Thursday, 14 August 2014 10:02

Nontraditional Science Careers: Consultant

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career compass smallThe secret is out. There is life beyond the lab or the classroom for someone with a PhD in molecular biology, especially in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry. And yet many of these business careers have little to do directly with bench expertise but instead call on doctoral level training in analysis, planning, and communication. Those are the key skills that serve Jason Huhn and Danielle Haney, recent PhD graduates who are happily pursuing fast-paced, well-paid office-based careers as consultants.

Huhn who heard about consulting from a lab mate while finishing his PhD at Princeton in 2008, is now a manager at ZS Associates, a sales and marketing consulting firm for pharmaceutical companies. Haney found her job with ETHOS Health Communications through a career fair soon after graduating with her PhD in molecular biology at the University of Pennsylvania in 2012.

Both say that a finding a suitable position in consulting requires more than adding a few business suits to your wardrobe. A PhD makes you attractive to a consulting firm, they say, but it's your doctoral background in analyzing problems and project management that will serve you best on the job. Showing off that side of your professional background on your resume and in interviews is how you will clinch that first position in consulting.

Huhn credits a book and a friend who helped him prepare for case study interviews for his move into consulting. Liking what he heard about the fast-paced work, Huhn spent six months preparing for case study interviews, which most big consulting firms use in hiring. "Generally the case studies are designed to be a mini-project. It's almost like learning a new language, you have to learn the frameworks and the way that they think," Huhn said. There are books to help you prepare. "Case in Point is the title of the one I used. It doesn't really matter which you choose, but definitely grab one of those and find a partner to walk through the case studies," Huhn recommended. He found the job listing online for ZS Associates and joined the firm in January 2009.

"I give [pharmaceutical companies] customized and individualized goals or some type of objectives... to drive sales," Huhn said. He explained that based on company forecasts and data from sales in each territory, his company sets goals for the amount of sales in a territory for the rest of the year. "Maybe a company has a diabetes drug. If they want 10% growth over last year, we allocate that down to each territory... Then [sales representatives in each territory] are out there talking to doctors, trying to help promote the drug," Huhn said. "A lot of our projects require heavy amounts of data." In addition to analyzing data, Huhn said he spends a lot of his time meeting with clients and managing a team of consultants.

Haney, who is now an associate strategic consultant at ETHOS Health Communications, was also drawn to consulting due to the fast-paced work. "I like that my job changes daily and I never know what's going to happen when I get to the office," said Haney.

Haney became interested in consulting through her participation in the Penn Biotech Group, which allows students to get consulting experience with local start-ups and nonprofits. Her experience with the Penn Biotech also helped her land her job. "ETHOS is really big on people who have experience with biotech. They're looking for someone who has had a number of extracurricular and leadership activities, and a strong science background," she said.

"I work with a multiple sclerosis drug. For [the pharmaceutical company] our main goal is taking the scientific data and properly translating it so that it's easy for doctors and nurses to understand. We're also translating it in a way that sells the drug. So the best attributes of the drug are marketed so that doctors prescribe our drug more, but they also prescribe it properly and they understand what specific patients it's for. That's the overarching goal of my job... It's kind of like the perfect marriage between science and marketing," Haney explained.

Haney's job is not traditional "management consulting" so she did not need to do a case study interview. Instead of preparing ahead for a specific position, she recommends widening your choices by networking. "Call alumni, get acquainted. Talk to people about what they do. For big consulting firms, practice case interviews," said Hanley. She also says a traditional CV won't do. "Make sure your resume reflects what you've done, not just the science, but who you are and how you made changes within organizations you've been involved with. It needs to be an action-oriented resume. Instead of saying 'I was treasurer' write 'I reorganized some event and it resulted in a $1,000 cost savings.' Have a story for everything that you've done," Hanley said.

There are downsides to consulting. "I don't use any of the actual science anymore. That can be discouraging at times. Most people don't need to know that I have a PhD in molecular biology," Huhn said. And both Huhn and Haney said they have less freedom now. "You can sort of be your own boss [in the lab]... Having that kind of autonomy to do whatever you want whenever you want was pretty nice. There's none of that in consulting," Huhn said.

There are adjustments to make between lab life and office life, Huhn said "There's a ton of planning... that's one thing I had to adjust to. You have to plan for multiple months in the future. In grad school you plan for a week, and when the experiments don't work, you make a new plan. Everything is very structured and rigid [in consulting]."

A PhD isn't required, but consulting firms see considerable advantages to hiring someone with a doctorate. "When they hire PhDs, they recognize they have strong analytical thinking that comes from having to manage your research program," Huhn said.

For Haney, "A PhD comes in handy because I'm still the one who will be onsite with a client and talk to them about a particular paper from a medical writer," she said. "A bigger portion of my PhD that comes in handy is the ability to run things quickly, manage my own projects, good time management, and also the things I did within my PhD, like being involved in extracurricular activities that allowed me to multitask."

Christina Szalinski

Christina is a science writer for the American Society for Cell Biology. She earned her Ph.D. in Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology at the University of Pittsburgh.

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