More Researchers Are 'Transitioning' Into Sales Careers

Dorothy Rodmann, a career-services consultant at the Washington, D.C.-based American Chemical Society (ACS), is seeing transitioning becoming a necessity for an increasing number of chemists. "In light of what has been happening in the job market -downsizing and strategic changes in direction [among chemical companies]--many chemists are looking at ways to move in different directions, and use their chemical knowledge and skills, of

Nov 14, 1994
Ricki Lewis
In order to cope with a job market that over the past 10 years has become less secure, some scientists are doing what recruiters and career counselors term "transitioning"- identifying combinations of skills and talents that might be parlayed into a nontraditional career.

Dorothy Rodmann, a career-services consultant at the Washington, D.C.-based American Chemical Society (ACS), is seeing transitioning becoming a necessity for an increasing number of chemists. "In light of what has been happening in the job market -downsizing and strategic changes in direction [among chemical companies]--many chemists are looking at ways to move in different directions, and use their chemical knowledge and skills, often in nontraditional careers," she reports.

The need to identify alternative career tracks extends beyond chemistry. And one area beginning to attract scientists is sales.

On the surface, traditional scientific training may not seem to provide any skills necessary for a career in sales. But a personable scientist who has conducted research, trained students, lectured--and even, once upon a time, successfully sold fast-food burgers or Girl Scout cookies--might just have what it takes to sell the tools of the scientific trade, according to recruiters, sales managers, and scientists who have made the switch.

Linda Romagnano, product manager at National Labnet Co. Inc. of Woodbridge, N.J., has found a sales career to be a preferable alternative to the academic world. Upon earning her Ph.D. in ecology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., she did postdoctoral research in cell and developmental biology. But after seven years as a postdoc, she looked for a change. "I felt the academic route was not what I wanted," she recalls. "It wasn't satisfying, and I didn't like the grant thing. People were having a hard time getting grants, and I didn't want to be competitive in that way. I felt I'd rather be competitive in business. It was, admittedly, a huge jump."

Recruiters are seeing more scientists wishing to explore nontraditional careers such as sales. None of the scientific societies contacted by The Scientist keeps separate statistics on the number of researchers going into this type of work. But Michael Neuschatz, senior research associate in the education and employment division of the College Park, Md.-based American Institute of Physics (AIP), says that AIP's most recent figures indicate that 40 percent of physics Ph.D.'s end up in fields outside of research. While this high number would include bench scientists who go on to become vice presidents of research, it also encompasses those in sales, publishing, and marketing, according to Neuschatz.

"I get so many people at the bench who want to leave, it's unbelievable," remarks Leonard Kalvert, president of New York City-based Kalvert Personnel Service Inc., who has placed scientists for 26 years. "Many scientists find that science was more fun in school than it proved to be at work. They're tired of the bench, find the work repetitious, boring. So many scientists don't want to be in the lab, even those right out of school."

James Iannoni, president of James Iannoni and Associates Inc. in Hampton, Conn., agrees with Kalvert: "We too have seen more candidates for alternative careers in the last six to nine months. What's precipitating it is that academics are tired of the precarious grant scene, and in industry, scientists must contend with restructuring, realigning, and downsizing. With this lack of stability, some scientists say they are amenable to other career options."

"I've very definitely noted an increasing interest in the whole concept of career transitioning, and different ways to use chemistry," adds Rodmann, author of a forthcoming ACS publication called Transitioning for Chemistry: Making It Happen.

For Romagnano, it was an ad in the newspaper that made her realize how her particular experiences fit the profile of a scientific sales specialist. "This company wanted someone with a molecular biology background who was good with people, and was highly visible," she says. "I felt I qualified. I had taught genetics, lecturing to a large group. I was constantly training people in the lab, and this position required training others. The only thing I was lacking was business skills, but everyone said you can learn that. It's the science you can't learn," she says. National Labnet, where she has worked for a year, sells thermal cyclers, shakers, centrifuges, and other scientific equipment.

At first, Romagnano says, she had regrets about leaving research. "But I've been surprised at how much I've enjoyed learning more about business," she declares.

Despite the current uncertain economic climate, many companies are well aware of the value of a person with that rare mix of scientific and "people" skills. "In understanding intricate applications, there's no question that a scientifically trained individual, and not just someone with a business degree, is in a really far better position to effectively represent the company," notes Iannoni.

Companies seek expertise in particular areas--such as chromatography or peptide sequencing--as well as a broader ability to see how all of the instrumentation in a laboratory functions together to facilitate the customer's research. And for that, there's no substitute for research experience. "It's much more important to understand people's applications than to know sales strategy. They can teach you that," says Armand

Scatena, a sales representative (a field engineer, in company parlance) for Hewlett-Packard Co. in Wilmington, Del. "The trick is to understand what people do. I am a problem solver. I provide solutions, so I must understand their problems."

Scatena sells chromatography and spectrophotometer equipment to General Electric Corp. and other clients in the Albany, N.Y., area. Hewlett-Packard requires its sales personnel to have a bachelor's or master's degree in a science. Scatena has an M.S. in chemistry, and has been in sales for nine years.

John Dresher, manager of recruiting and placement at Merck and Co. Inc. of West Point, Pa., emphasizes that a mix of science and business skills, as well as personality, is required to sell well. A sales representative, he points out, "must communicate effectively. Some people might do this by injecting humor, others by being authoritative. Other folks can't do it at all."

How can a scientist make a salesworthy personality apparent to potential employers? Revamping the curriculum vita is a first step. "A scientist interested in a sales position needs to generate a resume that has a different flair," Iannoni advises. "When a company looks for a sales profile, they look for key indicators on a resume that point to an outgoing personality. Things in a resume can [demonstrate] that. They look at hobbies, for example." He placed one mechanical engineer at a company's automotive division, for example, because the candidate's resume mentioned an interest in cars.

Recruiters suggest that scientists list sales as the career objective on their resume, and be sure to mention those fast food and cookie-selling jobs of the past. "Any kind of sales experience is important," stresses Iannoni. "If you worked in a store during college, that's important. Working in that capacity shows you were using good people skills. Scientific training doesn't include this."

Charles Kelleher is one scientist who educated himself in business. He has a Ph.D. in veterinary microbiology, and describes himself as a poultry-health specialist, or "chicken doctor." Always fascinated by marketing and organizational management of companies, Kelleher has worked for a commercial poultry company, then a vaccine manufacturer, and for the past six years has been director of marketing and sales at Kirkegaard Perry Laboratories Inc. of Gaithersburg, Md., a provider of diagnostic kits for the poultry industry.

Kelleher is self-taught in business. "The Ph.D. provides the knowledge base," he says. "I acquired business skills through some courses. There are lots of management-training programs [at companies] that a scientist could enroll in. I also did a lot of background reading, and learned some things by trial and error."

On The Job Scientists in sales point out that their careers aren't necessarily better or worse than research positions in government, industry, or academia--just different. And, like all jobs, sales has its ups and downs.

"The advantages of travel are that you visit laboratories and meet people, and every day is different. On the other hand, being on the road several times a week does detract from one's personal life," comments Scatena, who travels about 25 percent of the time.

The travel is often what allows a scientist-turned-salesperson to stay up-to-date, by being on the science scene. "A scientifically trained sales rep might spend a couple of days at [the National Institutes of Health] in a particular lab, discussing, for example, an aspect of the Human Genome Proj- ect," Kalvert notes. "He or she must understand the group's research to see where the company's products fit in." Romagnano keeps abreast of research news and trends by presenting her company's products at major cell biology and neuroscience meetings, where she can meet and mingle with scientists as well as listen to talks. Kelleher advises that continuing to attend meetings and going to seminars are good ways to stay current.

Salaries in sales jobs are at least on a par with those of assistant professorships and entry-level Ph.D. positions in industrial research, according to Romagnano, and may be higher at large pharmaceutical companies than at fledgling biotech firms. But figures fluctuate greatly. "Income varies. Some companies are salary-oriented, some work more on commission, some allow sales reps to buy a piece of the company," says Paul Kaufman, sales manager at PGC Scientifics Corp. in Gaithersburg. Kaufman has a B.S. in biology, a B.A. in chemistry, and research experience at NIH. Kelleher adds: "The money is better in business, but you earn every penny. The responsibility and what's required of you are much greater."

It's not uncommon for a Ph.D. scientist who gets a taste of the business world through a stint in sales to rise in a company, to such areas as technical services or regulatory affairs. "An R&D scientist may move up by becoming more involved in production and management," says Kelleher. Even those scientists who stay in sales often assume greater responsibility than simply selling a microscope here or a cell-disruption kit there. "I help our sales force, train them," Romagnano explains. "My job is to get the reps technically competent so that after I go out two or three times with them, they do not need me. I also provide technical support for our customers."

Recruiter Iannoni has seen many scientific careers at many companies. "Whatever the technical area--pharmaceuticals, medical devices, telecommunications--the upper echelons come less from research and more from sales and marketing. You commonly see that progression," he says.

The key to entering a career in sales--or any alternative to the traditional science trajectory--is a broadened outlook and flexibility, and the ability to envision technical expertise and talents in a different setting. Notes Kelleher: "My advice to a scientist contemplating a career in sales is to balance and broaden the educational scope, as well as job experience."

Ricki Lewis is a freelance science writer based in Scotia, N.Y.