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Alumni Advice: Scientist Christopher Salatto Finds Method for Success at Pfizer

Christopher Salatto, UVM alum
Christopher Salatto

The average American worker keeps a job for about four to five years before moving on to something else. Not Christopher Salatto. The UVM alumnus, who graduated in 1997 with a degree in biology, has worked for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer for 17 years.

“You could say the length of my tenure at Pfizer is an anomaly compared to peers in other organizations,” says Salatto, a principal scientist focusing on the discovery of drugs to treat diabetes and liver, kidney, and cardiovascular diseases. After UVM, he went on to earn two master’s degrees from Brown University and Temple University School of Pharmacy, and an MBA from the University of Rhode Island.

For our Alumni Advice series, we talked to Salatto about finding mentors, building a personal brand, and how the UVM alumnus stays passionate working for a company he joined back in 1998.

What are some of the benefits of working for the same company for so many years?

There are both benefits and challenges to staying at the same company for a large portion of one’s career. One advantage is the opportunity to develop a robust network across many disciplines and functions, which can take a number of years in an organization as vast and diverse as Pfizer’s. This network can then be leveraged not only to support my role as a drug discovery scientist but also to seek out opportunities to develop new skills and expand my knowledge of a very complex business — the latter being one of the drivers that led me to pursue advanced degrees in regulatory affairs and business.

Similar to many large companies, the culture at Pfizer historically encouraged employees to settle into a lifelong career at the company; however, I have seen this slowly change over the past decade as the needs and expectations of both employees and employers evolve. From the employee perspective, especially in the science and technology fields, capital investments have led to rapid proliferation of exciting opportunities at startups — which is evident in a walk through Cambridge’s Kendall Square — while employers have benefited from a more mobile workforce, allowing them to be more nimble.

What are some challenges of staying in the same company?

One of the most common challenges is complacency. It is important to feel content in your role, but you need to watch out for becoming too comfortable and not maintaining a focus on building the career you intended. An excellent way to do this is to always be benchmarking against both internal and external roles to make certain that you’re in a position that is the best fit for your current needs and supports your aspirations. Internally, this can be accomplished by open dialog with your line managers, as well as by establishing relationships with mentors. Also, be proactive about building a strong network outside of the company. This not only will help you benchmark external opportunities but will help you avoid another challenge of staying at one company: exposure to a single organizational culture. By opening your network and building an appreciation for how other companies operate, establish team dynamics, and tackle problem solving, you will be able to assess those external opportunities while possibly identifying best practices that you can bring back to your current role.

What keeps you passionate about your job?

I find it exciting to head to work each day knowing that I’ll be exploring ways to help patients with many of today’s most prevalent diseases. However, I’m also always on the lookout for new opportunities to grow as a scientist and a leader. Over my career this pursuit has helped me grow into roles that include directing a lab of biologists and leading drug discovery teams. Currently, I’m splitting my time between a drug discovery role in Cambridge, Mass., and a position at Pfizer’s New York headquarters that allows me to apply my research, regulatory, and business knowledge to corporate strategy.

What do you look for in a job candidate?

I look for initiative, drive, and passion. For entry-level scientists, I like to see that they have had a degree of laboratory experience, but expect that they may need to continue building their technical repertoire.

A typical candidate at Pfizer will meet with about a dozen scientists throughout the day discussing their relevant experience, job expectations and ability to work independently and in a team environment. I enjoy hearing about their accomplishments and give them an opportunity to talk about their particular interests and motivations, and find that these unscripted conversations really allow a candidate’s enthusiasm and passion to emerge.

What is a common mistake you see people make early in their careers?

Make sure that you have a strong advocate. Many people early in their careers solely rely on their manager to fill this role, but it is important that you act as your own advocate, too. Give yourself visibility by communicating with your leadership, let them know what you’re doing, and offer to take on additional responsibilities. Personally, it took me a few years early in my career to realize this, but once I did, my career started to blossom.  

Is it important to find mentors?

Yes, I believe that mentorship is a strong component of career development, and when looking for a mentor, you shouldn’t limit yourself to advice from just one perspective. At various stages of my career, I’ve sought out mentors from across my industry and at several points even outside my industry. In each case these interactions provided me with valuable advice, fresh directions and even novel ways to approach my career development. Mentoring relationships evolve over time, and most reach a natural conclusion after lasting anywhere from a single interaction to a years-long relationship; however, some may not work out. In these cases, don’t be discouraged, but take the time to seek out a new mentor, applying what you have learned from the previous relationship. Most importantly, return the favor by becoming a mentor.

What piece of advice would you give someone starting their career?

One piece of advice I received early in my career is to always make sure you’re building a brand for yourself and not just developing a skill set. Think about what you represent, how you want others to perceive you and how you can differentiate yourself. Once you’ve established these qualities, be certain that the decisions you make always support your brand.

This story was originally published by UVM Continuing and Distance Education.