From Academia to Industry: Selling My Soul, or Expanding Scientific Frontiers to Discover New Medicines?


When I was deciding whether to venture from "university science" to "industry science", there seemed to be a widely held perception among my academic colleagues that I was about to "compromise my scientific integrity", or "sell my soul to commercialism". In retrospect, I actually knew very little of the types of work and career options open to scientists within the pharmaceutical industry, but I have to admit to having had a few misgivings. Despite these, I chose the company route, and, to my delight, have discovered a whole new world of challenging science performed within an incredibly team-focused environment. I really look forward to going to work every day, and I hope this article will tell you why.

My early scientific career was relatively varied but purely academic: a BSc in biochemistry and a PhD in enzymology, leading to a postdoctoral position as a molecular virologist. I chose to do a PhD simply because I loved the challenge of performing laboratory work to answer specific scientific questions, and at the time knew relatively little of the options outside university-based research.

Having really enjoyed my PhD project, I was keen to use my new skills in an area, virology, that was of great interest to me and which also offered a chance to continue to learn new theory and techniques. My postdoctoral project used my existing expertise in protein biochemistry and enzyme kinetics, and I also needed to master new techniques, such as cell culture and virology. This project in itself was extremely satisfying, and I felt that I was starting to contribute to the field of medical research as well as expanding scientific knowledge in general. Contributing to the knowledge base has become very important to me, as I need to feel that there is a real purpose to my research that will benefit others, be they humans or animals.

As my postdoctoral project neared completion I faced a decision, to either continue up the academic ladder or to develop my scientific career on an alternative route. As I was keen to maintain my research in a disease-focused direction, venturing into the pharmaceutical industry was one of the most obvious options. However, up until this point I had had little contact with anyone who worked in a research-based company, and had little knowledge of what the options would be for a person with a predominantly biochemical background.


Would I need detailed pharmacology or chemistry knowledge? Would having a PhD help or hinder my entry and subsequent career progression? Would there be an appropriate entry level for someone with 18 months' postdoctoral experience? Would I still have the freedom to perform the experiments that I wanted to? Would I be able to choose my particular area of research? These were just some of the questions whirling around my head as I responded to an advert from Pfizer looking for scientists to "help discover novel leads" or, in nontechnical language, discover potential new medicines.

Having secured an initial interview I was eager to find out exactly what the company was looking for, as the advert seemed broad compared with those for university research positions, which request knowledge of a specific topic. The thing that was immediately noticeable was how friendly and approachable the interviewers were. When questioned about their day-to-day roles and responsibilities it was obvious that they really enjoyed working for Pfizer. It also transpired that the main criteria for securing a job within the company was having both a sound knowledge of the science in my current field--as expected--and the ability to apply this knowledge to novel principles and methods that might at first seem alien.


The company conducts research into a diverse range of diseases, or therapeutic areas. At the European Research and Development headquarters in Sandwich, Kent, there are teams dedicated to allergy and respiratory, anti-infectives, pain, urology, and sexual health. Each area requires teams of chemists, pharmacologists, and biochemists--which answered my first question. Exhaustive knowledge of the project area is mandatory once a person is established within the group, and everyone is expected to maintain an up-to-date knowledge of the current literature in order to apply novel thinking and strategies to their research--hence there is little chance of compromising my scientific integrity.

I started as a research scientist within the Hit Discovery Group 4 years ago. The main role of this group is to develop and characterise novel, robust assays for high-throughput screening of the Pfizer chemical library against unique enzyme and receptor targets. The group works with all of the different therapeutic areas, and in the majority of cases the target is unprecedented in terms of its characteristics, which presents an extremely interesting challenge for project biochemists and pharmacologists. Basic skills such as enzymology and receptor pharmacology need to be complemented by an ability to think outside the box and apply creativity in your experimental design.


The Pfizer compound file comprises thousands of small molecules (which are chemical fragments) and so it is crucial that assays are as cost-effective and reagent-friendly as possible. One way we achieve this is by miniaturising the experiments, such that many are performed in a volume of about 1 microlitre--a huge change from my PhD research, where the use of a 1-ml cuvette was the norm. To ensure consistently excellent data is generated in such tiny volumes, the use of highly specialised liquid-handling equipment and state-of-the-art plate readers is routine. Developing an understanding of the various assay components' characteristics in such systems is not without its challenges, a fact that is relished by biologists and technology-lovers.

Subsequent to assay development and high-throughput screening, my group is then required to characterise any compounds which prove active against the target of interest, through mechanistic evaluation such as steady-state and pre-steady-state experiments, or functional cell-based follow-up assays.

At this stage of the project it is incredibly exciting to think that one could be characterising the mode-of-action of a potential new medicine to treat a disease that impacts the lives of millions of patients, but this is just the start. From here, a potential new medicine must go through a rigorous and time-consuming process of scientific tests and clinical trials to assess its safety and efficacy before it can be submitted to the regulatory authorities for approval. In reality, only one in 12 potential medicines identified at this stage successfully makes it through the long journey which, from laboratory concept to licensed medicine, takes 10 to 15 years and costs an average of $800 million per new medicine.


The key to making your role in drug discovery a success is, without doubt, dedicated teamwork. It is evident from the induction session for all new starters at Pfizer that "no man is an island" and each person has a specific role within a team. Each individual's work relies on it being performed as part of a team, and also on rapid and effective communication of the implications of any results. Of course, ground-breaking scientific initiatives are encouraged, but there is no room for those who do not wish to share their ideas, or for those who wish to isolate themselves from the rest of the project.

This collaborative approach is in key contrast to my experience during my brief spell in academic science, and was immediately obvious when I started at Pfizer. Initially it was daunting to realise that I was expected to work to specific deadlines and that other scientists' work (and indeed the progression of the whole project) depended on my data. However, it soon became incredibly exciting and rewarding to realise that my work really mattered to many people. During my time in postdoctoral research I knew that my work was of high importance, but I personally never felt quite the same sense of anticipation or continuous interest in my results.

Pfizer is, of course, a business, which is accountable to shareholders. It is therefore essential that it make a profit, to both reward investors and fund further innovative science to the benefit of patients. Commercial realities make it important for the company to focus on diseases of high unmet medical need, such as cardiovascular disease, HIV, and cancer, but Pfizer's scale and resources enable it to also conduct research into less prevalent conditions, such as respiratory syncytial virus, which affects children and babies, and, in severe cases, can have a dramatic effect on the child's subsequent health and quality of life.

The key thing is that, within all projects, every person is expected to use their energy, intelligence, and scientific curiosity to help move the project forward. The result is that the people working here feel they are using their skills to work on incredibly worthwhile projects with the potential to benefit humankind. Every project you work on could one day produce a new medicine that would change people's lives for the better. With almost all new medicines coming from industry-based research, there can be few jobs that provide an opportunity to help so many people, and knowing this is a great motivator.

Drug discovery is an expensive and extremely competitive business, and Pfizer reinvests a significant proportion of its earnings into research--$7.2 billion globally in 2003, which is more than any biomedical research organisation in the world. Pfizer's size enables scientists to use the most advanced tools and technologies in their quest for novel therapeutics, on a scale rarely equalled by academic laboratories, where funding is more limited. Of course, access to state-of-the-art equipment does not guarantee success, and scientists in industry face the same challenges regarding the exploration of uncharted territory as those in academia. However, the thrill for me is that success--the discovery of a new medicine--could be just around the corner, and our collective expertise and advanced technologies give us an excellent chance of achieving our goal.

Career Progression

A career within the pharmaceutical industry is well-structured, with benefits commensurate with experience and effort. Talking to colleagues who have chosen scientific careers within academia, I feel privileged that my employer strives to further my personal development and my scientific knowledge. Much emphasis is placed on rewarding the way that things are achieved, as well as the accomplishments themselves, and continuous feedback on performance is encouraged. This helps engender and maintain an open and inclusive working environment, in which everyone is encouraged to take responsibility for their own behaviour. The result is that people are motivated to work hard for the project goals, as well as their own personal research, and to share in each other's successes.

Pfizer employs a wide variety of people with differing levels of experience, from high school leavers to experienced postdocs. Entry level is dependent on experience; for example, a new PhD graduate would enter at a higher level than a newly qualified BSc. graduate. But the same determinants of career progression (such as aptitude for the job, motivation, and ambition) apply to both. There is nothing to prevent anyone from progressing as far as they wish to, provided they sustain effort and personal growth. It is widely acknowledged that an aptitude for knowledge and scientific exploration is a firm foundation upon which to build new skills, and as such there are no glass ceilings for those, for example, without a PhD.

In summary, I feel that a decision to venture into a scientific role within the pharmaceutical industry has opened up a host of exciting opportunities to me that I would probably never have known existed. If the opportunity ever comes your way, my advice would be to consider it seriously--there is so much to experience and explore.

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