Building a Career in Science: Academia or Industry?

If you’re a student in a research lab, discussing career options with your PI can be a tricky topic to navigate. Whether real or perceived, many students feel they cannot bring up the subject of a career in industry with their PI because they will lose credibility as a serious researcher. In labs where thinking about careers outside of academia is taboo, students can’t get all the information they need to decide what career path is right for them.

This dilemma became very clear a few weeks ago when I served as a panelist for a career workshop about jobs in industry at the iGEM 2018 Giant Jamboree. The workshop participants were extremely engaged, and we fielded questions well after the official end time. Since I know there are other students who could benefit from information about science-related careers in industry, I’ve compiled some of the questions and answers from the workshop.

How do I decide if I should pursue an advanced degree? How do I decide between a Master’s vs. PhD?

There is a lot of value in getting an advanced degree, but it may not be required for the career path you’re interested in. Look at job postings related to that career and take note of the required qualifications. Be realistic—if you aren’t sure if grad school is right for you and the job you want doesn’t list a Master’s or PhD as a requirement, you may want to skip grad school (at least in the short term).

Doing this will give you time to figure out what you really want to do and gain experience in the non-academic world. Then, when you have a compelling reason to get an advanced degree, you can do so with clearer objectives. (Check out this profile of an opera singer turned neuroscience professor and this article about her current work).

If you decide an advanced degree is the right choice for you, make sure you are clear about your goals. Focus on schools and programs that offer options related to what you’re interested in. More importantly, you want to make sure the program will be a good fit for you. To figure that out, talk to current and former students, as well as the PI and other faculty, and ask a lot of questions.

Use this information to choose not only the right school but the right mentor and lab for your thesis. If you’re thinking about industry after you finish your degree, choose a PI who has supported students who have gone on to a variety of different careers. (I highly recommend you listen to “How Do I Choose a PhD Program?” or “How to Avoid a Toxic Lab“, or any other podcast episodes from the Hello PhD podcast, which provides great advice related to getting a PhD.)

Another thing to keep in mind once you’ve started an advanced degree: you don’t have to keep doing something just because you’ve put a lot of time into it. If you’re starting to feel like you need to change course, listen to that little voice in your head. Even if the choice you make isn’t exactly right, you will still get value out of the experience you gain and will be able to apply it to other positions, even if they seem unrelated. (This deeply personal opinion piece provides one perspective about whether sticking it out to earn a PhD was worth it.)

What are the tradeoffs of specializing your research interests?

There is potential to become very specialized as you progress in your research career. If you want a career in R&D or academia, this specialization will be important because it signals that you are able to examine something very deeply and stick with it. Unfortunately, you can get burned out by doing too much of the same, specific thing over time.

One way to avoid this is to consider the following question at the beginning and throughout your research career: Do you prefer to learn a little bit about a lot things or a lot about one little thing? Your answer should guide the way you approach decisions regarding your research.

Another strategy that can help you branch out is to work with collaborators from other research groups to try other types of research. Even though this may detract from your primary research interests, broadening your horizons can only help you in the long run. The extra knowledge and skills you gain from these detours will be what sets you apart from your peers when you are competing for any job.

This is especially true in industry, where cross-functional knowledge gives you the flexibility to contribute to multiple departments and teams. Another workshop panelist, Eric Perkins, Director of Science Product Management at Addgene, reflected that his undergraduate double major in Biotechnology and English Literature at a university that emphasized teamwork and collaboration has served him well throughout his career, where teamwork and cross-functional team communication have been extremely valuable skills.

Internships are another great way to try out different areas of industry and gain experience. Generally, companies will offer summer internships, and post these openings around December or January (you can find ours here in early December). In addition to R&D internships, many companies will also offer opportunities to intern in other departments that stand to benefit from a scientific background such as Marketing, Training or Operations.

How do I figure out if a company has the position I want? How do I know if there will be room for me to grow within that company?

Take some initiative to research companies that you are interested in working for and that could stand to benefit from the experience or knowledge you possess. A good place to start is the “career” section of company websites to see if they have any open positions that are a good fit, but the truth is many positions get filled before they are even posted, so be proactive. If there is a position you want in a company and you have the skills to do it, don’t wait for a job opening—submit a resume to get your name out there. Even better, try to find someone within your personal or professional network who may be connected to that company in some way and could facilitate that first contact.

Speaking of your network—get out there and get networking. Be honest, did you just have a visceral reaction to reading the word “networking”? Its okay, I feel the same way, but just because you don’t like doing something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Companies like to hire known quantities and will put a lot of weight on referrals from their current employees. The more people you know in the field you want to work in, the more likely you are to get hired.

Don’t get discouraged if you aren’t immediately hired for a position you want. Keep applying for a position at a company you are interested in—persistence can pay off. Employers will notice if your resume keeps appearing and recognize that you are more invested in getting hired than other applicants.

Once you have the job, it is vital that you communicate your professional goals clearly with your manager. Work with them to determine what you need to do to move up to the next level and then seek out opportunities to develop in that direction. It is important to keep evolving professionally and not get complacent in your current role. If your manager doesn’t see you taking initiative to learn new skills or take on more challenging projects they may not think you can handle a new role with more responsibility.

How do you protect yourself from instability within the company or sector you work in?

Begin by determining your tolerance for risk and let that guide where you look for employment. For example, companies in pharma are less stable than those in biotech, startups are very unstable compared to more established companies, and public companies tend to change more than private ones. The trade-offs among these different situations are important to consider.

More stable companies typically offer less opportunity to learn something new and take a completely different trajectory in your career path. Startups will give you the opportunity to try a lot of things and figure out what you’re good at (and what you don’t want to do) but may not survive beyond a couple of years.

The truth is that career instability is the new normal for any sector, including academia which has traditionally been the path of stability for scientists. Here are some steps you can take to mitigate this instability:

  • Go to work each day with the mindset that you need to demonstrate there is a need for what you do and you’re the best person to do it.
  • Don’t assume you will work for one company the rest of your life: continue to network (see above), keep your resume/LinkedIn profile up to date and stay up to date on literature and current standards.
  • Stay positive, work really hard and be open to different possibilities so that if something doesn’t work, you have something else to fall back on.

Regardless of whether you pursue an advanced degree or choose a career in industry or academia, remember that there will be opportunities to follow a new path if you change your mind along the way. Do you have other questions about careers in industry for scientists? Check out these other blog articles or tell us what you want to know.

Reflections on My Path from Academia to Industry

UW Master of Science in Biotechnology Program: An Excellent Fit for both Scientists and Business Professionals

BioTech Scientists through a Different Lens

Careers in Science: Kris Pearson, Custom/OEM Production Manager

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Darcia is a Science Writer at Promega. She earned her BS in Secondary Education at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, with minors in Biology and Spanish, and her MS in Biotechnology at the University of Wisconsin Madison. She is passionate about sharing scientific knowledge with all audiences, including her family and friends—whether they have solicited the lesson or not! In her free time, Darcia enjoys playing volleyball, eating delicious food and cheering for the Chicago Cubs.

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