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3 Things PhDs Must Know To Become R&D Project Managers

Contributing Author: Devsmita Das, PhD

One thing I love about being a project manager?

I get to exercise my multitasking abilities to the fullest.

To be specific, I’m an associate clinical project manager, which means that I get to manage each and every aspect of a study.

This includes:

  • Site selection
  • Contract negotiations
  • Personnel management
  • Study start-up and handling of finances
  • Enrollment tracking

I have control over an entire study from start to finish, and I take love accomplishing multiple tasks every day.

But before looking for work in project management, I had to identify what sort of industry role I wanted.

This included the types of roles that I didn’t want – for example, I knew that I didn’t want to do bench research.

I wanted a multi-functional position – a requirement easily met in a project manager’s daily work!

After building a carefully tailored resume, exercising good networking practices, and a lot of time spent interviewing, I was able to negotiate my way through a few project manager job offers.

And once I really started getting comfortable in my new role, I realized how different it was from academia – the work I do has a ripple effect across the entire company.

It’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s incredibly fulfilling.

On the whole, this job represents a great opportunity for science PhDs who are interested in pursuing a nonacademic career.

Fortunately for those PhDs, industry is always on the lookout for talented project managers with science degrees.

Why Industry Needs PhD-Holding R&D Project Managers

If you think that project managers aren’t crucial employees, think again – the Project Management Institute reports that 85% of firms have a project management office.

And if salary is any indication of importance, Glassdoor confirms excellent project manager salaries from a wide range of noteworthy companies, many of which pay over $100K/year.

Companies don’t just hand out money like that – project managers are valuable assets.

There are a lot of different certification programs to become a project manager, but would you like to know a little secret?

You don’t need one.

It can certainly help, but if you’re a PhD, you don’t have to pay thousands of dollars for a certification – you already have the transferable skills required.

That skill is R&D project management, and PhDs have been practicing it on a daily basis in their research, dating back through grad school.

Anyone who’s worked in a university lab, or been a TA, has had to manage different academic projects.

That means you know how it’s done, and you can take that knowledge with you into an industry career in project management.

What PhDs Must Know To Become R&D Project Managers.

It’s clear that PhDs are highly suited to work in R&D project management.

But that doesn’t mean you’re going to be a master of industry work right away.

The driving forces behind industry and academia are pretty different, so it’s natural to expect that each will have its own nuanced version of project management.

PhDs know how to oversee different project parts and juggle multiple tasks.

They also know how to coordinate and bring together these separate features into a cohesive whole.

Industry project managers do the same thing!

But there are still some things PhDs need to know before they head into this career.

Here are 3 important concepts that PhDs need to consider before they pursue careers as project managers.

1. Project management can include a lot of different things.

In industry, R&D project management can include a wide range of responsibilities.

This means that the tasks you undertake will vary, and some companies might want to mix and match management types to suit their needs.

As a project manager, you’ll probably be responsible for removing obstacles from the workloads of developers and scientists.

This can mean many different things – increasing the flow of communication, coordinating efforts, managing budgets, or a lot of other issues that come up.

Generally, project managers are problem solvers who innovate efficient systems for the people under them.

In R&D project management, you will also oversee the process and techniques used by researchers.

This is to ensure financial support is being utilized properly, and that the project being undertaken by the R&D team is in alignment with the long-term strategy of the organization.

As a project manager, you’ll also be responsible for a single product (or portfolio of products), and you’re going to nurture your project all the way from conception to market.

This means you’ll likely need to understand market needs, which will help you make decisions about which new projects to initiate.

That includes decisions regarding which existing projects should be given priority.

2. Industry-style project management is different than the academic style.

Has a PI ever ruined your day by making you interrupt your research project, or even by cancelling it?

This situation can make a researcher feel lost and unmotivated – why put in the effort if it will all go to waste?

In industry, things are different.

For one, industry project management is broken down into defined work cycles.

Industry project managers set the terms and timelines of the projects, and during that time, work remains devoted to the initial goals.

Compared to academia, this can be pretty refreshing!

For example, unlike in academia, you won’t work for 2 weeks before a PI comes in and says, “Time to change direction!”

In industry, a project manager sets goals and team roles, hits predefined milestones, and follows up with team members – nothing changes until that work cycle is over.

As you worked on academic projects, you probably had no milestones to hit.

Things probably got shuffled around, and your goals were constantly changing.

Industry is not into theory and speculation – it wants results.

Your goal will be to produce deliverable results, and the project will only be completed once those goals are achieved.

3. R&D project managers have to master cross-functional work

R&D project managers aren’t sitting at a lab bench – they’re not isolated or secluded from other departments.

They actually interact quite a bit with managers and personnel from other sections throughout the company.

A project manager won’t have any authority over someone from a different department, so it will be a level work relationship.

This is called “cross-functional” work, in which employees from different company divisions work toward shared goals.

As a PhD, you’re highly trained in this.

By now, you’ve probably had to work with other postdocs in academia, other PhD students, people from other labs, etc.

You weren’t in charge of these people, and they weren’t in charge of you – this style of collaboration is key in R&D project management.

You have to be able to influence people and work together to get results, and you may find yourself coordinating with teams from:

  • Marketing
  • Medical affairs
  • Regulatory affairs
  • Manufacturing
  • An executive department

In a way, the R&D project manager is like a set focal point in company affairs – a communications hub for all the different activities that need to happen as a project moves forward.

Does a role in project management sound right for you? Are you a PhD who loves multitasking and diverse responsibility? Remember that project management can include a lot of different things. And while you may have a lot of experience managing academic projects, industry-style project management is different than the academic style. R&D project managers have to master cross-functional work, so the ability to coordinate with other personnel is essential. It may be demanding, but if you love engaging work with a leadership role, few careers are as fulfilling as this one.

To learn more about 3 Things PhDs Must Know To Become R&D Project Managers, 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.

Devsmita Das, PhD

Devsmita Das, PhD, is a trained physician with 7 years of experience in public health, neuroscience, and cancer research. Included among her numerous contributions to science are published studies in high-impact journals and international conference presentations. At heart a self-motivated clinical scientist, Devsmita’s passion for data analysis and experimentation are lighthouses in the receding mist of the medical unknown.
Devsmita Das, PhD


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