BioBuzz by Workforce Genetics

Go with the Flow – Why Flow Cytometry has Become One of the Most Sought-After Biotech Job Skills, and How to be Competitive

More and more, scientists are pursuing career opportunities beyond academia. For those who still want to be at the bench but don’t want to be a professor or work in a large biopharma industry, working at a biotech startup is an attractive option.

Because of their smaller size, biotech companies can sometimes be hard to break into, especially if you’re earlier in your career or right out of school. It pays to take additional steps to be a competitive job candidate.

In terms of lab techniques, flow cytometry is one of the most versatile out there when it comes to its biotech applications, and for good reason. Cell and gene therapies have gained considerable popularity in recent years, and the market is predicted to continue growing as we learn more information and become more savvy in how we engineer cells. And even if you’re not working directly in the cell therapy space, chances are you’ll still be utilizing flow to evaluate things such as how well a treatment worked or characterizing immune cell populations. From identifying biomarkers to cell sorting and everything in between, there’s little doubt that flow cytometry is an essential skill in today’s biotech ecosystem.

So what skills are employers looking for, anyway? Before we dive in, let’s break things down a bit. It’s helpful to categorize flow cytometry into three core steps:

Conceptualization and Preparation: Flow cytometry experiments take a lot of planning and optimizing, especially when multiple colors are involved. You need to figure out how many cells you need to harvest and run to get optimal data. You need to plan out your fluorophores and antibodies accordingly so that you minimize spectral overlap and noise. You need to figure out which antibody dilutions are optimal to get enough signal without overdoing it. The list goes on and on.

Operation: Then comes running the experiment itself. You’ll need to know how to do cell culture and staining. You have to actually operate the flow cytometer, knowing how to load samples and clean the instrument when done.

Data Analysis: You now have a large data file – how do you go about analyzing it? How do you set up your gates, and how do you interpret what you’re seeing? Are you able to discern good quality data from junk?

How Much Flow Should I Know?

If the job title includes flow cytometry or it’s listed as an essential skill in the job description, the company likely wants you to have a comprehensive understanding of all three steps listed above and the underlying principles behind the technique. The reason for this is that smaller companies often don’t have the means, resources, or personnel to train someone, so they’re looking for someone who can hit the ground running from the start. At a biotech, chances are you ARE going to be the subject matter expert until the company grows.

A few additional notes here:

  • The more colors you can handle, the better.
  • Companies generally aren’t married to a specific type of flow cytometer or analysis program. FlowJo is one of the more common programs for data analysis, but if you have deep experience in another type of program you’ll likely be able to adapt and use another.
  • Having experience with cell sorting is an advantage, as you have to often analyze data and make decisions in real time as the machine is running.

What Flow-Related Questions Should I Expect in an Interview?

Whether you’re talking to a scientific recruiter or the company’s hiring manager, be prepared to go deep.

A common question you’ll likely be asked is to talk about your overall experience with flow cytometry. It may seem simple, but don’t skirt the details. You’ll want to clearly demonstrate that you know all three of the core flow cytometry pillars mentioned above.

Here are a few other example questions you might be asked:

  1. What instruments have you used, and how did you maintain them?
  2. How have you analyzed your data?
  3. Have you always used a standard protocol/SOP for flow, or have you had to develop your own? 
  4. Have you had to screen for/optimize antibodies?
  5. How did you optimize/troubleshoot protocols?
  6. How many colors have you used in your experiments?

The best way to tackle most of these questions (many at the same time) is to tell a story. For example, talk about a time where you had to set up a flow experiment from scratch. How did you prep and optimize the experiment? What hurdles did you have to overcome, and how did you handle the situation? What was the outcome? Even if your data were negative and you didn’t end up including in your publications or thesis, talk about it! Here it’s all about the skillsets.

Don’t skimp when it comes to talking about overcoming challenges or setting up experiments, either. While talking about optimizing antibodies and determining gates might sound boring to most, it’s exactly what your interviewer needs to hear to know that you know your stuff.

Can Other Skills Compensate?

Many techniques in cell biology and molecular biology have some overlap with one another. If you’ve done fluorescence microscopy or western blots, for example, you likely have experience and an understanding of optimizing antibodies.

So what if you don’t have as much flow cytometry experience, but you do fluorescence microscopy all the time? Is proficiency in that skill enough to compensate?

While YMMV, if employers indicate that flow cytometry is a core skill, they’ll want to see that you specifically have flow cytometry experience. This relates back to the point made earlier in that at smaller companies you are likely being brought in as a subject matter expert to fill in technical gaps that the company is currently lacking.

How Can I Get Flow Experience?

If you’re a current graduate student or research assistant, you might be lucky enough in that your project already requires a substantial amount of flow cytometry already. If it doesn’t, though, never fear! There are numerous ways you can sharpen your flow chops. Here are just a few:

  1. Do a Focused Postdoc: If you’re a Ph.D. student, a postdoc could be a great way to become more specialized. Apply for labs and projects where you know you’ll be using a lot of flow cytometry, and if it’s not clear in the job description be sure to ask the PI or project lead.
  1. Find Workshops, Courses, and Other Resources: If a postdoc doesn’t sound appealing to you, there are also numerous workshops out there that can help hone your skills quickly. Bio-Trac is just one example – they offer a few flow cytometry courses throughout the year, with the next one coming up toward the end of August. Bio-Trac also provides courses in other hot techniques such as CRISPR, R, RNA-seq, and more. Not only will you gain hands-on experience on high-end instruments, but you’ll also be immersed in the theory behind the technique and learn how to troubleshoot, which will help your resume further stand out from the crowd.

    Beyond Bio-Trac, another resource you can tap into is the International Society for Advancement of Cytometry, which provides numerous webinars, E-learning courses, and other resources.
  1. Reach Out to Your Flow Cytometry Core Director: Chances are, you have someone at your company or institution who knows flow cytometry like the back of their hand. Reach out to them and express your interest in learning more about the technique, even if your research project might not necessarily call for flow. Set up recurring time to have the core director teach you things you might not otherwise know from running experiments, such as optimizing the machine itself and managing all the fluidics. 

    Not only will this give you a leg up because you know how to truly work the machine, but it shows initiative because you proactively sought to hone your skills. If your research has absolutely no need for flow, ask to see if the core director has some sample datasets you can play with to get a feel for analyzing.
  1. Network: If you attend departmental seminars, don’t be afraid to reach out to presenters to ask them questions about their techniques or if there’s any chance for collaboration. Exchange your business card if you have one and connect over email to see how they might be able to help you.

Additional Thoughts

  1. Keep in mind that these insights and tips don’t just necessarily apply to flow cytometry, but can apply to other biotech skills as well.
  2. Publications help, but don’t be bogged down if you don’t have any. In fact, troubleshooting an experiment oftens means you are more of an expert at your craft! Many companies look for cultural fits and competency in skills over publication number.
  3. Don’t be scared off by specific numbers in the job description such as “2+ years of experience”. It’s all about quality over quantity – if you spent an few months immersed in intensive flow work, go for it! If you’re working with a recruiter, be honest and discuss with them – they’ll be able to help you assess whether your skill level fits what the job is looking for.
  4. Shine up your LinkedIn profile – many scientists simply list out “Flow Cytometry” as a skill on their profile without going into the details. Many of these smaller companies lean on recruiters to help fill highly specialized positions, and recruiters often prioritize candidates based on certain keywords such as “multi-color” or “cell sorting”. Including more specific info about your competencies goes a long way in helping recruiters find you.

Thank you to Elke Bergmann-Leitner, Paul Streng, and Mark Nardone for their insights for this article.