PhD Career Series: Product Management

Is Product Management the Right Fit For You?

Product management can be a very rewarding and exciting career for many. Not only do you get to use your scientific background and knowledge, you also get to learn many things spanning sales to finance to law. It can be challenging, but at the same time you will become a more deeply-rooted scientist while learning the business behind what makes your customer tick. You will gain deep satisfaction from helping your customer solve their scientific problem or needs.

Your day will never be boring. You will interact with various cross-functional groups and it is these relationships with your team and customers that will drive the success of your product. The product that you ‘own’ or manage could also be a science-based product that relates directly to your thesis work or prior hands-on experience. So in reality, it’s almost like you never left off. As you evolve and gain credibility in your role, you will be viewed as the technical expert, much like your PhD where you focused on one very particular topic.  It is this expertise that spans across the company as you drive your product and new ideas to market.

Product management will open up many doors and opportunities for you in the future. So if you are considering an alternative PhD career, put product management at the top of your list. 

In order to grasp whether Product Management is a good fit for you, you must first fully understand what it is and why it is important. Businesses need to manage their growing product lines and the complexity of these products. Therefore, there are newly minted product managers created every day. All product managers and product leaders begin their journey from different points in their career continuum.

Keep in mind however, that one must first make the jump from academia into industry.  But the beauty for PhDs once they make the crossover is that product managers can come from almost every function. Whether that means you started out in Tech Services, R&D, or Sales- it is a great transition and stepping stone especially if you are burnt out from working at the bench. Rarely will anyone make the jump from PhD to product management without the necessary experience, but if you have your sights set on product management-there are steps that you can take to successfully enter this type of career.

The fact of the matter is, the role of a “Product Manager” is not-well defined and is company and industry-type dependent. You can mention to your friends that you are a Product Manager (or applying) for a Biotech company and you may get a look of confusion: “What is that? So what do you do? Are you some sort of sales rep?”

When you get this sort of question, you have two choices: just smile and nod or try to define what you actually ‘do’. This in itself is complex, which is why it makes such a great interview question. When I encounter this question-I have my short and sweet version. But now for my long version…

After reading this post, you should have a better understanding of the general role of a Product Manager, and how it is a great career opportunity for PhDs wanting to leave academia.

A narrow list of some other alternative PhD Careers was outlined in a previous article by Next Scientist, although it is surprising that Product Manager (or Marketing) was not listed, in addition to the steps needed to take to break into these careers right out of grad school.   As such, I would highly recommend purchasing an additional resource to get a more in-depth understanding of what each career involves and how to break into biotech/pharma.

Before we dive deeper, I would like to reiterate that there is no true definition for a product manager because the answer is so broad and encompasses many different disciplines/skill sets.  Additionally, there also really is no formalized training for product managers, as almost everything must be learned on the job.

As a PhD student, post-doc, or working professional who is interested in transitioning into product management, there are 5 important questions that must be answered in-depth in order to grasp the importance of this type of career:

  1. “What is Product Management?”
  2. “Why is Product Management Important?”
  3. “What does it take to be a successful Product Manager (another great interview question)”
  4. “Will you need a PhD/MBA and/or is it useful in this role?”
  5. “How can a PhD successfully break into the field?”

What is Product Management?

The best way to describe a newly minted product manager is someone who is lost in the desert. From day 1 you are trying to navigate your way around the company and orient yourself. Everything seems unfamiliar.  The only tool you have to use at your disposal (if any) is a compass. But it is up to you to find the right direction that you need to go for your product and for your team. This means there is no right or wrong answer. The endpoint could be the same, but the direction that you take is entirely up to you. It is your job to lead by influence, find who the go-to person is and assemble the ‘right’ teams. You must learn how to read the market and know where to take your product in the future and fend off competition. The truth of the matter is a product manager is the driving force or ‘mini-entrepreneur’ behind a product as they bring in skills from all different areas to adapt to drive revenue forward in an ever-changing and dynamic market. ~Me

To simplify, product management is the functional responsibility for strategic planning and tactical execution of a company’s new and existing products.  This includes overseeing all the activities and functions associated with a particular product or group of products. Going further, product managers act as a ‘field general’ for their product, coordinating activities spanning the diverse functional areas of a business to ensure a maximal return on product investment.

What is exciting about product management? You are the hub of knowledge about your product for the entire company. If you are a ‘people person’ this will help play on your strengths as you will be expected to know a great deal about your customers that make up your market. This means interacting with customers and associated companies in your market segment. Over time, you will build a reputation and will rely on not only short-term but long-term relationships with these customers.

A product manager is the liaison between sales, operations, technical support, legal and the technical product development team.

As a product manager, you will work across many different areas and disciplines:

You may seek information from the sales force regarding a customer’s needs and what the competition looks like. In return, the sales force will expect you to provide information about the product and the direction of the market-You will be responsible for training the sales force, providing sales/marketing collateral, and coming up with a sound marketing/sales strategy. Customer service/Tech Services will send you information about how to improve your product (i.e. defects, bugs, service requests, customer complaints). R&D may look to you for feedback from customers (VOC-Voice of Customer) to help them further improve/develop a product that is in the pipeline. The list goes on and on, and each day is a new challenge.

Variety is the name of the game: Each day is unique. Depending on where you are at in the product life cycle, you could be heavily involved in a different function or area (some daily, weekly, or monthly). But first we must understand what the Product Life Cycle entails.

A simplified model of the Product Life Cycle is shown below.

The ‘In-Depth’ Product Management Life Cycle involves 4 distinct phases:

  1. Discovery and Innovation
    1. Market Insight/Strategy
  2. New Product Planning
    1. Concept
    2. Feasibility
    3. Definition
  3. New Product Innovation
    1. Development
    2. Launch
  4. Post-Launch Product Management
    1. Performance Management
    2. Growth-Maturity-Decline
  • Discovery and Innovation (Market Insight/Strategy) could involve– (1) Market Insight: Identifying segment markets, defining customer targets and assessing customer needs, creating customer personas, defining industry trends, evaluating competitors, comparing competitor products; (2) Formulating a Strategy: Establishing a strategic baseline, SWOT Analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats), determining life cycle state, uncovering opportunities, integrating a product roadmap, aligning cross-functional teams, etc.
  • New Product Planning could involve: Prioritizing opportunities, producing opportunity statements, shaping value proposition, asserting competitive positioning, building prototypes, developing a business case, deriving forecasts, composing product requirements, preparing a launch plan, defining marketing mix model, establishing future metrics, conducting make vs. buy analysis, constructing product master plan, etc. 
  • New Product Introduction could involve: Overseeing development, managing scope and trade-offs, managing projects, securing regulatory approvals, synchronizing operations, orchestrating product launch, publishing marketing material collateral and educating the sales force, preparing service organization, announcing product, conducting analyst meetings, etc. 
  • Post-Launch Product Management could involve: Conducting post-launch audits, tracking customer satisfaction, leveraging cross-functional teams, reassessing industry movement/trends, reevaluating competitor actions, conducting win-loss studies, evaluating metrics and KPIs, analyzing product profit and loss, refining value based pricing, improving promotional programs, gauging channel performance, rationalizing portfolios, discontinuing products, etc.

Now that you have a better understanding of the Product Management Life Cycle Process, we can continue to define what product management is.

Again, each company is unique in defining a product management role. You may own a very specific product portfolio or may be responsible for a large group of products. Some companies (particularly smaller companies) will give you more latitude in terms of how structured the position is. The advantage here is that you have the potential to make more of an impact, be closer to the decision making process, and learn more by doing more.

In other words, with less support (i.e. marketing) you will have more responsibility. Larger companies may be more structured in defining your role and responsibilities as a product manager. Therefore, no two product manager roles are the same and are largely company dependent.

Why is Product Management Important?

Without a product management process, the new product development could lead to chaos and result in high costs and failure rates. Additionally, customers (patients, doctors, scientists, etc.) can become overwhelmed with volumes of material and ads containing product information. Without marketing, a new technology may go unnoticed, but when you couple a superb marketing campaign with a product that meets a customer’s expectations- it has a high chance for success.

See The 4 P’s and questions to keep in mind when it comes to a successful marketing campaign: Product, Price, Place, Promotion

A product manager’s job is to accurately convey this information, capture the voice of the customer, and come up with novel ideas to meet a customer’s needs (real needs, not perceived needs). The ultimate goal in this case is to help the customer solve their scientific problem. Therefore, product managers  are the driving force behind  this process.

As mentioned before, the beauty of product management is the range of activities for which you will be responsible for and the wide-variety of skills/knowledge you will acquire in the process. The expectations are HIGH, but the variety and excitement of being the “jack of all trades” means you will never have a boring day and you will be constantly challenged to grow and significantly contribute to your organization’s success.

Keep in mind, as a product manager-you are ultimately responsible and accountable for the success of failure of the product. That means it is your job to educate the sales force because they are your eyes and ears, and in turn help you establish that relationship with the customer. After all, the success of your product ultimately depends on your customer. You will also need to effectively implement marketing campaigns, develop new products to stay competitive, develop pricing  and launch strategies, etc.

What does it take to be a successful Product Manager?

I think you can imagine the wide variety of professional attributes and skills needed to be successful as a product manager. There are too many to list them all, but if you have an entrepreneurial drive and spirit, are a leader and highly influential, enjoy a challenge, are a self-starter/critical thinker, are able to prioritize multiple tasks, work well in teams, are an effective communicator, work well under pressure, and want to use your scientific knowledge in a business setting, then Product Management might be a great fit for you.

So from this, there are 5 soft skills that will separate the “best from the rest”: Leadership, influence, persistence, passion, and focus.

Product managers are business people who work across functions and serve to integrate or synchronize the work of others so that products and portfolios can be planned, developed, launched, and managed.

To put it in perspective, if you want to build a house, what would you do first? Would you hire an architect? Go find a building contractor? Employ a surveyor to determine the “lay of the land”? Who would the best person to synchronize the work of various people who must be involved in achieving the desired outcome? That would be the general contractor (GC) who coordinates the timing and flow of work activities because the GC knows how to build the whole house. The GC has the ability to anticipate problems and the finesse needed to coordinate proper scheduling and setting priorities. Product managers, just like GCs, must be able to:

  • Communicate clearly to people in all functions
  • Garner respect from people in those functions
  • Appreciate the timing and coordination of work produced by people in those functions and anticipate that there will be problems to be solved along the way
  • Create a shared vision with all those concerned
  • Know enough to recognize the quality of the work performed in the fulfillment of the vision

I think you get the idea. However, apart from the long list of soft and hard skills that are required of a product manager, balancing competing priorities can be one of the biggest challenges.

Balancing Competing Priorities: The 80/20 Rule

Focus on the 20% that really matters. That 20% produces 80% of your results

If you want to be a bad product manager, do everything yourself. You’re the product manager, after all, so you should be the final authority on everything related to the product. You should be the one answering questions from salespeople, drafting press releases for marketing, defining all of the processes for suppliers, and pouring over every detail with engineering. Sure it takes a lot of your time, but that’s what a product manager should be spending time on. What other more important things are there to do?”

On the other side of that coin, a good product manager is able to delegate tactical activities which allow you to spend time on the strategic aspects of your job. Effective product managers will pass on product knowledge and responsibilities for tactical decision-making to the product development team when necessary and be able to assess their time accordingly.

Since product management involves interacting with various functional counterparts across the organization, you will soon find that you are at the center of competing priorities (strategic vs. tactical). Among these priorities, there are those that will further your product line objectives and those that will not. So how do you balance your time? Each product manager will learn what works best for them over time, but the 80/20 rule is a great way to assess how your time should be spent-and this will come with experience.

With that said, balancing competing priorities can span many different examples and will depend on your responsibilities and job duties. The requests for your time and attention will span from answering a question raised by a customer service representative to doing a conference call with a customer or sales rep to answering a mass group of emails.

Examples of the 80/20 rule include:

  • 80% of your business comes from 20% of your customers
  • 20% of your product or service range contributes to 80% of your profit
  • 80% of customer complaints originate from 20% of the causes
  • 20% of your individual effort and time achieves 80% of the desired results
  • 80% of your business productivity loss results from 20% of the causes
  • 20% of your staff is responsible for 80% of the business outputs and results
  • 80% of the value in the business is generated by 20% of the processes

Will you use your PhD?

The short answer as to whether you will use your PhD and scientific training: Yes (as explained above).

First, it is important to point out that there is no fixed education requirement for marketing positions and can vary company by company. An advanced degree is extremely helpful, but in most cases it is not required. A PhD will give you a huge leg up and will improve your ability to understand and explain the science behind the brand or your product(s). This in turn will increase your overall effectiveness. Additionally, having a PhD will give you more credibility with customers and key opinion leaders, and can add tremendous value to your marketing team.

If you are considering applying/interviewing for a product manager position there are four key factors that are important (in my opinion):

The education required [desired] for a position, the dependence companies place in that position’s impact in driving their revenues, the company culture, and the location of job. ~ Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News

The first 3 things listed here are key factors in not only interviews but also on the job.

What you have to pick out from this is that product managers can have a large impact on driving company’s revenues. This is what is exciting about the role as you will carry a lot of responsibility. But at the same time, the scientific expertise that you acquire while pursuing your PhD is a key factor. Someone who is a hybrid-who understands the science AND the business will add tremendous value.

You have probably heard that it is much easier to teach a scientist business but it is much harder to teach a business professional science. Therefore, someone with a PhD may be viewed more favorable than someone without (i.e. an MBA with no science background)-but it come down to your fit with the company culture (i.e. personality), past experience, technical background, knowledge of the market, etc.

What about an MBA?

This begs the next question as to whether obtain an MBA for a product management role in biotech/pharma. Although an MBA may allow you to acquire new business knowledge and understanding, the answer is that a lot of what you will learn as a product manager (and what will be required of you) most likely cannot be learned in a classroom. This means that the experience takes precedence over education (as with many cases). Therefore, an MBA is not “necessary” but can be helpful, depending on the role. Although taking a business class may teach you something like Net-Present Value (NPV) and could help you when doing a 5 year sales forecast-this does not mean that this cannot be learned on the spot (especially if you are a quick-learner).

What matters beyond your PhD once you graduate is not your fancy degree, the amount of papers you have published in prestigious journals, or how many business classes you have taken. It all comes down to value, and how you can demonstrate this from day 1. If you cannot perform, a PhD/MBA/MD/JD is meaningless to an employer. So before you decide to pursue an MBA and fork over $80K+ (for a good business school), work for a few years as a product manager or in industry (in general) and decide from there it if is necessary or not.

How to Break Into The Field of Product Management

1)      The Best Starting Point: 5 Ways To Gain Experience Outside of Your Academic Training

2)      Network to Land a Summer Internship: These types of internships often translate into full-time jobs , which is highly dependent on your performance and fit in the company culture.

3)      Starting out in sales is a great way to learn about marketing, see how customers make purchasing decisions, and understand issues that sales is faced with. Sales may be intimidating to scientists but serves as an important role to educate other doctors/scientists about products.  You’ll learn how to communicate with customers and understand their needs.

4)      Not feeling sales? Consider a role as a medical science liaison. Chances are that your science or medical background will qualify you for this position and be very valuable.

5)      Apply for positions such as technical services, field application scientist, project manager, or join a product development team. Working closely with marketing/product management teams will make this transition much easier

6)      If you got your foot in the door already at a biotech company, request an internship or rotation as a product specialist, associate product manager, or in marketing. Many times if you take on a product specialist role you will eventually be promoted to a product manager.

7)      Have additional ideas? Please comment below!

Recommended Books for Further Reading:

My Top 3: