One Step At A Time: Bridging the Gap Between Academia and Industry

Industry-Academia Interactions: Bridging the Gap

By Ryan Raver
**This is a very complex and deep topic, hence the reason for the long, informative blog post**

With Stagnant NIH funding for the past decade or so, and dim job prospects, PhDs in the life sciences are now seeking alternatives. ‘Non-traditional’ careers are seemingly becoming traditional. There are two separate worlds: Academia and Industry. Both have very different goals and mindsets.

Post-docs or grad students wishing to enter industry can only hope that they have the minimum experience required to even enter industry, but many have no experience. But with an increasingly competitive job market, overabundance of PhDs, and lack of funding we find PhD grad students entering low paying post-doctoral positions, never to really come out. Some leave science altogether due to the “post-doc crisis,” where the average post-doc can last 5-6 years. Even more disturbing, doing more than one post-doc is not uncommon.

Not surprisingly, the harsh reality that statistically only 14 percent of those with a PhD in biology and the life sciences now land a coveted academic position within five years (according to a 2009 NSF survey), pushes newly minted PhDs and post-docs towards industry due to higher pay and better job prospects. So, why not tackle the problem BEFORE graduation or before completion of a post-doctoral fellowship? In other words, what can be done to bridge the gap between academia and industry and what steps can be taken for this to happen in this present day and age?

Until this happens, we will continue to see the gap between academia and industry grow. Professors, scientists, and post-docs will continue to have “tunnel vision” where all they know or care about is their own research, field of expertise, and work environment (academia). The real question is, if the gap were bridged, would you even need a post-doctoral position or could you just skip the post-doc and enter right into industry from graduate school?

Why Do We Need To Bridge The Gap?

The reason that there are so few jobs to be found in academe is not because there are too few colleges, universities, departments, or programs. If anything, there are too many. The problem is that the number of available jobs is vastly outnumbered by the number of people applying for them. There are simply too many PhDs produced every year for the higher education establishment to absorb them all, despite the absurd degree to which it has absorbed them into jobs that have nothing to do with traditional research and teaching. Today, universities hire doctors of philosophy to be in charge of their dormitories, alumni associations, and police departments.” (Source:

So it is important to consider all options, especially those in biotech/pharma/healthcare industry. More importantly, it is imperative that unless we start to train less PhDs every year, we need to prepare PhDs for the current job market. Otherwise, you may find yourself unemployed with a gap on your resume, or working a post-doctoral position into your late 30’s.

Today, businesses are looking for innovative solutions from the academia to help meet their business needs of higher productivity and lower costs, yet increase efficiencies. In the area of talent, the US has to strengthen its technical and management resources as these are crucial to knowledge-based industries. A market-driven approach to higher education has to be fostered in order to encourage manpower development from the grassroot level itself. The idea is to involve the private sector in higher education.

So What Gives?

In the third millennium, we have witnessed a lot of technological changes. These changes, however, have not been properly used by our graduates in order to compete in the present scenario. It is essential to have industry-academia interactions which will help to impart relevant knowledge and will be sustainable in the changing conditions.

Academic institutions seemingly place great importance and value on closer interaction with industry and R&D organizations. At the level of industry participation in technology development, some interaction has been witnessed between large public and private sector enterprises and academic institutions.

Still, industry support to basic research is virtually non-existent. Laboratory utilization by industry for developmental purposes and for product testing has seen some success. With the help of continuing education programs (CEP), participation from the industry is gradually increasing. The areas in which interaction is possible include industry support to basic research for knowledge creation, industry participation in technology development involving some exploratory work, academic intervention in solving industry problems, and laboratory utilization by industry and CEP.

Current Status of Cooperation Between Academia And Industry

1) Academics are driven by their conferences and technical journals and their need to publish.
2) Academics seldom attend industrial conferences as they feel this is below their standard.
3) Academics look down upon industrial newspapers and magazines.
4) Academics are not aware of the problems and constraints of industry.


Reasons Behind The Gap Between Academia And Industry

1) Academics and Industrialists have a different mind set, therefore both are living in two different worlds.
2) Both Academics and Industrialists are pursing different goals entirely. The Academic is striving for recognition from his or her peers. The Industrialist is striving to survive.
3) Industry thinks in terms of short range goals whereas the Academic has a long range perspective.
4) Industry prefers proven solutions with a low risk, whereas Academia is interested in creating new solutions with a high innovation rate.
5) Industry seeks the minimum solution to minimize their risk, whereas Academia strives for a maximum solution to maximize their recognition.
6) Industry is mainly concerned with costs. Academia could care less about costs, it is mainly interested in the benefits (and prestige).


Additional Reasons Explained:
The Gap between the needs of the industry and aspirations of academic community is very large. Academicians always have a strong feeling that unless these initiatives find a place in industrial sector, this interaction will be confined to only developmental activities. There is a strong mismatch in perceptions of the two on the issues related to technology development. At present, the academic community is not geared to face this challenge of translating an evolving idea into technology development.

Industry Needs and Expectations

Large industrial companies have the resources to invest in technology development initiatives. Academic participation is often needed in minor technological innovation. Small scale industries often depend on support in the areas of design, process improvement and machinery performance, etc. They also rely on processes to yield a product which already exists. In some cases, problem solving may simply amount to product testing and production enhancement in terms of quantity and quality. In such interactions, industry’s expected time frames have been immediate and investment is directed towards efforts that promise result oriented solutions.

Academia Expectations

An academician shows interest normally in problems that are intellectually challenging. His or her areas of interest lie in technology development initiatives and methods related to process and design improvement. Researchers have strong preference for working towards creation of knowledge in specialized areas. For industry-related problems, a researcher has to explore a variety of options which is time consuming.

In academic institutions, the time frame of an academician is governed by research guidance and teaching assignments.

Academicians are oriented towards R&D activities of the industry for funds which helps them to sustain their broader research interests.

Avenues For The Future

A support system is needed to ensure a focused involvement of both academia and industry. Academic institutions should develop systems and procedures to ensure that industry expectations are met without any compromise on academic aspirations. Initially, academia should conceive and take up short term, small budget projects which would instill confidence in industry and encourage it to start development projects. Industry also has to give a fresh look to its R&D efforts. This process must be guided by a complete shift from trading set up to a technologically- driven entrepreneurial set up. Academia should tilt the focus of basic research to applicative research. Research initiatives involving industry people with flexible formats could serve as the first step in this direction.

Venues should be created for close interaction starting from conceptualization down to commercialization. Setting up of technology incubation centers in close proximity of academic institutions could provide for fostering wholesome technology development.

Interaction between industry and doctoral programs

In the Pharmaceutical industry, Pharmaceutical education is a foundation for its structure. For example, R&D and pharmaceutical technologies are built up by supplying qualified pharmacists to the industry. The interaction should begin when researchers are doctoral students and should continue well after they start their careers.

Some institutions fear that if students are involved in industry work, it might distract them from their doctoral work. However, many professors and faculty are willing to put this fear aside. They may realize that allowing students to be involved with industry could have very positive benefits. Not only could it boost doctoral productivity/output, motivation, and potentially lead to a job (or even a start-up company someday), it would further foster the academia-industry relationship as the cycle continues with new post-docs and grad students.

Those who cannot secure academic positions will seek out industry positions and will need to acquire necessary skills, knowledge, and experience in order to successfully break into industry. Industry provides research topics, funding and access to data for research. Industry also provides an opportunity for employment outside the traditional academic setting.

Academia-Industry Interaction Should Be Considered As Part Of The Education

What are some examples of this? Well what are OPTIONAL coursework or classes that can be taken? The big difference here is that these classes should not be taught just by the school of business from people who lie ONLY in academia and know nothing about industry. There should be industry PhDs teaching these classes since they bring to the table real world experience and examples.

Also, with the presence of industry PhDs on campus, this should foster some sort of relationship. More importantly, this would allow for recruitment of outstanding candidates who lie in academia and are looking to break into industry. Keep in mind that grad students and post-docs aren’t the greatest at networking, so this would also allow for some exposure outside of their mundane lab environment.

Apart from classes, biotech/pharma/healthcare industry needs to be on campus with clear offerings for internships. The incentive is that you are recruiting the best and brightest to strengthen and grow your company. How can you possibly obtain industry experience while in grad school without an internship? How can you possibly compete against someone who has a PhD with industry experience and was just recently laid off?

A 3 month summer internship would dramatically increase a post-doc’s or grad students chance of landing a job in industry in this down economy. But until an academia-industry relationship is fostered on all levels (keep reading below), there will be little incentive to help struggling post-docs and grad students with offering internships and optional coursework that could give them an edge. This is definitely an employer’s market and they know it. But ignoring the problem that there is a growing gap between academia and industry will only hurt our economy further and leave more people unemployed.

A list of Sample Coursework (With Industry Sponsor): Financial Accounting Principals, Corporate Finance, Organizational Behavior, Bioscience Strategy, Market Assessment and Market Strategy, Business Operations, Clinical Trials Design, Conduct and Strategy, International Business and Global Health, Entrepreneurial Management, Applied Entrepreneurship, Product Management, Bioethics and Law, etc.

If Coursework Is Not An Option:

At the very least, companies should sponsor a series of lectures and presentations from distinguished professionals from the industry on or off campus. In addition, this could include networking events (Happy Hours), video shows on some industry projects, group discussions, debates and field trips to various industrial companies. After lectures or presentations, grad students and post-docs should have the chance to meet with the speaker and discuss potential opportunities, set up an informational interview, or further build their network.


At the completion an Elective Coursework Program (say you want to receive a minor in an industry-specific position like Product Management), grad students and post-docs should be allowed to apply for an internship. Obviously, corporate sponsors can still be selective in this case. But if a grad student is in a PhD program for 5-6 years (post-docs can last just as long) and is turned down, he or she can just reapply the following year. A 3 month summer internship could lead to a full-time position later on down the road with a “foot in the door.” After all, some experience is better than none.

Industry Team Project: Real World Experience

At the completion of one’s optional coursework, there should also be a final ‘Industry Team Project‘ where students are to solve a real-world problem in industry. An Industry sponsor should assign the Team Project.

You are getting the best of both worlds

First, you are getting the education you need taught by working professionals faced with real-world problems. Second, you are getting the hands-on industry experience you need during your doctoral or post-doctoral studies through an internship and/or industry team-based project.

Also, having an ‘Entrepreneurial Competition‘ hosted by a corporate sponsor (Burrill and Co. for example) would allow students to write a business plan, compete, and potentially turn their plan into a start-up company with help of small grants or funding. Such an example is shown here:

Going Further

The question of who holds the patent rights to a specific development is a major issue. Academic institutions are scared of losing patent rights to a particular research where industry is involved. At the same time several academic researchers profit from their research through business books, industry consulting and speaking engagements. Therefore, academic research and the pursuit of profit are not mutually exclusive.

One important way of facilitating interaction between academia and industry is for teachers to take sabbatical at business organizations in their field of expertise. Such involvement will facilitate mutual understanding of each others strengths and challenges.

In order to ensure that the teaching programs and the curriculum meet the challenging needs of the industry, senior personnel from industry should be involved as expert members of the committees which vet changes in curriculum as well as new academic programs. To provide a real-life exposure of the industrial world to its students, a “vacation training program” (similar to an internship) can be organized. The program can include industrial training of faculty and students with a built-in provision of incentives as well as for the appointment of adjunct faculty from the industry.

Provision of having honorary professors/faculty both from the industry and R&D organization gives an exposure to the students of interacting with working professionals. Several laboratories have been sponsored by the industry. Software worth millions of dollars have been donated by Technology companies.

Knowledge Transfer

The industry can hire significant number of students. This is a highly effective form of technology transfer. While working in the industry, students frequently return to universities and colleges to recruit new students.

Industry and Government Research Relationships

Many researchers are working in advisory or consulting capacities with a number of companies. In some cases principal investigators in research hold positions on the technical advisory board. Large scale collaborative projects are also being carried out in certain institutions.

Summer Camps

These can be arranged in collaboration with the industry to expose the students to various academic and extra curricular activities. As mentioned above, these can comprise a series of lectures and presentations from distinguished professionals from the industry and academia, video shows on some industry projects, group discussions, debates and field trip to some industrial companies. These camps serve as a forum for the development of over all personality, leadership, organizational skills and exemplary team work which are essential for a successful career in addition to academic activities.

Camps provide a platform for professionals to enrich the participants with their first hand experiences in the field and their professional expertise.

Provision for Scale-up Operation And Entrepreneurial Ventures

Students develop new products or processes which are restricted as bench experiments. Due to non-availability of scale up processes as a result of capital and operational cost, the research is not able to reach the market. Interaction and informal tie ups can ensure successful implementation of work developed in the institution.

Consultancy Services

Academic institutions can help the industrial companies by providing consultancy services which are sought by small-scale entrepreneurs having no access to R&D and quality control facilities. It can be in the form of evaluation of products, processes, software development etc.

Important principles for industry academic interaction

Following principles can be used as guidelines:
a) Open academic environment: It is the responsibility of the administration, the academic senate and departmental faculty to establish appropriate norms for existence of an open environment

b) Freedom to publish: Freedom to publish is fundamental to the university and is a major criterion for the research project. Faculty should be encouraged to engage in outside projects. These at the same time, should not interfere with their performance of teaching and research duties.

Closing Comments

It will have to start at one Major University and have the rest follow to adopt these sort of changes. Also, with the help of corporate sponsors, such awareness and interaction can be fostered and promoted on campuses and Universities nationwide. I personally have asked the CEO of Promega to be a corporate sponsor for UW-Madison to help bridge the gap for post-docs/grad students in the life sciences and industry. Such involvement at the minimum would include seminars/speakers from industry on campus. Many do not see the need or importance, however, someone has to make the first move. Until then, academia and industry will continue to not understand each other or see the need to have an intertwined and collaborative relationship (especially for the long-term workforce).

But until we ‘lead by example’ the gap will continue to grow and we will find life science PhDs without work, spending excess amount of time as post-docs, or leaving science altogether. It is no wonder we have “Post-Doc Professional Masters” like at Keck Graduate Institute: Keck PPM (which claims to “Bridge the Industry Gap”), but it is no surprise that Industry doesn’t even recognize this PPM certification as having any relevance at all. Why? Because you simply cannot substitute education for real-world experience. And until the gap is bridged, you’ll have to fight your way through and network your way into industry.

I will close with words from Cliff Mintz, who also shares the same idea and vision as myself:

Fixing The Problem

While there is no easy solution to fix the growing lack of U.S. jobs for Ph.D. scientists, there are several ideas worth exploring. An important first step would be for college presidents, deans, chairpersons, and tenured faculty members to acknowledge there is an employment problem for newly minted Ph.D.s and postdoctoral scientists. This, in turn, may result in curricular changes at the graduate level that would allow students and postdoctoral scientists to actively participate in additional specialized training to acquire the requisite skills to pursue nontraditional career paths.

If curricular changes turn out to be too labor intensive, expensive, or unconventional, then offering graduate students and postdoctoral scientists access to regularly scheduled nontraditional job seminars or holding annual on-site career fairs may be more appropriate. In contrast with the prevailing view that nontraditional career programs may interfere with graduate and postdoctoral training, it is likely the career insights offered by these programs may help expedite rather than hinder research progress.” ~Cliff Mintz (Author of Nontraditional Careers Options For PhD Life Scientists)

**This article was written in collaboration with Faculty Member Jamia Hamdard, Dept of Pharmaceutics, New Delhi

Further Reading

Tooling Up: Making the Cut In 2011

Broken Pipeline? Stagnant NIH Funding Threatens Future Generation of Researchers and Scientists

U.S. Pushes For More Scientists But The Jobs Just Aren’t There

Give Post-Docs A Career Not Empty Promises!

The “Post-Doc Crisis”