Not everyone is built for the lab. The white walls, the lack of windows and the large amount of failure that go along with the never-ending quest for reproducible results is one not every researcher is built for. I know many a person who at one time interned or worked in an academic or clinical laboratory and ended up following a different path. At times, it is a hard choice to make, but at times it may be the easiest decision of your life.
As a research assistant, associate scientist, training assistant or whatever your title may be, your responsibilities are laid out clearly for you. Your PI or lab director has a plan, he has funding and he has a path to his goals. You are gaining experience in the industry, but to further his goals. Most times, any publication that comes from that lab, whether as a researcher it was a novel idea by you or it came down from on high, will lead with their name first. That can be difficult for even the humblest of researchers.
There are those of us that, placed in a lab, need no human contact outside journal clubs, conferences and fellow bench mates. But then there are those who want more contact outside the lab world.
As a student researcher, I realized the lab may not be the ideal place for me. The level of frustration that set in when experiments wouldn’t work, or cells would not grow was high. My testing was being dictated to me by my wonderfully supportive lab manager and PI. They were great to work for. I learned so much about molecular biology and techniques that I pursued further education in graduate school. However, there is little control over what you can do. Your experiments are laid out for you. Your job is to record data that is viable for publication. There is no monetary reward for success as a researcher. The plaudits and the licensing agreements go to the PI or the lab directors or the lab itself.
Sales as an Option
We have all seen the reps that come in and out of the lab. The suits, the rolling suitcases and the stacks of marketing materials. They are affable, friendly and most remember your name, which sometimes you wonder if your PI does as well. They ask about your experiments, how things are going, what might help you do a better job. Sometimes they bring you in food, or treats or even take people out to lunch. Sometimes, when after a visit and another failed experiment, do you ever wonder if you would be happier doing that job?
In realizing the lab may not be my future, I looked to network with people in industry. I connected through mutual friends and professors who were in the biomedical field. Initially, this seemed like a difficult exercise. Almost everyone I knew or contacted was willing to help. The limiting factor, however, was me. More specifically I had no business to business sales experience. When I was lucky enough to get to a phone interview with an HR professional, I had no history of corporate sales to offer.
But the reps that come to the lab may also be a resource. As a client, they may allow you access to their superiors or hiring managers. Your technical background is undoubtedly an asset to leverage. However, as I found out, technical ability is not always on hiring managers lists of critical skills. Technical details, like sales skills, can be taught to the uninitiated. However, if you can show the type of go-getter personality exhibited by most reps, it may allow you to transition careers.
My opportunity presented itself through a mutual acquaintance. We had talked a number of times, both job related and personally. An opportunity had arisen inside his company that he thought fit my skill set. I was given an interview with the East Area Sales director. It was the opportunity I had hoped for, and it finally had come to pass. I was fortunate to land the position and start working on the business side of life sciences.
Where are the Opportunitites?
For those who might see their careers evolving outside the lab, there is hope. There are companies out there who are interested in your background. Those who possess not only the technical knowledge, but the skill to relate to fellow researchers can be an asset as a technical sales rep. Personality is key here, as companies are looking for those affable and driven reps who want to succeed. However, this combination might be less common than many may realize.
Qiagen, Sigma Aldrich, and Agilent are all companies who respect the lab experience you may have. Most of their entry level sales positions are looking for those individuals who have had experience in a research or clinical lab. Similarly, Medical Sales Liaisons (MSL’s) are also positions that are highly desirable for both PhDs and MDs and also other professionally licensed medical professionals such as RN’s with significant clinical experience.
Break the Mold
Sales is a tough business. Much like baseball, even the best fail more than they succeed. But to succeed you need to be driven, bold and willing to go the extra mile. In trying to move out of the lab, you must act like a sales rep, except the product you are selling is you. Check your resume presentation. If possible, highlight skills that are not lab specific and can be used connecting with customers. By highlighting these skills, you can show that there is more to you than your purification techniques.
Network as much as you can, but be strategic. If friends or acquaintances have good relationships with their reps or service people, reach out and make new connections. Eventually, one of these connections may become an internal reference or referral, which can often give you a leg up in the interview process. Finally, sales is a position where resilience is critical to success. Just because no one calls you back or emails you does it mean you should give up. Be your own sales rep, uncover opportunities, seek out new and creative ways to get in front of your potential customers (hiring mananger), listen to their needs, and close the opportunity by selling how you will make them a better sales organization. Just like the best reps, have a plan and execute that plan.