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Cornell University


Friday, November 04, 2016
GSK's Kent Göklen shares industry insights

With 21 years at Merck, retiring as Senior Scientific Director of Biopurification Development, and several years in his current role as Director of Downstream Process Development at GlaxoSmithKline Biopharm R&D, alumnus Kent Göklen shared his insights on a career in industry with PhD students interested in a wide array of areas. Attendees were from Biomedical Engineering, Physics, Genetics, Plant Biology, Environmental Engineering, Food Science and beyond.

On careers

“It’s not like choosing between the lady or the tiger; it’s more like chocolate or vanilla, ice cream or pie.”  In other words, you may need to make some difficult choices, but it is often a choice between two good alternatives.  The choice of careers does not have to be a binary choice, academia or industry, so learn about the pros and cons of various career paths, take on new projects, and be open to new things. The bottom line: “you don’t know what you’re going to learn in new positions, how it will translate to your work, and what doors it might open for you in the future."  In fact, you need to be able to adapt as the market changes, be open to doing things another way and know when to speak up about what to adopt or leave behind. Be sensitive to the group you are working with and know that prior experience doesn’t always translate to being the best way to do something.

On applying for positions

“If you can get the job without a postdoc, why not?” Kent Göklen advises, "The one thing that is certain is that you will not get a job if you don't apply for it, so don’t worry if you do not have all of the specified qualifications. The market might be such that no candidate exists who does."

With large companies, there is a certain amount of bureaucracy and paperwork involved in compliance with laws, so sometimes the process takes longer than you might expect. Networking can help you get through the HR screen; not that you are given preference, but they might make sure your resumé gets through that first hurdle and is reviewed by the scientific/technical group.  Following up on your application, make sure you maintain a balance between persistence (politely following up: in fact remember they are people too-perhaps someone was sick or on vacation, or your file slipped to the bottom of the pile by mistake) and being a pest (calling up every day: this might just remind them they would never want to work with you).

Make an effort to understand the structure of the company you apply to and how they are organized. A good place to start is via the annual report and website to see the divisions (R&D, Marketing, etc) and breakdowns (R&D might have discovery, development, and clinical, e.g.). Delve into this structure to see what their 3 or 4 areas of therapeutic focus are. Then tailor your application to reflect how you will fit in and add value to what they do.

What’s going to differentiate you?

#1 COMMUNICATION, or the ability to explain the work you do to different people in different ways, in one minute or thirty minutes. However, if you have thirty minutes to explain your work, and you do so in exactly thirty minutes, you have failed, because you never let the other person ask questions to clarify or expand on their knowledge (nor did you learn anything from them!). 

#2 TEAMWORK:  in industry almost nothing happens that doesn’t rely on a lot of other people. A rep from the lab team might be a part of a process team involving formulation, clinical manufacturing, QC and cell culture experts; a rep from that team might align with clinical, safety assessment and marketing groups; and once you have a product, someone will bring it together with the rest of the therapeutic area franchise, say in oncology, respiratory or immune/inflammatory areas. So you have to be able to work effectively as part of a team to accomplish anything important.  Consider your activities, both academic and not, that demonstrate that you contributed to a team's success.

#3 RESILIENCE:  not everything you do will be successful, so start learning now to not take it personally as you are rejected from job applications. Always remember that if you have never failed, you haven’t pushed yourself (or you have lived a dull life!).

Many more questions from the audience touched on whether to include skills not relevant to the job, if cover letters are really read, and trends in pharma in the next 5 years. The group left with a better understanding of the industry environment, and some next steps to consider to help rule in or out a career in industry.