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5 Reasons Only Certain PhDs Should Transition Into Research Scientist Positions In Industry

science career in research and development | Cheeky Scientist | becoming a research scientist
Written by Nikolette Biel, Ph.D.

I was one of the lucky ones.

The principal investigator I worked for was not a fear-monger.

He allowed me to develop the transferable skills I needed to transition into industry.

So that’s what I did.

I set out to make myself a strong candidate for industry R&D positions.

I knew all along that for me, being a research scientist in industry was better than staying in academia.

In graduate school, I saw confident people turn into weak-minded PhDs, who were unable to manage and overcome academic stress.

Post-docs spent all their time at the lab bench, yet were being paid less than librarians. 

I wanted a brighter future than this.

Now I’m a research scientist in industry and I consider my future to be very bright.

The research I do in industry is cutting edge and has promise to help thousands of patients.

Every day I wake up, go to work and feel happy and satisfied because I know my efforts benefit people’s lives.

I’m not just creating knowledge for the sake of knowledge, I’m creating knowledge and helping to translate it into treatments, medicines, technologies, and other products.

Still—there was a lot I wasn’t prepared for in industry.

The life of an industry research scientist is very different from the life of an academic research scientist.

There are fundamental differences in the work culture of industry versus academia.

You should learn these differences now, not later.

Since we are each trained with an academic mind, it is essential to acknowledge these differences  in order to nail your R&D interview and make a successful transition.

Why Should You Consider A Career In R&D?

The technical aspect of research in industry is not much different from that of academia.

You still spend long hours at the bench, analyze data and plan new experiments to move your project forward.

So why transition out of academia?

First, the number of tenured professors at universities is steadily declining.

Even worse, according to a report by the U.S. House of Representatives, a large portion of non-tenure-track professors live below the poverty line.

The professional risk of staying in academia has become too great.

Second, a U.K. government report indicates that people employed in the Life Science Industry (not in academia) earn more than average income than those employed in any other sector of the economy.

The R&D sectors are growing, especially in the biotechnology and biopharmaceutical fields.

A large R&D Trends Forecast by The Industrial Research Institute found that hiring expectations for both established R&D professionals and new graduates are continuing their growth across almost every industry segment.

The message is clear…

There are too many academic researchers while industry researchers are in high demand.

how to become a research scientist | Cheeky Scientist | scientific research jobs

5 Things To Know About Being An Industry Research Scientist

As a PhD, you can’t afford to ignore the facts.

Things are NOT getting better in academia.

The above reports show that research is not the problem.

In fact, research and research scientists are in high demand.

Academia is the problem.

It’s time to start learning what R&D has to offer.

It’s time to start leveraging your skills to get the job (and income) you deserve.

The key is to assess your needs, desires and personality to decide whether or not they match the R&D career you’re moving towards.

Here are 5 things to keep in mind when pursuing a career as an industry research scientist…

1. Your research goals are different in industry. 

In academia, you have the freedom to explore interesting basic and translational science questions.

At least, that’s what the lifetime academics tell you.

The truth is this freedom comes at a price.

Any supposed freedom you think you have in terms of your research in academia costs you significantly.

These costs include applying for funding, maintaining teaching expectations, and publicly promoting your research.

In industry, on the other hand, your freedom is in the hands of management.

You are working towards a product. The end.

Everything you do at the bench or away from it revolves around moving a product forward.

Deciding WHAT experiments to run and WHEN to run them can be very different in industry compared to academia.

In academia, you’ll often chase some small, basic science question for years.

You’ll conduct your research with the sole purpose of exploring new areas and bringing a story that you can publish to life.

In industry, you’ll chase similar things but again, the overall purpose will be to create a product that will meet a public need while also making the company profit.

In industry, you won’t care so much about the “story.”

Instead, you’ll care about results.

You’ll care about answering questions quickly and effectively.

Your goal will be to figure out the BEST experiment to run to answer the fundamental question that is keeping you from progressing from step A to step B.

2. You’ll work longer and harder in industry.

Contrary to popular belief, being a scientist in industry is not a 9-5 job.

In academia you work hard and put in long hours for numerous reasons—a paper needs publishing, a grant needs data, a poster needs printing before a conference, your thesis needs finishing before you graduate, on and on. 

In industry, you work long and hard every day.

Of course it depends on the company you work for, but overall the work is consistently intensive.

But it’s not intensive in a bad way.

You’ll work long hours to meet strict deadlines—deadlines that are much more frequent in industry than in academia.

That being said, the race to get a new product out is intense and can be stressful.

Some PhDs thrive in this kind of environment while others crumble.

It’s up to you to know which type of PhD you are and which working environment is best for you.

In industry, you never know what research other companies are doing.

They might be working on the same project or product as you and if they beat you to market, you’re not just scooped, your company might lose millions.

For most industry research scientist positions, you should plan on working 10-12 hours a day.

You might already be working these hours in academia.

The difference in industry is that you will be 100% focused on getting data.

No interruptions by seminars.

No writing papers or grants.

No teaching students.

In industry, you’ll set a plan for each day and work to maximize your time at the bench.

Time management is key in industry.

In order to move a project forward quickly you must have experiments 2 and 3 ready before running experiment 1 of plan A.

You also have to have plans B and C in case plan A doesn’t work out.

Instead of working on plan A for months or even years, you’ll have days to figure out if it’s working and then you’ll need to move quickly to plans B and C.

In industry, once you get to work you are at work and you work.

It’s a much more professional and “serious” environment.

Again, it’s up to you to determine whether or not you’ll thrive in this environment.

The key is determining this before you transition into the position, not after.

Here’s the good news—once you leave work, you’re done.

You’ll rarely bring your work home with you due to company confidentiality.

This allows you to enjoy being home while getting refreshed for the next workday or workweek.

3. Your project will progress only as long as it’s productive.

The amount of time a company will give you to explore a project will vary.

But only slightly.

In the end, if a project isn’t moving forward and looking promising for product development, pre-clinical and clinical development, and so on, the project will get shut down.

No amount of pleading will keep the project going.

In academia, on the other hand, many projects are explored for years, especially if the project has a lot of upfront funding.

You publish papers and your name gets recognized, even if the project is pointless.

Now, imagine pouring your heart and soul into a project for 2-3 years and suddenly one day hearing the words “We will no longer pursue this project.”

This is what you will be faced with in industry.

Executive decisions are made in line with the company’s business and corporate goals and you have to accept them or find a new job.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this.

In fact, this kind of productive perspective can be more scientific.

Instead of projects being carried forward by passions and publications, they’re carried forward by results and bottom lines.

When you are a scientist in industry, you must learn to be heavily invested in your project so that you work hard to move it forward.

But, at the same time, you must learn to not be “emotionally” invested so that when the project hits a legitimate dead-end you will pull the plug instead of holding on.

The only way to thrive as a research scientist in industry is to start thinking about the company you work for as a whole.

You need to support decisions to shut down projects and shuffle people to new teams to ensure the future of the company.

4. You will be required to adapt very quickly.

In industry, you have to be a bit of a chameleon.

You must be able to switch your focus quickly and effectively as needed.

Depending on your personality type, this can be very fun and exciting, allowing you to continually learn new things.

At the same time, you must be able to switch back and forth from working independently to working as a team.

You have to be both competitive and collaborative.

When you first start your job as a research scientist in industry, make sure you carefully observe how things are run within teams and between teams.

Study how each department or division works and how they interact with each other.

Focus on understanding the hierarchies, workflows, and the overall culture.

Don’t worry about making a good impression or “hitting the ground running.”

Instead, go through a period of deep observation.

Most importantly, remember that in industry, everyone’s time is precious and everyone is very busy doing research.

Usually, you’ll be on your own and will have to figure things out before you ask someone for help.

Here’s more good news—in industry, when you do ask (or get asked) for help, your colleagues will quickly offer their expertise.

There is an underlying understanding between industry research scientists at the same company that when you approach each other, you have already done everything on your own that you could to get answers to your questions and now it’s time to work as a team.

5. There is no public recognition or “glory” in industry.

In academia, when you do research, your name will be known and carried forward through publications and presentations at conferences.

In academia, you’ll get recognition for your hard work.

You’ll get respect from your scientific community and may become known as a leader in your field.

This is not the case in industry.

Most often, due to company confidentiality, you won’t be able to discuss your research with your peers.

In industry, you must keep all the amazing things you’re doing at the bench to yourself.

Your name will seldom be seen on papers even though the caliber of research you’re doing could easily go into top tier journals like Nature and Science.

At many companies, you’ll never go to conferences or present posters.

At others, you will.

It depends on the specific industry and specific company you work for.

But, overall, your name will not be recognized or passed on in the ways you are used to in academia.

When companies do publish papers, it will be on products that have, for example, successfully passed pre-clinical evaluations and are ready to be moved to clinical trials, or products that are about to hit the market.

This is normally a very small percentage of all the projects the company invests in.

Instead of recognition, you’ll have the satisfaction that comes from making a difference in public health and in finally getting paid what you deserve as a PhD scientist.

Now that you know the facts, you can move forward with your transition into a research scientist position. Remember that industry research goals are different than academic research goals, and you will often work longer and harder in industry. Remember also that your industry research project will progress only as long as it’s productive. By adapting quickly and thriving on tangible outcomes over name recognition you will become a successful research scientist in industry.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Nikolett Biel, Ph.D.

Nikolett Biel, Ph.D.

Niki is a Ph.D. with a background in oncology, hypertension, vascular biology, translational sciences and preclinical drug evaluation. She is currently a bench scientist in a pharmaceutical setting where she works on oncology drug target development. Besides science at the bench, Niki is passionate about patient advocacy and taking part in fundraising activities for various diseases. She has also taught and mentored undergraduate and graduate students both in class and the laboratory.
Nikolett Biel, Ph.D.
  • Winona Petit

    The differences between industry and academia research models don’t surprise me. It’s very obvious that those of us who did academic research are prone to get caught in such narrow and specific questions that the answer doesn’t see to even matter, almost like “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” But in industry, nobody’s asking the question unless there is some problem out there that needs a solution. If dancing angels can cure back pain, then the question of how many you can fit on the head of a pin would be relevant. No matter how interesting, if the industry-related research has no application, it’s out.

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    I enjoy research, and I think I would fit in to either community, whether academic or industrial. I enjoy answering questions, but I also enjoy making solutions available. This is a great article, though, because it gives me food for thought. 🙂

  • Madeline Rosemary

    You’re giving us some really good information. It rings true that this is the way the two platforms would function. There are advantages to both!

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    A great discussion of the difference between the two. This would be great reading for anyone who’s torn between the two, and that basically includes EVERYONE who hasn’t graduated yet!

    • Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Glad you found the article helpful, Carlie!

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    I like the practical side of this article. If you’re just worried about how to impress everybody and trying to call attention to yourself by “hitting the ground running,” you’re not going to impress too many people in the long run, at least not in the way you want to.

  • Sissy MacDougall

    Well, this is an honest evaluation of who should and should not go into industry positions. As the author says, this is a very individual decision and should not be approached lightly, as many factors fit together to determine if industry or academia is your best bet. I know that some people can’t wait to get out of the academic world, but for others, it’s a very good place to be.

  • Kathy Azalea

    The truth is that I think I would be better off in industry even though I will miss the idea of being able to make a name for myself, publish my own findings, and discuss everything I’m doing with other concerned scientists. So even though I can see those down sides and probably won’t like them, I’m pretty sure I can get over these things over time. I really am an action-based persona and like to keep busy doing important things, and one thing about academia left me feeling empty, and that was the question of trying to get a professor to approve a research topic and thinking that they didn’t always care about the practical implications. I would much rather get my work out of the lab and into the hands of people who need solutions than get my name in print.

    • Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      You can find a lot satisfaction by making a difference in public health, Kathy! Thanks for commenting.

  • Julian Holst

    This is a really important point to me. When I get done, I want to make the right choice. I think they both have some good points, but I also know I have some time to think it over.

    • Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Don’t wait too long, Julian. Remember, if you decide to transition into industry, you should be networking and honing your transferable skills sooner than later.

  • Harvey Delano

    I think I can adapt quickly to an environment like that. I’ve been working since I was 16, so I think it’s no big deal, and having the lab time makes the table work seem pretty normal. And I’m not looking for any kind of glory. Thanks for the post.

  • Sonja Luther

    To be honest, I had no idea what PhD’s do after school. I think that most people assume that they all become college professor. This is a fascinating intro to the kinds of decisions they make about where to apply their expertise.

    • Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Glad we could broaden your outlook, Sonja.

  • Débora Teixeira Duarte

    Great article. It answered a lot of the questions I had about doing research in industry. However, I do find it weird that a 10-12h a day schedule seems to be expected / encouraged. All aspects of a industry research career seem to fit me, except for this one. I cannot see how one can stay healthy and happy on this schedule. Of course I do work this amount of time as a last year PhD student, but I always thought this would be temporary. Am I being too naive?