Bartlomiej Tomaszewski

Project manager in the pharmaceutical/biotech industry, UK
Former researcher in Biochemical Engineering at the Technical University of Dortmund (TU Dortmund), Germany

Academic research experience

I worked as a PhD student (Marie Curie Early Stage Researcher) at TU Dortmund for four years. The focus of my work was on development of continuous flow biocatalytic process. The foundation work to gain insight into the enzyme reaction stability was on the reaction engineering. Further down the line I focused on reactor design and implemented a tube-in-tube design for the first time in the field of biocatalysis. This was a major improvement over some traditional batch processing. My doctorate gave me a solid foundation in molecular biology, bacterial fermentation, protein production and purification, and development of continuous enzymatic processes.

Prior to that, as an undergraduate student, I’d been heavily involved in research when completing two Erasmus exchanges in Scotland in the department of Pure and Applied Chemistry at the University of Strathclyde. After my master’s degree at Technical University of Lodz (Poland) I returned to the UK for a short research assistantship at Newcastle Medical School. The major outcome of this busy time was a strong publication record. This turned out to be pretty important when I applied for the PhD position in Dortmund, as were the hands-on experiences in academic research and the flexibility gained while working abroad on projects in chemistry and medicine.

A multitude of factors influenced my decision to leave academic research. Foremost among these were earnings potential and commitment required.

Starting salaries in industry for PhD scientists –at least in Germany– are higher than those in academia. This is not necessarily true elsewhere in Europe, but I thought that I personally could attain a better salary in industry.

Developing a career in academia in Germany would also mean starting “habilitation”, a six- or seven-year period at one university where the focus again is to publish and supervise PhD students. I was not entirely happy with the overwhelming pressure in an academia that operated on the “publish or perish” incentive. But ultimately, habilitation was ruled out as for personal reasons I couldn’t commit to staying in Germany that long.

Transition from academic research

My transition to industry started approximately three months before my PhD viva. This was when I first started reading through a multitude of job adverts and applying for jobs. I was always certain that I want to develop in the field of biocatalysis, hence all my initial applications were for biotech companies or contract research organisations (CROs). But I also considered biopharmaceutical companies in the field of biosimilars.

The whole process lasted nearly eight months. The most frustrating rejections were those without a reason. The fact that all that time spent – nearly two hours every time to rewrite the cover letter and the resume – was wasted because I didn’t even pass the first hurdle, was a real pain. As time went by I was losing self-esteem and hope and eventually widened my search simply trying to get my foot in the door no matter where. Of course, this flurry of unsolicited applications did not result in any offers.

In parallel, however, I was in contact with some colleagues from my professional network, simply inquiring about new openings at their companies. As a result I got to know one particular contract development and manufacturing organisation (CDMO) in Northern Ireland. Having been alerted that there would be some job openings coming up in the field of biocatalysis, I kept refreshing their career website, and when the job advert went live I applied. This was the only application that went well and I was eventually considered for an onsite interview. In the meantime I worked as a dishwasher in one of the prominent restaurants in Reykjavik (Iceland).

The overwhelming feeling that accompanied me throughout those eight long months was a feeling of frustration. Every application process took two weeks at best. During that time the uncertainty was daunting, and when the email came from HR, initial agitation and excitement was quickly silenced with a bucket of iced cold water.

Without help from my professional network I would not have gotten that job in Northern Ireland. Unless you’re brilliant in your field and a proud author of Nature publications, without proper guidance and friends in the right positions, transition from academia to industry is difficult.

So, six months after my PhD defence I started as a biocatalysis chemist at the CDMO in Northern Ireland; my dreams came true. I was the first-line researcher in the biocatalysis group. We worked by applying enzymes and developing biocatalytic processes for “big pharma”, for perfume and cosmetics industries, for agrochemical companies, and small biotech virtual companies. We provided world-class services in development, engineering and manufacturing of enzymes, and applied those in a way to suit customer needs, often leading to cheaper and cleaner processes.  

A change of role

After one and a half years I moved to project management within the same company and started managing projects I’d previously worked on. The transition was driven by my personal goals for further career development. I’d also realised that career progression as a scientist took a long time – two to three years to a senior chemist position, five to seven to technical leader, seven to ten to group leader. The scientist salaries were competitive compared to other companies within that field but I felt the scientist role was greatly underappreciated. I therefore decided to gain some transferable skills and moved to project management.  

Moving jobs within the same company was easier than the initial job search. However, having no project management experience other than managing my own projects I needed to prepare myself and demonstrate my interest in project management. To show my genuine interest I signed up for a project management course within the company. The course enabled me to learn what the project management was and gave insight into people management, negotiations, organisation of meetings and time management. Half way through the course I applied for the project manager (PM) job opening through the company career website.

Current job – and how it compares

In my first year as a PM I have led multi-disciplinary project teams – chemists, analysts, quality assurance and quality control specialists, and plant chemists – in successful delivery, planning and execution of high value manufacturing projects in the Good Laboratory Practice/Good Manufacturing Practice (GLP/GMP) environment. I have gained deep understanding of industrial process development and technology transfer at all scales from laboratory to Phase I clinical trials supply. Throughout each project I’ve also been the main contact for external customers, chaired face-to-face meetings, provided updates, and led teleconferences between sponsors and technical teams, to provide the best customer service available.

The upsides of my new role have been gaining transferable skills, learning how to cope with client expectations and tackle project difficulties, gaining confidence in taking on new responsibilities, and the opportunity to lead and motivate the team in successful delivery of a project.

The downsides include coping with project failure and delay and having to communicate that to the client. Also, I am office-based for more than eight hours each day and most of the time I don’t make scientific decisions or contributions to the project.

Working as a researcher in academia or industry offers more flexibility when it comes to planning the work day. The day is filled with experimental work mainly, whereas the daily schedule of a PM is much more constrained by project meetings, conference calls and the company production schedule.

Competencies old and new

As a PM, I benefit from my academic experience for giving me deeper understanding of the development and manufacturing process from a technical perspective. By understanding the biology and chemistry of a project I have greater confidence in making certain decisions. Without those years of hands-on experience I would have felt more insecure and dependent upon the entire project team when making some simple, but urgent, calls.

I had to learn people management from scratch. Managing a project team is different from managing students at the university. The project team is more complex and the project has several parallel goals. In addition, as most of the people are also involved in other projects, the PM often has to manage priorities and get things done without direct line supervision over particular individuals. This is the most difficult aspect of the job. I also had to familiarise myself with the financial aspect of projects, writing change orders, preparing quotes, tracking budgets and procuring raw materials.

Probably the most important transferable skill learned on the job is the time management, planning, and dealing with interruptions.

Reflections on my career path

Research is not easy. It can be daunting and not rewarding for a long time. There are a lot of sacrifices and most of these concern work-life balance. I wish I’d known that scientists in general are not well paid. It takes a long time to get a decent salary. I wish I’d known that getting hired after finishing the PhD is not easy either.

My future plans are to continue where I am and pursue opportunities that will allow me to have more scientific input into the manufacturing/industrial sector, but at the same time excel in people management and communication.

My advice

These days, I often look back on my life in academia and idealise it. I frequently miss it and think of going back and doing lab work again. I tend to forget why I decided to move out of the lab – to try something new, to avoid exposure to toxic chemicals and solvents, to gain more transferable skills. If solving puzzles is of utmost importance to you and you love it, there is a high chance that office work will not give you that. In that case, you should consider staying in the lab despite the circumstances because finding satisfaction from alternative work might be difficult.

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