Gallup study, while 96% of Chief Academic Officers rate their institutions as either very or somewhat effective at preparing students for industry, only 11% of industrial businesses agree that graduating students have the skills and competencies their business needs.

In other words, most businesses will believe that you and other academics don’t have the commercial acumen or domain knowledge you need to be an effective employee.

It’s time to dispel this belief.

It’s time to dig into the wealth of information at your fingertips on where the biotechnology and biopharmaceutical industries are headed.

Which products are set to take off?

Which products are going under?

Where are companies investing?

Who is merging with whom?

The following three trends will give you a strong understanding of the kind of deep domain knowledge you need to start gaining in order to secure a non-academic position in industry…

1. The rise of personalized medicine.

Thanks to collaborations between IT and the life science industry, there is an increased understanding of the genetic makeup of individuals and the interactions of these individuals’ genes with various drugs.

This has led to dramatic advancements in personalized therapies and diagnostic technologies.

According to the PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report, the market size of personalized medicine in the United States has reached $232 billion and is projected to experience an annual growth rate of 11% or more.

The global personalized medicine market overall is expected to reach $2,325 billion U.S. by 2022.

The influence of personalized healthcare is not just limited to novel therapies but has also affected the development of personalized diagnostic tests.

Personalized medicine and diagnostic technologies are proving to be particularly valuable and indispensable in the treatment and detection of cancer.

However, experts believe the benefits of personalized medicine can be applied to other therapeutic areas as well.

A McKinsey & Company Personalized Medicine report predicted that within a decade, the application of personalized medicine will extend to neurobiological disorders, prenatal, immunology, and cardiovascular therapeutic areas.

Proof of this upward trend occurred when the U.S. Government announced that it will be investing $215 million in a Precision Medicine initiative.

Currently, North America is the largest regional market in personalized healthcare and the main players in this field include GE Healthcare, Illumina Inc., Abbott Diagnostics and Affymetrix.

2. A growing number of mergers and acquisitions.

Life science companies are undergoing significant levels of restructuring.

In the last two years, there has been a record-setting number of mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and this trend is expected to continue.

The total value of these M&A deals has been estimated at $105 billion.

These M&A significantly affect market size, market competition, and hiring.

They also create new challenges and opportunities for maintaining synergy among the merging organizations.

So why are so many companies restructuring?

With increasing competition and high levels of growth in biotech and biopharma, large corporations are looking to new ways to enhance their portfolios.

The most popular ways of doing this in a limited amount of time is through acquiring smaller organizations or merging with similar sized organizations.

For large corporations, the need for M&A is mostly driven by impending patent expiration, holes in the company’s product pipeline, or a desire to step into a new therapeutic market.

With the increasing number of startups in the biotech and biopharma sectors, there are more prospective targets for M&A than ever before.

Thomson and Reuters Annual Report stated that completed or announced M&A deals recently reached a total of $300 billion globally.

According to a report from PwC, the total value of M&A deals in the U.S. life science sector was higher in the beginning of 2015 than for the entire 2014 calendar year.

In other words, the number and value of M&A deals are skyrocketing.

Some recent, noticeable M&A deals include the acquisition of Allergan by Actavis for $66 billion, the acquisition of Pharmacyclics by Abbvie for $21 billion, and the acquisition of Salix Pharmaceuticals by Valeant Pharmaceutical for $11 billion.

Still not convinced that M&A deals are skyrocketing?

The $160 billion merger of Allergan and Pfizer was the largest deal in the history of the pharmaceutical industry.

The time to show off your domain knowledge of M&A deals is now.

Employers are eager to find candidates with this kind of commercial acumen and domain knowledge, so make sure you’re keeping up to date with these and other industry trends.

3. Increases in venture capital funding.

Venture capital (VC) funding in biotech and biopharma sectors is at an all-time high.

This is a major change from previous years where total investments were much lower.

But something else has changed.

In the past, most venture capital investments were restricted to only a few recipients with specialized products in late-stage development.

Now, investors are less apprehensive about investing in industries that require complex innovation.

Currently, venture capital investment in the overall life science sectors (biopharma, biotech, and medtech combined) are second only to the software/IT sector.

These investments have totaled $2.9 billion with the average investment deal size totaling over $14.9 million.

Why does this matter to PhDs?

It matters because the companies you want to work for are being invested in heavily.

For example, investments in early-stage life science companies and products has nearly doubled from last year.

A BioParma Dive report found that early-stage funding has increased by 126% year-over-year, now totaling $1.6 billion.

Staying on top of new trends like personalized medicine, the growth of M&D deals, and where venture capitalists are investing will give you the leverage you need to secure a non-academic position. Developing your commercial acumen and expanding your domain knowledge in terms of these trends will give you leverage at your next job interview. Stay up-to-date by connecting with company websites, business news outlets, and top employers’ Twitter feeds. The more you know about where the biotech and biopharm industries are headed, the more likely you are to get hired into an industry position.

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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Arunodoy Sur, Ph.D.

Arunodoy Sur, Ph.D.

Arunodoy is a Ph.D. in Integrative Biology and has training in intellectual property, entrepreneurship, and venture capitalism. He also has experience with global biotechnology and biopharmaceutical companies, including clinical trial consulting. Arunodoy is passionate about the translation of academic research to the real world and commercialization of scientific innovation so that it can help solve problems and benefit people. He possesses in-depth understanding of both technological and commercial aspects associated with the life science industry.
Arunodoy Sur, Ph.D.
  • Sonja Luther

    Wow, first of all, let me thank you for sharing your pain. I could just feel what you must have been going through when you sat at that chair across the table from the start-up CEO. Second of all, thank you so much for this exhaustive study of the industry trends that we need to know about and what skills we need to develop if we’re to keep up. It’s obvious that it’s a whole new game out there now.

    • Arunodoy Sur

      Hi @sonjaluther:disqus I am glad that you found the article useful and thank you for reading my article. As I realized that in order to be successful we need to be constantly aware of the new trends in the industry. That’s what made me write these articles.

  • Madeline Rosemary

    OMG, I’ve got my homework cut out for me! I never dreamed that we’d have to understand the workings of the industry to this great detail, but I can see why employers want to know that we’re up to speed when they hire us. It’s a shock to find out that most universities rate themselves so highly when it comes to preparing students for jobs in industry, which it’s quite obvious they’re doing no such thing. Thanks for the heads-up!

    • Arunodoy Sur

      Hi @madelinerosemary:disqus Thank you for reading the article. As you mentioned it is true that academic institutions are not doing enough to train science PhDs for a career outside of academia and that is why new graduates are having a hard time securing an industry job.

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    I have a great job, but I hang around this site and read up because I know that the marketplace is constantly changing. I really feel the need to stay up on the latest developments in the industry so I can be prepared for whatever comes and proactively work towards improving my career prospects going forward. Thanks, Arunodoy, for another great article with so much help packed into it.

    • Arunodoy Sur

      Hi @matthewsmithsonphd:disqus Thank you for reading the article. It is great that you are always looking for new information and trying to improve yourself even though you already have a great job.

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    It’s interesting that venture capital is becoming more widely used, but I guess not so surprising due to the amazing number of improvements in medicine in all areas. With improved diagnostic tools, more targeted therapies, and more progress being made in research day by day and year by year, the industry is actually becoming more competitive. I see this as a great benefit to those of us who are going to be entering industry soon, as there will be more jobs (and more exciting jobs) available. But I can also foresee that the competition for those jobs will be high.

    • Arunodoy Sur

      Hi @marvindesprit:disqus VC investments in life science is a new trend and it is growing every year. As you pointed out the large number of new advancements in biotech field is one of the reasons for this.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    It’s encouraging to hear about all the innovation and discoveries that are pushing the industry forward. Even better, it’s great to know that you guys are here to help young PhD’s move forward in their careers and not waste so much time landing a good, high-paying job in industry. It makes sense that PhD’s should be prospering in the Information Age. 🙂

    • Arunodoy Sur

      Hi @CarlieStevensonPhD:disqus Thanks for reading the article and I am glad young professionals like are finding it useful. Being aware of recent industry trends in essential for having a successful career in the biotech & pharma field and that was the reason of writing this article.

  • Harvey Delano

    I, for one, have gotten a lot more direction since keeping an eye on this blog. Every time I see one of those messages – congratulations to so-and-so who landed his/her dream job in industry – I get excited! It’s good to know that we can get together with other PhD’s and collaborate to develop the skills we need to not only get the job, but negotiate and be very clear about what’s being offered. Thanks, Arunodoy, for your part in all of this! You’re a big influence on me. 🙂

    • Arunodoy Sur

      Hi @harveydelano:disqus Thanks for the positive comments about my blogs 🙂 It is great that you are following Cheeky Scientist and getting useful information and encouragement from it. Our goal is to help professionals like you.

  • Kathy Azalea

    This might sound a little cheesy, but since I started reading this blog I set up fake “practice interviews” with a couple of other students, and even though we have a good time, I think it’ll be helpful in the long run. 🙂

    • Arunodoy Sur

      Hi @KathyAzalea:disqus setting up practice interviews with friends is not cheesy at all. In fact it is one of the best ways of preparing. Even I used to do it 🙂 It will surely be helpful in the long run

  • Julian Holst

    There’s a part of me that actually likes academia! After all, I’m interested in discoveries, I love the scientific process because of the clarity it involves, and I love knowing how stuff works. Call me a mechanic of microbiology. But the truth is just as Arunodoy is saying — getting a good paying job in academia — or maybe any job in academia — is becoming increasingly impossible! I’ve been checking it out, and it really is true. No problem, I want the wind in my face and I want to work where my efforts are going to pay off — not just for me, but for the industry at large and the patients who benefit from the research.

    • Arunodoy Sur

      Hi @Julian Host There are lots of jobs in the industry that will offer you both opportunity of being involved in scientific research and also get rewarded. If you prepare and plan in advance you can surely find a rewarding job in the industry. It is good that you know what you want.

  • Winona Petit

    Arunodoy, I am so glad that these young people have you to help them through this very important step — it seems to me that the game has changed quite a bit since I got my first job in industry. Having a PhD 20 years ago was nearly all the calling card you needed. If you weren’t a complete nerd, people saw you as someone with an incredible amount of skill, self-discipline, and smarts. Nobody I know was actually quizzed to see if you understood the trends in the industry or not — I think that employers considered that to be their job! Anyway, they are lucky to have you, and I find it fascinating to read about these trends, too, so I thank you. 🙂

    • Arunodoy Sur

      Hi @winonapetit:disqus Thank you for reading my article. It is nice to get the perspective of someone like you who graduated much earlier than us and is more experienced in this field.

  • Theo

    Wow! Each article gets better and better. I really appreciate this info, Arunodoy.

    • Arunodoy Sur

      Hi @TheloniusJHolland:disqus Thank you for reading my article.