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November 5, 2007
Volume 85, Number 45
Web Exclusive

Breaking into Academia

Chairs Of Academic Search Committees Weigh In On Industrial Scientists' Prospects

When recruiting to fill academic positions, industrial scientists are not only considered, they are frequently hired

Susan J. Ainsworth

Jon S. Thorson is chairing a search committee to fill an open??position??in the National Cooperative Drug Discovery Group (NCDDG) at the University of Wisconsin. Funded by the National Cancer Institute, NCDDG is a consortium of scientists seeking to develop new anticancer drugs from natural products. Thorson, a professor of the University of Wisconsin School of Pharmacy, says he is currently receiving and considering applications from industrial scientists. In particular, the search committee is looking for candidates with expertise in natural products chemistry, rational drug design, or chemical biology, he says.

In addition to looking for that kind of background, Thorson's committee screens any industrial candidates for "the same qualifications we look for in all applicants." These include evidence that the candidate has performed "innovative and cutting-edge science," has a strong record of productivity, effective verbal and written communication skills, an aptitude for teaching, and the ability to work well with colleagues.

Industrial candidates eager to break into academia also "might want to consider highlighting any experience or success with grants, regardless of whether they are internal or external," Thorson advises. That may help to counter a common criticism of industrial candidates—especially those in the senior ranks—that they can't jump right in and compete for external grants to support their academic research program, he says.

Those who aspire to shift from industry to academia are also wise to stay within the research and development side of their organization until they make their move, according to John M. Vohs, Carl V. S. Patterson Professor and chair of the department of chemical and biomolecular engineering of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Engineering & Applied Science.

Individuals who have spent many years in management positions outside the lab "often don't compete well for academic positions," says Vohs, who is currently chairing a committee searching for faculty at the assistant professor level. However, experience as a group leader in a research lab, for example, "would be something that would we would look upon favorably."

Within the chemical engineering department, at least, the quality of a candidate's most current research program is of greatest importance, Vohs says. He adds that "we are quite flexible when it comes to their actual area of expertise."

In considering senior candidates from industry, the search committee may need to "assess their research record somewhat differently than someone from academia, since they may have far fewer publications in scientific journals," Vohs concedes. "Excellence in research, however, can be judged in a variety of ways, including patents, impact on the company, and development of new products or technologies."

Competing for junior positions may be less challenging because "time logged in industry is often considered in the same vein as postdoc experience." Early in their corporate careers, Ph.D.s are usually "still doing science or engineering" and have not yet ventured into management, so their experience is similar to that of a postdoc, he explains.

Vohs says that it is still early in the current search and he has not yet received any applications from industrial candidates. "But I'm sure we will" on the basis of past experience, he notes. "Several people from industry have recently been hired in our engineering school and in the chemistry department."

Like Thorson, Vohs says that he looks for essentially the same credentials in industrial candidates and "those straight from academia. The bottom line is that in addition to a strong record in research, they must also demonstrate a strong commitment to education."

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Cover Story

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