Science Careers in Industry: Top Ten Myths

Post written by Brad Fackler, MBAImage of a list with checked items. A pencil is to the right of the list.

When you have primarily worked in an academic setting, any other work path can seem like a confusing and scary venture. Many scientists consider career options in industry; however they often worry about what this transition will be like. Here are the top ten myths I often hear about an industry career in science.

1. I will have my project “yanked away.”

This thought is often repeatedly shared, but most of the industry scientists I have talked to have categorically denied this! In industry, projects often change for two basic reasons: 1. Your research was successful and the compound has moved on to a clinical trial.  2. Your project was unsuccessful and no further work is warranted at that time.  In both of these scenarios, an individual is generally given months advance notice for future planning. Moreover, you will likely be moved to a project where your skills and expertise can best be leveraged because most companies and bosses want employees who are scientifically engaged and happy.  After all, that helps with productivity in the end.

2. It is all about the money.

Funding is needed to make science happen, whether in the private or public sector and the total budgets between the two are pretty comparable. The fiscal year 2016 NIH research budget is $32,300,000,000, with this total accounting for extramural  (grants awarded to more than 300,000 researchers at more than 2,500 universities, medical schools, and other research institutions)  as well as intramural research spending.  In comparison, the sum of the top four pharma company’s R&D budgets in 2015 was $35,600,000,000. The breakdown is: Roche at $10.2B, Novartis at $9.3B, Merck at $8.2B, and Pfizer at $7.9B.

3. Industry conducts “bad” science.

Companies have to meet clear regulatory requirements by the FDA that academic labs generally aren’t held to. Development of drug therapy has virtually eliminated once common diseases like plague, polio, smallpox, tuberculosis, measles, and chicken pox. The average life expectancy after a cancer diagnosis is now greater than ten years.  With all of these advances, the average life expectancy in the US in 2015 is 80.6 for females and 75.9 for males. Compare that to the average US life expectancy 100 years prior in 1915 which was 56.8 for females and 52.5 for males. This increase in life expectancy has been attributed to better nutrition and the development of drug therapy.

4. I will no longer be able to publish.

Companies still publish findings. 5,585 science companies published 34,287 papers and 6,793 technology companies published 29,554 papers.  For example, in the first quarter of 2016, MedImmune had 40 publications. Industry scientists also report that the pressure to publish is diminished from academia and that is often viewed as a positive.

5. The work is not as satisfying.

Well, if you transition from an NIH lab to an industry bench science position, then you will be doing exactly the same things whether that is satisfying to you or not.  In industry positions, more emphasis is placed on meeting timelines and accomplishments, and most companies prioritize team work in a collegial work environment. If for whatever reason that doesn’t sound like a good fit for you personally and professionally, then it is might be necessary to question if industry is a good fit for you.

6. There is more career change and I’ll probably lose my job.

Most careers are full of change and even PI jobs change too (ex. Assistant – Associate – Full). Industry does offer multiple career tracks, including level and salary increases within the lab or the option to progress into management. You can also transition to other company functions.  Should you lose your job, most often companies offer placement services and severance options. Also, if working in industry, then it is likely that you are living in an area where there are other opportunities as well since most pharma and biotech companies are often clustered together geographically.

7. What if I hate it?

Many career decisions are fraught with worry. Remember that the choice you are making at the end of your training fellowship is for the next step in your career, not necessarily for the rest of your life. Pursuing an industry postdoc can help make you feel more comfortable about your decision to move into industry. Industry experience and pursuing new skill sets may help open doors to new opportunities and additional career choices, including returning to academia, which brings us to number eight…

8. I can never go back to academia.

In today’s environment, there is growing pressure to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of product discovery and development which often leads to public-private partnerships (PPP’s) and Industry-Academic partnerships like NCATS or Accelerating Medicines Partnership (AMP).  This has increased the flow of technology, capital, and human resources among the public, private, and academic sectors and has helped blur the lines of what used to be a bigger divide.

9. I will disappoint my PI and my graduate school mentors.

Even if it might not always feel this way, the environment is beginning to change. Faculty review panels are starting to give “credit” for non-faculty career outcomes. Similarly, PIs are starting to understand the shortage of academic PI opportunities and the benefits of multiple career options for trainees. Always remember, it is you career/life to live – not theirs. If you need help having this discussion with your boss, read this post on “How to Talk to Your Mentor about a Career Change.”

10. Not becoming a PI means I’m a failure.

It can be incredibly hard to reframe one’s internal thoughts about this; however, from an external perspective, this most definitely does not mean you are a failure. In fact, most employment statistics reveal you are in the majority. According to Sauermann and Roach (2012), more than half of entering biology PhD students had the career goal of becoming a research professor, but less than 10% of them went on to become a research professor.

Remember, that the best career advice often comes from people who are working within your aspired field/company/role, so if you are interested in industry, then talk to people doing that work. You might even find some of your own personal myths dispelled by these conversations.


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