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

2/25/10

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staff with rigidly defined tasks and little opportunity to affect the direction of research and no contact outside the company. Others are hiring you for your gifts and creativity and it can be a great role. It is best to do a multi-track job hunt to see what the best opportunity is.

Is it valuable to have formal business training?

Nobody on the panel had a business degree although all felt at some time that they were at a disadvantage without it. If you intend a role that is directly related to the business (business development, company valuation, senior management) it probably would be useful. All recommended a basic financial accounting course for familiarity because it is essential to understand the vocabulary of the business.

What if you want to move away from the bench?

—If you can write, that helps a lot because that is often a weakness of scientific colleagues. Communicating regulatory documents is a big part of your life. In general it is always good to have good writers that understood science.

—Becoming a patent agent is a specific skill and training program that is important to fully describing a company’s intellectual property. Patent attorneys are typically scientists but may not have background in your specific area that the company is investing in.

—The regulatory environment creates a demand for people that understand how to fulfill regulatory obligations.

—Project management is a distinct skill from science and very valuable in industry.

—Scientists are useful in business development because they understand the implications of a development deal.

—Technical Sales is a great opportunity for someone that can communicate scientific concepts. A Medical Science Liaison has the ability to interact with physicians on a very technical level.

What if you really love bench work?

It is absolutely required that companies have good bench scientists and there are opportunities to grow into management positions. If you really like the bench contact it will limit how much management you can do or there are roles to increase in responsibility. If you really like being independent a company is generally not as great an opportunity. The best funded companies reserve 20 percent of their budgets for science but it is still different from being a principal investigator in your own lab at an academic institution. A scientific management position keeps you in the lab, but mentoring skills are more important to succeed in that role than actual lab bench skills. And if you are working on something hot you may be handed five or sixpeople to tackle without having to go through the time-consuming process of writing a grant.

How important were mentors to you?

Mark Mendel mentioned that the Kauffman Fellows Program was structured as a mentoring program and has been very helpful – part of their success was in pairing neophytes with very experienced entrepreneurs. Few on the panel had formalized mentoring relationships but suggested to “make sure that the people around you are people that you want to be around.” Drachman was glad that he did not take his academic advisor’s advice to avoid industry.

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.