1. How to Assess if the Move to Industry is Right for You
The first step is to conduct a thoughtful analysis of what motivates you and what kind of work environment would better allow you to flourish. We will be speaking to some of the key differences between academia and industry in this article.
Providing a voice to this topic is Chris Bailey-Kellogg who was a Full Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth and now drives the computational research that shapes the creation of deimmunized biotherapeutics. He was motivated to take the entrepreneurial leap so that he could “devote himself fully to seeing his work applied to the treatment of disease.” “For those questioning their career path, before making the leap from academia to industry, it is important to understand what excites you to get out of bed raring to go each day. Is it conducting research that leads to publications or is it research that leads to products for patients?” He also asks whether, “you prefer to work individually or in small groups on projects with short turnaround times” as he experienced in academia, “or interacting with larger groups spanning broader areas over longer timelines,” as may be more common in industry.
For Patrick McDonald, a move to industry “gave him the opportunity to work on both basic science (understanding the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying the processes which we target) and develop products that may impact patients’ lives in the real world. Spanning the entire spectrum from discovery to concrete clinical applications is both fun and fulfilling. Another powerful motivator is the liberation from spending an inordinate amount of time on grant applications every year. This time can now be channeled into advancing science and product development. This immensely increases the probability that my work might help make a real difference in the lives of patients, which is the ultimate reward.”
2. Your Alignment with Company Values may be More Important Than Scientific Genius
The transition to industry may come with some surprises. In many universities, your professor values you for your ability to take initiative, generate ideas and conduct experiments that lead to innovative research publications extending or expanding your advisor’s research focus. Conventionally, a PhD is earned based on your own work product and achievements, with less emphasis on being a good team player.
This may differ from pharmaceutical companies, which may place more equal weight on teamwork and technical scientific skills. Disruption of a positive team environment to accommodate a lone ranger may not make sense. The ability to rapidly move a product through the various stages of preclinical and clinical development, without taking shortcuts that would compromise quality, is key. So, when you are interviewing for a position, the company will be focused on how well you will be able to work with others and your alignment with the organization’s values. (If you are a team player, and also an innovative scientist, so much the better!)
3. Collaboration is Key
This concept may not be that new for many in academia because the best academic researchers identify like-minded collaboration partners to expand their research focus or fill gaps within their group’s expertise. It is also typical for postdoctoral scientists to move from one lab to another and this fosters an exchange of ideas across labs. However, in industry the degree of collaboration goes many steps further.
A project team exists to focus on each drug in development and can even be divided into specific indications for that drug. Comprising the project team are professionals from various departments which may include research, preclinical efficacy, nonclinical safety, formulation and analytical development, process sciences, manufacturing, quality, clinical development and medical affairs, regulatory, marketing and commercialization. Furthermore, the project team typically relies on sub-teams focused on specific development functions, e.g., members of clinical operations who work together to manage the various clinical sites and ensure that drug supply logistics are in place.
The glue holding these functions together are the experts in project management. As a new scientist entering industry, you may be directly accountable to two people, your supervisor in your technical area as well as your project team leader, and your actions will influence and be affected by many more people. How can you achieve the most success in this new environment? It comes down to effective communication and treating your colleagues with respect.
4. Effective Communication is Critical: It Starts with Project Teams
Project teams exist to facilitate communication across departments. Project teams keep track of milestones (e.g., when will the clinical batches be released that are required before trial initiation) and the budget and timelines associated with those efforts. The critical path activities are those that are linked and define the earliest that the milestone can be achieved.
If your deliverable is on the critical path, you will be under the microscope to ensure that your delivery date does not slip, and you may be challenged to bring it in earlier. You need to be completely honest with yourself and others in creating realistic, not idealized, timelines. Understanding the risks that may arise, and how you are dependent upon the inputs from others (e.g., the formulation group cannot conduct stability studies until they receive drug supplies from process sciences) cannot be overstated. You should proactively engage the groups that you are dependent upon, and which are dependent upon you. Recognize that conflicts can arise. But if you remain humble, treat others with respect, acknowledge and recognize others’ contributions, and deliver on your commitments, you will be recognized as a team player and one who is sought out as a partner.
5. Publishing is No Longer a Core Measure of Your Impact
In academia, a huge focus is on the quantity and quality of your publications, and these can determine the timing and extent of your career progression to a full professor. One measure of your impact is the number of papers you have published, their citation indices and the journal impact factors. This is important not only with respect to landing a position within an academic institution, and how rapidly you move up the ranks in that organization, but also in obtaining grants to support your graduate students and fund the equipment and supplies to further your research.
However, once you begin working in industry, your research ideas and the data that you generate may become trade secrets within the organization and may not be published for years, if at all. This means that what has been one of the primary driving forces for your career progression in academia will have to be replaced with a new set of yardsticks and values. That can be a difficult transition for the unprepared. How do you cope with that change? Is there a middle ground?
Karl Griswold was a Full Professor of Engineering at Dartmouth and had this to say about what motivated his move: “An important motivator and yard stick, and the one that fueled my own leap, is the potential to impact or even save people’s lives in a very direct way. I would trade any number of high impact journal articles and any award you could name in exchange for inventing a drug that really changed people’s lives. Academics do of course have profound impacts on the world in many ways, including their discoveries enabling much of what pharma does in one way or another, but for me, there will be no greater achievement than getting a drug in the hands of doctors and patients.”
6. Focus on Inventions
One way to cope with the reduced emphasis on publications is to focus on creating value for your organization by patenting your innovations as inventions. Not all pharmaceutical companies deprioritize publications if proper consideration has been given to intellectual property protection, especially the early start-ups who may rely on publications that showcase their innovative scientific platform to raise their profile and facilitate financing. Many also understand the importance for their scientists to be able to share their ideas with their colleagues. They appreciate that this positive peer recognition will enhance the standing of their scientists, and by association, the esteem of their company. This gives their organization a more inviting culture and a leg up on hiring the best talent.
But before the innovative research can be published, the intellectual property team will want to review the content and determine whether to file patents or retain the knowledge as a trade secret. Thus, when entering industry, it is important that you understand the patent process and can effectively communicate the content of your innovations. Typically, this is done by drafting an invention disclosure form describing the specific innovation and sharing it with the patent lawyers for review. They will survey the patent literature to check for prior art, and if the innovation is novel and non-obvious, they may file a patent disclosure. This process can take many years before a patent is issued, but once the patent disclosure is filed or published (typically around 18 months after filing), it should be possible to publish the innovation as a scientific manuscript. Factors that affect timing of manuscript publication include the competitive landscape, and whether the company has publicized the program that is associated with the manuscript.
For those considering making a career jump to pharma, we hope that these perspectives of the operational and motivational differences between academia and industry will provide fuel for your reflection about what drives you.