From lab coat to suits: how a scientist’s talents can be used in business

Lab Coat to Suits Article

Scientists who wish to make a significant change in their career path and start working in a company first have to overcome the challenge of showing the HR department what it really means to be a scientist and how scientific qualifications can be applied to the corporate world.

When a scientist wants to change his or her career path, the challenge is much larger than expected. This is not because they lack qualifications, but because HR is not usually aware what it really means to be a scientist and how scientific qualifications match with business requirements.

Scientists have extended experience with project and product management, quality control, process optimization, marketing and IT knowledge. The only difference is that the terms they use are different from the ones used in the corporate world.

Let’s start with the similarities between scientific projects and project management in business. It all starts with a simple question:

  • What is the scope of the project? (Project Management)
  • What is the scientific challenge? (Science)

Next step is to write a document, where the objectives, scope, and structure of the project are outlined. This document is called “Initiation Document” or, in the scientific world, “Scientific Grant Proposal”.

The planning is pretty much the same for both cases. To summarize, a project planner needs to answer the following questions:

  • Which resources are necessary to achieve the goal?
  • How long will each step of the process take?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How will the progress be evaluated?

The difference in this case is that in research, we are talking about PhD students, Postdocs, preparation and characterization of samples, time on in-house or external equipment, new tools, etc. In a company, we are talking about which personnel and which equipment will be re-directed to the project, what will need to be procured, for how long and how much that will cost.

As in a company’s project, in science there are also standardized methods to set milestones and to measure the quality of the research: Presentations of the research in a conference or with peer review, impact factor and number of citations.

The next great quality of a scientist is dealing with math and statistics. They are so used to it that they don’t even realize that it is an advantage. Time, budget, risk analysis, etc – it’s all math.

Math has been such a huge part of my life for so many years that it is just natural that usually choose the Beta Distribution when I assign times to activities or that I totally fell in love with the statistics used for Six Sigma when I learned about it.

In the subject of quality control and process optimization, math is not the only advantage of a scientist. Their whole work revolves around this subject. They have to keep asking questions such as: “What is the optimal method to obtain the best possible material for this application?” To answer such questions, they will first perform a conclusive literature study, which will lead to the ideal design of experiments. They will then perform these experiments in the best time frame possible.

The IT knowledge of a scientist is very profound, for the simple fact that either they learn it, or they are not capable of achieving their goals. Many scientists had to develop their own software to be able to perform measurements overnight, or analyze the data. Others had to learn how to use a huge variety of software for the same purpose. Compared to that, learning how to use MS-Access, MS-Project, CRM software, SAP, or any other software required in a company, is a piece of cake.

Another quality scientists have is that they need to develop a way of communicating with different people from very diverse backgrounds or from various power positions – be it with a grad student, a technician, or the head of a committee who is about to decide if they will give another 3 years grant for their research. That means that in a project, they would have no problem communicating to a stakeholder or a contributor.

Furthermore, all scientists know what it means to work around the clock to finish a project until a certain deadline, to write a proposal, to submit an article; to make the best use of an overbooked pidece of equipment that also runs over night and on weekends, and how to be a goal-driven, self-motivated independent worker.

In other words, if you are looking for a highly motivated worker who has an incredibly broad range of knowledge and is used to slave work, hire someone who just finished a PhD.

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