Tips on How Academic Scientists Can Make the Career Switch to Industry

2/25/10

Scientists have a lot to consider if they want to leave the world of academia for a job in industry. I picked up a lot of good insights yesterday at a meeting of people with experience in making that transition.

This event was hosted by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, organized by the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association, and sponsored by Allen Austin, an executive search firm. I figured it was valuable enough material that it was worth submitting to Xconomy so that more people in the Seattle innovation community could benefit from what was said.

The panel included Ulrich Mueller, the vice president for tech transfer at the Hutch; Jonathan Drachman, a vice president at Seattle Genetics; Ken Ferguson, the CEO of Imvaxyn; Richard Mitchell, the director of business development at the Hutch; and Mark Mendel, an invention development manager at Intellectual Ventures.

Here are the key points I took down from the panel:

—Academic positions in science are largely solitary whereas positions in industry tend to be more collaborative across a broader field of disciplines. Where the currency of academia is publishing your own intellectual output, companies must marshal a broad spectrum of talents (bench science, regulatory, communications, financial, business development, etc.) toward a common goal. Several panelists were attracted to the team orientation of the companies they worked at “everyone was trying to contribute to good decisions.”

—Industrial positions are generally better equipped than academia. A company built around solving specific problems is more likely to invest in core facilities and equipment that would be difficult to replicate with grant funding.

—The breadth and diversity of experience is greater in industry because you need to collaborate with marketing, legal, finance, and customers to get a product into the market.

—While industry offers more pay and broader opportunities there is somewhat less freedom to follow individual interests. While the best funded companies allow you to spend up to 20 percent of your time on exploratory “science” you are hired in industry to fulfill more narrowly defined tasks that must fit into the company’s purpose.

—There is no tenure in industry. The business of biotech is tenuous and subject to business cycles so if you look for a job in biotech you have to have the appropriate expectations. Sometimes funding collapses at the moment of maximum promise.

—Your need to justify the science by financial imperatives is similar to the need to justify a grant.

—Because of the need to collaborate, people skills are much more important in industry. Mangers put a higher premium on people that can communicate and cooperate than on simple brilliance.

Here are some key myths that should be debunked, according to Richard Mitchell … Next Page »

Don Rule is the founder of Translational Software, a company that aims to accelerate the process of bringing molecular diagnostics from the bench to the bedside. He previously worked at Microsoft for 14 years. Follow @

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  • ed

    I have experience as both a faculty member and in two companies, one a failed biotech and a larger multinational company. I totally agree with the myths that should be debunked. Excellent science is independent of environment and there are good, reliable scientists and “legends in their own mind” in both settings. The biggest difference I experienced is that in academic settings you spend so much time becoming an expert in one particular area trying to discovery novel molecular mechanisms, but in industry you have to find a drug or therapeutic that will work (safely) in everything from a multiwell plate to a free range human. Two very different challenges.