In line with the final month of nominations for this year’s New Investigator Award, three leaders in bioanalysis reflect on their careers and give advice to new scientists in the early stages of their own career. In this final installment, Chad Briscoe (PRA Health Sciences) discusses the skills that are important for success.
Chad received his B.Sc. in Chemistry from Alma College in Michigan and a Master’s degree in Analytical Chemistry from the University of Michigan with a focus in the use of LC-MS/MS in Protein and Peptide analysis. Chad’s Doctorate of Philosophy at the University of Nebraska was focused on studies of Protein Binding via Affinity LC-MS/MS and computer simulations. Chad is currently the Executive Director of Bioanalytical Science at PRA. He was previously the Director of Bioanalysis at the Lincoln site of MDS Pharma services. He has become well known in the bioanalytical community on such diverse issues as the use of advanced LC-MS/MS technology applied to high-throughput analysis, system suitability in high-throughput LC-MS/MS and bioanalytical software validation.
Recently the laboratory where I work has been in a hiring mode. This doesn’t seem to be terribly uncommon in bioanalytical CROs. The pharma industry seems to have become healthier again and big pharma are continuing to streamline their organizations and outsource more. This means I’ve sat in a lot of interviews that last few months.
We’ve been talking with scientists at all levels and with different experiences – many of them have been in the 0–5 years of experience range. We quickly noticed a striking difference in the candidates of different experience and in fact have begun to informally categorize the candidates as experienced (more than 5 years), a little experienced (2–3 years) or new graduates (0 years). We’ve been surprised at a few observations of the new grads. Therefore, it was extremely timely when I was approached to write a column on the skills that new grads are lacking when they join the workforce.
Before I go too far, I also thought it would be fair to recognize that some of the new grads working in my laboratory will read this article, so I feel inclined to say with all sincerity that I love hiring new grads and I think it’s critical to both the health of an organization and fulfills an age-old obligation I think we all have to mentor and develop the future leaders of our respective disciplines. We were all new grads once and someone gave us a chance to get a start so I hope that my thoughts are taken constructively.
Let’s call that lesson number one – we all have to expect and take criticism constructively. It reminds me a little of my daughter’s recent soccer experience. She was extremely frustrated by what she felt was her overly critical coach. After a bit of encouragement from Dad she sat down with him and talked it out. What she learned is she was in fact being singled out but not for the reason she thought. It was not because she was making a lot of mistakes but because he thought she was one of the players with the most potential. Following their discussion, instead of waiting for the criticism to come, she asks for it to be given. When she asks for it, it becomes a gift, not a burden. Her level of play went up significantly and immediately.
At no time in your career do you have a better chance to improve quickly than at the beginning. Find a mentor. Maybe it’s your supervisor and maybe it is someone else in the organization. Ask them for the gift of criticism. Thank you JoAnne and Jim and many others for giving me that gift early in my career.
When I outlined this editorial I identified three key areas where I think some further discussion is merited. These categories are liberal arts, soft skills and of course science/regulatory. In full disclosure, I personally attended a liberal arts college (#goAlmaScots!) and I believe strongly in a liberal arts and the well-rounded education you receive at liberal arts colleges. At the same time, there are always trade-offs as you don’t end up taking quite so many classes in your major or you can’t double major very easily. You may be wondering what I include in this critical liberal arts education. I’ll start with writing skills. If you’ve read this far you must think I’m a decent writer or you prefer reading this to counting sheep at night. Most scientists don’t end up writing editorials but I don’t think anyone would disagree that scientists need to communicate. The best results are fairly meaningless if they can’t be communicated through a number of means.
In the CRO world nothing is used more in open communication than emails for internal and client updates on results or, more formally, writing skills are needed for reports and publications. The recent US FDA Draft Guidance even mentioned that method development reports should be submitted. While this is a controversial statement in the guidance, it does point out that high-quality written reports will be important for all of the scientists working in the regulated bioanalysis industry. Also, good communication skills are going to enhance presentation skills, conduct in meetings, and the most important communication skill of all – listening.
If you know me, you are probably thinking that I got an F in listening at Alma College. Luckily it wasn’t actually a class, but it is a skill I still need to work on and I see a lot of new grads who need to work on it also. These skills can never be too sharp so anything you can do to enhance them during school or early in your career will be a benefit. There are so many options: join clubs, get leadership positions, volunteer for oral presentations even when you don’t want to, write for your school paper.
A few other areas where I see scientists are deficient and I was no different are in finance skills. Not so much liberal arts but an important ancillary skill for many. At some point in many people’s careers they move to management where they are managing a budget and if you work in a CRO you are reading a P&L. If you don’t know those letters my point has been made. Do something to learn finance. I found a mentor. Thanks Keith!
Although it is the first step in the process of getting a job, interview skills are still very important. I would say listen to your mom or at least listen to my mom. Dress nicely, bring extra copies of resumes, bring examples of work you’ve done, and please eat a mint but spit out your gum before the interview. You will never be turned down for a job because you wore a suit but the guy that wore a flannel shirt to a recent interview at our company didn’t get called back for a second interview.
Related to the liberal arts skills as I referenced above are what I’m calling the ‘soft skills’. Many of these are part of our own human nature. These can be the hardest to refine, but can also be the most important. I’ll take a shot at a few of them. You have to have self-confidence. The trick is to have enough but not too much. If you’ve got a lot of it, you better be able to deliver. Another is what I like to call bravado but could also be looked at as confident decision-making. Patience is another important skill but I think it is my lack of patience that has given me bravado so that I’m often the one in meetings who wants to make the decision so you can move forward. So is patience a virtue or not?
I would say you need to know when and when not to have it. Lack of a decision is, in my opinion, worse than no decision in most cases and those that are making the decisions are the ones that become recognized as leaders but be forewarned that making the decisions or even pushing the decisions to happen comes with accountability that one must be ready for, so this is another soft skill to develop: be accountable. This means that you’ve got to deliver but when you don’t, and at some point in your career you won’t, you’ve got to own up to your failing.
Two other skills I see lacking in new grads and experienced scientists alike are respect and transparency. They can go hand-in-hand sometimes and they aren’t always easy. You may have a boss you don’t like but you’ve got to show them the respect of their position. They are, after all, your boss. Transparency is being confident enough to share your work, your results, your ideas and truly be a part of a team. It is scary and sometimes your ideas may be lost as being yours but over time, you will be recognized. It is an investment that is worth making as it will make your entire team respect you more.
When you started reading this article you probably assumed it would be full of different scientific skills that new grads are missing when they come to work in bioanalysis. There is no doubt that this is also a challenge in bioanalytical CROs as well. I’ve never seen a new grad that really knew how to pipette for instance. Certainly not one you’d want spiking your standards on day 2. It seems that many of the new grads coming in do have a lot of basic research experience so credit the colleges and universities for providing those opportunities and the students for taking advantage of them. The new grads are often very impressive when you talk about the things they really know. And when you consider the basics, for the most part it does seem the chemists are pretty good at calculating solutions and buffers and they do know what pH is, although sometimes with a little reminder. The biologists seem to have a good grasp on their biology skills as well. I even saw one of the biologists in our department use the pH meter recently. Ok, another confession, I’m a chemist, what do biologists really learn? Cell parts, krebs cycle and the ecology of squirrel habitats?
Other than just liking to make fun of my biology major colleagues, my point is that I find the chemists are often a bit weak on biology and biologists weak on chemistry. I have the utmost respect for my colleagues with a biology background. In bioanalysis, we need experienced people with both sets of skills. We learn from each other, but as a chemist I certainly recognize that I need to brush up in many areas of biology. The sooner a new grad can get this experience or simply focus on the subjects that might not seem so relevant in school, the better. You will need skills you don’t realize someday in your career.
Another area where almost all graduates are lacking skills is in data handling and statistical analysis. There aren’t a lot of classes out there that focus on these skills specifically as applied to science but they are essential in every result we generate. I was fortunate to have a course in it in grad school designed specifically for analytical chemists and almost 20 years into my career I still pull some of the notes out on occasion, but the general statistics class I took was pretty useless.
Finally, in my experience, no new graduates understand regulations as well as they could. I don’t know that it’s realistic to teach specifics, but the basic principles of all regulated scientific documentation are the same and when it comes down to it, it’s just good documentation and this is certainly something that can be taught in a more practical and applied way in school. As for the specific regulations, this is something that a truly ambitious new employee can take upon themselves and read on the internet once they are employed. The good thing about these government documents is they are all freely available on the internet. How impressed would the project manager be in a bioanalytical CRO if a new analyst came to them and asked how 21 CFR Part 320.29(a) applied to the bioequivalence study they were just assigned to? Go ahead, Google it if you don’t know it, you should.
There are a lot of aspects to the development of skills and characteristics that make a well-rounded, successful bioanalytical scientist. While I’ve rattled on for about 2000 words, there is certainly a lot more to be said in all of the areas I discussed. Hopefully a few of the tips will make a difference and lead to a few action items. With that, please consider this one final tip. Since you’ve taken the time to read to the end, take out a pen or open your to-do list on your iPhone and jot down some action items. Find a mentor, be a decision maker, read the regulations or take an online course in finance.
Good luck in your career! I hope we have the chance to meet and I’m always happy to discuss personal development any time as it is truly one of my favorite topics – I can be reached at email@example.com.