A life science recruiter's blog on placing R&D professionals.

Blog/Executive Search, How It Works

The Reason I Recruit Scientists and Doctors

In this post I will explain why I exclusively recruit scientists with PhD degrees and medical doctors. Currently, my company, Clark Executive Search, works in a narrow niche performing searches for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies mostly in R&D and for these jobs high-level graduate degrees are a requirement. However, 20 years ago, when I first started in the recruiting business, I worked not only for pharma and biotech, but also medical device and generic companies. I searched for candidates in many different functional areas and at many levels. I was all over the place! Eventually, I learned that I couldn’t perform well in such a large network and that I needed to focus my efforts.

As all beginners, I started out doing mostly contingency lower level assignments, such as quality assurance managers and CRAs and there was a lot of competition amongst recruiters in this area. For many recruiters it was easier to recruit for these positions because knowledge of highly technical vocabulary was not required. Therefore any old average Joe Recruiter could fill these searches.

But in contrast to these recruiters, I actually knew many scientific terms and jargon. I loved science and I had always taken the more difficult path in school. I studied Russian in high school and college just because it was the hardest language offered and it was thought at the time that science majors should be able to keep up with the Russians. (Big mistake. I don’t remember much and sure could use Spanish now). As a female in the 70’s science was not the normal career path. But I plunged in. I received a BS degree in biology at the University of Minnesota. I thrived in all the hard classes. So when it came to recruiting in the drug discovery niche, I, unlike many recruiters, actually knew the difference between a protein and a carbohydrate. I knew microbiology and genetics. So I had the right background to recruit in the more technical areas and at a higher level, where I could network with the powerful people in the industry.

In fact when I first started working as a recruiter for a large search firm, I was the only recruiter in the office with a degree in science and yet they specialized in the pharmaceutical niche. One of my first searches was in pharmacokinetics. I asked my boss what this meant, but he had no clue. I had a good excuse for not understanding the term as we weren’t taught drug development terms in college, but he had had his firm for many years and should have known the term.

Not too long afterwards in 1997, I left and started my own business. I gravitated toward the more difficult searches in drug discovery. I found I really enjoyed speaking with the bright, dedicated people who filled the higher levels of drug discovery. And the scientists I networked with told me that I was one of the first recruiters who actually understood what they did. I wasn’t afraid of their technical language and I even attended conferences where I sat in on very scientific talks. People were amazed that I was sitting in on these sessions. But this was a great way to learn the latest drug discovery trends and buzzwords. Plus I could evaluate the speaking skills of potential candidates.

Gradually I built up a large network of scientists and doctors, many of whom I have known for years. These people are fascinating to interact with and I never have a day when I don’t want to pick up the phone to speak to them. And I believe they appreciate that I only call them for appropriate networking. For example, if they are chemists, I only call or email about help with my chemistry searches. Instead of mass emailing people in my database regarding a search, I pick and choose people to network with based on the nature of their background. This takes much more time, but I never wish to annoy, harass, or over extend my welcome.

Over the years I have learned so much from the scientists in my network. I have been thrilled by their stories of success. For example once a chemist nonchalantly told me he invented some huge blockbuster drug that has saved millions of lives. On the other hand, I have heard the pain in the voices of chemists who have worked for 20 years in the lab and never had a drug make it all the way to a marketed product. They tell me their compounds only made it to phase II or III in clinical trials. There are so many drug failures along the way, but it isn’t the fault of the scientists. It is just a difficult process and many of the easy targets and diseases are already solved.

I have learned the long process that it takes to become a PhD scientist in the drug industry. After many years of education and several more as a postdoc, where pay is often at about minimum wage, these scientists then have to start at the bottom of a lab and work their way up. I have heard tales of some scientists bringing cots into the lab (mostly while doing graduate work, frankly) as they toil almost nonstop on their experiments. Whenever I ask these scientists why they work for pharma or biotech they almost all tell me it was to find the cure for diseases and to help mankind. Although they are well paid, considering all their advanced education, these scientists are NOT in it for the money. Consequently when people start to berate the pharmaceutical companies about their huge profits and high drug prices, I point out that not everyone who works for these companies are bad and I mention the hardworking dedicated scientists that I recruit on a daily basis.

Big pharma has enjoyed record profits but times are changing. They are in trouble lately with top drugs coming off patents and not too much in the pipeline to replace the drugs. A graph in a  Forbes article by Matthew Herper illustrates the predicament facing the pharmaceutical companies. These pharmaceutical companies are desperately trying everything they can to shore up the situation. Some companies turn to mergers as a solution. Inevitably after these mega mergers many people are laid off because there is a redundancy of departments and functions. ( See this post about layoffs here and here ) So the companies stay profitable but at the expense of thousands of workers. They are ending some research in this country and outsourcing work to Asia, where labor is cheaper (see my post here). Everyday I have to listen to the sad stories of gifted scientists with 15-20 years of industry service being tossed out by the drug companies. How do these highly trained individuals find a new job when there are so many others in the same boat applying for the scarce remaining jobs in their field?

This shift in focus from large labs in the US to oversea CROs has changed the direction of my company. Drug discovery searches are no longer my bread and butter. Increasingly I have had to take recruiting roles finding doctors in development. Fortunately I still have higher executive level searches in drug discovery, because these searches almost always are given out on a retained basis to a recruiter. In addition, my firm is branching out to recruit for other companies in the life science area, such as diagnostic and next- generation sequencing companies. However I still exclusively recruit MD or PhD candidates because these are the people that make my work so meaningful and the reason why I recruit for pharma.

 07/09/13 Update to this post. I recently finished a MOOC online course offered from MIT. It was taught by Professor Eric Lander and I earned a Certificate of Mastery. I now am a bit more updated with my biology and chemistry since my long ago BS in Biology.Always keep learning!