Expert Career Tips for Life Science Professionals
Whether you’re pursuing your first job outside of academia or you’ve been in the workplace for a while, there are some things you can do as a life science professional to enhance your career. Recently, we interviewed Bill Lindstaedt, who is the Assistant Vice Chancellor of Career Advancement, International and Postdoctoral Services (CAIPS) at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Bill explained his journey from chemical engineering to becoming a career development professional. If you’ve ever wanted more information from an expert on careers in the life sciences, reviewing his career tips can help to set you up for success!
1. Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
I’m actually a chemical engineer by original training and worked in that area for a while. Then, the chemical manufacturing company that I worked for started sending me out to university campuses to interview for new engineers. I would go around to mostly mid-western universities, where I was located at the time. I thought, being a career advisor looks like that would be a really cool job. So, I started asking people how they got into their jobs and doing informational interviews, which is now what we advise all of our students and postdocs to do. I found out that you should go and get a counseling and university admissions degree, which I did.
The theme since then has been working in career development offices at science-based universities or engineering-based campuses. So, that’s how I got here. I’ve been at UCSF for almost 20 years. My clients are 100% biomedical sciences trainees at the Ph.D. level, so graduate students and postdocs.
2. What do you do at UCSF? How do you help graduates?
UCSF is an all-graduate university. We’re the only all-graduate campus in the UC system. We’re a giant medical campus. We have a $7B budget, but we only have 3,000 students. So, it’s a tiny university compared to the other UCs. But, budget-wise we’re big, based on the research and clinical enterprises. The Student Services that we have on our campus are able to be very specialized, and that’s been fun for us. I think we’re one of the first medical universities to offer a full career development program. We help our Ph.D. students and postdocs by three focus areas.
One is career exploration. Ph.D. students in the life sciences can do anything when they finish their training, but most of them come to us and think that they want to be faculty members at big research universities. Then, after they get into their training, they find out that that’s not the best option for them. So, we help them figure out what path they want to follow.
The second piece is job search skills. Once you decide whether you’re going to go the faculty route or something else, like go work for Genentech in a lab. Or, run a field applications program for Bio-Rad. Once they make a decision, we help them move through the job search process.
The third piece is professional development skills. All scientists need to have excellent presentation skills, team-based skills, and they need to know how to write grants and get funding. We help them learn those kinds of skills as well.
3. Have you noticed any new career trends in the life sciences industry?
When we generated this list of career paths that life sciences professionals tend to go into, it was 2006. At the time, it wasn’t just me that generated this list; it was a group of career advisors who work with scientists. None of us had even heard of data science careers. Now, that is one of the most popular things that our Ph.D.’s pursue. Taking their existing training or getting additional training in data science-related areas. The job market seems to still be robust in that field. So, data science would be a trend we didn’t see ten years ago.
Another trend has been university administration jobs. We’re seeing more and more people moving into career paths within a university that isn't doing research, but support the research enterprise and yet require a Ph.D. or a doctorate. In my office, when we started it was me and one other career advisor. Now, we have a whole staff and most of them are Ph.D.s in the life sciences that have become career specialists. A Ph.D. is valued in non-research faculty jobs.
One final trend is the ever decreasing percentage of Ph.D. level life science professionals moving into the tenured track research positions. Fewer and fewer people become professors. The trend is more acute.
4. How do you recommend life science professionals find their right career path?
They have to start with knowing themselves. People who are trained in research have the concept of generating data, and the process of drawing conclusions about that data, isn’t foreign at all. That’s what they do. But, when it comes to their careers it seems like for a lot of them, their thoughts are unfocused. “It seems like being a Medical Science Liaison would be a cool job, so that’s what I’m going to go pursue.” They don’t seem to apply the same rigor that they do to their research, to their career. We first teach them to generate data about themselves through different self-assessment exercises.
Then, it’s understanding what their skills, values, and interests are and prioritizing those. Recognizing that they are never going to have the perfect job, but finding a job that they’re good at doing, that they like to do, and produces the rewards or outcomes that they most want. That’s a pretty good career. It seems like they’ve never taken the time to sit down to generate those lists of skills, values, and interests that are most important to them. Then, we provide a finite list of career paths that they could explore. We ask them to use that data that they generated about themselves and compare it to the careers that are in that list. Then, we ask them to go into more time-consuming tasks, like going out and talking to people, or doing internships or projects in fields of interest.
5. How can life science professionals get more attention from employers through their resume and cover letter?
We teach people to meticulously tailor their resumes to the job posting. It seems like if you’ve been in an academic environment your whole career, you have this idea of a CV, which is what you use to get a faculty job. They have this idea that they need to have this document that says everything they’ve ever done. When they come to the concept of resume writing for non-academic careers, they have this thought that ‘I have to distill this down to two pages. What am I going to get rid of? How am I going to narrow this down?’
We try to say, look at the job description, put yourself in the shoes of the hiring person or HR screener and tell them what they need to know, so they can hire you for that particular job. They are often surprised to know that they applied for a job that they were a 60-70% fit for, and they got it. And they thought, ‘Oh, I didn’t know I should even apply for that job.
6. Do you have any tips on how they can successfully land the job they want?
For people with Ph.D. backgrounds, it sounds like a cliché but they have to meet people in the field or organization that they are moving into. Then follow up with multiple applications to different people in an organization that’s actually hiring. We tell people to send at least two applications for each job. One should go through the human resource office, or wherever the job ad says to apply to. And then, a brief email with a PDF resume attached to some professional within the company who you think has a similar background to you, or you think is in the right department. It seems like that scientist-to-scientist recommendation means a lot more than the human resource screening process (not to ding the HR people).
7. What is the best piece of career advice you’ve ever heard?
Always try to negotiate! For people just coming out of years and years of academic training, they don’t negotiate. I think for their first job after academia, they should always politely ask for more, and see what they can get.
Porschia Parker is a Certified Coach, Professional Resume Writer, and Founder of Fly High Coaching. (https://www.fly-highcoaching.com) She empowers ambitious professionals and motivated executives to add $10K on average to their salaries.
Bill Lindstaedt, MS is the Assistant Vice Chancellor of Career Advancement, International and Postdoctoral Services (CAIPS) at the University of California San Francisco. As an administrator and career counselor, he specializes in career development issues for doctoral level trainees in the sciences.