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Fixing The Disconnect Between Academia And Industry: 6 Practical Solutions

Background

Today, employers are no longer looking for a great brain and a world of potential. They’re looking for that one CV that lists the skills they need right now — not after 6 months of training. ~Dave Jensen

There’s a disconnect between academic research and industry research. The two don’t fit together well. Lack of experience is the problem. You can get all the way to a Ph.D. and then realize you don’t have marketable experience. ~Kevin Foley

On Feb 17, 2012, Dave Jensen wrote an article titled: “Tooling Up: The Big Disconnect.” Since then, not much has changed in terms of the science job market, and there needs to be more articles that address the problem and propose practical solutions.

With that in mind, I have previously written about how to Bridge the Gap Between Academia and Industry. I have also written a How-To Networking Guide for Grad Students and Post Docs (Part 2 Series Coming Soon), so that you can Stand out From the Crowd (written by Doug Kalish).

But we still need to go a step further and address the disconnect between academia and the current job market. Why? Alternative non-traditional career options need to be available for those who are stuck in the post-doc loop and need a way out. Therefore, making the jump from Academia to Industry (and other fields such as Finance, Law, Government, WritingVenture Capital, Consulting, Entrepreneurship, Sales, Technology Transfer) is the first step, and the fact of the matter is that PhDs lack the marketable skills to be able to cross-over. This article addresses those concerns.

This is a guest post by Cliff Mintz, addressing the “Disconnect” between academia and other non-traditional fields (industry is used as an example), and what we can do about it. Cliff Mintz is the founder of BioInsights a biopharmaceutical education and training organization, a co-founder of BioCrowd a social networking and career development website for bioprofessionals and author of BioJobBlog.

Cliff also teaches product development and regulatory affairs in several biotechnology training programs and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Georgetown Medical School. Dr. Mintz has been invited speaker at numerous symposia and bioscience meetings focused on social media, career development and education and training.


The Disconnect

Dave Jensen’s article in a recent edition of Science Careers entitled “Tooling Up: The Big Disconnect” aptly and cogently pointed out why it has become increasingly difficult for academically-trained PhD life scientists to find jobs in the life sciences industry.

Dave is spot on in his assertion that most life science hiring managers engage in what he terms “pinpoint hiring”— a practice in which employees are hired based on their extant skill sets rather than long term scientific potential and possible contribution to the success of a company. In the good old days before globalization, companies would frequently hire the “best and the brightest”, train them and take the long view that well trained employees will ultimately benefit and add value to their organization. Unfortunately, those days are long gone. Today’s mantra is “what can you do for me today because there may not be a tomorrow.”

As Dave rightly points out, graduate students and postdocs are simply not being trained to meet the needs and demands of most life science companies. An essential ingredient that is missing from current training paradigms is a fundamental understanding of the life sciences industry and how it works.

Put simply, students who lack a basic understanding of the pharmaceutical/biotechnology drug development processes will find it increasingly difficult to land an industrial job; regardless of the number of Cell, Science and Nature papers or where you may have received your graduate or postdoctoral training.

In his article, Dave asserts that determining (as early a possible) that an industrial career is right for you may be your ticket to success. Unfortunately, while conducting informational interviews and landing a competitive unpaid (or paid) company internship may be helpful, only small numbers of graduate students and postdocs have the flexibility or access to these activities.

More importantly, most academic researchers engage in basic rather than applied research (which is what life sciences companies are looking for). Consequently, while many students view industry jobs as possible employment opportunities, there simply may not be enough PI or mentors who can help to acquire the applied skill sets demanded by most life sciences hiring managers.

6 Practical Solutions

By now, many of you may be thinking: okay we know about the problems how about some practical solutions. So, here goes:

1. There are many online biotechnology courses and certificate-earning biotechnology/pharmaceutical/regulatory affairs courses at local community colleges that graduate students and postdocs can take. (Yes, I know that you are extremely busy and working 80 hours plus in the lab, but it is your career and nobody else can do if for you.)

These courses will provide graduate students and postdoc interested in industrial careers with a basic understanding of how the life sciences industry functions. Also, these courses can provide a rich lexicon of industrial jargon—when correctly used in a face-to-face job interview — can make a difference between a job offer or not.

2. Graduate students and postdocs can work together to organize career development symposium, seminars and workshops to obtain a better understanding of the requisite skill sets and training required to improve their competitiveness for industrial jobs.

Example:

3rd Annual UW-Madison  Postdoctoral Conference on Professional Development

Theme: Taking Charge of Your Career

When: Saturday,  April 6th, 2013

Where: Microbial Sciences Building, 1550 Linden Drive

Dr. Phil Clifford – Associate Dean for Postdoctoral Education, Professor of  Anesthesiology and Physiology at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and founding  member of the Advisory Board of the National Postdoctoral Association – will  kick off the third annual UW-Madison Postdoctoral Conference with an  interactive plenary session about how to take charge of your career by  creating a professional ‘game plan’.

Dr. Clifford presentation will be followed by two Career  Panel sessions; each session will have three panels: academic careers,  industry/biotech research careers, and non-traditional career paths. Panelists  will share their experiences, outline options available in their professions,  and provide insight on how to determine and achieve career goals.

A series of afternoon breakout sessions will offer the  opportunity to learn about specific skills needed when entering the job market,  including CV/résumé building, grant writing, interviewing and networking. The conference is hosted by the Graduate School.

3. There are a number of PhD programs that now offer joint degrees in science, business and other disciplines. Choosing to enroll in these programs rather than traditional graduate life sciences programs may be an option for students who already know that an industrial rather than an academic career path is right for them.

4. Organize and then talk to college administration to demand that changes be made to existing graduate training paradigms to improve job preparedness. To that end, it would not be unreasonable to request that alternate career training courses (regulatory affairs, medical writing, project management, etc.) be offered to all graduate students and postdocs who may be interested.

Also, it may be appropriate (depending upon geographical location of an institution) to request that formal industry-focused company internships are established to allow interested and qualified graduate students and postdocs to participate.

5. Request that all faculty members be required to engage in career development counseling to help them to better understand the job market realities that their graduate students and post docs are currently facing. While this may sound like an odd request, it is important to remember that tenured professors are guaranteed a “job for life.”

Consequently, most of them are not particularly concerned about whether or not their PhD students or postdocs find gainful employment after they leave their laboratories. Sadly, many of them (and perhaps rightly so) believe that finding a job is not their problem but yours!

The Grad Student Way’s Personal and “Practical” Solution:

6. I will chime in and say that the most practical solution for myself was to obtain a paid internship (at a life science company) during my time in graduate school. I think it is CRUCIAL and I cannot stress enough that graduate students and post-docs should take a summer off and obtain industry experience (if that is the route you wish to take). That way you will come out with real-world industry experience and some marketable skills. You need to negotiate and leverage this in any way that you can.

The first step to land an internship position is to do informational interviews and start networking. I cannot stress that enough. You can read more about informational interviews here. My part 2 series of How To Network and Add Value to Yourself and Others will be releasing soon and I will go into great detail of what specific informational interview questions you can ask and how to become an expert informational interviewer.


Author Bio

Clifford S. Mintz, PhD., has an extensive background in biopharmaceutical drug development, biotechnology training and bioscience career development. Dr. Mintz has held a variety of positions including stints as a medical school professor, professional recruiter management consultant and medical/science writer.

Cliff is the founder of BioInsights a biopharmaceutical education and training organization, a co-founder of BioCrowd a social networking and career development website for bioprofessionals and author of BioJobBlog. He teaches product development and regulatory affairs in several biotechnology training programs and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Georgetown Medical School. Dr. Mintz has been invited speaker at numerous symposia and bioscience meetings focused on social media, career development and education and training.

Cliff received a B.S. in microbiology/animal science from Cornell University, a Ph.D. in Bacteriology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and performed his post-doctoral studies at Oregon Health Sciences University and the College of Physicians & Surgeons, Columbia University.

Currently a freelance writer, blogger and speaker at career fairs and professional meetings. Also a social media enthusiast, co-founder of the social networking site BioCrowd and a general all-around ‘good guy’ (that’s what people tell him anyway).

You can contact him at this address and follow him on Twitter @biojobblog


The GradStudentWay and BioJobBlog wants to hear from YOU!

Others have suggested “professionalizing” the post-doc. What do you think? Do we need more ways and ideas of coming up with better, more sound and practical solutions?

Further Reading:

  1. View This Discussion On LinkedIn In the PhD Careers Outside of Academia Group (must be member to view)
  2. Or Download the PDF Version Here

Comments

  1. Another great post, Ryan, and Dr. Mintz. Nice plug for the upcoming UW conference too! I may have to stop by and check it out. 🙂
    Regarding getting industry experience under your belt while still in graduate school, this is certainly one of the best ways to understand what folks outside of academia are looking for and what the current challenges are for those working in the corporate landscape. Unfortunately, too many academic mentors do not emphasize doing any kind of internships, especially internships in industry. And then there is the attitude that you’re essentially a traitor to pure science if you abandon academia for industry.

    • To quote Halina: “And then there is the attitude that you’re essentially a traitor to pure science if you abandon academia for industry.”

      This is disappointing, and a primary reason why so many continue to chase the academic carrot. Scientists are well-regarded for their elegant work, attention to detail, and ability ask solid questions and scientifically test their hypotheses. I find it troubling that few, if any, academic ‘mentors’ can calculate the percent chance that one will have success pursuing the same path that they did and follow that up with an open discussion with their trainees about it.

  2. Ryan, you touch on several topics and offer useful suggestions. However, as we have discussed, the biggest hurdle is getting out of the complacency shell. Graduate students are somewhat fortunate, in that, they have an advisory committee. Now, in some cases, as was my experience, the committee members serve as a useful advisory board with the power to overrule your mentor when it comes time to graduate and move on. This is a useful practice, but it is not the case everywhere. Fast forward to the postdoc years. Postdocs are essentially a separate entity altogether. Not tethered to the Graduate School and not offered similar perks that graduate students have. What this leads to, is sort of an aimless ‘figure it out yourself’ mentality. This eventually keeps feeding forward because the only real exposure to a career is limited to an academic life – and we know based on the numerous articles and literature now coming out of the NIH that this must change, and will be undergoing a reconstruction in the upcoming years. One component that I am working on installing in the postdoc office is for postdocs to have a ‘mentoring committee’ similar to what graduate students have, in addition to starting off with an IDP (individual development plan) before the first year is completed. The advisory panel could be people from all areas of science, and should be committed to the success of the postdoc. In this case, the metric for success is dependent on the postdoc IDP, not what the PI assumes or demands from the person. This modified way of thinking would obviously require partnerships/outreach/networking from all realms of science and would need a substantial number of people to devote time to proper mentoring and training of postdocs. From my viewpoint, there are many people outside of the academic circle that are willing to share advise and mentor young people/incoming generation in science – which is critically important for success. Sadly, many academic PIs fall short when it comes to ‘mentoring’ and maximizing one’s skillset in a useful way where both the PI and the trainee benefit. Too often, it becomes – feed the system, do the work, get your publications, then figure it out. This equation does not have a necessary end-date, and can eventually output someone with an amazing skillset that has no idea how to market themselves outside of academia. I can only hope, after reading many of the NIH and NSF reports, that they take note and really follow through with some of the ‘action plans’ they hope will change this process. Being in science and having the ability to do good science is an amazing gift, and it is a sad day when so many talented, young scientists become disillusioned and have no idea what to do next. To use a molecular analogy: It is a weakly selective system that allows too many extracellular molecules to pass through the channel and come out the other end only to find the intracellular pool is more dilute and specialized and the pores to squeeze back out may be too tight, but the recycling system is now a dominant force – where the molecules need to undergo some kind of modification or ‘phosphorylation’ if you will, in order to continue.

  3. Funny you allude to Dave Jensen, back when i tried to post on the forum he “moderates” he basically censors all topics and discussions on the PhD glut. I wouldn’t trust his comments and viewpoints on the issue if he can’t even let people speak up about it.

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