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Why PhDs Must Understand Corporate Organizational Structure, Operations Management, And Workplace Teamwork

types of organizational structure | Cheeky Scientist | teamwork in the workplace
Written by Karin Weigelt, Ph.D.

Benchwork can make you completely oblivious to the world around you.

PhDs become so obsessed with their experiments, papers, and personal achievements, that they often forget the big picture.

When I was still in the lab, I remember a labmate doing revisions for a manuscript that needed to be resubmitted by the end of the month.

A key experiment was getting a particular Western blot to work.

This experiment was the bane of my labmate’s existence.

(Or at least that’s how it seemed to the rest of us.)

The problem was he needed a better antibody.

Then one day, my labmate finally found this critical antibody online and ordered it immediately.

Only, there was a delay in the delivery.

Due to the delay, he wasn’t able to get the experimental results he needed on time.

My labmate had to explain to our supervisor why the experiment was not completed.

Everyone got angry.

My labmate blamed the courier.

He blamed the company.

He wrote them a scathing email on how they were delaying scientific progress.

In reality, however, he was simply failing to understand the level of complexity that is involved when producing this antibody while meeting high quality standards at the same time.

He failed to realize how much effort biotechnology and biopharmaceutical companies invest in bringing products, drugs, and treatments, into the marketplace.

To the company representative who answered his emails and phone calls, it must have been obvious that he was a naïve PhD student who had little business knowledge.

In retrospect, both my labmate and I learned a lot during this situation.

Eventually, we realized that if any PhD wanted to work effectively in industry, they had to learn how industry worked.

They had to start thinking about the production line from the development of products to the delivery of these products.

By learning more about how companies in industry function, especially in terms of how much effort and coordination goes into bringing products into the marketplace, PhDs can prepare themselves to work effectively in industry.

Why PhDs Must Understand Corporate Structure

Understanding corporate structure will make you a more relevant job candidate.

Just as importantly, it makes you a more effective industry employee after you’re hired.

Too many PhDs show up to their first onsite interview and completely bomb business acumen questions.

When asked about the company’s departments and how these departments work together to deliver products to clients, these PhDs stare blankly at the interviewer.

All departments perform together to achieve a specific goal.

This is true within any industry company.

“That’s not my department” isn’t a phrase you can use once you’re hired.

Instead, you must thoroughly understand how each department functions and why it functions that way.

This is because each departmental function holds its own importance and the performance of the organization is reflected in the joint efforts of every department, starting from identifying the customer’s need to delighting the customer in end fulfillment (delivery of the product).

Without teamwork, a company will fail.

In a study by Millennial Branding and American Express entitled ‘Gen Y Workplace Expectations’, teamwork skills is one of the 3 most important skills in the eyes of a hiring manager.

In addition, nearly 3 in 4 employers rate teamwork and collaboration as a ‘very important’ aspect of business success in industry.

These teamworking skills, business acumen, and transferable skills in general, are more valuable than technical skills.

Everyone in industry knows this. Do you?

5 Industry Departments And How They Work Together

In academia, your cares in life can get reduced to two things: keeping your advisor happy and graduating, or getting into a professorship.

You can learn to only care about your project, your PhD, and your publications.

Your work becomes all about you and your accolades.

This is okay because benchwork is a very individual process.

In industry, however, things can be different.

In industry, you are simply one piece in a very complex system that must work together flawlessly with other pieces, and with near perfect communication in order to keep the organization running.

In industry, you can do meaningful scientific work that directly produces products, drugs, and treatments that help people in this lifetime, all while getting paid well for it.

The key is understanding which industry positions are available and which are right for you, then getting hired into one of those positions, and then learning to work together within your department and with every other department to deliver valuable products to the company’s clients.

Here are 5 key industry departments and how these departments work together to develop products and deliver them to clients…

1. Research & Development.

The research & development (R&D) department drive a company’s innovation.

This is most commonly where an idea or finding derived from scientific research results is turned into a product or service.

Effective running of an R&D department involves a cascade of steps that need to be well-planned and executed.

Not only do the department’s research results need to be reproducible, the department needs to also ensure that the product, drug, or treatment functions properly and does not put the client in danger (because of drug side-effects, product malfunction, etc.).

For example, toxic effects are often tested on cell culture, in animal trials, and/or in clinical trials with partnering hospitals.

The research and testing process itself can easily take years.

During this time, other departments within an organization will spend time finding ways to scale up the production of the proposed product, store the proposed product, and deliver the proposed product.

Many R&D teams work together with academic researchers, commonly referred to as Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs), to help test early versions of the proposed product.

Depending on the size of the company, the R&D department may work side-by-side with the marketing department from very early on in the product development process.

This will ensure that the final product meets the actual needs of the market — in other words, that there will be clients who will actually want to buy the product.

R&D often carries a greater financial risk than other departments, since most experiments fail and most projects do not lead to a profitable product (as a PhD, you understand this).

For example, the Tufts Center For The Study Of Drug Development estimated that it costs an average of $2.6 billion USD and takes over a decade to bring just one product to market.

2. Technical Sales.

Salespeople develop a mutually beneficial relationship with a customer by giving the customer friendly advice, technical support, services, and of course, offering the right product to meet the customer’s needs.

If the customer is satisfied with the service of a company’s sales team, this can build a loyal foundation which will bring the company financial gain for years to come.

The goal of any technical sales team is to develop firsthand knowledge of the needs of the customers.

This can be done by doing anything from an onsite visit, to a cold call, or a cold email.

These sales activities are done side-by-side with the strategies of the product management team and marketing team .

PhDs in technical sales positions are often those who have a wide range of transferable skills, particularly those related to communication and teamworking skills. 

Technical sales people work in “the field” and are essentially the face of the company.

As such, these employees must communicate the company’s values, solve customer problems, and constantly build rapport.

By successfully selling products, technical salespeople ensure the survival of the company, namely by providing additional cash-flow for investing in new R&D innovations.

In most cases, customers will first have contact with a salesperson at a company.

This is true regardless of what the customers’ queries are about.

The salesperson will then connect the customer to other departments in the company, such as service, finance, or technical support.

If the company sells complex products, they will often employ ‘account managers’ who can focus exclusively on the relationship with the customer while instrument specialists, medical device personnel, medical science liaisons, application scientists, and other specialists work to solve the customer’s (and/or product’s) problems.

3. Marketing.

Marketing drives many different aspects of the company and, as such, works with many different departments.

For example, most marketing departments will work with the company’s product development, product management, and commercialization teams.

Most marketing departments will also work closely with the sales department to develop specific strategies to achieve the company’s sales targets.

This department’s activities can include everything from designing flyers for customers, to monitoring a competitor’s activities.

A good marketing team makes the company visible and favorable, all while attracting sales.

From the company’s point of view, marketing needs to be involved in strategic planning activities for the product (and product lines) in order to generate revenue and profit growth by maximizing knowledge of customer/application segmentation, product positioning, pricing, competition, and new product development.

Similar to product management efforts, marketing efforts require strong collaboration skills, along with the ability to identify and communicate customer needs.

Marketing teams must also be able to translate technical product information into clear, concise, and creative product descriptions.

These teams must also be cross-functional since they require feedback from many different departments.

4. Product/Project Management.

Product and project managers work at the intersection between business, technology, and user experience.

Feedback from customers is picked up by these managers, who work closely with all other company departments to improve the product.

In most cases, a product manager works more closely with the marketing team, while a project manager works more closely with the R&D team.

These managers should know all the ins and outs of the current version of the product and be able to help the sales team and the customer in cases where there are questions during the sales process or when problems occur after the product has been sold.

In addition to having near complete knowledge of the product itself, product and project managers should know details about the product’s inventory, as well as any quality issues that can result in delivery delays.

These managers should also be fully aware of ongoing product developments and upcoming product improvements.

A good product manager or project manager must work carefully with forecasting and finance teams to align sales forecasts with current product inventory and the manufacturing of additional inventory.

In short, these managers must understand the technological aspects and time frames for development.

Most importantly, these managers must excel at collaboration and teamwork, working together with many other departments (often without having authority over anyone in these departments) to maximize a product’s business value.

5. Customer Service & Technical Support.

The customer service department manages order handling, which includes processing any order that is placed via telephone, the company website, e-mail, or fax (yes, some people still fax).

Very often, these orders are transferred to an electronic order system which will provide the customer with information on the delivery time and stock available at the different warehouses.

In cases where there are delivery problems (product delays, out-of-stock situations), customer service people will inform the customer about these issues and discuss possible alternatives.

Customer service and technical support personnel must have exceptional communication skills.

They must also be able to work with different database systems to provide information on the delivery or production status of different products.

Technical support, which is different than technical sales, is focused on providing technical help and administrative support for all applications and equipment that are sold by the company.

Solving customers’ issues is the technical support team’s top priority; however, technical support teams must also excel in information management.

These teams are in charge of supporting the sales team in achieving their objectives and are essential in building and maintaining relationships with customers.

Companies rely on many departments in order to be successful. From product development to sales, to information services, they all feed off one another and need everyone’s cooperation. Academics are used to focusing on one problem to achieve one person’s success. In order to transition into industry, you need to think big picture and learn about how each cog fits in the wheel. Not only will you impress the hiring manager, but this business mindset will open doors for internal promotions and stepping up the corporate ladder. Familiarize yourself with the different departments involved in bringing a product to market so you can set yourself up for success in your industry transition.

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.
  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    So true! I doubt if 1% of the PhD candidates really get this until after they get into industry themselves.

  • Julian Holst

    It’s great to get the behind-the-scenes breakdown on all of these positions and see how they fit together. There’s a PhD I know who does pharmaceutical sales, and gets paid very well for it, but this is the first time I’ve seen all the other various positions described so clearly. For some of this very complicated equipment, I can see why it really does take a team to present, instruct, and service.

  • Kathy Azalea

    It makes sense that marketing teams need to be involved from the inception of products and product lines. I always thought that they came along after the fact and figured out how to market the features, but I can see that there is a much more holistic approach to designing and planning innovative technologies to meet the needs of the end-point users.

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    These are really helpful definitions, Karin. I wish I’d had them when I was looking for that first position, but fortunately everything worked out. For newer PhD’s, though, I’d highly recommend that they learn all these roles like the backs of their hands to help them get through the hiring process as efficiently as possible.

  • Harvey Delano

    A lot of us are going to be needing this kind of information, Karin! Thanks so much for putting it out there.