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Making the Switch: Tips for Successfully Transitioning Between Academia, Industry, and Government


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With different opportunities and environments in academia, industry, and government, how can neuroscientists determine the right career path for them? Understanding what to expect in each field can help you make informed choices that lead to satisfaction and success whether you are just starting out or transitioning later in your career.

Join SfN tomorrow at 3pm EST for a webinar titled Making the Switch: Tips for Successfully Transitioning Between Academia, Industry, and Government, in which various speakers will showcase the unique characteristics of each workplace and share advice on what to consider when contemplating a career move based on their own transitions.

Right after the panel discussion, a special live chat with the webinar speakers will happen right here in the Neuronline community so they can take your career path questions. Click here to post your questions in advance.

This webinar and live chat are open to all SfN members. Not a member? Join or renew your membership today.

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  • 2 weeks later...
yogita.chudasama

Hello, my name is Yogita Chudasama and I am one of the panelists contributing to this webinar of making the switch from academia to government. I’m excited to share with you my experiences of being a scientist at these two very different establishments but my passion for research is the same regardless. Still, there’s lots to talk about when making such bold career moves, and this is a great opportunity to expose topics and concerns that we can all share and learn from. I hope you will join us.

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neuronline_admin

This topic is now a banner. It will appear at the top of every page until it is dismissed by the user.

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anonymous14

Thank you for participating in this seminar, Dr. Chudasama. I had a question about whether NIMH is a great place for tenure track faculty. I had heard that you were not allowed to apply for grants while working for the NIH (though the resources are great), I wondered whether this would hinder you in further career advancement.

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I have a question/comment based on the webinar: would you agree that Academia is the right choice if you have a concrete research plan in mind, whereas industry is appropriate if you want to apply a set of scientific skills within a team to solve a particular company’s problem?

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I was wondering how do neuroscientists get a foot in the door of the industry when bench positions are mostly pharmacology, immunology, oncology oriented?

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yogita.chudasama

NIH is a great place for tenure track faculty. You’re right, there is no grant writing, or teaching here at NIH. The work is exclusive to research. If you have a drive and ambition to carry out high risk research, then NIH is for you.

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Thank you. That is great news. It sounds like an excellent place to work, but that was a major concern of mine.

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ian_reynolds

It is clearly the case that you are more likely to have someone else give you a research direction if you work in industry. It is not inevitable, but definitely more likely. Freedom to go and explore is a benefit of academia.

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Are there scientific advisor type jobs for PhDs in nontraditoinal areas such as state
government (e.g., informing laws such as legalization of marijuana), hospitals, etc., and how might one go about finding/applying for these jobs?

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yogita.chudasama

I forgot to mention that if anything, working at NIH will enhance future career advancement. Many NIH researchers have moved to the academic world and industry.

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To an extent yes. But the skills are mention for industry jobs can be very helpful in academia too, especially if you have multi PI projects.

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ian_reynolds

A few years ago neuroscientists were “not fully appreciated” by big pharma, meaning that companies were shutting down neuroscience programs. That trend seems to have changed, and neuroscience is on the upswing. Keep looking!

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erichamlett

Thank you for that comment. I Have heard so many different opinion of working at NIH, mostly good experiences and often involving branching out from bench research to policy, grant writing etc. Good to hear the slant on NIH to academia

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Janet_Clark

You certainly do need a concrete research plan for an academic position but a concrete background in certain areas of science is desired in industry as well. Industry is not all about technical skills. Industry seeks individuals who are outstanding in their field scientifically, the technical skills are not always the focus of a recruitment.

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anonymous15

Can anyone speak to transitioning from academia to business, using skills in managing large datasets, literature review, data analysis, statistics, etc.? I’ve read articles stating that companies love PhDs with these skills, but most job postings ask for prior experience in specific areas or undergraduate degrees in business, and many internships require you to still be enrolled as a student.

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anonymous199

I would like to ask Dr. Reynolds and Dr. Chudasama that what quality, beside academic ability, would be mostly emphasized for PhDs that work in industry and government?

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Janet_Clark

There are scientific advisor jobs in various areas of government. USAJobs.com is one source for employment opportunities throughout the federal government. I would think that there are the equivalent of such sites for state government positions.

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ian_reynolds

I like the opportunity to do something of tangible benefit to patients. “I want to make a drug” was essentially what drove me into industry, although that is a challenging goal! The biggest challenge in pharma right now is the uncertainty associated with companies making strategic changes. You can never be quite sure when a company is going to decide that they don’t need what you do. That is a manageable problem but it does cause a bit of stress in my experience.

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Though Dr Reynolds mentioned about the prerequisite for industry is more flexible, I still found that most industrial job opening requires some industrial experience. How do the newly graduated phd deal with this issue?

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ian_reynolds

Effectively working in a team environment is a valuable skill when working in industry. Also, intellectual flexibility helps a lot, because research directions tend to change more rapidly and more profoundly in an industry setting. In the worst case, you could be doing neuroscience this week and oncology next week (although it is not usually as bad as that!). If there is really just one problem that you want to solve and to spend your entire career working on it, academia would be a better choice.

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erichamlett

That is great to hear Dr Reynolds. I always imaging the entrepreneurial spirit to be strong in industry but this may depend on the project, the team and the management. Can one innovate beyond established business plan?

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Thank you for the answer. Strategically, and following up on Dr. Chudasama, if the goal is Academia, is it better to start off at NIH, for example?

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anonymous18

If you are a junior faculty who has been moderately productive but fails to achieve tenure, what are your prospects in industry?

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Are there positions in government (local or national) available for recent graduates? From your stories, it seemed most of you (and other stories I have heard) had established careers as tenured faculty before obtaining a position in government.

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ian_reynolds

There are a certain number of postings looking for entry-level PhDs, as opposed to experienced industry scientists. Post-doc training is always useful to have. In my experience, when we are looking for entry level scientists we do not ask for industry experience because that is not an important criterion at that level. If we are recruiting for a position that really does need industry experience, then we make that a requirement. You can always send in your application anyway, but I understand how that can get frustrating!

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Thank you for this webinar on transitioning! I am currently a graduate student in a neuroscience PhD program, and I am interested in pursuing a career in the neuropharmaceutical industry. I have a fairly diverse background and skillset (patch clamp ephys, behavioral pharmacology, optogenetics, working with animal models of neurodegenerative disease, PCR and other molecular/genetic techniques), but the majority of my graduate work is in behavioral neuroscience. I am interested in figuring out what kind of positions or divisions of the neuropharmacology industry would be best suited to my interests and experience. What advice would you give to graduate students who are seeking out where they “fit”? Thank you!

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yogita.chudasama

No, not necessarily. Although I did a postdoc at NIH, I started my faculty position in academia. I felt this put me in good stead for running a lab, training students, teaching large classes, writing grants. I know most of us find grant writing a chore, but I found it a very useful experience. It makes you think and put together a research plan. You have to think 3-5 years ahead of yourself and know of your capabilities, what’s feasible, how to manage, can you afford it. This made my transition to the government very easy.

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matthew_sutterer

Staff scientist positions have been suggested as a potential career for PhD graduates who enjoy aspects of research involving data analysis, collection and problem solving, but don’t want the pressure or low employment odds that are currently present for tenure-track faculty positions at research universities (at least in the US). Yet it’s unclear if there is or will be funding support for many staff scientist positions in Academia. Is there support for staff scientist positions intramurally in government?

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ian_reynolds

You are absolutely right that the entrepreneurial spirit varies tremendously between teams and companies. Small companies sometimes are constrained by resources such that the opportunity to go and do something different is tough. Big companies sometimes have very conservative management and that constricts opportunities. But the opportunities exist in big and small companies to exploit good ideas. And if not, go and start your own company!

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Janet_Clark

For recent graduates there are a host of training opportunities in neuroscience at the NIH from postdoctoral fellowships to clinical fellowships. This puts a trainee in a rare environment where they can train on their scientific career while exploring science policy, science writing, regulatory affairs and various other career paths that will allow details or internships.

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anonymous199

Thank you Dr. Reynolds. I enjoy expanding to different branches of research, so it shouldn’t be a problem for me. One following questions would be: As you have mentioned earlier, a PostDoc experience would be favored for industrial job. Yet usually the PostDoc would be related to a similar research field as the PhD. So is there any advantages of doing a PostDoc beside helping one get the job opportunity? And if yes, how many years of PostDoc will be expected please? Thank you.

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ian_reynolds

I think you have to do a self assessment and understand whether your skills fit well in the industry environment. The skills are similar but not identical, and you may be well suited to an industry position working in, and supported by a good team. Industry does tend to be a bit more demanding than academia in my experience, and usually more stressful too, so if that is the academic challenge you face you may need to think carefully about the choice of the next job.

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Janet_Clark

There are indeed staff scientist positions in the intramural program at the NIH. The staff scientists take on a wide variety of roles from lab managers to core facility directors and are recruited in various ways. Some were trainees that are hired as staff scientists while others are recruited extramurally for particular expertise.

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neuronline_admin

Thanks to all for participating in today’s online chat – we have three minutes left in our panelists’ schedule, so please get your final questions in now.

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erichamlett

:slight_smile: Thanks Dr. Reynolds. I Really want to do that, have a little plan but mitigating biotech risk is challenging and fun. Sometimes wonder if early industry experiences might better enable startup success later. OR. Just seize the day and figure it out on the way.

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yogita.chudasama

Sorry, I missed your question. For government, the focus is on research so productivity is important. To really make an impact, you need all the basic qualities that include drive, ambition, dedication, long hours (unfortunately!), discovery, curiosity, enjoy talking about research, asking questions, etc.

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ian_reynolds

Good questions! For me, I like to see someone who has been successful in more than one setting (e.g. in one place for a PhD and a different lab for a post-doc). If there is a clear switch in fields between the two training experiences, that is even better because it demonstrates flexibility. It also adds to your scientific “toolkit” that you can apply to solving research questions. The duration of a post-doc is less important than demonstrating a tangible accomplishment in a project and having a good story to tell. That probably means at least two years but it need not necessarily be very much more than three.

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ian_reynolds

If you can get some experience (perhaps in a small company) and develop a network of contacts in a startup environment, that can really help. I think there are incubator environments to help start up without doing time in a company first. That might help if you are in a hurry!

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To follow up on that question:
I worked for three years as a research technician before graduate school and was given a large amount of freedom to develop my own ideas. During this time, I co-authored two papers and first-authored one. I am now in a graduate program doing a very different kind of work, but with a similar publication outcome. I intend on applying for entry-level scientist jobs in industry at the end of my program–will having a strong research background prior to my graduate work allow me to be a competitive candidate in the pharma industry despite not having taken a postdoc?

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ian_reynolds

I think that combination would work well. You meet the criterion of success in different environments and doing different things, so in many respects that works just as well as a post-doc in my opinion. I cannot guarantee that everyone would share my perspective, but I think you are in pretty good shape. Good luck when you start to apply!

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