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Cover Story

November 5, 2007
Volume 85, Number 45
pp. 57-60

Making The Industry-To-Academia Shift

Successful candidates tout their distinctive skill sets

Susan J. Ainsworth

SOMETIMES EVEN THE MOST satisfied of industrial researchers can yearn for a change of pace. Despite the excitement that comes from translating a raw idea into a novel product or life-saving drug, some long to do fundamental research that isn't tied to customer needs or profitability.

Greg Khitrov
Hard At Work At UCLA, Loo and student Ivory Peng develop a new ambient sample ionization method for a mass spectrometry-based assay for proteins.

Not surprisingly, many industrial chemists, biochemists, chemical engineers, and other scientists are opting to leave the trappings of corporate life for the halls of academia. In the process, they hope to find the freedom to pursue their own long-term research goals in the absence of growing business pressures and changing corporate edicts.

"I truly enjoyed my time and experiences in a pharmaceutical research setting," says Kenneth D. Greis, who became an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati's Genome Research Institute after more than 10 years in the pharmaceutical industry. "However, I learned that corporate career paths can be limited for scientists who wish to maintain a significant portion of their efforts in the laboratory.

"In industrial research, even the best technology innovations can often get shelved due to changes in business priorities," Greis adds. "That hinders your ability to follow up and publish exciting research. This, coupled with downsizing in the pharmaceutical business, led me to look at other career avenues."

For all its allure, making the move from industry to academia isn't always easy, and the competition can be fierce. "Frequently, there are hundreds of applicants for a single academic opening," observes Thomas G. Mason, an associate professor in both the chemistry and biochemistry and the physics and astronomy departments at the University of California, Los Angeles. Many of the candidates are qualified academic professionals who go through several postdoctoral positions and stay in the academic environment, adds Mason, who made the professorial switch from his role as a research physicist at ExxonMobil Research & Engineering in 2003.

According to those who have successfully made the switch, there are tactics industrial scientists can employ to gain an edge in the academic job market. They need to find creative ways of compensating for shortcomings relative to their academic counterparts in terms of publication records and experience in securing grants and teaching.

At the same time, "candidates need to emphasize the unique knowledge and skills they have gained in industry and show how they can be applied in academia," says Shriram Ramanathan, assistant professor of materials science at Harvard University's School of Engineering & Applied Sciences. Before going to Harvard in 2006, Ramanathan was part of Intel's components research group.

For example, he says, industry scientists bring experience working in large interdisciplinary teams, leading projects, and creating intellectual property. "They have firsthand knowledge of how technologies are created, prototyped, and ultimately manufactured, which is something of practical significance that they can share in an academic setting," Ramanathan points out.

They also need to demonstrate "their ability to perform independent research that is of high scientific quality—something of primary importance to university recruiters," Ramanathan adds.

Demonstrating research competitiveness can be a major challenge for industry scientists trying to break into the highest levels of academia, according to James H. Scrivens, a professor in the department of biological sciences at the U.K.-based University of Warwick who retired from ICI as a company professorial fellow at the end of 2005. On an international scale, "research moves so fast now, that if you take time out to work in industry, it is actually increasingly difficult to make up that lost period."

Industrial scientists will almost always fall short of their academic peers in terms of the number of archival publications, which is a powerful indicator of research muscle. In his senior research role at ICI, Scrivens estimates that he authored 100 papers, "which does not even begin to hack it in academic terms," he says.

Still, it's important for those who are "even remotely thinking of an academic career move" to try to publish as many papers as possible in respected, peer-reviewed journals, advises Greis, who worked for Parke-Davis Pharmaceutical Research (which Pfizer purchased in 2000) and then for Procter & Gamble Pharmaceuticals before moving to academia.

Courtesy of Ken Greis
new Setting At the University of Cincinnati, Greis teaches the basics of mass spec for protein identification.

While in his industrial positions, Greis says, he always found ways to publish his work "even if it required doing extra sets of experiments on my own time using nonproprietary compounds," he adds. "And from my own industrial experience, I know that most scientists have enough data for a couple papers at their fingertips; they just need to make the time to write them and usher them through legal approval."

At the same time, candidates are smart to promote their proprietary publication records. They need to highlight the many papers, patents, and other documents that they've written that have had to remain inside their companies, Scrivens says.

IN ADDITION to pumping up their publications portfolio, industrial scientists can demonstrate their expertise by presenting their work at conferences and serving as chairs of sessions at key meetings, notes Joseph A. Loo. Since 2001, Loo has been a professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at UCLA and in the department of biological chemistry at its David Geffen School of Medicine.

In this kind of forum, "you get to shine in front of your peers and project how you would do in an academic setting," adds Loo, who says he was encouraged to give presentations at scientific meetings during his 10-year stint at Parke-Davis in Ann Arbor, Mich.

In particular, serving as a speaker at an international conference carries a lot of weight with search panels, notes Scrivens. "It is a sure sign that someone is on the cutting edge and has the skills to succeed in academia."

Participating in conferences is also a way to network, which is critical to the process of finding any job, professors say. "Maintain strong professional contacts, especially in academia," Mason advises. "These contacts are important, because the opinions of respected academic faculty members matter in the job-search process. This contact base can also help in finding jobs and understanding the quality of different departments."

For his part, Greis says the contacts that he developed through collaborations with universities gave him an edge in his academic job search. "My credentials were already known to key faculty members on search committees when I began to investigate academic options," he says.

A. Isaievych
Odds Beater Mason, shown on the UCLA campus, says there can be hundreds of applicants for a single academic position.

Having a good slate of contacts is even more critical within the upper echelons of academic recruiting, Scrivens notes. "In the more senior ranks, it is rare for someone to apply for a job within academia. Instead, you put your name out there and you wait for someone to bite."

Still, even the most plugged-in industrial scientists may be hindered by a lack of experience in applying for grant funding. Because funding has become very difficult to obtain from agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, universities may be more reluctant to hire somebody who does not have a track record for getting it, Loo observes.

One way around that, he says, is to gain experience in evaluating academic research by participating in external review panels or on government committees.

While interviewing for various positions, "I may have had an advantage in that I was in my second or third year as a regular member of a study section to review proposals at NIH," Loo says. "So even though I had never written a proposal, the academic institutions could sort of take it on faith that I was familiar with the components of a winning proposal and could write one."

Industrial scientists may also be hard-pressed to prove that they can teach as well as their career-long academic peers do. "Most universities do not want to hire an industrial researcher who may turn out to be a poor teacher and thereby become a liability to a department," Mason says. They may make an exception for very senior hires from industry, banking on their research reputation alone, "but for younger researchers, having bona fide teaching experience with excellent student ratings is a big plus" in the interviewing process.

To get the requisite experience while at ExxonMobil, Mason mentored one postdoc and worked with two summer graduate students from nearby City College of New York. "I am thankful to managers at the company who supported these educational programs so I could maintain my external research profile and gain some teaching experience."

Some industry scientists are able to teach outside of the corporate environment. While in industry, Bridget R. Rogers, an associate professor of chemical engineering at Vanderbilt University, says she gained marketable experience teaching a semiconductor materials processing course as an adjunct professor at Arizona State University from 1993 to 1997. At that point, she was a technical staff scientist at what was then Motorola's Phoenix-based Semiconductor Product Sector, which has since been spun off as Freescale Semiconductor. "I believe having teaching experience, documented by positive feedback from students, definitely helped me land my position at Vanderbilt" in 1998, she says.

Another way to gain experience interacting with students is by getting involved in managing corporate programs that fund research in academia, Scrivens points out. These programs, which require some supervision from industry scientists, usually directly involve postgraduate or graduate students, he explains.

MANAGEMENT EXPERIENCE in any kind of corporate research program is a potential selling point for any scientist looking to break into academia. Academic search committees are often looking for people who can manage a research program-from setting up a lab to defining research parameters and goals to managing other scientists, says Patrick Griffin, professor and chair of the molecular therapeutics department and director of the Translational Research Institute at Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, Fla.

The fact that he had been supervising various industrial research programs throughout much of his career, where he was "setting the direction of the research and changing with the times," was instrumental in his securing the position at Scripps, he says.

In the late 1990s, Griffin ran a research group within the chemistry department at Merck's research laboratories in Rahway, N.J., managing about 40 people dedicated to either proteomics or discovery-phase drug metabolism work. Then in 2002, two years before he landed at Scripps, Griffin stepped into the role of chief science officer at ExSAR, a small biotechnology start-up based in Monmouth Junction, N.J. Because the fledgling firm had no chief executive officer at the time, he took on a broad range of responsibilities, including those of presenting ideas to pharma companies, midsized biotechs, and venture capitalists.

Through those experiences, Griffin says, he developed strong financial management skills-something that is of increasing value in university research programs. "One mistake that many young assistant professors make is to try to build a big research group right away. They come in and spend a lot of money thinking that's the way to generate a lot of data and papers and grants. But, in fact, one of the things that industry does teach you—especially when running a company—is how to be frugal. It's important to make the start-up money last as long as possible."

Scrivens echoes that point. Universities in the U.K. and in the U.S. "are being encouraged to carry out proper cost analyses of the research that they do. And, if you haven't been taught those skills, it isn't something that you will necessarily be able to pick up easily," he says. On the other hand, scientists who have "spent much of their careers in industry will probably count budgeting as one of their basic skills."

Tips For Making the Transition

» Maximize publication

» Present work at conferences

» Network

» Join the grant proposal-review process

» Demonstrate an aptitude for teaching

» Tout research management experience

» Play up people skills

» Promote a broad perspective

At the same time, industrial scientists are often well-equipped to set critical research parameters, something they need to emphasize as they interview for academic jobs, notes UCLA's Mason. Within companies, "the internal industrial review process can be harsher than the academic review process, because there is an emphasis on the practicality of the idea from the very beginning," he says. "This has helped me pinpoint research projects that I think will have the maximum impact."

Financial and project management are among a broad range of industry-learned skills that have practical application in academia. "As a prerequisite of working for any large company, young people are taught the benefits of negotiation, leadership, and other people skills that, in a university environment, are usually left to the individual to discover independently," Scrivens says.

He says he has tried to bring some of the formal training programs employed at big companies such as ICI to his department. In addition, he has been asked to exercise the conflict management skills he developed in industry to help with personnel issues at his university.

One of the most important skills that scientists can bring from industry is the ability to work in cohesive teams, according to Gabriela Cezar, an assistant professor of animal sciences at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who left a position as principal scientist for genetic technologies at Pfizer in Groton, Conn., for academia in 2005.

Large pharmaceutical companies "typically offer extraordinary opportunities to develop the communication skills essential to working in the interdisciplinary teams that are at the core of drug discovery," Cezar says. In industry or academia, "it's so important to be able to communicate with colleagues that might be completely outside our area of expertise-chemists, biologists, clinicians, and executives, for example."

THROUGH TEAMWORK, industrial researchers often develop a broad perspective that can benefit both the university as a whole and its student body.

In his former position in components research at Intel, for example, Harvard's Ramanathan says he was able to learn about "the challenges involved in translating a 'cool' idea into something of practical and commercial relevance to millions of people worldwide." Part of his job was to identify disruptive technologies that could affect the company within the next 10 to 20 years, a task that involved combining scientific research with feasibility studies.

Ramanathan considers that kind of experience to be invaluable because it applies directly to academic research, which "often involves working on research topics that may have an impact on technologies from 10 to 50 years or more into the future. Identifying the critical problems that need to be solved to advance a technology can be important to securing funding, especially for junior investigators."

In some areas of academic research, including food science, that kind of comprehensive view of technology is just what university recruiters are looking for, according to John W. Finley, who left industry earlier this year after more than 20 years working in research within companies including Kraft, Monsanto, Nabisco, and ingredient supplier A. M. Todd. Now he is a professor and head of the department of food science at Louisiana State University, in Baton Rouge.

REFLECTING A CHANGE from 10 years ago, some universities are focused on moving new technology into application, Finley says. "They know that individuals with industry experience and networks are probably better able to facilitate that process. They are more likely to understand industry needs better than long-term academics."

Jason Figuerido
People Skills Graduate students (from left) Masaru Tsuchiya and Changhyun Ko and postdoc fellows Alex Johnson and Annamalai Karthikeyan work on fuel cell research in the Harvard University lab of Shriram Ramanathan.

That knowledge may also enable him to carve out lucrative new market niches. Through the move to LSU, he hopes to pursue his interest in health-promoting foods-an area toward which industry is "moving very slowly," he says. "Industry has become progressively short-term and, generally, does not support longer term work."

In addition to helping commercialize new technologies, scientists with an industrial background also bring real-world experience that can add value to students' educations.

Borrowing from his Intel experience, Ramanathan, for example, hopes to instill a broader appreciation for how materials science benefits society in his university students as well as the high school students he interacts with through Harvard's outreach activities with local Cambridge-area schools.

Cezar, too, is anxious to share her industry-honed global perspective with her students. Researchers who have worked in industry "are clearly able to link scientific problems to social and economic needs and implications," she says. "We are not just focusing exclusively on the science, but we are able to place the science in a broader context, which I think is extremely important in an academic environment."

On a more practical level, industry-savvy professors can offer students a glimpse of research work within a company. That's of tremendous interest to many students, especially those who intend to work in industry, according to William Hancock, chair of the department of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern University, in Boston. Previously, he worked in industry for 17 years at Genentech, Hewlett-Packard, and Thermo Electron.

In addition to offering firsthand knowledge of what it is like to work in a pharmaceutical company, these professors can offer advice on how to get a job at one, says UCLA's Loo. "I've gladly shared a lot of practical advice—tips to aid students in getting their first position in a company. I do a lot of counseling to help students set career goals and figure out exactly what they want to do in life."

Loo acknowledges that his "primary incentive in making the move from industry was to be able to pick and choose my own research areas" without having to worry if they fit a firm's business strategy. But in fact, mentoring students "has turned out to be the highlight of my time in academia," he says.

Vanderbilt's Rogers, too, finds great contentment in being a part of the growth of both undergraduate and graduate students. "The opportunity to mentor these young people and watch them mature as young adults and engineers and scientists is a major thrill for me. These kinds of opportunities were very limited in my industrial career."

UCLA's Mason adds, "For me, the personal satisfaction of an academic position goes beyond money."

That's important, given that academic scientists-with some exceptions-often earn less than their industrial counterparts. "At least this was the case for me coming from an engineering position," Rogers says. "And my chemical engineering Ph.D. students have starting salaries higher than many experienced faculty members."

From his vantage point, the University of Cincinnati's Greis observes that total academic compensation for veteran scientists "is considerably less" when factoring in the difference in salary and benefits, and the lack of bonuses and stock options that may be available in industry.

Still, like many who have made the switch to academia, Greis says the benefits outweigh the costs. "The bottom line is that no one will ever come to you and say, 'You're doing great work, but the business is going in another direction and therefore you will have to shelve your research,' " he says. "There is something to be said for setting one's own goals and then being responsible for reaching them."

Cover Story

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Cover Story

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