In our first podcast of 2014, Naturejobs speaks to Nessa Carey, senior director at Pfizer about her journey from academia to industry. We find out what drove her to make the leap, how she made the decision, and what she has learned by looking back.
Nessa Carey started out as an academic at Imperial College, working in a research area where she was quite successful. She moved up the career ladder quickly towards senior lecturer, and was publishing papers, supervising students and bringing in plenty of grant income for future research projects.
Yet even though she was doing so well, academia wasn’t for her. Although she was, “in academic nerd terms, “living the dream,”” she was becoming increasingly frustrated, for two particular reasons. Firstly, she couldn’t see how her work was directly affecting patient health, which was what was driving her in the first place. The second reason what that she could feel that she wasn’t a great scientist. She was good, no doubt about it, but she wasn’t great. And why would she want to continue in a field where she wasn’t using all of her strengths, and was only ok at? Why not go somewhere where she could make more of an impact?
Making the leap was an emotionally difficult decision to make. “I was worried that people would feel I had given up.” She had everything she was supposed to have wanted, and so what if people might think she had failed by making the change? Making sure that she wasn’t affected by this, she had to make an emotional adjustment: she had to believe that she had not failed at all, “it was doing something else with the rest of my career.”
In hindsight, she thinks that there was a lot of feeling that she shouldn’t be doing this, and she could only find one colleague in which to confide. “It’s almost like you’re letting the side down.”
After plucking up the courage and having made the leap 12 years ago, she has moved around in 4 different jobs, finally ending up at Pfizer, where she is now the senior director. Industry suits her better because of the culture, “there’s a real sense of shared purpose,” everyone is working together towards a common goal. The variation in her role is also what she loves. By having worked in biotech and pharma, she can still keep her fingers in the science pie. “It really does feel like I have the best of both possible worlds.”
To prepare for making this leap, Nessa had to take a much more objective look at what skills she had. “We’re not trained to step back and think “What is it I’m good at?”” Nessa believes we all have skills we don’t recognise, we just get on with it and don’t think about them. Taking the time to look at her skills and assess what you excel in is what made her leap much smoother.
And for Nessa, it wasn’t difficult to do. As an academic, there were a lot of demands on her (and any other academic too): juggling time, managing people, communicating, leading teams, persuading people. These are all highly valued skills in industry. So if you’ve been an enthusiastic, hard working person, you probably already have these skills. You just need to find time to recognise them.
The employers are looking for exactly these skills, so they are easily transferrable. Nessa does stress that you do need a good science base, but it isn’t the be-all-and-end-all, “you have to bear in mind that there are an awful lot of people who can understand and are good at science, and who can run things technically.” Being able to work with others and communicate, using those “soft skills”, is vital.
Nessa stresses is that when you are hired by industry, the industry is investing in you. And businesses, large or small, are aware on the fact that they are investing in you. One false investment could cost them.
Finding the time to develop these skills isn’t as hard as it seems and is definitely worth your time. Are you running a society? Are you supervising a student? Do you do any teaching? These are the opportunities at an academic institution where you can develop an awful lot of skills. “Any time you say yes to something, you are noticed, and you are developing.”
Nessa’s tips for those sitting on the fence: always talk to other people in both industries. Find out about their experiences, what they enjoy, what they don’t. “Just learn to be slightly more confident…and asking for advice. Because if the only advice you ask for is from academia, it will only be relevant to academia.” Get the spread of opinion. People are always willing to help, “Pretty much everybody working in industry will always agree to meet younger scientists, mainly because like everybody else we just like talking about ourselves!”