Negotiating the Transition—Spotlight Industry, Part I

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Notes from Negotiating the Transition: Differences between Academia and Industry

This 2009 panel included four guest panelists who had completed postdoctoral fellowships in academia. Two had chosen to continue the academic career path as tenure-track faculty (see Negotiating the Transition—Spotlight Industry, Part II), and two had chosen instead to transition from academia into industry. Below are a few of the questions posed by the audience and the answers provided by the two industry panelists, Jessica Dawson, Senior Investigator, EMD Serono, and Dustin Armstrong, President, 4s3 Bioscience, Inc.
(Notes prepared by Damien Samways and Susy Kohout of the Early Careers Committee)

What motivated the transition into the private sector rather than continuing along the academic career track?

The strong emphasis of grant writing in order to maintain research programs in academia was a factor in one panelist’s  decision to move into the private sector. In large pharmaceutical firms, research goals and fund allocation is tied specifically to product outcomes that are generally dealt with at the senior management level. This leaves the research staff and project managers to concentrate on planning and executing the research rather than expending considerable effort acquiring funding.

On the other hand, spirited entrepreneurs attempting to steer small startup companies through their early years are often required to spend considerable eff ort attracting investment, which can be equally as demanding as applying for public funds in academia. While startup companies are higher risk, our panelist emphasized how the increase in responsibilities
inherent in a startup increases one’s experience and chances of getting a better job later.

If one is considering a career in industry, is it preferable to do a postdoc in industry or in academia?

Given that the research environment in industry can be very different from that in academia, there are certain advantages to acclimatizing oneself to the environment sooner rather than later. However, our industry panelists were not convinced that opting to do a postdoc in academia would necessarily harm one’s ambition to continue his/her career in industry.

Our panelists did raise the caveat that industry postdoc positions are not currently compensated as well as regular scientist positions, and are arguably less stable since they may not lead to a permanent position. Thus, if one is set upon a career in industry during graduate school, it may be preferable to simply apply for scientist positions rather than the postdoctoral positions.

If one does decide to do a postdoc in academia first, perhaps to gain a more thorough knowledge of a certain area or set of techniques, one should consider how these additional technical skills and experience will be valuable to a prospective employer in industry.

How does one go about making the necessary networks in academia that would facilitate a transition into industry?

If you are seeking to transition from academia into industry, it is important to identify academic colleagues who have  contacts in industry, or who have worked in industry themselves. Through these initial contacts it will be possible to make a more informed decision as to whether industry is right for you.

Scientific meetings are also excellent places to make your own contacts. Note that it is not always necessary to cold-call complete strangers in order to extend your network. More importantly, make sure you take advantage of opportunities that naturally arise, such as when somebody from industry takes an interest in your work or is presenting research relevant to your own.

The importance of networking in industry doesn’t stop after securing a position. In times of economic downturn, our panelists were eager to point out that networking is crucial to survival in industry, where there is no tenure to provide a safety net!

How important is one’s publication record to prospective employers in industry?

Your publications are not as relevant to a career in industry as they are to an academic career, but they still have value. First and foremost they are the best indicators of your productivity, which is as important a metric in industry as it is in  academia. Prospective employers will be interested in defi ning your contributions in the publications versus what was done by others. Second, these publications can highlight skills that are relevant to working in industry, whether it be in regard to certain techniques used, or perhaps simply your ability to collaborate with other scientists. If your publications
indicate skills that seem relevant to an industry position you are applying to, highlight these in your cover letter.

Be mindful of whether an advertisement for a job in industry requests a CV or a resume. If the latter is requested one should be  selective of which publications are listed, if any. If they are not relevant to the position being applied for, it’s better to omit them.