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Tooling Up: Mutation or Extinction

There are changes in the air. Very substantial changes.

Small companies spawned during the 1990s' wave of life science investments are redrawing their business plans, focusing less on interesting channels of research and more on the fastest track to a profitable quarter. Large companies, always under pressure to reduce costs, have determined that pharmaceutical products can be developed and manufactured cheaply offshore. These same firms have also discovered that buying and integrating new technologies from university-based labs and smaller companies can be more efficient than doing the science in their own labs. Although this isn't a new trend, it is an increasingly important piece in the science-employment puzzle. Careers are an entirely different beast than they were just a decade ago!

As a consequence of business-climate changes such as these, the gap between what academic institutions teach and what industry requires seems to be getting bigger. For the graduate student or postdoc targeting an industry career, there is more need than ever for a targeted career plan, and developing such a plan requires targeted guidance. But with only a few exceptions, today's mentors in academia are even less well prepared to advise and mentor their industry-bound charges than they used to be. Few academic scientists were well-informed about industry's needs even before these rapid changes began.

"As an academic, I would not know how to even begin to prepare someone for a career in industry," says Kelly Suter, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville School of Medicine in Kentucky and an adviser to the Forums . "I suspect that most academic types would tell you the same. As academics, we know what skills are important and what experience our trainees need to be successful in this setting. Industry ... that's just some sort of a big black box."

Is Academia out of Sync With Industry?

"Academia breeds a lone-wolf mentality where each professor is an autonomous overlord of her or his own research. Necessary job skills such as team building and teamwork are only learned as a happenstance to on-the-job training," says John Fetzer, author of the book Career Management for Chemists: A Guide to Success in a Chemistry Career (Springer, ISBN: 3-540-20899-2). "Academia has become ossified. The schools operate on a model developed in the late 1800s and have just gotten more and more removed from industrial experiences."

Although there has always been a long delay between changes in industry's employment needs and academia's response, Derek McPhee, a research manager for a San Francisco-area biotechnology company, believes that the problem will continue to get worse because changes in industry are happening fast, while change moves ever so slowly through academia. "There seems to be a 5- to 10-year gap at any given time between what companies need, or think they need, and what is coming out of schools," says McPhee. "By the time that schools finally get around, after five committees, to producing what companies wanted 5 years ago, companies have moved on and are looking for something else." And things are getting worse, not better. "The pace at which industries seem to be able to change direction seems to be getting faster, but universities seem to be responding at a constant pace or even slower, so the gap is increasing," says McPhee.

Just how and when did the worlds of academic training and industrial employment get to be so out of sync? Rich Lemert, a chemist and senior design consultant at Synopsys in Durham, North Carolina, believes that a root cause is that the industrial career in the life sciences is still a new phenomenon. "I think part of the reason for this is historical. Chemists have long been in demand in industry, but the life sciences have until fairly recently been more aligned with medicine than with industry--and the medical profession doesn't have much in common with industry. This results in faculty that really don't know much about the 'other side,' " says Lemert. "They haven't seen the undergraduates who've peeled off into the industrial track at the bachelor's level as chemists do; they haven't had many colleagues from grad school who've gone the industrial route; and they don't have any faculty with experience in this area. Improving the situation will not be easy, and it will take some time."

It may not be until more industry people work their way back into positions in academia that this scenario begins to improve.

The Soloist vs. the Orchestra Player

Elizabeth has just returned to academia after a brief stint in industry. She has seen firsthand what the problem is for many transferees. "As someone who spent a little over 1 year in the industry setting, I must say the cultural difference is huge. Just the very idea of management, reporting structure, accountability, project deadlines, budget forecasts, all those things that I suspect everyone takes for granted in the 'real world,' were totally new to me. Now I understand why Microsoft Office products have all those collaboration features that I never found useful in the academic lab. My general impression is that academic labs are into producing soloists. Industry, however, wants orchestra players."

The independence-versus-interdependence issue has been written about regularly in Tooling Up columns on and is often introduced as the major issue separating the two worlds of scientific employment, academic and industrial. For decades, academia has paid lip service to the idea of collaboration, but the incentive-and-reward system has been slow to adjust. Despite the widespread interest in collaboration and its obvious value in an academic setting, collaboration remains informal and is actually discouraged by the tenure process, in which scholars are penalized for sharing credit for their work with others.

Large-scale academic collaboration has taken place successfully in the past; the Manhattan project and contemporaneous radar research, and numerous experimental particle physics projects, to cite just a few examples, are not perhaps academic in the purist sense, but they demonstrate that academic scientists can play well with others. More recently, new systems biology studies are bringing a sense of teamwork into academic life science labs, but there have been some growing pains. Still, in most of academic science--including the life sciences--the lone wolf still rules.

Beth Fischer runs the “Survival Skills and Ethics Program” at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, which was begun by neuroscientist Michael Zigmond. Fischer has seen changes in academia over just the last several years and has reason to believe that things are changing for the better. Many of these changes, she says, are driven by changes in the funding environment, such as the National Institutes of Health's "Roadmap,", which emphasizes interdisciplinary and translational research.

Another factor, Fischer says, is academic entrepreneurship and increased cooperation between academic labs and private companies. "The overall academic environment in which students are trained is changing. Private industry is coming to academia, and it would not be unusual for a student to work in the lab of a faculty member who also is associated with a start-up company, or to see someone leave their faculty position to work in industry full-time. As a result, there is now a much greater interest in the commercialization of technologies and products," says Fischer.

How Can I Ensure a Smooth Personal Transition Into an Industry Job?

- Lemert says that scientists should learn to write in the manner preferred by industry. "The typical academic research paper style is not appropriate. Management wants to get directly to the bottom line--what do I need to do, how much is it going to cost me, and what is it going to do for me. That information needs to be summarized very briefly in the first paragraph of your report. The next 1 to 1.5 pages can expand upon these areas, but you still need to be very concise."

- Andy Spencer, an industry research scientist, says that scientists should be prepared for tedious detail work of a nonscientific nature. "In a GLP [Good Laboratory Practices] environment, you sometimes need to do tedious work for other reasons--to comply with federal regulations, to lock down intellectual property, to make a partnership happen. You can find yourself spending effort on things you normally wouldn't in academia for reasons that are not close to the reasons you grew up thinking were the most important."

- John Hoey, also an industry research scientist, advises being creative in the job search. "My company has many open positions because we cannot get people to actively solicit employment. Does this sound strange? It shouldn't. Many companies don't advertise for most of their open jobs. Those of you job seekers applying online only for open positions are selling yourself short. There are many companies with lots of jobs just waiting for the right person to come and apply."

- Fischer suggests bringing the complexity of communication down a notch. "Learn how to communicate your ideas to nonspecialists. For people in the biomedical sciences, there are numerous opportunities for this. For example, one could volunteer to give a talk on their research to a patient-advocacy group for a particular disease. This has an added benefit that it educates the public about the importance of continued federal funding for research."

- I believe that academic scientists need to think about the translation of their work into commercial products. Experience and competence translating basic research into commercial applications will bridge the gap between the academic and commercial worlds, no matter how large the gap has become.

You've Been Here Before

Don't let these changes in industry put you off. As Kevin Foley, an associate director of research in Boston, recently said to me, drive, ambition, flexibility, creativity, individual excellence, and teamwork will make you a success in industry, and all these traits are found in academia as well as in companies. You've got the skills, and you've made drastic changes before. You can do it again.

As Foley sees it, the question of mutation versus extinction is a no-brainer. The scientist, by his or her very nature, is capable of mutating to fit the changing needs of industry. "Is the adjustment from academia to industry any larger than the adjustment from undergrad to grad school?" says Foley. "Sure, there are probably some personalities that would only succeed in one environment or the other, but I think these are the exceptions. Most of us are fully capable of adapting to those differences and succeeding." All you need to do is take the initiative and adapt so that you don't find yourself and your skills facing extinction.

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