Written By: Tavis Mendez, PhD
I was not sure if I wanted to stay in academia.
The stress of writing grants without a clear indication of the impact of my work was taking its toll.
Did anyone read the papers I published?
I needed other options.
But I didn’t know where to start.
And no one ever told me what to expect.
My academic advisor did not support my transition into industry, so I needed to do the leg-work myself, outside of lab hours.
If I chose to work in industry, what were my options?
Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Novartis.
I knew all the big names.
I spoke with industry professionals from these companies to get a sense of the organizational culture.
These companies had already ‘made it’.
By working for them, I would be focused on growing what is already successful.
This was definitely the more risk-averse option.
These companies invest in ambitious missions or goals because they have the resources to do so.
But something didn’t sit quite right with me.
I felt like I would feel a looser connection between what I did and how it fit with the overall mission of the company.
I would have a smaller part in shaping its success and my role would be very defined.
I persisted and set up other informational interviews.
Through a friend, I met with the owner of a startup company.
They were developing a new technology to aid in disease diagnostics.
The goal was clear: make a product that was valuable so people will buy into it.
The risks were high.
They were looking for someone that could be a research scientist by day, and a business developer by night.
It was more of a lifestyle than a job — each success and failure was more emotional.
For me, it was perfect.
Size Matters When Looking For Industry Jobs
When looking for a job in R&D, there is a plethora of companies to choose from.
One aspect of the job search that may not be obvious is that the size of the company can affect the culture, your salary, and the interpretation of your role.
Each life science cluster will be a mix of large corporate giants, medium-sized companies, and startup companies just getting off the ground.
According to a Bloomberg Report, businesses with 500 or more employees have gained a larger share of business employment at the expense of those with fewer than 100 employees.
The US Small Business Administration argues that small firms employ just over half of the private-sector workforce and created two-thirds of the nation’s net new jobs over the past decade and a half.
For PhDs, it means that you have options not limited to the bigger named, ‘familiar faces’.
You have to determine what is important in your professional lifestyle.
Do you care more about job security and the prestige of the big name corporations?
Or do you want the exhilaration of helping a company get off the ground — even if it requires more commitment and potentially sacrificing some work-life balance?
5 Things that Differentiate Small Companies From Large Ones
Leaving academia is a big, often frightening, change.
But, with the chances of landing a tenure-track position dwindling and government funding decreasing every year, you should know what types of options you have in the corporate world.
It is important to choose a company and a culture that challenge you and allow you to grow professionally.
Otherwise, you will be just as miserable as you were doing your PhD.
You have too much value to waste your talents where they are not appreciated.
Here are five things that separate small and large companies in the life sciences…
1. Job security.
Job security is a high priority to many job seekers, especially when coming from the uncertainty of academia.
Small companies or startups have a 9 out of 10 chance of failing due to various reasons, including lack of market need to simply running out of money.
Today’s work in private industry is risky and expensive.
If the company’s funding comes from venture capital groups, the money can be pulled at any moment.
Larger companies have a larger, more established structure to support their employees and provide better job security.
This doesn’t mean that you will be guaranteed your role for life, of course.
In the first decade of the new millennium, there have been about 300,000 layoffs in the pharmaceutical industry.
If the board finds that a certain wing of the company is no longer important, or is not generating the profits that it was intended to, it may be shut down in a short period of time.
These layoffs can also be a result of mergers.
Some companies may retain the employees and transfer them elsewhere, but in some cases you may find yourself in the job market once again.
2. Pay and benefits.
Things may get a little hazy between pay and benefits, as they will differ between companies.
You must take into consideration that smaller companies may lack the comprehensive benefits that larger companies have, such as health insurance and retirement plans.
Let’s not forget that in a small company, a revenue increase due to a big hit in the drug market may allow you to reap rewards as they come, which is something you may not see in a big company.
The pay itself is known to be relatively the same between the two.
According to a survey done by the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists (AAPS), biotechnology has a mean salary of $130,200 with a total compensation of $168,900.
Pharmaceutical analytical development has a mean salary of $134,200 and total compensation of $164,100, whereas pharmaceutical development has a mean salary of $138,500 with a mean compensation of $167,300.
Startup companies may offer you a salary below or at-market range in exchange for equity compensation.
While valuing equity is difficult, do not accept any offer blindly.
You must ask yourself some important questions:
What type of equity will you receive?
This will be important for tax purposes.
What is the vesting schedule?
To align your vision with the company’s incentives, equity is not given the day you start. Rather, it is earned over time, which is called vesting.
What was the company’s most recent valuation, i.e. what is their market value?
When comparing offers from different-sized companies, make sure you are comparing actual numbers and all the variables in place.
3. Scope of work.
In a large company, you may be focused on one particular aspect of the company’s role.
For example, if you enter the company as a research scientist, you will be doing just that.
If you enter as a technical salesperson, you will be spending most of your days selling for the company.
There will be no time to place your efforts elsewhere, as there are different groups specialized in anything but the place where you are stationed.
If you find that doing the same thing every day is boring, then a large company may not be for you.
If you are a person who prefers to focus on one task and put 100% of your effort there, then this is a golden opportunity for you.
In a smaller company, you may have the chance to wear several hats.
Despite what your title may be, you may get a chance to do more than what you were hired to do.
You may get to do a little of everything, from accounting, management, or customer service, even if your title may be as an R&D scientist.
Having multiple responsibilities and varied tasks may sound hectic, but if you are looking to develop your career and understand the business model in more depth, a smaller company is for you.
4. Company culture.
This is where you will see a big difference between small and large companies.
In a larger company, the corporate culture is more conservative.
You will be confined to your main group and may never get to meet any of the C-level staff there.
The company culture will be more rigid and not allow the flexibility that you once had in academia.
This does not mean you won’t have a chance at networking at a large company.
There will be meetings, conferences, lunch events, and holiday parties, to name a few.
In recent years, there has been a shift in where scientists want to work.
Prior to this shift, approximately 50% of AAPS members worked in large pharmaceuticals.
Now, around 48% work for smaller companies.
At a smaller company, you will see a structure similar to that of academia.
You will get to meet everyone, including the CEO, who may oversee you directly.
This means you must pay close attention during interviews to assess if the management style is right for you.
In a small company, you’ll be interacting closely with other employees under one roof, so if you have any doubts, you might want to consider other options.
5. Corporate ladder.
Climbing the corporate ladder is unique to larger companies which have a hierarchical structure.
You know exactly where you fit in this pyramid and how many steps it will take to climb to the top.
You will have several chances to move up, or even laterally, to different departments depending on your aspirations.
The structure that is provided to you will allow you to take a look at the bigger picture and highlight growth opportunities for how you want to grow professionally.
As soon as you have established your ambitions, vocalize them with upper management, and they will be pleased to know that you are looking to grow within the company.
Smaller companies may lack this characteristic for future defined career growth, depending on the circumstances.
Their structure can be more flat, with little upward mobility.
The CEO may also be the head of business development and marketing.
If the company remains small for an extended period of time, you may find yourself stuck in the same position for a very long time.
Unless the company grows or is bought by a larger company, your growth could be limited and you could become stagnant.
There are pros and cons to joining both large and small companies. They each have unique opportunities and corporate cultures that might suit one PhD and not another. It all comes down to what you are looking for in an industry position. Whether you want more focused work or like to wear many hats, the private sector has a job for everyone. Putting emphasis on your job search strategy will allow you to narrow your choices and discover the job that you really want.
To learn more about the five ways jobs differ between small and large companies, 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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