The 3 Most Important Business Skills for Scientists

Industry Advice Science & Mathematics

Scientists making the transition from an academic setting to the corporate world may think they need to brush up on a wide range of business skills to make a good impression and bring value to a company. 

But Christa Dhimo, professor of informatics and biotechnology at Northeastern University’s College of Science, says that success comes down to three fundamental business skills: effective communication, persuasiveness, and recognizing your role in the broader context of the business’s operations. 

“If you can build those three skills, you’ll be able to look at your work more holistically, and people within the organization are going to gravitate to you,” Dhimo says.

Here’s an in-depth look at these three critical business skills for scientists and how building these skills will help you bring value to an organization. 

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Top Business Skills for Scientists

1. Communication

Science is a deeply technical field. The most effective science communication takes that complexity and boils it down to simpler terms. 

“You need to be able to present what you’re doing to your mom or dad so that they can understand it,” says Jared Auclair, Director of Executive Training and Biotechnology Programs in the department of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern University. “State the obvious, because it’s not obvious to most people.”

Here are a few communication tips for scientists:

  • Change your message depending on the audience you’re speaking to. Peers, members of the public, the media, students, investors, and business executives all have different expectations and needs.
  • Know your objective for communicating. Are you aiming to inform your audience or persuade them? Based on your objective, think about the type of questions that the audience might ask, and prepare possible answers in advance.
  • Avoid jargon—the abbreviations, initialisms, and other terms used frequently in the lab but rarely in a public conversation.
  • Practice an “elevator pitch” that describes the key points of your research in 60 seconds or less.  

As Science notes, the most influential scientists are able to bring some excitement to the way they communicate. This type of communication could be visual, such as charts or photographs. It could be a story-like structure, which introduces questions that don’t get answered until the very end as a way to build drama. It could rely on analogies or anecdotes to make research methods and findings more relatable. It’s not about being a salesperson, Science says, but about telling a story that keeps people engaged. 

According to Dhimo, storytelling is the best way to translate complex scientific topics into non-scientific terms. When NASA was developing the space program in the 1960s, for example, its communication didn’t focus on heat shields or mathematical formulas. Instead, the agency emphasized what it could learn by sending astronauts into orbit and onto the moon.

“The moment you can tell a story is when you can show the deepest comprehension of a topic. That’s when an audience can appreciate what you’re saying,” she says. “When you can communicate to a diverse audience, you gain trust and respect—and that leads to credibility.”

2. Influence and Persuasion

In an academic setting, the scientific process—developing a hypothesis, conducting an experiment, and writing a research report—is often just as important as the results. In a business setting, though, what matters most is the expected outcome; in particular, how that outcome will impact the business’ customers, employees, and shareholders.

One of the most valuable business skills for scientists is the ability to prove why their science matters, Dhimo says. Many scientists can explain why their work matters to them, but they may struggle to say why it matters to others. “You have to be able to influence people for the greater good.”

This is a particularly important business skill in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries, where the focus is developing technologies and treatments that make adjustments to the human body, she adds. It takes time and effort to do this without causing harm. It can be difficult to explain how the process works to an audience with a limited scientific or technical background, and it can be a struggle to stand out among so many other sources of information.

“Influence and persuasion are about helping people understand how safe something is and why we want them to take advantage of it,” Dhimo says. A common safety concern among audiences is the possibility that a treatment can cause a serious adverse event that results in hospitalization. The multiple phases of the clinical trial process, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has developed and requires for all treatments, ensure that such events are avoided. What’s more, firms are required to report serious adverse events when they occur. “A drug wouldn’t be researched in humans if there was a significant risk factor,” Dhimo says.

This is a stark contrast to the tech industry, where companies that make commercial software or consumer apps face few penalties for releasing products with bugs or other defects.

“In biotech and pharma, you cannot sell a product that doesn’t do what you precisely say it does. You have to fully disclose the risks and how that balances with the benefits. You have to indicate how a treating physician will decide whether the benefits outweigh the risks,” Dhimo says.

3. Being a Strategic Business Partner

One of the first things scientists must learn when working in a business setting is that the research budget is a small piece of a much larger pie. For any biotechnology or pharmaceutical company, employee salaries are the largest budget line item, followed by equipment, Dhimo says. “You need to have an appreciation of where you fit within the organization.”

Seeing the bigger picture of business operations also enables scientists to understand and explain the potential business risk associated with their work, such as the failure to deliver a product to market and earn revenue or impact on a firm’s reputation if a project falls short of expectations. Weighing these risks in the context of day-to-day experiments and long-term company goals is an important skill for successful scientists. 

Additionally, Dhimo emphasizes that the biotech and pharma industries have a number of necessary business functions that companies in other industries may not need. These functions include medical affairs, regulatory affairs, and commercial compliance, along with specialized marketing expertise to align product labels, brochures, and other branding materials with FDA guidelines. 

Individuals in these roles ensure that a scientist’s work meets necessary safety and regulatory requirements before going to market while also monitoring the results and impact of a treatment once it’s on the market. They also track any financial relationships among the company and any physicians and hospitals using its products under the government’s Open Payments program, intending to improve transparency and reduce conflicts of interest. Collaborating with these business professionals and understanding their roles’ goals is a valuable business skill for scientists, as it better enables the to meet their deadlines and achieve their goals.

While scientists can succeed as project managers in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical fields, Dhimo says she distinguishes between project management skills (which are more tactical in nature) and business skills (which are more strategic). For example, a business skill is developing a plan for more efficient resource allocation, while a project management skill is executing that plan on various tests or trials. 

The Master of Science in Biotechnology program at Northeastern University combines interdisciplinary training in science with a focus on high-value business skills, preparing scientists to take on roles at biotechnology companies around the world. Download our ebook below to learn more.


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