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Understanding Economics For A Successful Career Path

Your career path depends on knowledge of business economics
Written by: Swati Dhar, Ph.D.

I was always drawn to the biological sciences, well before I thought about doing my PhD.

I wanted to understand the basics of life and provide solutions for disease management in healthcare.

To me, money played no part in this idea of helping people.

This is why I was an academic.

Transitioning into industry felt like selling out — like putting a price tag on people’s well-being.

As I neared the end of graduate school, I realized that the only tangible outcomes from my hard work would come from publications.

Far from a solution for disease management.

Still, the idea of making money out of science sounded outrageous.

This pristine attitude was shared and reinforced by most academics in my department.

Perhaps our work was far removed from the bedside, but at least we were not selling out.

It didn’t take long before I realized that leaving academia was the only way to accelerate my career trajectory.

Of course, academia cares about money too.

Money is fuel for everyone.

In fact, the economics of running an academic lab can be just as complicated as running one in industry.

In the lab, I had to learn to tightly control every dollar that came in.

Everything was budgeted based on grant funding — from our salaries to the reagents we used.

Publications were the equivalent of a successful drug candidate.

They were proof for investors (funding agencies) that we were onto something and that they should throw more money our way.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that an academic lab is a business, albeit managed less efficiently than in industry.

Translating the business acumen I learned in academia to a business setting was pivotal when it came time to write industry resumes, network with industry professionals, and attend industry interviews.

I could prove that I had the business savvy and the technical skills.

It was the perfect combination.

This knowledge of economics is invaluable to PhDs and must be leveraged when transitioning into industry.

Employees that understand business economics have an advantage in the job market

Why Understanding Economics Is Vital For PhDs Transitioning Into Industry

A guiding principle in macroeconomics is demand and supply.

A study by Battelle reports that the cumulative economic impact of biopharmaceutical industries alone is more than $300 billion dollars.

The demand exists for the biopharm industry.

Now who will help supply it?

According to a report in US news, STEM PhDs and masters graduates will continue to drive much of the US economic growth.

Meanwhile, a department of labor study argued that although there is a STEM surplus in academia, there is a STEM shortage in the workforce.

The STEM field, as defined by the National Science Foundation, includes Chemistry, Computer and Information Science and Engineering, Engineering, Geosciences, Life Sciences, Materials Research, Mathematical Sciences, Physics and Astronomy, Psychology, Social Sciences, and STEM Education and Learning Research.

Endowing this workforce with business acumen, as well as the confidence to translate it into a successful industry career, will be key.

This means understanding corporate annual reports, assessing R&D progress over time, and being able to understand the corporate organizational structure to gain valuable insights to help you navigate the corporate world.

As the work environment has changed over the last decade, proactive, driven, ‘go-getter’ team players with a genuine interest in the growth of the company are the ones who make the fastest lateral or vertical moves to grow in their careers.

For biopharma/biotech, the objective is very square: make good science visible in a viable product that delivers unmet medical needs.

Yes, there are times when your years of labor on a potentially great product can be quashed.

It’s just business.

The sooner PhDs acquire a military precision in understanding the cost-benefit aspect of a business decision, the faster they become strategic liaisons in propelling their own growth.

With biopharma/biotech heavily dependent on the economics of investments and profits in a given fiscal year, the changing landscape can be unpredictable.

Add in the interesting offshoot in the form of open innovation and collaborative science ventures within industry and academia to ensure faster turnover of results through teamwork, and possibly secure better economic returns on investments.

PhDs need to be aware of what drives the science in industry in each sector so they can help drive its success.

5 Ways PhDs Can Leverage Their Knowledge Of Economics And Transition Into Industry

In this fast-paced economy, coming from the ‘academic world’ may not add much to your resume, at first glance.

To get into business, you have to show you understand business.

That means translating your academic experience into something a company can relate to.

Labs function as businesses.

At its simplest, economics is the branch of knowledge dealing with the production, consumption, and transfer of wealth.

Each of these aspects are a part of the daily running of a research group.

All businesses are more or less based on the smarter, faster, cheaper format.

A demonstration of an elementary understanding of these principles will differentiate you from a job seeker to a business professional.

Here are 5 ways PhDs do just that…

Technical innovation in Life Sciences will drive change and you must be ready to adapt

1. Maximizing your economic resources.

As a PhD, you have worked under tight budgets.

Remember the time you and your colleagues developed a cheap and efficient alternative to that dreaded protocol that wasted an entire day?

Or how you discovered the minimum amount of time you can incubate an antibody for an immunofluorescent stain to be effective?

Simple economics in action.

This skill can save thousands of dollars and is a valuable asset in industries of all flavors, be they start-ups, mid-sized companies, or even big pharma.

The best discoveries begin with an idea… but cannot be realized without money.

Technical innovation remains the epicenter of the life sciences industry now, for R&D or business development.

Being on top of disruptive technological advances in their fields is what PhDs are trained in and have done for years.

If you can develop products to solve a business problem so the ROI (return on investment) is eye-catching, you become a prized asset to the organization.

2. Strategic thinking.

Running a lab in academia is equivalent to running a business.

Running a business (or a lab) requires making strategic decisions.

Building a team of competent researchers, managing expenses to justify every single penny on the grant, planning and coordinating with collaborators, delivering project deadlines to funding agencies and, last but not least, determining the course of research aims.

You must be aware of competition from other labs and you have to develop unique hypotheses to complex biological problems.

Here’s the major difference: academia is slow, while industry moves at a head-spinning speed.

Performance matters, and to maintain that you need strategic decisions to be made at every step.

Creating a strategy is the key to succeeding in any business venture.

Show that you can identify projects with the potential of creating a positive economic impact on your organization.

This takes tactical thinking and execution.

You can further develop this transferable skill by consulting with local start-ups, investors, and inventors while still in graduate school, and getting involved in intellectual property protection.

By the time PhDs graduate, they are naturally ready to execute smart decisions using this competitive intelligence and take on challenges in the real world.

3. Project management.

A successfully run business requires great management skills.

In the current economy, thriving businesses consciously include strategic project management in their roster.

This focuses on lowering costs, ensuring customer satisfaction, and maintaining a competitive edge while aligning the mission of the organization.

It’s challenging.

Biotech/biopharma struggles even more because even products considered to be low-hanging fruit have timelines from development to market of decades.

The potential risks of an investment are high and every resource is precious, particularly for small to mid-sized companies.

A systematic approach to resolving these issues is using project management expertise, enabling a qualitative and quantitative assessment of the risk-benefits associated with a project.

Think back to the time that you were managing your research projects.

Not just one project, but when the fate of the lab was resting on your shoulders.

You were managing research on the bench, communicating with collaborators (because your PI was too busy), and budgeting the expenses all at once.

But you excelled at it and made it through the deadlines.

Those are the tenets of project management sought after in industry.

Developing these skills will give PhDs the upper hand when applying to management positions.

Creativity, passion, and risk-taking are traits PhDs naturally excel at

4. Entrepreneurial mindset.

The reason so many PhDs have followed the foundation of Novartis, Bristol-Myers-Squibb, Regeneron, and Biogen-Idec is because they all started out as ideas set in motion by entrepreneurs.

Successful businesses nurture innovation.

Whether it’s bringing self-driven cars to the market, or implementing game theory in science policy, these social disruptors have done it all.

They are the drivers of economic growth in a society.

Creativity, passion, risk taking, resilience, and having a vision are the heart and soul of entrepreneurship, which PhDs naturally excel at.

There is no such thing as a 9-to-5 job in science and it’s not the paycheck that is a great stimulus (in fact, in academia, it does the opposite).

As a PhD, you know the hardships involved and still pursue it, because you want to create something valuable.

It is this motivation in business that brings a drug or medical device to the market.

And it’s not an easy job.

More PhDs are leveraging their formidable training in founding their own start-ups, or adding value to existing businesses.

5. Negotiation expertise.

Can you recount the innumerable disputes with PIs on the economic viability of a project?

How did you bear that tide?

You convinced them to fund that one vital experiment which eventually made it as the star figure in your publication.

But there was a trade-off.

You agreed to five more ways of analyzing the final data set and resigned to write the discussion ‘their’ way.

You had to choose your battles and come to a compromise in order for the project to advance.

It was a win-win strategy.

That’s academia.

The buck stops at publications.

Industry is a different turf, so you need to re-emphasize the power of negotiation.

Marketing an invention requires similar skills with a little more business expertise, because every dollar counts.

Whether you are pitching your start-up idea to venture capitalists, or bringing future business partners on board, great negotiation skills can win the game.

Imagine negotiating a deal on acquiring an emerging technology worth thousands of dollars and securing intellectual property.

To you as a PhD, this comes as second nature, just like the science you do.

Enter into these negotiations with the same confidence you would entering into a conversation with your academic advisor.

Not only is this a key business skill, but it will also allow you to negotiate a job offer and increase your starting salary.

The concepts in economics are valuable in every aspect of a professional life. Learning to appreciate and invest resources in an effective way is a valuable trait and who better than a PhD to understand that? Getting to know the economic hierarchy of an organization inside-out will take PhDs intending to transition, or already in the industry, a long way in their careers ahead.

To learn more about understanding economics for a successful career path, 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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Swati Dhar Ph.D.

Swati Dhar Ph.D.

Swati has a PhD in tumor immunology specializing in cancer epigenetics and mouse models. Currently in her role as a Research Associate at Northwestern University in Chicago, she is exploring therapeutic targeting of pediatric brain tumors. Swati also works as a consultant for industries at PreScouter Inc. and is an active member of the Women in Bio, Chicago chapter. Her interests focus on managing science innovation and policy at the interface of industry and academia.
Swati Dhar Ph.D.

Latest posts by Swati Dhar Ph.D. (see all)

  • Madeline Rosemary

    I really appreciate your revealing your personal story. There are times I struggle with the same things. It’s good to have some validation on that. 🙂

  • Julian Holst

    The closer I get to my own position in industry, the more I appreciate the power of negotiation.

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    You are very right about the power of an entrepreneurial mindset, Swati. I definitely think we can all learn a lot from people who have the guts, drive, information, and will to start their own companies and make them go. Thanks for pointing that out.

  • Winona Petit

    You are absolutely right about the pace of industry being diametrically opposed to the pace of academia. They both have their reasons for being the way they are, and they each have their ups and downs. By the same token, they both have conditions that make them better for one personality type vs. another. Having been in industry for quite some time, I completely enjoy the challenging and busy pace of industry, which is fun for me because I have to constantly adapt and innovate. 🙂

    • Cheeky Scientist

      Great to hear, Winona!

  • Shawn Lyons, PhD

    I can definitely identify with finding the most efficient ways to perform lab protocols and working to help show that we are worth investing in. You make it easy to see how we need to extend these skills to industry, even while we prepare for a much faster pace.

    • Cheeky Scientist

      Great to hear, Shawn! We really push PhDs to understand their transferable skills.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    I think that understanding the economic side of any job makes one a more well-rounded employee and better able to contribute. If you only know one or two aspects of a business, say the geeky side exclusively, then you’re just not in a position to see the overview. PhD’s often feel exhausted when they finish in academia, but since we’ve already proven we have sharp minds, why limit ourselves to only knowing about science? Thanks for making this point.

    • Cheeky Scientist

      You’re absolutely right, Carlie. The value of a PhD is having the ability to learn and adapt–to see a problem, understand it, and craft solutions. These are vital skills that PhDs have and can apply in almost any industry.

  • Theo

    I definitely look forward to the faster pace, the economic mindset, and the more three-dimensional reality of industry vs. academia.

  • Kathy Azalea

    I love your outlook and I look forward to being able to apply these ideas. 🙂

    • Cheeky Scientist

      Let us know how it goes!

  • Harvey Delano

    I think it’s true. We want to get into industry because the opportunities are more plentiful there, but we rarely stop to analyze how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. The bottom line is that you have to add value to succeed in industry, and the communications and tech landscapes have changed so significantly that the ability to add value doesn’t look the same as it did in say, our parents’ generation. This is very good food for thought and I appreciate it.

    • Cheeky Scientist

      Thanks, Harvey! We always push our associates to understand the value of adding value, and that can mean different things to different companies/industries. It’s crucial for transitioning into industry.

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    I love your thoughts about creating a strategy. You’ve got some great ideas that we can implement systematically.

    • Cheeky Scientist

      Thanks, Marvin! Glad you found this useful. Let us know if we can help you with implementing these ideas!