Project management as a bridge between roles in science and business

Project Manager: Becky Urbanek, Global Compliance Resource & Project Sr. Manager, AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals Most chemists, whether in industry, government, academia, or some other setting, have worked on a research project at some point. So, who starts the project, who leads it, and who is responsible for its outcome? In academia, it’s likely to be your advisor. In industry, it turns out, there’s a separate discipline devoted to formulating and sharing best practices in the management of projects. Not unexpectedly, this discipline is called project management, and the people who oversee the day-to-day management of the projects are…(drumroll, please)…project managers. Try a quick search of “project manager” or a closely related query on any job search engine. The results suggest that project managers can be found across a variety of industries: construction, information technology, advertising, and many others. Project management of scientific projects is but a small piece of the larger project management pie. (Mmmm…pie) That said, managing a scientific project is the most common way a chemist is likely to transition into such a role.

Becky Urbanek, Ph.D., Global Compliance Resource & Project Sr. Manager. Courtesy Photo

With enough experience and, yes, street cred, chemists—with their vast array of transferable skills—are often called upon to be research project managers. Such an opportunity was presented to Becky Urbanek, whose chemistry background [B.S., chemistry, Ohio Northern U., 1993; Ph.D., organic chemistry (natural product total synthesis), Univ. of Minnesota, 1998] led to her recent role as a Principal Scientist and medicinal chemist* at AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals. It became evident that management of projects afforded her some additional transferability. Last year, an announcement was made that all drug discovery activities would cease at her site. Becky was able to transition to another role on the business side of the organization, and is now Global Compliance Resource & Project Sr. Manager. “I had been a project manager for drug discovery projects for several years and really loved that role," Becky said.  "I didn’t fully appreciate that project management was a developed profession on its own until the announcement of our site closing and I began to plan for what would come next.” Becky's contacts in other parts of the company were a valuable asset. “I spoke with other project managers that I knew within AstraZeneca and beyond and they recommended courses and that I join the PMI (the Project Management Institute) to further explore project management as a career path," she said.  "I found out about my current job by watching the internal job postings and then networking within the company to learn more about it.” Before proceeding, let’s pause to define what a project is and is not. The definition comes from the PMI, mentioned above, a professional association for project management and globally recognized as one of its leading authorities. A project is defined as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.” The key word here is temporary—a project always has an end, or handoff of some kind. Projects are distinct from operations, which are the ongoing efforts an organization must undertake to sustain its core business. With such a broad definition, projects can be found within any business or function (or in the home—wallpapering a bedroom is a project…and good way to enhance your profanity repertoire). Whether formal project management methods are used is completely up to the individual company. Project management provides a framework for analyzing and planning a project’s lifecycle. Project management formally divides project activities into categories and more easily managed bits, referred to as processes. The PMI and other professional associations are there to provide guidance, not mandate how projects must be run. It’s somewhat like a menu—choose what works best depending on the project and the people actually doing the work. Becky’s role involves establishing a project management office (or PMO) to oversee a portfolio of related projects involving compliance with US and foreign government regulations as well as internal practices. The regulations cover diverse areas such as anti-bribery/corruption, data protection and patient privacy.

Not the PMBOK guide – but only slightly scarier, and a tad more bitey. From Flickr user kk99

A useful project management reference can be found the PMI’s main publication, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, or PMBOK Guide. The guide’s goal is to document and standardize generally accepted project management information and practices. Knowledge of project management processes can also be quite helpful while working within a project, even if you aren’t its manager. It gives you an appreciation of the complexity of managing a project, and can help you understand the context behind certain project-related decisions. A common adage within the field is that communication takes up 90% of a project manager’s time. Becky says that much of her day is spent “talking with the various project leaders of the projects in our portfolio to understand their projects—their resource needs, interdependencies with other projects, status of deliverable timelines and budget situation." "I also develop or help identify the tools necessary to track the portfolio of projects, resourcing demand, and such—my skills with Excel from my previous career help with that, she said. "A lot of time spent on the phone, since it’s a global role, and the computer.” Becky says she has no regrets about leaving the bench. “I had made the decision many years ago to exit the lab, but I do miss being involved in discovery research projects," she said. "There was such excitement in drug discovery teams when you were making good progress and you believed that you really could positively impact patients’ lives.” The impending site closure was undoubtedly an impetus to seek a new position internally, but Becky was also attracted to the role because “it sounded interesting!" "It was a great opportunity to move within AstraZeneca in to another function that I knew nothing about, and also give me visibility across other areas of the business," she said. "It would give me experience as a project/portfolio manager outside of Pharma R&D, making me more marketable. I believe that project management is a growth area as it spans many sectors.” *And in the spirit of full disclosure, my former colleague.

Author: Glen Ernst

Chemistry and pharma researcher and manager. Lifelong passion for science, the arts and language. Blogger for CENtral Science, also blogging as The Scientist Next Door. LinkedIn:

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  1. Thought this might be of interest: published June 2011 –

    Project Management for the Pharmaceutical Industry

    Written firmly from the perspective of the pharmaceutical industry, Laura Brown and Tony Grundy’ offer a guide to the tools and techniques of project management. They cover both the technical and human aspects of project management to provide clinical research, drug development and quality assurance managers or directors with a must-have reference.

  2. Since I was let go from my company, it has been very stressful and difficult to move forward. The relationship between your spouse, because you’re relying on their income and your siblings asking when will you get your next job is very painful mentally. It’s tough on a single income.

    I am in the process of finding the job I want to do and throwing a broad net which can use my transferable skills. To touch on the transferable skills, you can say you have this to offer, but so does the other thousands of applicants. You can only come up with a limited ways to state how your experience can help a company. Other factors include the lack of experience you have for your ‘Dream Job”. We are caught in a catch 22 situation…how can we gain the experience if no one will take you on. Networking may help in some cases, for me personally, I have hit the brick wall many times.

    For someone with my experience, I thought my skills would be very valuable to certain sectors of industry I am interested, but trying to get the foot in the door is the problem. If I was to take a a course/training, what would be the chances of getting the job…? What about the Financial burden, calling recruiters (if you can find the right ones) , searching on the job boards (perhaps a waste of time because they are unreliable). I am still trying to see the light at the end of my tunnel…

  3. It was refreshing to read your article and how it applies to Chemists as they transition to Project Management. If you do not posses an MBA it becomes a skill that you acquire over time as opportunities are presented. Here is another article written from a chemists perspective that adds to the discussion.


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