Solving the Puzzle: A Closer Look at Project Management Careers in Life Sciences

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Have you been looking for a position where you can blend your life sciences knowledge and your business acumen? Do you think it would be interesting to lead discussions on strategy, planning, product development and execution? If so, then you might be an ideal candidate for project management positions in biotech and other life sciences fields. We recently interviewed Dr. Susan Macdonald who serves as principal and founder of Sixteen Hands Biopharma Consulting, in addition to vice president of research and development at Aldeyra Therapeutics. Dr. Macdonald shared insight on project management within biotech and some tips for aspiring project managers. If you’ve ever considered incorporating aspects of business with life sciences, this interview is a must read!

1. Can you tell us a little about your background in the life sciences? How did you decide to focus on project management?

I have a Ph.D. in Physiology and with that, my career has focused on drug discovery research and development. I have worked hands-on in the lab, doing experiments to identify and understand new drug targets and to understand how novel drugs work on a mechanistic level. I have led and managed drug discovery and development programs as part of internal efforts and corporate alliances. I have also managed portfolios of drug discovery and development programs. Working in small and medium- sized companies, I have had the opportunity to understand the similarities and differences in how size can affect strategy and operations.

I enjoy project management because I like to solve problems and integrate the different, smaller elements of a bigger picture. To me, a drug discovery and development program is a bit like a puzzle.  Each task required to achieve the end goal must be put together in the right place, at the right time. It’s a bit like a mystery as well, because the puzzle pieces aren’t all given to you in a neat box. As a project manager, you must work with the different functions involved to identify the pieces and put them in the right places. Then, you must step back and look at the picture to make sure there aren’t any holes, and that the picture is clear, correct, and complete.

Another thing I like about project management is that every project is different. As a project manager, you can work on different disease areas, indications and therapeutic modalities. Even when there is a well-trodden regulatory path, the intricacies and unknowns of developing a unique drug is an ever- changing adventure. Changes in regulatory, commercial or internal financial environments and unexpected results from pharmacology, toxicology or clinical studies can all require a rapid change in course. Consequently, you are learning all the time. So, unlike a puzzle, a drug discovery and development program can change without notice, and that is when you really need to bring your problem-solving skills to bear.

I also enjoy working with the diverse functions involved in drug discovery and development programs. Project management isn’t just about the science. It is intimately tied to business and commercial goals and operational strategy. Being aware of all those concerns and providing a timely conduit for communication with different stakeholders within the company is another interesting aspect of project management.

2. Please tell us about your thoughts on project management in biotech. Is it different than in other industries? Why or why not?

With the caveat that I have not done project management in other industries, I think there are some differences in project management between industries. Although the concepts of project management are the same (e.g., defining objectives, team, and scope; planning timelines, milestones, resources, and budgets; identifying risks and dependencies), because there are so many unknowns in drug discovery, I see differences in the precision of timelines, predictions of probabilities of success, and resource management in biotech, compared to engineering, IT and manufacturing. In fact, I would say that one of the hardest things to do in biotech project management is put together an integrated timeline, because there are so many variables and unknowns.

3. What are some of the top benefits of being a project manager in biotech/life sciences?

For me, one of the biggest benefits is being able to straddle the science and business worlds, working with many people in diverse functions and at different levels within the company. In biotech, there is no program if there isn’t a commercial and business need, and there is no business without the science. As a project manager, I get to (indeed, I have to) link those elements and understand all sides, including the big picture.

In addition, because you typically don’t have to be a subject matter expert in a particular disease area, you can work on diverse programs. Also, because you are touching different aspects of the organization, project management can be a springboard for getting into areas such as portfolio management, alliance management, and program strategy.

4. Have you noticed any new trends related to project management within biotech/life sciences fields?

I see project management becoming more accepted and better appreciated earlier in the drug discovery and development process and by more companies. It used to be thought that project management was just for big pharma or late-stage programs, but I think it is being recognized that if you are applying resources to something, that ‘something’ should be well managed. That said, there are differences of opinion about implementation (e.g., when, how, who, and how much; see my blog at

I am also beginning to see people choosing project management as a career path at the beginning of their biotech careers, rather than later in their careers. I think this speaks to the higher visibility and perceived value of project management in biotech now, than in years past.

A key concept I would like to see more broadly appreciated as project management in the biotech industry evolves, is that project management should fit the company, not the other way around. Project management should be viewed as a tool – a valuable tool, but nonetheless a tool. Thus, the company should not be a slave to the tool, rather the tool should be there to serve the company. An analysis of the needs of the company should help to ensure that.

5. How competitive is it to become a project manager in biotech/life sciences?

It depends on where you are applying. In a larger biotech company, it may be easier to get into an entry level position because there is likely to be an established project management function, led by someone very experienced in the field, which allows for the hiring of less experienced individuals who can then ‘learn the ropes’. A smaller, leaner, biotech company will likely be looking for someone with a lot of experience, who is willing to do hands on operational work as well as strategic work. In any case, once someone has demonstrated some experience in the field, it becomes easier to get jobs. Overall, as the appreciation for the role in the biotech industry increases, the opportunities increase.

6. What advice would you give to aspiring project managers in biotech/life sciences? Should they get any certifications?

Although certifications are not always required, certifications are advantageous because they show a level of commitment to the practice and show an individual has received formal training. PMP (Project Management Professional; administered by the Project Management Institute - PMI) is the gold standard for project management certification. It takes study and dedication to receive it and maintain it. The PMP certification is not specific to the biotech industry, rather it is intended for all industries.

If someone wants to focus strictly on the biotech industry and/or learn more about project management in the biotech industry, there are certificate courses available (e.g., Biotech Project Management at MassBioEd and the Biotechnology Management Certificate at Harvard Extension, which covers more than project management). Taking these courses also show that one is serious about project management in the biotech industry.

If someone is already working in the industry but in a different role, shadowing or being mentored by someone in the project management function can provide some practical experience and help determine if biotech project management is the right direction for that person. Ideally, a combination of training and experience is a great way to enter and advance in the field.

It’s also important to understand that different biotech companies have different philosophies about what type of background they want for their Project Managers. Many companies favor a science background, while others favor a business background. Some companies want demonstrated experience in both science and business. In the companies that favor a science background, the role may be a combination of project leader and project manager, in which the person is responsible for the strategy and operations of the program, thus the role is typically a more senior role. The direction the role takes in a specific company depends on organizational philosophy, problems they are trying to avoid and solve, and what they are trying to manage.

Porschia Parker-Griffin is a Certified Coach, Professional Resume Writer, and Founder of Fly High Coaching. ( She empowers ambitious professionals and motivated executives to add $10K on average to their salaries.

Dr. Susan Macdonald is a Biotech Executive with more than 25 years of experience in research and development, spanning several therapeutic areas. She received her B.S. in Biology from Hobart and William Smith Colleges and her Ph.D. in Physiology from the University of Massachusetts Medical School and completed her postdoctoral training at Onyx Pharmaceuticals.

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