The Difference Between Science and Business

I’ve had the fortune of meeting with a lot of talented first year MBA students over the past few months. As a recent graduate myself, I enjoyed learning about peoples’ backgrounds and their career ambitions. Sitting here on the plane returning from a recruiting event in North Carolina (I wrote this post in fall 2015), I’ve been reflecting on the exceptional talent that currently exists at the top MBA programs.

Something stood out to me from these events – there is a surprising amount of people with scientific backgrounds in business school today, some of which even have their PhDs and want to transition into business through the MBA. These career switchers seem to be recruiting mainly for consulting roles or pharmaceutical roles in the health care industry.

As current first-year MBAs are neck-deep in recruiting, I thought it may be worthwhile to write a post about the differences between working in science and business. This would be based on my own experiences and observations, and also from my conversations with the folks who came before me. My core readers are people with non-traditional backgrounds trying to break into business, and this may be of interest to you all.

Many of the folks I’ve met have read my blog and it’s very motivating to learn this. My sincere thanks to folks who have stopped by just to say hi.

Science is about individual contribution, business is about leadership

When you’re working in the lab, whether it’s academic or in industry, you are expected to do experiments or lab work. When I was working at the NIH, I observed post-bacc’s (like myself), PhD students, post-docs and PIs. I do think the best PIs must have leadership skills, but the pinnacle of a person’s scientific career – say a Nobel Prize – is not based on said person’s leadership skills, but their scientific brilliance.

When you are in science, you are an individual contributor. Your performance is evaluated based on your output. One common compliment for young scientists is that they have “good hands” – I’m sure some of you have heard this before. For the aspiring scientist, a first author paper on a prestigious journal is career-making, which indicates that this person did the most work and wrote the paper.

Success in business, on the other hand, is based on a person’s leadership skills. No CEO became CEO because this person was the best programmer, or best designer, or came up with the best ideas. It was because the most talented folks wanted to work for this person, and said person created the necessary environment and systems for talent to thrive and work in an organized and effective manner.

Scientists who want to get into business need to change their mindset from being a top contributor and into an effective leader. The MBA teaches this, but there is so much flexibility in MBA programs that it’s easy to miss this. I personally didn’t pick up on this until my internship when I had the opportunities to engage with leaders in a real way for the first time. That’s why I immersed myself in developing well-rounded leadership skills in my second year of the MBA.

I’m not saying you’re not expected to contribute individually as a recently minted MBA graduate in an entry level business role. In fact, in your first few roles out of MBA you will be expected to lead projects versus leading people and teams which would be a secondary priority. However, to move up in business you must demonstrate your leadership potential and have the ability to create a collaborative environment and motivate others to perform.

Business is all Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

I can count on one hand how many talks by senior leaders where there was no mention of the word Emotional Intelligence, or EQ. It’s almost a bit repetitive hearing about it so much, but it’s only spoken of so much because it is true. When you’re in business, it’s all about the people, the relationships you forge with them, and the influence you wield.

When you’re in science, it is no exaggeration that you could spend an entire day and not talk to a single person. Man, when I was doing week-long experiments, I needed that space so I could focus and not mess up and lose months of work because I forgot to add a reagent or two. However, in business you could be in meetings all day and must do individual work in-between meetings.

When folks ask me what was the most unexpected thing about transitioning into business, the amount of meetings and the engagement required was the one that always comes to my mind. That was the single biggest thing I remember from my internship. As an MBA intern, you are expected to lead meetings with vendors, matrix team members, and your own team. It’s very interesting (and fun) since you are essentially leading without influence. During your MBA application process, this is also something schools measure you on.

It was a new culture for me to adapt to at first, since I was used to thinking on my own and only contributing to the portion of work that I was responsible on team projects. I was fortunate and received feedback on this during my internship and after I realized that this was a developmental opportunity I seized the moment and began working on my interpersonal skills and how to motivate others.

That’s why in my second year I took mostly classes that were experiential – classes that gave me the opportunity to practice this skill. Business Improv is an example of this, where I discuss here in my blog. This is really where I think science and business separate – in science, you’re measured mainly on your IQ. You could be the most difficult-to-work-with person but if you produced results it was considered okay. This would be a major red flag in business, as it’s all about team performance.

If you’re going for an MBA, you probably already know this. My advice would be to be more deliberate in training this skill and being comfortable in big teams and leading them – formally or informally. It’s all about finding the right opportunities during the MBA to do this well.


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