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Science Careers Blog

April 29, 2009

Ruth McKernan: From Academia to Industry

To get ahead in industry, "confidence is everything," says Ruth McKernan, chief scientific officer of Pfizer's new Regenerative Medicine Unit in Cambridge, England. McKernan spoke yesterday at a meeting of the Cambridge Association of Women in Science and Engineering.

 McKernan began her career with joint honors biochemistry and pharmacology, followed by a Ph.D. in molecular neuroscience. After a much enjoyed postdoc at the University of California in San Diego -- "I had a great time. I learned to surf" -- she settled into a job at Merck's former neuroscience research center in Harlow, England. She became the center's head 17 years later. In 2005, she moved to Pfizer, eventually helping launch the Pfizer Regenerative Medicine Unit in November 2008.

 Moving into industry can be a daunting prospect for Ph.D.s and postdocs, but it's not as foreign as you might think, McKernan says. You'll have to give presentations often, and much of the time you'll be working on collaborations with industrial and academic partners, "so you need to be a good communicator."

Industry research is well-funded, but you'll be working on projects that benefit the company, rather than focusing on your pet topic. "If [for example] you are totally passionate about protein structure, and that's all you ever want to study, then this is not the job for you," McKernan explains. But if you are passionate about science in a broader sense, or about making medicines, it could prove a good personal career move.

One huge contrast between academia and industry is the corporate aspect. "There is a different way of encouraging people in industry compared with academia," McKernan says. "You will be evaluated against your peers every year. Money will be used to label your performance in a way you won't have experienced before." This can be intimidating. But it means you'll know when you're doing a good job, she adds.

However, don't get too caught up in the rivalry, McKernan cautions. Don't view everyone as a competitor. Instead focus on what they can bring to your team. That's the guidance she received from a mentor in her early career and it has proved useful. "They don't have to be your best friend, but your competitors may be your partners somewhere down the line. So don't burn your bridges."

So how do you to make that first leap into industry? "Contacts," McKernan stresses. If you send your resume to the recruitment department, chances are it'll get lost in the pile. "Get names and contact details," she says. "Go to meetings and find out who in industry is working in you field."

Once you get to the interview stage, make sure you know your skills, she advises. There will be technical questions about your research, and employers will be looking to see how well you can apply this knowledge. Accentuate your positives, be confident, but be honest about what you can do. "If you come across as smart, flexible, and easy to work with, that will trade off with a lack of wholly specific skills," McKernan says. "If all else fails, pretend to be someone else," she quips: Think of a confident person you admire and try to emulate them. "I often think, what would Susan Greenfield do?"

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