Leaving academia for industry is a route that academic scientists and professors did not traditionally pursue in the past due to perceived differences in skillsets, experiences and even associated stigmas. However, this has since changed, and now, transitioning between academia and industry has become more commonplace.
Xtalks spoke to several leading scientists and entrepreneurs in pharma and biotech who successfully transitioned from academic positions to leadership roles in industry settings. They provided some valuable insight into the motivations, steps and experiences involved in an academia to industry — or vice versa — transition.
And although academia and industry have often been pitted against each other in the realm of scientific discovery and development, there may be more similarities and synergies between the two than we may think.
Motivations for Transition
Whether switching to industry from academia early on or later in your career, there are a number of considerations and challenges associated with the transition. The journey first starts with the decision to make the switch. Making the choice to move from academia to industry can be driven by various personal and professional reasons.
Xtalks spoke with WeiQi Lin, MD, PhD, executive vice president, research & development and principal scientist at DURECT Corporation — a company focused on developing drugs and drug delivery methods in therapeutic areas with significant unmet need — about her transition from academia to industry. She discussed her motivations and goals for changing direction from academia to becoming an industry-leading scientist today.
Dr. Lin has made several transitions throughout her career, from being a clinician at an academic center, to academic research, to heading business development in industry.
Dr. Lin received a medical degree from Shanghai Medical University and specialized in hematology after which she began working in the clinical research unit at the university, treating patients with acute leukemia.
At DURECT, Dr. Lin has worked to bring on board a compound called DUR-928, which is an endogenous epigenetic modulator that alters the activity of nuclear receptors involved in cellular functions, such as lipid homeostasis, inflammation and cell survival. The drug is currently in clinical trials for alcoholic hepatitis (AH), nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), as well as in COVID-19 patients with acute liver or kidney injury.
A life-changing moment came for Dr. Lin when she saw a 17-year-old girl with acute leukemia in the clinic who was given just a month to live. Since this was in the 80s, treatment options for the disease were limited, she explains. Because there were no sophisticated technologies for stem cell transplantation at the time, donor bone marrow cells were simply collected and transfused in bulk (as opposed to using FACS to specifically sort out stem cells) in attempts to save a patient’s life. This procedure was performed for the young patient, who went on to live for another year before succumbing to her disease after a great deal of suffering.
The patient left a great impact on Dr. Lin. “In the beginning, I always thought I wanted to be a doctor, but then I felt it was very depressing, particularly at that time and in that particular field. So, I [decided] to go into research rather than be a doctor and see patients [such as that] young, beautiful life that you could do nothing about it.”
Once Dr. Lin made the decision to shift to academic research, she moved to the US to pursue a PhD in immunopharmacology and immunotoxicology at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical School. She then went on to Stanford University to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship in biochemistry where she studied liver function.
You could either look for a needle in the forest, or search for entire forests.
While doing her postdoc, Dr. Lin recalls how one of her mentors said something that left a lasting impression on her: “He said you could either look for a needle in a forest, or search for entire forests.” Thinking about this, it occurred to her that if she were to choose, she would want to look for a forest — the bigger picture.
This helped Dr. Lin decide that she wanted to move to industry where she could do more applied research rather than basic research.
Thought Experiments Leading to a Biotech Start-Up
While certain personal and professional experiences can impact career motivations as they did for Dr. Lin, for Joe Rodgers, PhD, director of biology and co-founder of Fountain Therapeutics — a company that specializes in aging research using computational, AI-driven approaches to develop therapeutics to treat diseases of aging — it was the leverage and momentum that aging research was quickly gaining in the biotech space that he largely credits for his venture into industry.
Prior to starting Fountain Therapeutics in 2018, with co-founders Tom Rando, MD, PhD and Tom Cheung, PhD, Dr. Rodgers was an assistant professor at The Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the Keck School of Medicine of The University of Southern California (USC). During the span of his academic career, Dr. Rodgers authored many high-impact publications and received academic awards for his research on aging and tissue repair. He joined Fountain full time in 2019.
Dr. Rodgers explains how, “Fountain emerged out of a thought experiment wherein the idea was that if we were to find something completely novel, completely new, what would be the approach that would lead us there?”
When asked why he felt starting a biotech company would help him better achieve the research goals that he and his collaborators Dr. Cheung and Dr. Rando had in mind, Dr. Rodgers says, “The main reason why I took the jump was because now is the time for companies [to take off] in the aging sphere, which is spurred in large part by the investment community that has really adopted and accepted the ideas that we have known within the field for several decades. There is a lot of interest out there [now].”
For Dr. Rodgers, it was a combination of investor interest, having sufficient money to recruit the right people and sufficient resources to do it the right way, he says.
“And this is why all three of us – me, Tom and Tom – feel the situation was right and ripe to do this,” he says.
Moving forward, the company plans to use the information it gains from its discovery science as a novel insight to try and create a niche space through the identification of new targets, pathways and therapeutics around the biology of aging.
From Consulting to Industry
In transitioning between different jobs, different disciplines and, in this case, between academia and industry, getting your feet wet through consulting can be a great way to explore the area that you are interested in.
Letha Sooter, PhD, vice president of research at NeuBase Therapeutics, transitioned from a successful academic career at West Virginia University — which involved many peer-reviewed publications and about a dozen inventions and patents — into a career in biotech in 2019.
For Dr. Sooter, consulting experiences gave her a “flavor for industry.” She explains that because of consulting, “it was an easy jump for me to make because I had tested the waters a little bit and had a good feeling for what I was getting into.”
Consulting gave me a flavor for industry.
And since making the move, Dr. Sooter has also found success in industry, leading and bringing together the work of different teams of researchers at NeuBase to help drive the company’s goal of developing cures and treatments for genetic diseases, including Huntington’s Disease. She says, “It’s been a lot of fun; it’s a decision I’m glad I made.”
Dr. Sooter says there were aspects of academia that she enjoyed and that she finds are similar to industry. She loved having a lab group, coming up with ideas and pursuing those ideas. She says, “it was sort of an easy jump into industry, particularly with smaller companies where you wear a lot of hats and you have a lot of creative freedom. You get to come up with ideas and share them with the group, [and decide] which one should we pursue next.”
However, in a non-academic setting, there are generally more pieces and players involved. Working on finding therapies for genetic diseases at NeuBase, Dr. Sooter says, “Everyday, we get up and that’s our goal and it really drives everyone. And in order to accomplish that goal, you need a lot of different pieces. You need to think about what diseases affect people, how they affect people and the best way to target the disease.”
Similarly, while Dr. Lin was a postdoc at Stanford, after having decided that she want to move into more applied science, she transferred to the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) because it had a collaborative program with an industry company called Geron at the time. This allowed her to experience working in industry while still being based in academia.
From Industry to Academia and Back
Although we may hear more stories of academics switching to industry, the reverse — moving from industry to academia — is also a possibility that some scientists may opt for.
Transitioning from industry to academia, and working between the two areas, is how the career path of Gwenn Hansen, PhD, chief scientific officer at Nurix Therapeutics, has unfolded. Before joining Nurix, Gwenn was an associate professor in the Center for Drug Discovery at Baylor College of Medicine. At Nurix, she served as director of discovery when she first joined the company in 2015, before moving to her current role of chief scientific officer.
Dr. Hansen explains how she has been back and forth between industry and academia but started off her career in industry. She then transitioned to an academic setting at Baylor, where she was brought in to set up a drug discovery center within an academic environment.
Going to an academic setting from industry, Dr. Hansen says, “What many of us in industry realize is that a lot of the very novel and interesting biology that could enable you to identify the next great medicine in biotech comes often out of academia. There is great access to biological information [including] primary biological mechanism information, as well as a bit of closeness to the clinic, particularly at Baylor.”
She values her experience in academia and thinks that, “the ability to really explore these biological questions in-depth happens there, and that is an expertise that will always be needed in a drug discovery process.”
What many of us in industry realize is that a lot of the very novel and interesting biology that could enable you to identify the next great medicine in biotech comes often out of academia.
Dr. Hansen’s work at Baylor allowed her to create a bridge of sorts between academia and industry. Having spent time in academia, Dr. Hansen says she has a good appreciation of what would be essential for good collaboration projects that academics could be engaged for.
At Nurix, Dr. Hansen focuses on establishing the company’s DNA-encoded library technology platform for small molecule identification and leading the discovery organization. Having a specialty in a particular type of chemistry discovery that Nurix was interested in at the time, Dr. Hansen was a good fit for helping lead the company’s goals in the study and drug discovery of E3 ligases.
Dr. Hansen has grown with the company, from starting as a discovery-focused leader to now leading the company’s efforts around the DEligase portfolio platform, which is used to design small molecule drugs that target E3 ligases to modulate their activity in diseases including cancer. She is involved in all stages of discovery and development, from target identification through to discovery of small molecules that can affect therapeutic processes, all the way to promoting them into the clinic.
The company currently has four lead programs in its portfolio, including a Bruton’s tyrosine kinase (BTK) degrader and two in the immuno-oncology space, all of which are expected to enter clinical testing next year. The company plans to initiate Investigational New Drug (IND) applications for them at the same time.
Drug Discovery vs. Fundamental Biology: No Hard Rules
The general perception has been that the overarching scientific goals of industry vs. academia are discovering and making drugs/medical devices vs. asking and answering key biological questions, respectively. However, some of the scientists that Xtalks spoke to have held various roles in academia and industry where they have been involved in both applied and basic research.
For example, at Fountain Therapeutics, Dr. Rodgers is leading initiatives to understand the fundamental cellular processes underlying aging. Dr. Rodgers says that despite biotech typically having a longer return than tech, and despite the company focusing on pure biology as one of its primary goals, “investors really have given us the freedom to look longer term as opposed to a lot of the typical tech world.”
Basic Science in Industry
Fountain Therapeutics focuses on using their AI-driven platform to identify previously hidden cellular features to measure aging with unprecedented precision. This will enable the generation of new insights into the cellular aging process, which, in turn, will help guide powerful drug discovery and development for the treatment of age-related diseases.
Dr. Rodgers explains how the idea for Fountain emerged from the idea of using cell imaging to determine the age of cells. He explains that in the lab, while one can generally tell when cells are ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ it is difficult to articulate what differentiates them.
At the time, he says, “this idea of AI, neural networks, unbiased learning and image-based classification was getting to the front of a field where biologists knew about it casually.” He recalls how he and fellow postdoc, Dr. Cheung, and postdoc supervisor, Dr. Rando, were at a conference several years ago when they started discussing ideas around this one evening. They thought about applying machine learning concepts to cell imaging to decipher different ages of cells from animals and humans.
With just a few pilot experiments assisted by collaborators and consultants, Dr. Rodgers explains how they were able to reliably identify cells from animals of different ages. “And that was essentially the finding that really spurred the development of Fountain,” he says.
Using only images of a few cells from an animal or a person, Fountain’s platform can accurately tell the age of the donor individual. “We do a bunch of different imaging approaches, nothing outrageously complicated. The only complex thing is the data analysis,” he says. Dr. Rodgers explains that the biologic premise is the visual aspect i.e. the way a cell looks – its phenotype and anatomy – which are essentially analogous to a facial expression.
The idea is to use imaging to fingerprint the sum of the biologic processes in a cell, including its metabolism, transcription, epigenetics, the amount of actin it has, the number of ribosomes it has, etc. “I personally and strongly feel this is a completely brand new and extremely powerful way of doing this,” says Dr. Rodgers.
He adds that, “a lot of the work is pure discovery and is almost indistinguishable from an academic lab.”
Fountain’s work demonstrates that the pure scientific study of biological mechanisms can absolutely occur in the industrial space.
Drug Discovery in Academia
And on the flip side, as mentioned previously, Dr. Hansen’s work at Baylor involved setting up a drug discovery center within an academic space. She describes how it was not very different than setting one up at a biotech company as it involved much of the same protocols, setups, recruitment of personnel, etc.
She also believes that whether you are in academia or in industry, you need to bring together expertise from different areas in order to progress all the way through a program.
In industry, this involves drawing on biological discoveries and information from academia. “Early stages of drug discovery are classically done in a biotech or a big pharma arena, but I think the marriage to a lot of the very detailed biological model systems that really inform our understanding of how drugs will work in humans, [those] are often developed, fostered and understood in academic centers.”
She explains how Nurix is currently collaborating with academics to do studies to understand mechanisms and get feedback on that understanding. She thinks this, “is an essential part of all drug discovery.”
In this way, bridges between industry and academia are important as both can inform and benefit each other. Moreover, compartmentalizing the two areas may not be the best approach. As can be seen from the conversations here, pharmaceutical and biotech companies can very much be involved in biological discovery, while academic centers can also drive drug discovery programs of their own.
Importantly, good science can be done in both areas. So, for academics wishing to transition, there are opportunities to explore great basic science in industry.
Similarities and Differences Between Academia and Industry
Generalizing the similarities and differences between academia and industry can be difficult as it very much depends on the academic institution or pharmaceutical company in question with respect to factors such as size, experience (i.e. a start-up vs. a more established company) and area of research among others. What is common though, is the unwavering commitment to robust scientific research.
Nevertheless, several themes do emerge when speaking about some of the similarities and differences between academia and industry. These include focus, funding, collaboration and diversity.
While academics that have transitioned to industry find that the science and leadership involved in academia are similar to that required in industry, the funding opportunities and pace are strikingly different.
While in academia, scientists are encouraged to follow their curiosity and ask fundamental biological questions, industry has more defined boundaries to research owing to the specific missions and business goals that companies have.
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between academic and industry settings is curiosity vs. focus –— academia encourages curiosity whereas industry fosters focus.
Dr. Lin of DURECT describes how this change in mindset was a bit of a challenge for her coming from academia as a postdoc at Stanford.
Following her postdoc training, Dr. Lin joined ALZA Corporation. She found that while she was in academia, she could follow her curiosity, and if she found something that was interesting, she could keep doing it as “professors would freely let you explore whatever you want.” However, in industry it was entirely different, she explains. “Whatever the company asks you, you do it. No time for your curiosity. It’s focus, focus, focus,” she says.
Although this was a big change for Dr. Lin, she adapted to it quickly. She says she now routinely encourages colleagues to focus on the end goal even when something in their research is interesting and could lead them down a different path. Now she says that she completely appreciates the focus of industry.
Moreover, Dr. Lin explains that in an academic lab, you are supposed to do everything – from ordering reagents, to washing dishes to doing an in vitro study for a project and then the in vivo work, through to completion.
“But in companies, you cannot do that. You only do your own [specific] thing,” she says. For example, if you are responsible for in vitro work, then you only do cell culture and nothing else. If you try to do things that other departments are designated to do, you will be stepping on toes and there can be a tug of war, she explains. However, this is all a part of the focus inherent to industry.
Streamlining Responsibilities and Roles
Similarly, Dr. Rodgers says that for him, the biggest difference between academia and industry was the number of responsibilities that you have when you are running your own academic lab. “Everything is your responsibility, even things which you’re not particular thrilled [about], or good at doing.”
Humorously, he says he would often describe being in academia as feeling like being in an old Charlie Chaplin silent movie (a movie that probably does not exist, but that makes for a good analogy, he says). “It’s accelerated and frantic. You’re steering a ship, you’re navigating the ship, you’re shovelling coal into the furnace, you’re cleaning the deck, you’re doing all of it. You don’t have the time or the resources to do anything as well as you want to do,” he says.
Since moving to Fountain full time, Dr. Rodgers says, “Here, it’s a little bit less frantic. You get to hire people who are really good at very particular things. We have a great CEO, John [Dimos], who handles lots of the organizational, administrative and certainly financial things. And we brought in a really great team of people with outstanding expertise, from cell biology through to imaging, to software engineering, data science and computational biology.”
Focus Fueling Pace
Dr. Sooter thinks having an industry partner can help bring focus to academic projects so that researchers are not “veering off and pursuing a bunch of different forks in the road [while going] down the path.”
In an industrial setting, you have to be able to focus on a single line of inquiry for a while, all aligned toward the end goal; in our case, creating a new medicine. You can’t be distracted by the next great idea along the way. You have to focus because it takes so long to change an idea into a medicine.
In this way, an industry partner could help provide the focus needed to achieve an endpoint more quickly. And this is something industry could learn from academia, says Dr. Sooter.
On the other hand, industry can also learn from academia in terms of “just the love of pure science,” she says.
“I think sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in getting a product developed; [but it’s important to] take a step back and say, ‘We’ve got to have some beautiful science to make this happen,” says Dr. Sooter.
In her experiences, Dr. Hansen explains how having had so many areas of focus required in an academic setting made her appreciate going back to a biotech setting where roles for activities are a little bit more defined. And this is because in a company, “everybody is pointed in the same direction, which allows you to get a lot more progress on a project because everybody has already agreed to work together in one avenue,” she says.
Dr. Hansen adds that, “In an industrial setting, you have to be able to focus on a single line of inquiry for a while, all aligned toward the end goal; in our case, creating a new medicine. You can’t be distracted by the next great idea along the way. You have to focus because it takes so long to change an idea into a medicine.”
And along with focus comes pace.
Dr. Sooter says one of the things that she found attractive about industry, compared to academia, was the pace, as industry moves much faster than academia.
She says that while academia performs a lot of science, the work can sometimes take a while to complete, just given the nature of the project.
“In academia, you quite often start with an idea and you follow it in a very linear pattern until its completion, or until you’re satisfied with what you’ve learned. In industry, things move so much faster. You need to get data out quickly because you’re trying to solve a problem,” Dr. Sooter explains.
Funding in the Life Science Industry vs. Academia
The funding structures and opportunities in academia and industry can be quite different. While funding in academia is largely derived from government grant competitions (although there are non-government agencies that also offer grants), industry funding is usually more diverse, with a lot of it coming from business investors and venture capitalists.
The scale and depth that we can do at Fountain is very different from what you can do in academia. The ability to recruit the right people, especially in terms of data science and software engineers, [is there].
However, within industry organizations such as large pharma companies, funding tends to differ at each stage of research and development. For example, government and philanthropic organizations primarily fund basic discovery research, while pharmaceutical companies or venture capitalists fund late-stage development.
Greater and more diverse avenues of funding give industry the leverage and flexibility to drive the focused goals that academia often struggles with. This involves having the resources to recruit the appropriate specialists needed to achieve those goals.
Dr. Rodgers explains that, “the scale and depth that we can do at Fountain is very different from what you can do in academia. The ability to recruit the right people, especially in terms of data science and software engineers, [is there]. Academia is limited in terms of what you can pay people. It’s difficult to really bring in the right people to do things.”
The combination of pace and funding means that you can see absolutely incredible science move at paces that you wouldn’t normally see in an academic setting.
For Dr. Hansen, one of the requirements that she sensed in her academic environment was that of being business savvy. Although academia does not explicitly require this, she explains that you must be good at understanding and developing the ability to navigate how financing happens in an academic stetting.
Dr. Sooter says that because there tends to be more funding in industry than in academia, the “combination of the two things [pace and funding] means that you can see absolutely incredible science move at paces that you wouldn’t normally see in an academic setting. And seeing those discoveries being made is just phenomenal.”
Collaboration and Diversity
In industry, hiring the right people with the relevant expertise not only allows you to delegate tasks and achieve focus, but it also fosters diversity and collaboration. Bringing in people from different disciplines to work on the same project lends different perspectives and expertise to a problem.
However, depending on the institution, academia can also foster diversity, as collaborations between researchers from different disciplines has become a common norm. Dr. Sooter says, “I was lucky enough to work in an academic environment that was very diverse and so the projects I worked on had people from all different disciplines.”
Interdisciplinary academic collaborations can often be difficult though, simply due to time constraints and funding structures, as academics have their own projects and goals that they are working on before they can commit to others.
Bringing Together Diverse Backgrounds
Dr. Lin says that in a university lab, you do everything yourself, while in industry, you have to be a team player — you have to work with people with different expertise and collaborate to make one project come together.
Dr. Sooter says, “one of the things I love about industry is that you’re working with people from very different backgrounds — you have your chemists, your biologists, your bioinformaticians, and they all have different backgrounds and also different baggage.”
She explains that when you present the group with a problem, people who may not have a background in that area may sometimes ask a question, make a suggestion or come up with really brilliant observations that can make you think differently. “That’s something I enjoy, that you have this team that has a focus on making people’s lives better and everybody is bringing a different piece to it,” says Dr. Sooter.
For Dr. Rodgers, a lot of the success that Fountain has had so far has come from collaboration and diversity.
He explains how at the company, “the software engineers are learning biology [while] biologists are learning aspects of software engineering.
Diversity is so needed in all of these environments because multiple opinions are always a way to get the best answer.
It’s understanding as much as you can in all of these aspects to help everybody understand the different points and features that become critical either before, or after, their role in the process.”
And Dr. Hansen believes that the more collaborative you are, the more successful you are. That is why she thinks, “diversity is so needed in all of these environments because multiple opinions are always a way to get the best answer.”
For Dr. Sooter, the planning aspect that she had learned in academia from running her own lab was valuable when she made the transition to industry.
“Knowing how to come up with a plan and then execute that plan, not only from the scientific perspective, but from a business perspective, [is important]. Being able to lay out your experiments and say, this is my goal, this is the timeline for accomplishing my goal, this is how much everything is going to cost, where that funding is going to come from, [is similar].”
Dr. Rodgers also had his own lab at USC before helping start Fountain. He says when they first started, they were in an incubator where “it felt like an academic department [with] the diversity of people there and the thoughts and ideas going around.”
For Dr. Rodgers, he feels, “there’s really very little difference between starting your own academic lab and working in biotech. The same set of skills are there; primarily you just have to learn how to operate in a vague environment where you set your own goals [which is also true of academia]. It’s up to you to identify what is important and the measure of success is up to you, and obviously you have to convince someone.” These are all things that are not that different from academia.
Whether leading a group in academia or in industry, the same leadership skills are required to drive things forward and manage a team.
Considerations and Challenges
Transitioning between academia and industry can come with some challenges. While the actual science or leading projects and groups may be similar, there are other things that may take some getting used to, such as the increased pace and focus of industry compared to academia.
Dr. Lin explains that her transition from the clinic to the bench was easy because she was discouraged and depressed by the clinic and was looking forward to becoming a researcher instead.
Not surprisingly though, she says the bigger challenge was her geographic transition from China to the US, which was a huge culture shock. “I still remember the first day I walked into the lab and someone said ‘how are you?’ and I said, ‘how are you’ [back] because all I had learned was ‘how do you do?’ [as a greeting],” recalls Dr. Lin, laughing. The variation had thrown her off, leaving her quite confused. Dr. Lin was then in for a second culture shock when she moved from Virginia to California for her postdoc at Stanford.
Although a long-time bench scientist, at DURECT, the management decided to have Dr. Lin lead business development at the company because of her broad background that includes medical experience and expertise in immunology, pharmacology, toxicology and biochemistry. They felt there could be no one better than Dr. Lin to do business development and look for compounds that fit their drug delivery technology.
In the beginning, Dr. Lin says she was afraid to take the job because she wasn’t sure she could do it since she had never done anything like it before. “But my training really helped me to look broadly and I was able to integrate all the knowledge and experiences together to help me. And the rest is history,” she says.
Trading Autonomy for Focus
Once she started working in industry, Dr. Lin explains that she quickly learned that everyone has a designated role at a company, which is quite different from academia, and can thus be a challenging change.
For example, she says there is a “a formulation person, so you cannot just whip something up in a test tube like in an academic lab.”
Some amount of control and autonomy has to be given up, which is part and parcel of the pace and focus of industry.
She also notes that there are a lot of regulations in industry, which she says she can appreciate now because each department has their own SOP. At “every step you have to allow people to inspect your notebooks, your study records, SOPs and GOP procedures. You can’t do everything by yourself.”
And that was perhaps the biggest challenge coming from an academic setting for Dr. Lin. Whereas “typically I could carry over [an experiment] right away, but in a company, you have to coordinate working together with multiple groups and people coming from different disciplines.”
Good planning and leadership skills are inherent to heading any group or organization. However, leadership comes with both autonomy and accountability, and the balance of the two can vary depending on where you are.
Dr. Sooter says that when stepping into industry, she perhaps didn’t have the best preparation for answering to a lot of people because as a professor in academia, you make the decisions for your group and don’t really have to answer to too many people. “Maybe occasionally your chair checks in, but they don’t really decide what’s going on in your group,” explains Dr. Sooter.
However, in industry, there are a lot more people looking at you and analyzing your decisions. “You have a supervisor that wants to know what you’re doing and make sure you’re on track; and you have shareholders that also want to make sure that you’re on track. And so that was a definite change that I don’t think academia did a good job preparing me for,” she says.
For Dr. Hansen, it was a challenge to enter academia at Baylor (from biotech) where the “priorities and the way in which you establish your research engine is different,” she says. “The ability to enter an academic setting and try to establish a new program is really fraught with a lot of different draws on your time and your energy, and not very much support for those initial changes. I think that was a challenge for me,” she says.
While Dr. Hansen says it was easy to have the ideas, it was harder to figure out how to implement them quickly and get the necessary traction to set up what was needed.
Advice for Transitioning Between Academia and Industry
Although transitioning between academia and industry involves changes that can vary depending on the company or academic institution, there are nevertheless some common challenges and considerations. The experts interviewed by Xtalks who have successfully made the transition provided some sound advice to people who are looking to make a move from academia to industry.
Dr. Sooter says transitioning from academia to industry has its challenges and being straightforward with people about those challenges is important so that they can meet them head on, and not be caught off guard. “This way they will be prepared and not miss a beat,” she says.
Do things like consulting, taking a sabbatical, doing an internship, or something to get your feet wet before you make that leap. This will help ensure you have a better idea of what you’re jumping into.
If looking to make a transition to industry from academia, Dr. Sooter recommends to do things like “consulting, taking a sabbatical, doing an internship, or something to get your feet wet before you make that leap. This will help ensure you have a better idea of what you’re jumping into.”
Dr. Sooter is also involved in STEM mentoring work, which includes encouraging women to pursue science careers, as well as discussing the challenges and benefits of making a switch from academia to industry. With respect to women in science, she believes that “it’s important to talk through things, like workplace environments. If something is not quite right, what do you do next and how do you react so that you’re on top of the situation,” she says.
Know Your Interests
It is important to pursue a line of work that fits with what you are driven by, advises Dr. Hansen.
“I think everybody is the most productive and the most successful when you are actually working for a goal that you really believe in,” she says. In academia, that could be a goal to either answer, understand or propose a question; in industry, it could be drug discovery with respect to understanding how to make a medicine.
Whatever the case may be, it’s important to first identify what those goals in fact are. “Transitioning between one or the other is not really the hardest part, it’s identifying what most drives you and then doing that,” says Dr. Hansen.
Dr. Hansen also says that, “sometimes people don’t even know what they’re good at until somebody else points it out, and that’s something you can really get from a mentor, colleague or from a friend.”
Dr. Rodgers also advises that as soon as you know what your inkling is, to start investigating and talking to people. When you realize you don’t want to stay in academic science, you should be looking to figure out what it’s like in biotech, pharma, patent science, scientific writing or any of the other areas which a lot of PhDs go into, he says. There are a lot of options.
Don’t Be Afraid to Go Against the Dogmas
There has been a prevailing mindset among academics that you’re not a success if you don’t stay in academia. Thankfully, there is less of this thinking now, either because the mindset has changed, or the attitudes are different in different places. “This is a welcome change because there is a certain hierarchy that exists in academia, which is often difficult to break into,” explains Dr. Rodgers.
Dr. Rodgers did his academic training at prestigious institutions including Stanford. He explains that the mindset at Stanford is quite different as it actually encourages people to explore industry and create those start-up companies, believing that you can actually be much more of a success if you leave academia and start your own company.
“I would say to get rid of the idea that you have to stay in academia to be a successful scientist,” advises Dr. Rodgers.
Moreover, you should not confine yourself to the field you trained in — if you have a PhD in cancer biology, you are not limited to being a cancer biologist. “In reality, a PhD should train you to think as opposed to just being an expert in a particular field. You should be able to take a problem, dissect out the important parts and figure out a way to answer it; that skill is extremely valuable anywhere,” he says.
Don’t be afraid to use your skills in completely different fields or completely different areas.
Leverage Skills and Keep Learning
Dr. Lin says that, “The advice I would give to people who want to transition from academia to industry is to learn everything you can, because you can never learn enough.”
She says no one knows what the next job will be, so it’s important to keep learning and preparing yourself. Even within a company, jobs and roles are constantly shifting. “Today, you do one job and tomorrow maybe the company needs you to move to another post or a different function; you don’t know what skillset may be useful,” she says.
Be a team player because you are no longer a sole soldier like in the lab.
“So just learn everything you can — some day it will be useful. It will never be wasted,” says Dr. Lin. She says that she learned this from her own experiences, saying that nothing she learned in her life as a student or academic researcher was ever wasted. Dr. Lin advises to “be a team player because you are no longer a sole soldier like in the lab.”
The transition from academia to industry can be filled with challenges and uncertainties associated with chartering new territory. However, preparation, leveraging your skills and experiences, constant learning and, importantly, having the confidence to succeed, are keys to a successful transition.