Career area: Project management – EMBL Fellows' Career Service

EMBL Careers

A life science careers blog for early career researchers

This blog aims to inspire early career researchers exploring different career options. We provide interview-based profiles of life scientists working in diverse science-related careers and articles on a broad range of career-related topics, with new content added on a regular basis.

Career area: Project management

Project management is a broad term, and there are a variety of roles that involve project management or have the job title ‘project manager’.

Former researchers may have a role that involves managing projects within a specific functional area – for example, projects related to PhD training or grant funding within academic scientific administration or managing clinical trials or regulatory affairs projects in industry.

There are also many project management roles that coordinate projects that span different functional areas within an organization or company. One example would be a project management position linked to a specific drug discovery project, where the project manager works at the interface between the different functional teams involved in drug development such as early discovery, pre-clinical and CMC (Chemistry, Manufacturing, and Controls). Cross-functional project management roles also exist in the public sector and other types of companies.

When talking about their careers, many scientists in cross-functional project management roles mention that they enjoy that the work is dynamic and that it involves communication with lots of people. They also frequently mention that they like that it is detail-orientated but that it is focused on the entire project, not just a small part of the process. Challenges include the need to influence without having power, that it can be time intensive to gain/maintain an overview of everything in the project, and that day-to-day progress can be slow.

Roles and responsibilities

Project management roles typically are meeting-intense, and involve a range of strategic planning and communication activities. Possible tasks may include a subset of the following activities:

  • Strategy & collaborative decision-making:
    • creating, controlling and adjusting project plans: setting short and long-term goals, creating timelines, making budget/resource allocation plans, making contingency plans, identifying/flagging risks and deviations from the project plan,
    • moderating discussions with different stakeholders and team members to ideate and find consensus,
    • fostering strategies to promote a productive relationship between different stakeholders – encouraging communication, clarifying tasks, ensuring decisions are made in a timely manner, and mediating when conflicts arise,
    • maintaining an overview of the wider context of the project e.g. potential competitors, and relevant new research findings.
  • Communication at different levels:
    • Oral communication – including both individual and multi-stakeholder meetings at different levels:
      • regular interactions with team members to discuss progress and issues, and priorities
      • presentations to management,
      • being a representative / advocate for the project – presenting/discussing the project e.g. with potential external stakeholders.
    • Written communication: creating documentation and slide sets related to the project; writing minutes of project meetings; sharing information and questions via email.
  • Organization:
    • Organizing meetings
    • Monitoring project progress to ensure that goals and timelines are met

Knowledge and skills

In our careers & skills survey, 8 project managers told us about the competencies they used most often. The most commonly selected competencies were:

  • effective communication (selected by 88% of respondents)
  • team-work (75%)
  • organization (75%)
  • providing broader impact (63%)
  • problem-solving (63%)

Career entry and progression

Life scientists who enter cross-functional project management often do so in pharma, biotech or other science-based companies, where their scientific knowledge is required to understand the intricacies of the project. One way to enter these roles is to first move to a lab-based industry role, where you can gain an understanding of how different functional roles contribute to projects. However, direct entry from a PhD/postdoc into junior project management roles is possible in some companies/organizations; some pharma companies, for example, have traineeship roles in project management. A carefully crafted application, that demonstrates that you have successfully managed a project (either your research project or something from your extracurricular activtites) and are motivated to up-scale your project management skills for larger projects will be required to enter directly into project management.

Investing time to understand specific project management tools and methodologies can help you write a tailored application and impress at interview. If you would like to go into project management in non-scientific companies, a project management certification may also be beneficial. However, before spending time and money on certification courses, it is important to check whether a project management certification will increase your employability for the type of company/role you want. Where companies deal with a very specific environment with additional regulations and have their own project management methodology, they sometimes prefer to train you in this methodology themselves. If a certification will be advantageous, there are many project management certifications available including Prince2, PMP, Six Sigma, and Agile (used in particular in the IT sector). For projects at the EU level, the EU also has its own project management methodology PM2. Informational interviews and looking at job vacancy adverts can help you to understand which, if any, certification will be best for the specific sector and country you are targeting.

Why consider this career area?

In our careers and skills survey, scientists working in project management told us that they appreciate that their work:

● involves collaboration/ working closely in a team

● is financially rewarding

Want to learn more?

Sources / further information

Further internal resources

For EMBL fellows

Within EMBL, further internal resources (e.g. recorded career seminars) can also be found on our career exploration intranet pages.

Informational interviews

For all career areas, we highly recommend first learning more about the careers using the resources above, then conducting informational interviews to gain further insights directly from former PhDs working in career areas that interest you.

Last update: Sep 2023

EU flag and text, co-funded by the European Union
The EMBL Fellows' Career Service incorporates the EMBL Interdisciplinary Postdoc (EIPOD) career development programme. EI3POD and EIPOD4 have received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreements 664726 (2015-2020) and 847543 (2019-present) respectively.