Schools, Networks, Companies: Does Size Matter?  


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August 1, 2019 6:46 pm  

From my viewpoint, this is completely dependent on what you need at each step in your educational and professional careers.

On beginning undergrad, I had narrowed down my choices between going to the University of Miami (11,380 undergrads in 2015) vs. Mercer University (4,419 undergrads in 2015). Since Mercer was the only school I had visited, I decided to go there.

After graduation, I was faced with a similar decision size-wise for graduate school – to go to University of Texas – Austin (52,059 total enrollment in 2015) vs. Emory University (14,769 total enrollment in 2014). Emory University aligned more with my desired trajectory, and I chose to matriculate there.

Subsequently, I have worked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Emory University, and now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; all have 14K+ employees and can be considered the equivalent of large corporations. Whether you attend a large/small school or work at a large/small business, there are advantages and disadvantages to each.

At Mercer, I definitely benefited from the small class sizes that resulted in actually knowing my professors. More so, all of my classes, including my larger science classes, were taught by professors rather than teaching assistants.

Since the school was small, and the chemistry department a microcosm of it, there was less competition and more emphasis on learning. Due to the size, even extracurricular activities allowed many of us to take on leadership roles and impact our local campus community in more meaningful ways.

This lead to a better sense of community.

The cafeteria lines were also much shorter. However, there were a few drawbacks from attending a smaller school. For example, there was less variety in terms of class offerings and times. As a double major in Spanish language and chemistry, I found myself choosing the science offering that semester, and delaying my Spanish classes for later semesters. There was also less grant funding in our science department. At the time of matriculation, Mercer had no major sports teams but has since started a football team that has increased school spirit dramatically. Finally, there is a lack of privacy that comes along with being a part of any small community.

While at Emory, I enjoyed many of the benefits of being in graduate school in a smaller department with the added benefit of not only internal but external grant funding. Again, as part of a smaller department at a larger institution, you are in a small-scale version of the whole. This is ideal in the sense that it is a small school environment backed by a big parent.

At this point school size became irrelevant to me, and I turned my focus towards expanding my network. In my experience, the size of your network matters little compared to the quality of persons in your network. Do you have solid mentors, sponsors, and a support system? Aside from size, you have to assess the quality of your interactions with the influencers that you surround yourself with and begin strategically seeking places where you can meet these persons. In many cases, your network will determine your future place of employment, among other things.

Working at larger places of employment has its benefits and drawbacks, too. At CDC, I understand how I fit as the cog in the machine. There is an obvious structure. As a larger organization, there is also an attractive benefits package that smaller organizations may not be able to offer.

Moreover, there are more opportunities to move internally if you become dissatisfied in your current department or simply want to gain another skill. Larger companies tend to offer a lot training and professional development programs, and may even offer to pay for advanced degrees.

Conversely, change moves at the speed of a turtle. There may be less camaraderie among coworkers, you might be relegated to doing the same thing repeatedly, and upward mobility may be stagnant as there are few supervisorial jobs compared to worker jobs. Persons employed at smaller companies may enjoy varied tasks, any achievement or failure does not go unnoticed, may get to know coworkers more familiarly, and the same problem of upward mobility may exist as senior managers are not readily leaving those positions.

Does Size Matter? Absolutely. Still, this is contingent upon understanding in what type of environments that you flourish best.

Dave Jensen
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August 2, 2019 9:51 pm  

Thanks Ron. Nice post, appreciate the input. 

I agree that "size" is so important when choosing the ultimate best job match (or best school match as you point out). I think that early in one's career, it would be great if it were almost mandatory to get a job experience in a small company and one in a large company. 

My personal experience includes both, and I far preferred the smaller company -- so much so, that I eventually sought my own business and probably work harder now than ever before in my life. So it's not necessarily EASIER, just different.

I hope we have some other commentary posted here about the difference between large and small companies and that people tell us why they've been on one side of the fence or the other.


Dave Jensen, Founder and Moderator
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Dick Woodward
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August 3, 2019 9:30 pm  

I have worked in small companies and huge companies, and the differences are huge. In small companies, a single employee can make an enormous impact - either positive or negative. This impact-making person can be at many levels in the company - not necessarily at the "C" or "VP" level. In larger companies, for the impact to affect the entire company, it usually comes from the senior level. However, it is somewhat easier for a single person to impact a division of the larger company, but still harder than in a small company.

In a small company, especially in companies less than 100 FTEs, there is literally no place to hide - everybody knows everybody (generally on a first-name basis) and knows who is contributing to success and who is a drag on the enterprise. I have even seen cases where the drag on the enterprise was the CEO.

In big companies, it is easy to hide and not be noticed. In one large company that I worked for, there was a fellow who had a sign on his lab saying "in the office" and a sign on the office saying "in the lab" (two separate buildings) while he was actually off campus involved in other affairs (literally, rumor had it). This went on for quite some time before he got found out. Another fellow was a lot like Wally in the Dilbert comics - did his job as inconspicuously as possible in order "to keep [his] stress level down". This went on for years until at one reorganization, no one could point to why he should be kept.

I personally prefer the small company atmosphere, although I have had fun in big companies as well. One of the best jobs that I ever had was with the first company that I worked for. Our division made molecular biology tools and reagents that were sold to academic and industrial labs. Without exactly asking for permission (but with a couple of winks from senior people) I started an internal business selling these products in bulk to our competitors (lab supplies is an incestuous business - everybody buys from everybody else) and to industrial firms who repackaged our stuff for their diagnostic kits. By the time that people started to notice this, the business had taken off, and at one point (after it was noticed) was over 13% of the company's sales. This could never have happened in a small company.

What made the job fun was that the job description was whatever I wanted it to be, and I had almost no reporting requirements, since no one quite understood what I was doing. When I went on the road, I left an itinerary with my boss's secretary. Once a month, I sent him a memo telling him what I had sold that month, and once a quarter sent a memo telling him how much commission he owed me.

The moral of the story is that while big and small companies are very different, there is opportunity in both sorts of companies.


Dave Jensen
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August 4, 2019 1:14 am  

Great stories Dick, thanks for the additional comments. Your story of how that fellow "hid" in the shadows at the larger company and kept his head down is only something that could happen in a large company. I've seen it as well. You're right -- you can't get away with that in a small business.



Dave Jensen, Founder and Moderator
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August 5, 2019 1:57 pm  

So I’ll give pharma perspective.

From a company size view, small and big companies have their merits and a career in industry these days should be a mix of both big and small.   The trend these days in my area/geography is folks moving from Big companies to smaller companies for varied reasons (empowerment, faster-decision making, less organizational complexity, better compensation/benefits package)

On my end, small to mid-size would be your 2,000 5,000 employees world wide with annual turn-overs of 2 to 5 even 7 Billion USD, I’d say the bigger ones start going over the annual turn over of 10 Billion with Big Big Pharma’s over 50 Billion and 10,000’s fo thousands employees world-wide. Just for size definitions.

In my experiences, Big companies differ from small both by the number of teams (aka cross-functional teams, or workstreams, or task-forces) and complexity of process.  Most teams will have a certain core sizes, big company's tend to have larger teams, so one's home team per se will have a universe of team-mates that can be increased or decreased depending on role/level of managment/responsiblity, number of teams you're on etc.. 

And that means sometimes in big company's, if not most times, roles can be very niched.  And I do think for people starting their career, being in a big company is actually a good thing. Narrowed scope of responsibility and learning process, early in career, can be a good platform for early learning and with Big Companys, since everyone is doing a smaller piece of the puzzle vs a big company, I think there is a lot of opportunity to learn by watching.

I like smaller companies and most of my career has been in small to mid-sized pharmas.  Leaning is by doing.  But early in my career I went to a Big Biotech and that was like being at University in terms of training, it prepared me well for my next step. My partner is in super Big Pharma and grew most of her career there so I get to see both sides. She also was in a small company and found more empowerment there early in her career.

The smaller companies will trend to be “Agile and Lean” (that’s a management principle) and that means, nimble teams, empowerment, faster decision-making.   Contrast to Big Pharma, I think there are more opportunities to create ones role and responsibility and make an impact to a team. Expectations are different, in general in Big Pharma, expectations are that you deliver an agreed upon tactics/activites. In small companies, expectations are you tell others what your strategy tactics and activities should be and get alignment. Of course, I’m speaking general but based on my experience, but it can be alot of learning by doing. 

Now early in career, I think there can too much responsibility is a lot to manage. Big companies will trend to have better training and development, but the small companies will expect you more to have a running start.  

Yes, Big Pharma has a lot of complexity with teams, processes, many niched roles but I think one can see a lot there, one can learn best practice despite being more narrowed in role and it’s a good development ground for moving in the smaller companies were a lot of people want to be. You do learn faster in the smaller companies, and that learning is in the form of doing. So not so many people holding your hand. On the upside, big or small pharma, you do have a team that is there for you provided one unlocks those relationships and taps into them accordingly. As far as training goes, in the smaller pharmas you can get training too, in my last company, small one, I got them to pay for a degree program, plus host of training both in my area and for technical competencies. Much so say my partner got in a big pharma given similar tenures. But that’s n of 1 experience from me.

On both sides, big or small, one thing is common, and that’s change. Big Pharmas, re-orgs all the time. Small – mid-size pharmas, can be acquisition targets, mergers or in-licensing. Doesn’t matter, change will happen both places so that I don’t recommend to partake in decision making when it comes to career choice. Hell small small companies can fold right?  

Some have said one is just a number in a Big company. Not really. As I noted, “home” is in the team one is working in. So of those 4,000 world wide employees, you team and universe will be those core of 8 to 20 people who will be your daily go to, 50 to 100 (for me these days I have a universe about about 100 folks if I look at all the team and countries I support). Only difference is size of team but that won’t matter much. And of-course, the people you’ll be closest to, are those 5 to 6, probably your boss as one of those who will be your buddies. So all the same on that front big or small.

I can't speak to company's of a 100 people or anything that small.