Benched: Research Science Careers Beyond Academia

This excerpt is from an article compiled by members of the Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women (CPOW). To read this article in its entirety, visit the BPS Blog at To check out career programming at the 2012 Annual Meeting in San Diego, California, go to

CPOW sponsored a panel at the 2011 Annual Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, entitled: Non-Academic, Research Science Careers. Panelists  Andrea Brüggemann, Nanion Technologies GmbH; Jeremy Rice, Watson IBM Labs; Rebecca Klein, Merck; and Mikhail Merzliakov, General Resonance, shared their thoughts on issues surrounding scientific research outside of an academic setting. They answered questions from the  audience, basing their answers on knowledge gained from their own transitions from academic researchers to non-traditional bench scientists.

A need for speed. Academic science moves comparatively slowly, while industry sets a faster pace to keep up with the competition. In industry, experiments must be efficient to quickly accomplish goals—in days and weeks, not months. Industry provides a lot of cool new toys, but overall it is money-driven, with quarterly breakdowns of results. If these aspects of industry are not accomplished rapidly, the axe will fall even faster.

Change is the sole constant. The needs of each industry also change quickly. A company must be ready to respond promptly to these changing needs. To work in this fast-paced environment, scientists must be intellectually flexible and always ready to learn new skill sets. This adaptability is an important aspect of retention each time a company undergoes restructuring to meet the demands of new industry needs. Scientists must keep their expertise and skill sets up to date, and anticipate the skills that will likely be key to the company’s next move.

Living in a material world. While academic science is largely grant- and publication-driven, industry is product- and patent-driven. The panelists at the larger companies agreed that this materialistic focus lends a negative aspect to industry—namely, intellectual property involving legal representation. Intellectual property and legal involvement frequently pushes science and scientific interactions between people out of the way in favor of patents’ legal aspects.

Have your cake and eat it, too. Can non-academic scientists still participate as faculty members in an academic setting, or perform research with academic freedom? That depends on the size of the company you work for. Larger companies must focus on the success of a particular product
or assay. To a smaller company, that project depends on how much it will cost, and time management is a costly part of it. However, if no time constraint exists, industry scientists can typically pursue their own academic interests.

Another day, another dollar. As in academia, the higher the level of the researcher, the more time he or she spends in meetings. The ratio also depends on the role and position the researcher holds within the organization and the number of active research projects that the individual is currently overseeing.

If you like teamwork, opening doors, new and interesting ideas that occur rapidly and in a constantly changing arena, if you’re tired of writing grants and the small-world feel of knowing many people within a field, then industry just may be for you.

Amy Harkins and Ruth Heidelberger, CPOW members

December 2011 Table of Contents