Successfully Making Transitions Between Academia and Industry

Successfully Making Transitions
Between Academia and Industry

Sue Bodine, Ph.D.
University of California, Davis

Sue BodineSue Bodine, Ph.D. is a Professor at the University of California, Davis and holds a joint appointment in the Departments of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior and Physiology and Membrane Biology. She received her Ph.D. in Kinesiology from the University of California, Los Angeles and began her academic career in 1989 as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Orthopedics at the University of California, San Diego. In 1996, she left UCSD to take a position at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals in Tarrytown, New York. At Regeneron she became Director of the Muscle In Vivo Biology Program and worked on the identification and development of targets to treat muscle atrophy. In 2003, Dr. Bodine returned to academia as part of a recruitment effort by UC Davis to build a Muscle Biology Program. Dr. Bodine is a Neuromuscular Physiologist whose primary research interest is the identification of the cellular and molecular mechanisms regulating skeletal muscle size under growth and atrophy conditions. Currently her lab is studying the role of MuRF1 and mTOR-mediated pathways in the regulation of muscle mass in lean adult, obese, and aging animals.

My professional career has taken a very nontraditional path that has provided me unique research and educational experiences, in addition to many personal and professional challenges. My expectations upon obtaining my Ph.D. in 1985 were that following postdoctoral training I would get a university tenure-track position and pursue research in an academic environment for the remainder of my career. Never did I consider the possibility of accepting a research position in the private sector. I have since learned to “never say never.”

I started my career as expected, as a tenure-track Assistant Professor rising to the level of Associate Professor. Then, one day in 1995, I received a phone call from a recruiter for a biotechnology company that altered the course of my career. At first, I was resistant to the idea of leaving academia for private industry, because I feared that once I left academia for the private sector I would never be able to come back. In the end, my decision to leave academia for a position in the biotechnology industry did not restrict my career choices, and after seven years in biotechnology, I returned to academia as a Full Professor.

The career path that I have taken has been full of challenges and has required adaptability, resilience, and persistence. In the end, my career path has been extremely rewarding, and I feel fortunate that, in my career, I have had the opportunity to gain exposure to clinical medicine, to learn about the drug discovery and development process, to perform both basic and applied research, and to teach at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. The knowledge and experiences gained from working in both academia and private industry have provided me with a broad background and a unique perspective on research and science and have been instrumental in shaping me as a scientist and educator.

The lesson to be learned from my career path is that it is possible to move between academia and private industry; however, the transitions are not always easy and can lead to lost productivity.

So, what are some of the challenges involved in transitioning between academia and industry, and should one consider making the transition?

Transition from Academia to Private Industry

For me, the most important factor that influenced my decision to move from academia to industry was the research opportunities. At first I was hesitant about leaving the university environment where I was running my own research program to go to a biotechnology company. It was important to me to remain in a research environment where I could continue to publish my research findings and continue to stay connected to the research community by attending scientific meetings.

At Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, I initially found a company where I could continue to pursue my research interests in skeletal muscle biology and where discovery research and publications were expected and important. I was fortunate in that, shortly after I arrived at Regeneron, the company initiated a muscle biology program with Procter & Gamble to develop therapeutics to treat muscle atrophy conditions. I was soon promoted to a leadership position and was able to build an In Vivo Muscle Biology Program.

I learned the power of directed discovery research based on strong biology and a team-oriented approach to complex problems. The research culture at any given biotechnology or pharmaceutical company will vary and often evolves over the years as the company grows, potentially merges, and matures. Eventually priorities will change as development and clinical trials take priority over basic discovery research. It is important to find the research environment that best fits your strengths and goals.

For me, the initial transition from academia to private industry was relatively easy, because I was doing much the same in both places. One advantage of research in private industry is being able to immerse yourself in the science, with time to read the literature and keep up with the latest technologies. Another advantage is not having to write grants, so your time can be dedicated to experimental design and data collection/interpretation. That is not to say, however, that you do not worry about funding and the financial stability of the company. Nor does it mean that all of your time is available to do experiments, as there can be numerous meetings to attend, especially as you rise in rank.

The research environment can differ greatly between academia and private industry. One major difference is in academia you are the boss and in charge of your laboratory and its research direction, whereas in private industry, you have a boss who ultimately calls the shots. In academia you are expected to establish an independent research program, and while key collaborations are encouraged and may be necessary to advance your science, your ultimate success in promotion is based on the work in your laboratory. In contrast, in private industry, research projects often involve a team approach, and you as a scientist may only see or control a small part of the overall project. In general, the extent of your oversight is dependent on your position (e.g., Scientist, Director, Vice President) in the company. I found the team approach to science to be quite satisfying and educational, allowing me to tackle more complex problems that required multiple areas of expertise while gaining an understanding of new areas of science.

Another difference between academia and private industry is that in private industry projects can be dropped for various reasons, and thus you must be willing to change directions and sometimes fields of study to work on a new project. This can be difficult for physiologists who invest years developing an expertise in a particular system. For example, as a neurophysiologist, would you be willing to stop working on neurodegenerative diseases and begin working on cardiac diseases? Ultimately, it was my desire to continue to work on questions related to skeletal muscle biology that brought me back to academia.

Transition from Private Industry Back to Academia

I made the transition back to a tenure-track academic appointment following seven years in biotechnology. Based on my previous experience in a tenure-track position that included teaching and my promotion to Associate Professor, I was able to come back as a tenured Full Professor at the University of California, Davis. A critical factor that allowed me to move back to academic research was the quality and impact of the research I did at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.

Transitioning back to academia was a greater challenge than originally expected. Had I not been in an academic position previously, the transition would have been even more difficult. I was fortunate I was able to come back as a tenured faculty member, thus I had some security. However, returning at a senior level was accompanied by greater expectations and the inability to take advantage of programs available to junior faculty setting up their research programs.

No matter at what level you come back, you are starting from scratch and building your laboratory and research program from ground zero. When choosing to make the transition from industry to academia, look for a department or university where you will have potential collaborators. Also, inquire about the availability of core equipment and technology resources. You may find that once in the academic environment you will have less staff support and will be required to take on a lot more responsibilities.

The demands of a tenure-track faculty member are to excel not only in research but also teaching and service. The demands of research itself can be great, and one of the biggest adjustments was getting back into grant writing after being away for seven years. Grant writing is a skill that must be acquired and practiced to be successful. It requires not only good ideas but an ability to sell your ideas, and as a skill it does get rusty if not used regularly. Finding mentors to read your grants and taking a grant-writing course are greatly advised.

Besides setting up your research program you likely will be required to teach. Your teaching load will depend greatly on the type of department, i.e., are you in a department that is responsible for undergraduate teaching or are you in a medical school? In general, your teaching load will be the highest in departments responsible for undergraduate teaching. The technology age has allowed students to have constant access to the instructors, and you must learn to set boundaries. If possible, get a firm commitment on the number and types of courses you will be expected to teach. Finally, negotiate at least one or, if possible, two years of teaching relief when you start. Do not, however, underestimate the time involved in developing lectures and begin developing your lectures during your “relief” time.

Final Thoughts

Careers in both academia and private industry can be very rewarding, each offering unique opportunities and challenges. Furthermore, the environment and culture at every company and university can differ, so assess your own strengths and weaknesses and decide the best fit. There are some key differences in academia and the biotechnology/pharmaceutical industry that should be considered when deciding to make a transition.

In closing, here are some questions to ask when making the decision to take a position in either academia or private industry.
  1. What type of environment do you thrive in?
    1. Do you like to work independently or as part of a team?
    2. Do you want to run your own lab and be the decision maker or would you prefer to have a boss who directs the research?
  2. Do you want to work on a particular biological system or question? If you could no longer work on this system, would you be happy?
  3. Do you want to write grants?
  4. How much importance do you place on publications?
  5. Do you enjoy teaching and interacting with students?

NOTE: to add your comments or questions, please email us.


I greatly appreciate Sue Bodine's article on her career in industry and her transition back to academia. I would like to expand on two points that she raised. The first point is the emphasis on the team approach to research in industry. Working in a team (or "matrixed") environment provides unique and sometimes unexpected opportunities to share ones expertise broadly across a drug discovery/development program. In addition, one can gain understanding of other aspects of research and development well beyond her/his expertise. However, this environment can also provide significant challenges with regard to balancing depth of knowledge (something that is much more emphasized within an academic environment) versus breadth of knowledge (which may be a key to survival in the current biotech and pharma environment).

This observation raises the second point: it is extremely challenging to make a transition back into academia from industry. During my 10 years in drug discovery, biotech and big pharma, companies have undergone numerous changes in internal structure and in therapeutic focus. These changes can make it difficult for an individual scientist to establish a particular area of expertise and develop a strong publication record and external reputation that would aid in the transition back to academia. In fact, becoming too deeply focused in one particular scientific problem or pathway can be a liability. When a company gets bought out, or needs cash to go into the clinic, or just pulls out of a disease area because the risk is too high, the scientists in that part of the company need to have a skill set that can be applied more broadly in order to get the next job. Maintaining a career as an industry biologist/physiologist in the current environment often requires a skill set that can be applied across multiple therapeutic areas and that goes well beyond understanding the biological mechanisms of a particular disease area or a signaling pathway. Taking advantage of the matrixed/team environment can help one to obtain the right balance of breadth and depth of knowledge to navigate the current environment.
Michael F.A. Finley
Merck & Co.

What are the options in industry for postdoctoral fellows and early career scientists [i.e., do you generally need prior academic postdoctoral experience before applying to industry positions? Is it harder to make the transition if you haven't established yourself in academia first?]
Amy Arnold
Vanderbilt University

Based on my experience, to obtain a postdoctoral fellow position in industry one does not need previous postdoctoral experience. Many start-up and small biotechnology companies, however, do not have postdoctoral positions and often will hire Ph.D. candidates, without previous postdoctoral experience, into an entry-level scientist position. For many industry jobs, however, previous postdoctoral experience either in industry or academia definitely helps land a scientist level position.
With respect to making the transition from industry to academia, I believe that it is more difficult to transition to academia if you have not had previous experience in an academic environment. If you are transitioning from industry as a postdoctoral fellow to an Assistant Professor position, then prior academic experience is not that critical. If, however, you have been a Scientist in industry for an extended period of time, then transitioning to a faculty position in academia will be somewhat easier if you have had prior experience in a tenure-track position. One of the biggest challenges to transitioning from industry to academia will be learning to balance the demands of research and teaching. Time management skills are required for positions in both industry and academia, but the need to plan ahead and set aside “protected” time for writing grants and papers is a must in academia, and is critical for making progress and getting promotions. Another critical difference between industry and academia is that in academia you are your own boss, and you will be required to take on potentially new responsibilities such as hiring and firing personnel, managing a budget, purchasing, supervising personnel and students, as well as oversight of experiments, data collection, and manuscript submissions from your lab. I must say that even though I had previous academic experience, and came back to academia with tenure, the transition was more difficult than I expected.
Sue Bodine

This is a very enlightening and helpful article! You mentioned that discovery research and publications were expected and important in the position that you held. Can you comment on this more specifically? For instance, is the publication process similar in industry as it is in academia, in terms of the direction and arguments in the manuscript being determined by the lead author(s)? Are there various levels of oversight within the company when manuscripts are being prepared for publication? On a related note, how is authorship determined?
Angela Grippo
Northern Illinois University

At Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, I was the Co-Director of a group whose goal was to identify potential targets for development for the treatment of muscle atrophy.  Since there were no obvious targets at the time, we had to first identify the molecular and cellular mechanisms responsible for muscle atrophy.  As Co-Director of the Muscle Biology Program, I was responsible for setting up and supervising the In Vivo Biology group.  In many regards, my job in industry was very similar to what I had done while in academia.  A major difference in industry, however, was that I was now a part of a larger team and reported to a boss, the Chief Scientific Officer.  Another difference, as alluded to in the comments by Michael Finley, was that I needed to have a broad understanding of the field of “muscle” and identify potential disease applications.  Thus, I found myself reading a broad spectrum of literature, which provided me with tremendous breadth.  Another area, I had not appreciated before moving to industry was drug delivery and pharmacology. Finally, I needed to learn and understand the processes involved in target identification and drug development.  In looking back, I learned a whole new vocabulary and perspective during the seven years I was in biotech.

With respect to publications, I found the overall process to be similar in industry and academia.  As lead author, I was responsible for writing the initial draft of the paper and assembling all of the data for the figures.  The paper was usually distributed to the key contributors for editorial input, and the final approval of the paper would generally go through a Senior Vice President or Chief Scientific Officer, who might also be senior author depending on their involvement.  Senior authorship, however, could also go to the senior scientist overseeing the project, if they were not first author.  Additional approval may have to go through the office responsible for intellectual property to assure that any potential patent issues had been addressed.  With respect to authorship, because the projects often involved a team approach, there could be many authors on a manuscript.  My experience was that the authorship was generally determined by level of participation.

One difference I found between publishing in industry versus academia, was that in industry the driving force was not the quantity of publications, but the quality and the impact of the publications.  A trend I see in academia is that due to the pressure to publish, people often publish a story in small bits as the data is collected, as opposed to waiting longer and publishing the whole study as one manuscript.  I often think that had I been in academia, and not industry, when I published the findings on the role of calcineurin and Akt/mTOR pathways in muscle (Nature Cell Biol 3:2001), I would have divided that paper into two manuscripts as opposed to one.  Additionally, in industry one collects a lot of data that is never published.  Consequently, when I moved back to academia after seven years in industry, I had fewer publications then I probably would have had over that same time period had I stayed in academia; which turned out to be a minor hurdle that I had to overcome.  The other issue I had to deal with during my transition from industry to academia was the inability of the academic environment to adequately assess the contributions of someone working in a collaborative team environment.
Sue Bodine

What is your opinion on industry versus academia demands for having a successful personal life and family?
Amy Arnold
Vanderbilt University

Having been in both environments I feel that it was easier to achieve a balanced life in industry compared to academia. I have found that in academia I have many more competing obligations and deadlines to juggle than I had in industry; consequently, since returning to academia I find myself spending many more evenings and weekends working just to keep up. In general I have found that in industry I had access to more support staff that made my job more efficient, thus I could accomplish more during regular work hours. While I often worked long hours in industry, I have found that my working hours are much greater since returning to academia. It is especially bad during those times when I am teaching and when grant deadlines are approaching. Overall, I would have to say that I felt like I had more flexibility in industry than I have in academia. I would also have to say that the overall stress level is higher for a junior person in academia than in industry.
Sue Bodine

Can you comment on the salary and fringe benefits in academia versus industry? What about vacation time?
Sarah Lindsey
Wake Forest University Health Science Center

I personally did not find a big difference in the salaries between academia and industry.  In fact, I took a small pay cut when I first left academia for industry; and an increase in pay when I moved from industry to academia.  The difference was that in academia, I was always responsible for generating some fraction of my salary from grants.  Further, I found that in industry I generally received an annual increase in salary, while in academia increases in pay were linked to merits and promotions which did not occur annually (at least in the University of California system).  This may differ across universities.  At the more junior levels and the senior management levels, I found the salaries to be on average higher in industry than academia.  The fringe benefit plans are quite variable across different companies and universities, so I do not feel comfortable commenting.  The biggest difference I found between academia and industry was in the retirement plans.  Additionally, in certain companies, and at certain positions, there is the possibility of a year-end bonus, which does not happen in academia.  As for vacation time, my experience has been that academia is more generous.  In academia I always had an 11-month appointment with four weeks per year of “vacation”; while in industry I started with two weeks per year, which increased with each year of service.
Sue Bodine


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