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Robert Swezey
Dept. Bioanalytical Chemistry, Biosciences Division
SRI International, Menlo Park CA
In the private sector, biologists can work as researchers in the pharmaceutical industry, the biotechnology
industry, or at a contract research laboratory.
It is an exciting time to be working in this field because the advances in our understanding of basic
biological mechanisms over the last 3 decades (which in turn came from technological advances, such as
genetic mouse models, sequencing techniques, etc.) can now be used to develop therapeutics to help
patients in need. These patients include those suffering from cancer, infectious diseases,
neurodegenerative diseases, and inflammatory/immune disorders.
Many pharmaceutical and biotech companies have very active research programs that are as rigorous as
anything you will find in academia. Much of the research in these labs is “basic” research. So what’s
different about private sector work?
You work as part of a team, rather than as a lone ranger. (Are you willing to do this?)
This team is very much a collective enterprise that often brings you in contact with people you
might not ordinarily deal with (e.g., formulations specialists, regulatory affairs staff, intellectual
property experts, and so on). Interactions can be interesting, exciting, and may help to prevent
your own neuronal degeneration.
There is more freedom in academia to set your research direction (assuming you can get the
funding!) because in the private sector you need to be willing to go in the direction of the team’s
best interests.
You will never get tenure in the private sector – it doesn’t exist.
In the pharmaceutical and biotech world there is a major distinction between small start-up companies
and larger, more established ones (300+ workers). Working at the former is for people who prefer riding
a roller coaster to riding a merry-go-round, while working at the latter is better suited to those with the
opposite amusement ride preferences. There are pluses and minuses to working at either of these places
(level of excitement versus level of funding for research), so choosing one or the other requires some
Regardless of company size, there are 2 major “camps” in the pharmaceutical/biotech world – Drug
Discovery and Drug Development. Discovery (probably of greater interest to this audience) does basic
research into disease mechanisms and treatments. Once a therapeutic looks promising enough to be put in
people (clinical trials), it gets sent to the Development people to conduct safety testing (Toxicology), and
here the science is EXTREMELY regulated (FDA).
Anyone considering the private sector must become very familiar with the web site “”.
This has the vast majority of job listings, and contains daily news about pharmaceutical/biotech
companies, which is very helpful to those looking to work in this field.
Many companies offer postdoctoral positions, and you might consider this as a way to explore work in the
private sector. If you do, make sure at the outset that you can publish your postdoctoral work (don’t
accept a project that has proprietary aspects), for that will be key should you decide to return to academia.
I would recommend that you get this assurance in writing before you sign on.