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Pharmaceutical Recruiting vs. Biotechnology Recruiting: Is there a Difference?

Clark Executive Search is a boutique executive search firm that specializes in biotechnology and pharmaceutical recruitment for research and development positions at the experienced PhD and MD level. Since 1997, we have had many searches for both biotechnology and pharmaceutical clients. We have learned that there are quite a few differences between pharmaceutical recruiting and biotechnology recruiting as mentioned below in no particular order:

1. Biotechnology recruiting often involves working directly with top management, including the CEO. This is unlikely when doing pharmaceutical recruiting. You might work with Vice Presidents but unless it is an extremely high position you most likely won’t interact with the CEO. In fact you are more apt to report into someone from Human Resources. This is not bad in itself and if you have a good relationship with HR, it can actually be a plus. HR can speed things along when hiring managers are too busy with their daily tasks to get on in a timely manner with the recruitment process. But nothing can compare with working with the top decision makers. You have access to information that goes beyond the typical dry job description, such as the dreams and aspirations of the CEO. You can get a clearer picture of the position involved when you are talking to the source of the new opening. You can learn of future positions that might come your way. If changes need to be made in the search an executive within the company can authorize the change quickly so that the recruiter doesn’t have to go through many layers before something is approved. Therefore a search can be finished sooner when working with the people making the decisions.

2. Contracts, fees and reimbursement vary widely between large and small companies. Pharmaceutical recruiting involves a recruiter getting on vendor lists, signing long contracts written by lawyers, and an increasingly longer time for payment of invoices. This is all about bureaucracy and there is very little of that at a small biotech. Often when biotechnology recruiting, I pop over a one page fee agreement and off I go on the search. Usually I have a check within a week or two of sending an invoice. Big pharma requires invoices be sent electronically through a web site and the payments are not sent until almost two months after invoice submittal- unless you agree to a discount of your fee. Then you will be paid sooner. So there is a lot less red tape while recruiting for biotech companies.

3. Biotechnology companies can be more challenging and stimulating than pharmaceutical companies. With so few workers at a biotech, employees wear many hats and hence are exposed to more job functions compared to what it would be like at a big pharma where people tend to work in silos. In addition, it has been said that the best minds leave pharma to go to biotech and therefore these companies offer very stimulating science.

 4. Pharmaceutical recruiting is steady work, assuming you have a good relationship going with the client. No matter what the economy pharmaceutical companies tend to still need new employees and they are eventually guaranteed to pay a recruiter’s fee. Biotechnology companies’ fortunes go up and down. A recruiter can have several assignments and then suddenly the company goes belly up and either closes its doors or severely downsizes with the result that the company no longer needs a recruiter. Consequently, the biotechnology recruiter has to constantly find new clients.

5. Pharmaceutical companies can often hire significant others. Many of the PhD or MD candidates have relationships with fellow high degreed significant others and if a move requires a relocation the other person in the relationship can cause a problem when biotechnology recruiting. The person has to find work in a new location and often in a bad economy this can be a problem. However sometimes, certainly not always, depending the significant other’s experience, a big pharma can hire both the original candidate and the partner, which is a win-win situation for the pharmaceutical recruiter.

 6. Pharmaceutical recruiting involves worldwide search for candidates. Big pharma are just that, big. They are global and have sites all over the world. Therefore a recruiter is not limited to finding candidates in the near vicinity or even the same country as with biotechnology recruiting. Recently I found a candidate who fit the job description so perfectly but he couldn’t relocate to the United States. My big pharma client hired him anyway to work in their European site. Sometimes a foreign candidate can start to work at a pharma’s site in his or her own country until the immigration and relocation issues can be worked out allowing for a smooth transition to the new position in the United States.

 7. It is hard to recruit to risky biotechs. If a company has limited funds or has a high burn rate, it can be difficult to find candidates willing to take the risk of moving to these companies. Therefore biotechnology recruiting can be longer for any given search to find a good candidate. Usually biotech clients want experienced individuals, but not too experienced. The sweet spot is very often at a time in a scientist’s career that coincides with children in high school and preparing for college. With these responsibilities candidates, who are the right fit in terms of experience for a position, can’t take the risk of moving from their more secure position.

8. Pharma offers better benefits than biotech companies hands down. They not only have a stock and bonus plan they also match in 401k plans and even still have pensions! Biotech companies just don’t have the money to do this and therefore biotechnology recruiting can become tricky when trying to lure big pharma candidates to these small companies.  Candidates love the challenge and excitement of a biotech but balk at leaving behind good benefits. I have had candidates, who have earned long vacation time at their current job, complain at the necessity of going back to two weeks vacation at a biotech. Nothing becomes too trivial during negotiations.

9. Relocation goes more smoothly with a big pharmaceutical company. Big pharma has the resources to cover more relocation costs than small companies. Some pharmas will even get involved with buying a house from the new recruit if the person is having difficulty selling his house. As mentioned before pharma is equipped to handle relocation packages for employees moving all across the world. They have whole departments for dealing with immigration, real estate, cultural differences and anything else to do with a complicated move. So when dealing with relocation, pharmaceutical recruiting is much easier than biotechnology recruiting.

10. Stock options are a big draw at a biotech. Last, but not least, is the chance to get rich for scientists going to a startup. These companies have little cash and only offer bare bone compensation packages. To lure people from secure jobs, the startups offer large grants of stock options, which can be worth millions if a company becomes successful or is bought by a big pharma. Of course pharmaceutical companies give stock in their packages. But a startup offers a chance to get in at the bottom and the rewards are much greater.

So is it easier to be a pharmaceutical recruiter or a biotechnology recruiter? Which type of company is the best for a recruiter to work for? Which one will be the easiest to attract candidates for positions? Both pharma and biotech have pluses and minuses. I find it best to work for both. When the economy tanked and my biotech clients were hurting, my pharma clients were still hiring. So it is better to be safe than sorry and to hedge your bets with clients in both areas.


Related Reading: Pharma vs. Biotech, What’s in a Name?