Seeking Out Professional Development for Biopharma Professionals

What options do biopharma professionals have when they want to spread their wings, advance in their careers and build skills to change their career direction?

What options do biopharma professionals have when they want to spread their wings, advance in their careers and build skills to change their career direction? Professional development, after all, can result in raises, promotions, new job opportunities and greater confidence.

Turns out professional development is a slightly controversial area for scientists, as relatively few professional development opportunities are available. Those in academia can expect to find a decent array of options in universities, but those seeking to develop skills for non-academic careers may encounter fewer choices that are harder to find.

A 2017 study of 226 higher-education institutions from the Council of Graduate Schools found that 62% offered some type of formal professional development program for graduate students in research degree programs to obtain skills beyond core academic research skills. A third of these programs focus exclusively on preparing graduate students with additional skills for academic careers and fewer than half reporting having formal programs for graduate students to develop skills for non-academic careers, even though, as the report notes, “the majority of PhDs gain employment outside the academy.”

The report notes that the most sought-after skills by new graduate scientists include presentation skills, writing, mentoring, leadership, research ethics, research development, technology commercialization, entrepreneurship, big-data skills, science policy, governance, risk and compliance, time management, project management, and developing cultural competency and intercultural teamwork skills.

“Given the disappointingly uneven picture of available professional development resources that the report paints,” writes Beryl Lieff Benderly, “scientists who want to emerge from their graduate school or postdoc years ready to find and take advantage of nonacademic career opportunities must adopt an entrepreneurial approach to their own professional development.” Benderly also recommends that while in school, scientists grab every opportunity to learn about the world of work outside academia.

Keep in mind this entrepreneurial approach as you consider these steps to starting yourself off on a professional-development track:

Create your own professional development plan. Your first step is to assess your needs – what you want and need to learn to advance your career. Then, whether formally or informally, develop a plan to address those needs. You can search online for professional development templates or create your own. Chrissy Scivicque, who wrote a comprehensive two-part series on creating a professional development plan, recommends three items as “must” components for the plan: (1) short-term and long-term career goals over the next 1, 3, 5 and 10 years; (2) Specific professional development areas of focus: The hard and soft skills, relationships and experience you need to reach your goals; and (3) specific development activities broken down by quarter.

Explore the professional development opportunities your employer offers. Master Certified Coach Craig Martin notes that large employers offer professional development through their internal talent development programs. “For example, major life-sciences companies such as Roche, Genentech, Abbott, Novartis, Gilead, etc., will have extensive programs to provide training in most of the areas that enhance their professionals’ contribution and growth,” said Martin, who is CEO of Martin Global Leaders, Inc.

Check with your alma mater or nearby universities. Your alma mater may have professional-development programs available to you at little to no cost. If your school is not geographically close, it may have a reciprocal agreement with a school in your area to serve students with development needs. Most universities have writing centers and career centers that may serve alumni and the local community.

Check Professional Associations/Societies. Professional organizations in the sciences can be a rich source for professional development courses and programs. First, locate relevant life sciences professional associations. You may then have to poke around a bit on the association’s site to see development opportunities. A couple of examples: The American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists offers a webinar series to members that largely focuses on hard science, but includes developmental topics like networking. The American Chemistry Society offers an $895 course, Soft Skills for Scientific Success. Sharoni Billik suggests groups like the HBA (Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association), MSL (Medical Science Liaison Society), and MAPS (Medical Affairs Professional Society), which regularly offer workshops, trainings, and webinars focused on topics including public speaking, project management, and presentation skills. “If one is looking for specialized skills, there are focused groups like the Project Management Institute (PMI) that can further your education. University extension schools are also ways to gain more knowledge in a traditional classroom setting, says Billik, who is CEO and founder of SBHC, a medical affairs professional services firm.

Explore training programs. A number of training companies offer programs through employers and professional organizations that in some cases are available directly to individuals. Some of these include:

Seek out mini opportunities. Learning in small chunks has been shown to be quite effective. Consider that some of your professional development might come from smaller bits of learning, such as podcasts and webinars. Scroll down on this American Association for the Advancement of Science page for podcasts. See webinars from the American Society for Cell Biology.

Enlist a coach. For a more personalized approach to professional development, Martin notes, “top talent take advantage of executive coaching, which accelerates learning and application of new skills, helping leaders ramp up into new positions more quickly and smoothly.”

Explore employer support. If you need developmental training to excel at your job, and your employer doesn’t offer it, consider asking your supervisor if the company would reimburse your investment in training and development.

If you are not getting what you need in professional development from your university or employer, ask for it. As Benderly notes, “it’s time for the young researchers whose labor makes that possible to assert their own long-neglected needs. This means getting the knowledge and skills that will advance their careers and demanding that their universities do a better job of providing them.”