7 Essential Project Management Skills for Scientists

Industry Advice Science & Mathematics

Project management skills are important for anyone working in an environment where there are many tasks to be done, deadlines to be met, and teams to engage with. In fields such as biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, project management skills allow scientists to balance the rigors of experimentation with product development’s formal processes.

Scientists who develop their soft skills in addition to honing their research skills can become especially effective contributors to multidisciplinary teams. In particular, scientists with project management acumen enable their teams to take products to market faster, bring clinical benefits to physicians and patients, and deliver financial benefits to companies and their shareholders.

Here’s a look at seven key project management skills that help scientists advance in organizations ranging from startups to large, multinational firms. 

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Project Management Skills for Scientists 

1. Leadership

Proficiency in “the art and science of getting things done” is the most important skill for a project manager, says Christa Dhimo, professor of informatics and biotechnology at Northeastern University’s College of Science. Leadership abilities in this industry are essential because project management roles at a biotechnology or pharmaceutical company present two unique sets of challenges. 

The first is that the scientific method and the corporate world often do not mesh. “Scientists are trained to think about their research question, the theory and hypothesis, and the gaps in their research. Curiosity is embedded in what they study,” Dhimo says. 

Commercial environments, however, are often dictated by standard operating procedures that don’t always lend themselves to that level of critical thinking. A project manager may need to tell a team of scientists to write up their findings but put them aside and shift their focus back to the project scope at hand.

The second challenge is that many founders and CEOs in biotech and pharma have a scientific or medical background themselves. “They have a full appreciation of what it takes to build something that will go into a living being,” Dhimo says, and thus they may take a more hands-on approach than executive leadership in other industries. “You need temperament and perspective to know what to push and what to pull,” she adds.

2. Vision

In industries such as pharma and biotech, the products that companies sell must meet rigorous scientific and regulatory guidelines. To be approved, these medications or treatments must demonstrate safety and efficacy while also addressing an unmet need in the market. That is, they need to show that they do something that no other product currently does.

For project managers, that means starting with the end in mind, Dhimo says—even if “the end” may be years away. According to Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, it typically takes at least 10 years for a medicine to progress from initial discovery to release on the marketplace. 

“You need to focus on your regulatory pathway from the very beginning of the project,” Dhimo adds. Without a clear path through product development, clinical trials, and approval, the process becomes scientific research, which is not profitable for a company. 

3. Collaboration

Successful drug development depends on a collaborative culture, which can be quite different from individual work done in an academic lab. 

As the Project Management Institute (PMI) points out, effective collaboration depends on defining roles and priorities clearly, managing relationships with senior leaders and research teams, and working across departments to develop a timeline. PMI notes that larger companies may have a more formal structure for managing resources and projects than smaller companies, where everyone may be working on a single experiment.

Along with the leadership skills Dhimo highlights, communication skills are a critical part of supporting collaboration. A commentary in Science magazine notes that clear communication on all project elements—from the big-picture objectives and vision to the day-to-day tasks and requirements—keeps the entire team on track. This is especially true when research teams have external collaborators who may not be part of regularly scheduled meetings.

4. Resource Allocation

Managing spending and personnel is an important project management skill for scientists. In biotech and pharma, the burn rate—or negative cash flow as a company is spending money without generating revenue—can exceed $4 million per month. 

These resources must be managed carefully in order to carry a company through the drug development process, Dhimo says. “You need to be smart about where the spending goes, and you need to manage expectations.”

Project managers must strike a balance. Hiring too many people and running too many experiments could cause a company to run out of money too quickly, she notes. On the other hand, under-assigning resources and waiting until additional funding arrives could slow down the research process and take away a company’s competitive advantage. 

An American Society for Microbiology article notes that resource allocation for a project must also account for other experiments that a company may be doing. Supplies and equipment are expensive, and lab time and personnel not unlimited. An effective project manager should understand the needs of their project in the context of other work and be able to communicate the importance of collaboration to the research team. 

5. Documentation

The process of getting a drug approved requires detailed filings with regulatory bodies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the European Medicines Agency, and the Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Agency in Japan. At each stage of the process, companies can expect to thoroughly document their research findings. For project managers, this requires careful attention to detail.

“It’s like the biggest dissertation you’ll ever do in your life,” Dhimo says. “You need to be able to explain your product in a way that non-scientific people can understand, to put it in a template that the agency provides, and show that it will be safe and effective and address an unmet need.”

Thorough documentation will help project managers shorten the timeline and improve the budget for future experiments, whether in their current roles or potentially at a new company. In particular, keeping track of mistakes made and obstacles encountered during one project will offer lessons learned for the next one. 

6. Priority Setting

Effectively setting priorities for product development will set a company on a course to deliver the right products to the right markets. Priority setting ensures that a project as a whole aligns with the company’s business strategy. This way, executive leadership sees that a project will bring value to a company and is a worthwhile investment of money, resources, and time. 

When comparing several projects, PMI recommends evaluating each project’s value based on a number of financial, quality, and regulatory objectives to create a prioritized list. From there, a company can apply available resources to each project based on its priorities. This ensures, for example, that a project likely to encounter a bottleneck due to insufficient resources is not deemed a high priority, as work would ultimately stop when resources run out.

7. Ability to Pivot

The uncertainty of the drug discovery process makes it difficult to develop precise timelines, allocate resources, and predict success. As a result, while the project management process is conceptually the same in pharma and biotech compared to industries such as IT or manufacturing, the complexities of the drug development process need to be taken into account.

Sometimes a drug or medical treatment will fail to receive regulatory approval or otherwise meet expectations through no fault of the product team’s careful work. A treatment may be developed on time, on budget, and within the parameters of the project scope, for example, but patients may not respond to the treatment as expected. In these cases, the ability to pivot is a valuable project management skill for a scientist, Dhimo says.

When this occurs, a common next step is to work with the FDA to redesign a clinical trial, perhaps to focus on a different disease or different group of patients (referred to as a cohort). Another option is to undergo a supplemental study using a subset of the data collected in the initial trial and a subset of the initial research team. In some cases, another company may acquire the assets and intellectual property from a trial, believing that the trial has value even if it wasn’t approved.

How to Build Your PM Skills as a Scientist

With the right skills and knowledge, a career in biotechnology or pharma can be lucrative, stable, and rewarding. Earning a graduate degree in a relevant field, such as biotechnology, is an excellent means of developing the skills and expertise required to work and excel in the field.

The Master of Science in Biotechnology program at Northeastern University combines interdisciplinary training in science with an emphasis on business skills to prepare students for research, managerial, or technical professional roles.

Download our free guide below to learn more about the skills and experience you need to advance your biotechnology career.


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