Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Careers Outside of Academics: Pharmaceutical Industry

When I was choosing between graduate programs, I was careful to look into the career development resources provided by each of the schools that had accepted me. I'm still in the early stages of my scientific career, and like many graduate students I am hesitant to consider the academic track of graduate student --> postdoc --> assistant professor --> tenured professor as my sole option. Indeed, among current female graduate students in particular, only 27% state that their career goal is to become a research professor, according to a recent study by Mary Ann Mason et al. And so, when I received an invitation to a career seminar titled "Careers Outside of Academics: Discussions about looking beyond the University," I decided to go. 

The topic of this particular seminar was careers in industry. Speaking were Dr. Pam Tannenbaum, an Emory neuroscience PhD who now works for Merck, and Dr. Dennis Choi, director of Emory's Comprehensive Neuroscience Center and former executive vice president of neuroscience at Merck. Both of them have personal experience working in academia as well as industry, so I found the discussion to be quite enlightening. Here I'll try to note my thoughts about the discussion, with the caveat that I don't speak for Drs. Tannenbaum and Choi, but merely use their talks as a jumping-off point for my own ideas.

Dr. Tannenbaum gave an informative and entertaining PowerPoint presentation on her experiences transitioning from academia to industry, describing some of the key similarities and differences between what she jokingly called "The Ivory Tower" and "The Dark Side." I hadn't thought too much about what it would be like to work as a for-profit scientist, but in a way there are some important parallels. Industry scientists generally receive their research project assignments from higher-ups in the company, based on market research and other factors that determine what new drugs or biotechnology products have a shot at being successful. Instinctively I rankle at this thought -- we should pursue The Truth, not whatever new compound will sell for the most money! However, academic research does not exist in an economic vacuum: our research costs money, too. So we have to hunt for grants, which necessitates tailoring our research toward projects that someone considers worth funding. Of course, there is funding to be had for basic science discoveries that may not immediately point toward any concrete application, but a lot of the people in my department are funded by the NIH. And what does the NIH want? Well, they want research that will help us understand and improve upon the human health. They may not be geared toward making the most profitable discoveries, but they are reluctant to fund redundant studies, or studies with no discernible relationship to medicine. This was something that I hadn't thought about much before. I'm not convinced that pharmaceutical companies are idealists working toward improving healthcare, of course -- unlike the NIH, they're also trying to turn a profit. But, ultimately, it's hard to get anyone to fund science just because you think it's cool -- you have to convince them that your results might be of use to somebody, somehow.

Another thing that Dr. Tannenbaum discussed was the concept of work/life balance in industry versus academia. She described the differences between her lifestyle and that of her husband, who is currently an assistant professor. The overall theme seemed to be that her job is more structured, but more conducive to leaving work at work; his schedule is more flexible, but he's constantly bringing work home. Her analogy was that her industry career leads to some acute stress -- working hard to meet a deadline imposed by the higher-ups -- while her husband's academic career incurs chronic stress, i.e. the feeling that there's always something work-related that he should be doing. (I hope their family's overall stress levels will drop after his tenure review!) The combination of their two career tracks seems to work fairly well for them, based on what we discussed at the seminar. While she's at her 9-5, he has the flexibility to deal with childcare emergencies and so on; when she's home in the evening she can focus on family issues while he's in his office until the wee hours. I'm hoping that by the time I have to deal with issues of family/work balance myself, a similar arrangement will be possible. My SO is an IT professional, so we don't have an academic two-body problem, which Dr. Tannenbaum cited as one reason why she chose to transition into industry. Ideally, if and when this becomes a factor in our lives, we could arrange our work schedules to complement each other. IT workers have the ability to telecommute, which is more difficult for bench-slaving scientists. Scientists in general seem to be laid back about the actual hours one spends in the lab, as long as the work gets done. An industry scientist seems to have less wiggle room in this regard, but Dr. Tannenbaum did mention that Merck has been implementing "core hours" of late, allowing people some flexibility in when they come and go as long as they are present during certain hours at which meetings are held. 

Other things that I hadn't known about before but wasn't necessarily surprised to hear: The money in industry isn't that much better than in academia, at least at the staff scientist level. Once you transition into industry, it's fairly difficult to go back to academia (you're "tainted"). Industry is often less "political" than academia (after all, you're all following orders from the same bosses -- there's room to come up with a pet theory and defend it acrimoniously when the entire company has the same goals). 

After Dr. Tannenbaum's talk, Dr. Choi spoke for a few minutes about his own experiences. The key point that he brought up was that it's often impossible to plan one's career trajectory in advance. When he left academia for Merck, he hadn't been looking for a job, but he received an offer for a position that appealed to him and decided to pursue it. Similarly, when he left industry to come to Emory, he hadn't planned on making such a transition, but it worked out well in the end. He said that his experiences in both realms of science left him uniquely prepared for his current job, although he wouldn't have guessed, years ago, that he'd end up here. Dr. Tannenbaum also described her industry job as kind of falling into her lap; she received a cold call from an industry recruiter while she was working in academia and decided to go to the interview just for the heck of it, then ended up liking what she saw. So, I suppose, I shouldn't worry about it too much, because the right job will eventually find me? Well, that may not be the intended lesson. What does come through is that there are many options out there, and you can make lots of them work for you.

Thankfully I have another five years or so of graduate school left, so I have time to consider this further. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to attending more career seminars.

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