Early career researchers are increasingly faced with the prospect of leaving academia, but is industry the right career move for you?
Naturejobs journalism competition winner Rachel Harris reports.
It can become easy to believe that skills developed during a PhD are suited only to academia, so it’s always refreshing to learn about the value of doctoral training in other settings. I went to the Naturejobs Career Expo London 2016 to see what else I could use my skills for.
It’s often thought that people are born to start a business or that entrepreneurs are “a different kind of person.” As a researcher, I’d never considered entrepreneurship as an option, but Simon Mosey, a professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at The University of Nottingham, helped break down some of the barriers between science and business.
Mosey highlighted the need to think about diversifying from academia — just 3.5% of STEM PhD students actually end up with permanent research posts. A huge strength of PhD students is the ability to be rigorous and objective researchers, and entrepreneurship utilises these skills. After time in industry and communicating research to industry funders, Mosey bridged the gap between science and business. His advice is not stay in the lab, and to speak to new and non-scientific audiences whenever you can. These interactions can help you develop a novel view of your own research, he says, and will get you used to pitching your work in a different way.
Want to see if entrepreneurship is for you?
Start by making use of university networks and business incubators. University-based centres run courses to develop innovation skills, provide advice, and host enterprise competitions. These courses can help to develop skills such as commercial and financial awareness. Start thinking about the roles that scientists can play in business.
The “careers in industry panel” covered all sectors of business; from starting a new company to working in big pharma.
Pauline Williams, the head of Global Health R&D at GSK, kicked off the discussion by asking what had prompted the panellists to leave academia.
It’s never too late to enter industry and “experience from academia is valued,” she said. It’s also worth remembering that a transition from academia to industry doesn’t have to be a one-way street. Working for a larger company can also provide scope to move around in different R&D jobs, and even to other areas of the business.
When it comes to the pressures of work in industry, rather than academia, everyone agreed it’s still there, but tends to be focused on short-term deadlines rather than funding cycles.
How do you find yourself a position in industry?
Who you know, rather than what you know, is still important in both academia and industry. Talk to those in industry, keep in touch with previous lab members, and with people you meet at networking events.
John Hammersley, CEO of Overleaf, the online platform for scientific writing, advises to “make your own luck.” “PhDs have the skills for industry,” and should focus on writing a CV from an industry perspective, he said.
Knowing that few PhDs stay in academia, I wanted to learn about other careers where I can use my science background and apply everything I’ve learnt elsewhere. I’m still not sure exactly what I want to do, but I’ll be sure to follow some of the most important advice from the industry panel: “do what makes you feel passionate.”
Rachel Harris is a PhD student at University of Bristol studying the role of blood flow in dementia. When not at the bench (or communicating science!) she enjoys watching documentaries and cycling. Find her on LinkedIn and tweet her @NeuroRach.