Startup science: Tips and expectations for joining a biotech lab

Tina Wang

So you’re thinking of joining a startup? The past decade’s explosion of biotech startups has excited new grads and others from large corporations to join the scene. But nothing about the conception of an idea, starting a business, or building an entire team is a walk in the park.

I’ve been a part of two startup companies. One was 10 years old when I joined, and the other was barely getting its walls raised. Though these companies differed in age, they were also very similar in many ways. One consistency that most stood out to me was the passion for the work. Pioneering a technology that no one else possesses is a powerful motivation.

If you think joining a startup seems cool and fun, your personality and expectations should fit the following:

  • A true self-starter and motivator: You need to speak up for yourself, and say what’s on your mind. No one will constantly remind you to do this or that—you have to keep yourself in check. If you notice something is wrong, fix it. Don’t complain or nag others. Just do it yourself.
  • Check your ego: Job positions often aren’t tiered. It doesn’t matter if you have an AA, BS, MS, PhD, or whatever letters you have after your name. Everyone needs to pitch in, especially if there’s a time crunch and grunt work just has to be done. So make sure you’re humble, and that no task is beneath you. Expect to be part-time manager, part-time technician, part-time janitor, part-time plumber, and everything else in between.
  • There is no overtime: There’s no particular time of day when work starts or ends. So don’t watch the clock, and don’t twiddle your thumbs just because you’ve finished the task at hand. There’s always more work to do.
  • Casual work environment: Sure, you may not need to come to work in a pantsuit or button-down shirt. But don’t expect a proper meeting room or new office supplies, either. Your “conference room” may well be the breakroom table, and your office could be in a trailer.
  • Team player: Of course, this is always an expectation when joining any company. But it’s even more vital when joining one that doesn’t necessarily give you a defined set of tasks. One team may pull you in because they need more help, or you may offer help when you see someone struggling to meet a deadline. There’s no place for someone who wants to work alone.

Conversely, do not join a startup for these reasons or expectancies:

  • Flexible hours: Like I’ve stated, don’t watch the clock and count your hours. Even if there isn’t a fixed time, don’t waltz in at 11 a.m., leave at 4 p.m., and tell your boss you’re going to work at home. There’s always work to do, so don’t take advantage of a small business by coming and going as you please.
  • Free snacks and social hours: While this may be enticing, it can be distracting to the end goal, which is to make this business succeed. Taking constant breaks to eat free food, lay on bean bag chairs, and play ping pong can take a toll on meeting deadlines and overall productivity. Take breaks as needed, but they shouldn’t account for half the time you’re at work.
  • Fat paycheck: Sure, you’ll be compensated according to your education and background. But a small business generally doesn’t have the same funding and income that a large corporation might. Expect to be paid an appropriate amount, even if you think you’ll be overworked. After all, it’s a startup, and you’re largely there for the experience, not just the money. In fact, some startup CEOs pay themselves barely enough to cover their rent and groceries.
  • Climb the corporate ladder: As I mentioned, many startups aren’t tiered like large corporations or government. Everyone wears several different hats, and many of the responsibilities may overlap. So if you’re stuck in the same position after a few years, don’t always expect that you’ll eventually move up a pay grade. You may or may not, depending on how the company evolves. Take it one day at a time, and don’t expect to move linearly in your position.

So there you have it. Startups are a good way to learn and directly experience multiple aspects of a business while contributing to its exciting building and growth phases. But you need the right personality and motivation to join and thrive. Although the hours are long and everything is started from scratch, I chose to be part of a startup because it’s a place where my ideas come to life, and I get to learn something new every day. I hope this gives you some insight into the startup world.

Quartzy is the world’s No. 1 lab management platform. We help scientists easily organize orders, manage inventory, and save money. We’re free and always will be. Visit or reach out at

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Tina Wang has a M.S. from Cal Poly, SLO and a B.S. from University of California, Santa Cruz. She is a plant molecular biologist by training and currently working at her second biotech start-up job as a multi-tasking science ninja (aka lab manager). She is a mom to a baby boy and a furkid.

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