What we’ve learned about careers in industry

Courtney Chandler Laurel Oldach
Aug. 6, 2021

While writing about industry careers for ASBMB Today, each of us has talked to dozens of scientists who work in various sectors and in jobs ranging from regulatory affairs to research. And during those interviews, we’ve heard certain refrains. When our editors asked what we’ve learned about industry careers from our many conversations, we put our heads together and came up with this list.

Landing the first industry job

The transition between fields can be intimidating, especially if you haven’t had exposure to the field you’re pursuing. We often ask our sources how they started thinking about going into industry and how they prepared for and landed their first jobs. Networking, internships and recruiting are common answers.

Networking is as important as people say.

Professional contacts can give you a glimpse of what it’s like to do a specific job. They also can help by telling you about job opportunities or bringing your application to a hiring manager’s attention.

Genenetch’s Wayne Fairbrother didn’t land the job for which he first applied, but the company approached him a few months later because someone they trusted mentioned him. It turned out to be a great fit; he’s worked there since 1992.

Brandon Anjuwon–Foster at Pharmaceutical Product Development conducted more than 30 informational interviews (!) before even beginning to apply for jobs in industry. These interviews helped him figure out what kind of job he would find most fulfilling and gave him a better idea of what kind of companies to consider.

Short-term stints can open doors.

Internships are a great way to get experience and exposure to new job types. They don’t always promise a full-time position at the end, but at the very least the connections made and knowledge gained can give you a leg up.

Jenna Hendershot, a senior scientist at the diagnostic testing company Progenity, signed up for an internship aimed at undergrads when she couldn’t find any for Ph.D. students; she said she found it life-changing.

Kendra Seckinger realized she wanted to go into industry after a summer research internship at Genentech. The next year, after graduating, she started another internship at Genentech, this time in regulatory affairs, and ended up loving the work. The timing worked out, and she’s now a full-time associate program manager of regulatory affairs.

Sometimes you have to sacrifice seniority.

This relates to the previous point about internships but warrants its own discussion. Sometimes going into a completely different sector or position type means you have to start at the beginning. This can be hard to do, but — if you’re willing to make the sacrifice — it can be a great way to set forth on your new path.

Renee Yura said this strategy worked for her: She took a temporary contractor job after graduate school and worked her way up from there. Although overqualified for that first job, Yura is now a director at Pfizer.

Seckinger, mentioned above, landed her job in regulatory affairs by starting at the bottom as an intern, despite having already earned a Ph.D. and completed a separate internship at Genentech. She said the internship was key to learning the landscape and lingo of the new field.

How to use what you were taught in grad school

We’ve heard a lot about how people didn’t think they were prepared for industry jobs due to lack of industry-focused training in graduate school. There are usually a lot of skills they wish they’d learned — but there are opportunities to learn them along the way.

Teamwork is essential.

In grad school, project collaboration greatly depends on your specific project, lab and principal investigator.

To illustrate this point, we’ll take a minute to talk about our own grad school experiences. Courtney felt she constantly was working on collaborative projects (sometimes to the detriment of her own), but Laurel had the opposite experience: Her project belonged only to her, and she reported only to her PI, and if somebody else was helping her, it was a one-off favor.

Courtney’s experience is not uncommon in academia but is very unusual in industry. At most companies, you’re working on a team, and everybody has to pull together to get things done. “Teamwork” may be the No. 1 industry buzzword we’ve heard in almost every interview.

Sadiye Amcaoglu Rieder loves the teamwork aspect of her job as a senior scientist at Viela Bio. She said bringing diverse perspectives and expertise together helps increase efficiency and make creative solutions.

If your story is similar to Laurel’s, fear not — try to think about how you can spin your experience for an industry audience. Did you have a collaboration? That’s teamwork. Did you finish a project? There’s timeline and project management. Use the experiences you did have to your advantage.

Communication is key.

In most academic departments, even if your lab studies something unique, you can rely on your colleagues to share a lot of background knowledge. In contrast, most companies include workers with different backgrounds and areas of expertise. It’s important to know your audience and be able to talk about your work without boring people or giving them too much information.

In his role as a project analyst at Emergent BioSolutions, Surya Sundar has to interact with a lot of nonscientists. It’s just as important that they understand the projects as it is that the researchers understand it themselves, and that can be achieved only through clear communication.

If you want to improve your scientific communication skills (for industry or really any job), science communication classes can help.

Adaptability is a must.

Things move faster in industry than they do in academia. Project timelines are shorter and more targeted, and teams are bigger, with more distributed responsibility. If a project isn’t working out, it’s much more common in industry than in academia to drop it and work on something with better odds. Industry trends also are evolving constantly, so it’s important to be willing to switch gears as needed.

Mark Harpel, a scientific leader in the novel human genetics research unit at GlaxoSmithKline, said: “There’s no guarantee that what we’re working on today will be of interest three months from now.” That means scientists have to be willing to pick up new things.

Damini Agarwal, director of product development at Infinite Biomedical Technologies, said she loves that the biotech and healthcare industries are expanding rapidly. This creates a lot of opportunity for jobs, and she urges people to remain lifelong learners to help them stay on top of current trends and data.

You are not your project.

Industry is a vast field with so many different types of jobs. Several people we’ve interviewed emphasized that it’s important to cast a wide net when applying for jobs and not to limit yourself to what you think you’re qualified for based on your past experience.

Did your grad work focus on cell biology but you see an awesome industry job in cancer therapeutics? Don’t hesitate to apply — your critical thinking and scientific skill set will carry you farther than the specific details of your project or field.

Biogen’s Cherié Butts said that embracing diversity in industry is critical to coming up with creative solutions and advancements. Remember that you have something to bring to the table beyond your science.

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Courtney Chandler

Courtney Chandler is a biochemist and microbiologist in Baltimore, Md., and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

Laurel Oldach

Laurel Oldach is a former science writer for the ASBMB.

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