BioBuzz by Workforce Genetics

Not All Scientist Jobs are Created Equal – Differences Between a Startup vs. an Established Biotech/Pharma Company

By Eimear Holton
March 15, 2023

When emerging from the safe cocoon of academia, a graduate student or postdoc’s biggest challenge is navigating the job market. The easiest step is to create an email or LinkedIn alert for the job title that you think you’ll want, say ‘research scientist’.

A common misconception, though, is to assume that the same job title at a small biotech or startup means the same thing at a bigger pharma company or an IPO-stage biotech. Whether or not these differences are perceived as advantages or disadvantages is truly subjective to each individual. It’s crucial to understand what you value most before you sit down and spend hours of your valuable time applying to jobs. Prioritize the work environment that you’ll likely thrive in and ultimately where you’ll likely do your best work. Knowing how your lifestyle, impact on research, and day to day working conditions vary widely across the industry depending on your company’s stage is paramount. 

Here is a breakdown of the considerations that will affect how you spend your work life, ownership and research impact, and your lifestyle outside of work between companies of various sizes.

Do you prefer structured days with set tasks, standing meetings, and color-coded Gantt charts—typical of an established organization? Or are you more suited to an ever-changing, fast-paced, and sometimes even chaotic startup environment—somewhere you’ll never be bored? There’s no correct answer to this question, but understanding how you work will determine whether you’re excited by a beautifully organized inbox or you relish in the adrenaline surge when the subject line from the CEO reads ‘urgent’—or maybe you fall somewhere in between.

On the ground, your work life will look quite different depending on your company’s stage. The startup setting is intimate, starting with just a handful of people—usually friends—the sales, marketing, and human resource department could solely be the responsibility of the CEO. Be prepared to feel an unprecedented amount of accountability to the individuals you work with, as it’s unusual to have an impersonal relationship with your coworkers at a startup or small company. The investment of having a more human connection with the leaders of the organization means they may be more understanding if a personal issue arises and they may trust you to follow a flexible schedule or even work remotely. At a larger, more established organization, you may spend your first days completing structured orientation and training, and your subsequent work environment is governed by SOPs and hierarchy—and there’s likely not as much choice in when and where you work.

At a smaller company, you might find yourself as the head of an entire “department” (because n=1). This can be a blessing and a curse, it’s a chance to build from the ground up and learn by doing. Alternatively, being a small cog in a large machine can mean you lose an element of ownership in your work. You’re one piece of the puzzle, but you get to learn from all of the other pieces, lean on a large support network, find opportunities for cross collaboration, and slot into their established systems—allowing you to focus on your work rather than building everything from scratch..

Also know that startups are a risky business—but it can greatly pay off. Being early means you get a bigger piece of the pie, but you have to be willing to commit to the idea, to the people, and to the potentially long hours with the uncertainty of when the exit sign is going to appear. You also need to keep the mindset that everything will work out despite the data showing that most startups unfortunately fail – biotech is a bit more immune than other sectors, but still susceptible.

On the other hand, an industry position at a more established biotech or pharma company is often much more stable, as the company has a stronger financial foundation and more established plan for the future. But this level of comfort comes at a sacrifice, the later the company, the smaller your piece of the pie, in more ways than one—ownership, projects, and the overall say in what comes next. And while there is a smaller chance of failure, you are still not immune to mass layoffs should the company decide to abandon a portfolio asset or change direction.

Working in a reputable, yet large company while getting to do great work is perfectly suited to some people and a very smart way to be successful—you hang up your lab coat before sunset, take guilt-free vacations, and invest in your life outside of work. At a smaller venture, when you own part of a company, there’s undoubtedly going to be a stronger bond to the work—an environment suited to people who like wearing many hats in a fast paced environment and a place where a state of flow allows you to endure those potential long hours. 

Ultimately, you must ‘know thyself’, find companies that align with your goals and values, and decipher your affinity for comfort or chaos —which can fall on a wide spectrum across the life sciences industry companies.