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Academia (vs. Industry)

From Industry to Academia

Academic research and industrial drug discovery have always been on separate paths, but my impression is that the two understand each other better now than they have at any time during my career. That’s in no small part due to the number of industrial scientists who have moved into academia (itself in no small part due to the employment turmoil in the industry). Here’s a perspective from James Barrow (ex-Merck) on what it’s like to make just that move, and it’s interesting reading. There are already guides for academics who are thinking of getting into industry, but not so many in the opposite direction.

If you’re going to continue to do work that bears on drug discovery (which is what many people in this situation will of course be doing), you’ll have to find a way to set up collaborations. A well-equipped industrial setting has its own permanent departments and specialists: you know, for example, that there will come a time when someone will need to investigate the best way to formulate a lead compound for dosing in an animal model, and by gosh, there are formulations people who specialize in just that, in the same way that there are people who specialize in keeping the animal facility itself running smoothly, and people whose expertise is the collection and analysis of the blood samples from those animal experiments, and so on. All of these are full-time jobs in a large industrial setting, and the people involved get quite good at what they do, but only the largest universities will have anything like that in place. The article recommends that newly transitioned industrial scientists make themselves as visible as possible, as quickly as possible, to attract collaborators.

Another thing to get used to is the overall speed of the work. One factor is that you’re also going to be training students, a wide variety of them, and a person has to internalize that fact that they’re no longer working in an environment where everyone involved on the project knows pretty much what they’re doing because they’ve done it before, etc.

The resources available for drug discovery in academic laboratories are more limited than found in pharma. This often limits the pace and throughput through the traditional drug discovery cycle, thereby necessitating careful selection of assays for maximum impact on the project. Laboratories can mitigate this disparity by use of core facilities, judicious outsourcing, and collaborations that often bring unique capabilities and data sets to a project. While collaborations can greatly enhance the resources available to a project, care must be taken to set expectations about how many compounds can be tested by a collaborator and what the turn-around time will be. Nothing is more frustrating for a medicinal chemist than completing the synthesis of a tough analog that will set the direction of future chemistry efforts, only to have to wait months for data.

Indeed. Moving to a nonindustrial environment will really bring into focus how many things you might have been taking for granted – for example, that it used to be someone else’s job to optimize an assay, etc. Barrow also addresses another factor that can show up:

Academic laboratories are generally rewarded for innovative research published in prestigious journals by additional grant funding and prominent lectures. This lessens the motivation to rigorously test key assays for reproducibility, especially critical in vivo experiments. In an academic drug discovery setting, these in vivo experiments are often done by collaborators who need extra reminding about rigorous protocols including randomization, blinding, and appropriate controls. . .Academic scientists who have spent years, sometimes decades, studying a particular disease process are often reluctant to do the “killer” experiment.

And while I’m sure that that’s not always true, I’ve also seen that exact effect in a couple of academic collaborations that I’ve been involved with. My guess is that working in industry, you get used to the way that there’s always another project coming along. The one you’re on now will work, or perhaps not work, and then you’ll move on to the next one, because that’s what you do. But for an academic lab, working on that single project (broadly defined) may in fact be “what they do”, and in extreme cases a go/no-go experiment might be seen as more of a threat than an exciting opportunity. (In a different way, I caught myself doing that in the last stages of my own PhD work – I was nervous about finishing up, and was finding ways to do other stuff and run other experiments rather than get down to the crucial things that would get me out).

I’m sure that there will be academic scientists who will take exception to Barrow’s comments above. It’s not like everyone is turning out sloppy work, of course, but it is true that the incentives are different. Keep in mind that when an interesting result or phenomenon is found in an industrial setting, it generally gets hammered on pretty quickly from several different angles to make sure that it reproduces, and under what conditions. No one will (or no one should!) continue to put effort into a project unless it can stand up to a good shaking of that sort. After all, a preclinical industrial drug effort is aimed at making a decision to spend a very large amount of money to give your new therapy to other human beings, in the hopes that it will perform well enough that large numbers of people will eventually be motivated to give you money for it. A large, competent, and skeptical group of outside observers (the FDA and other agencies, for starters, and then the broader medical community) will be inspecting your work. You will be filing legal documents to protect it, and if there are major mistakes or gaps in those, motivated competitors and their motivated lawyers will come after you. Even without such problems, those same competitors will be using your compounds in their own assays and projects, in well-funded attempts to do better than you did and persuade people to give them their money instead of giving it to you. If you missed something bad about your drug and it makes it to market anyway, so many lawsuits will come down around you that you’ll think it’s snowing. The whole atmosphere is rather more. . .Darwinian.

So as Barrow mentions, the attitudes and weltanschauungen (OK, he doesn’t use that word) that industrial scientists bring to academia can be rather orthogonal. But that can be a good thing, properly managed. Some people on the academic side might find it annoying, but others will find it invigorating (and that goes for the personal experience of the transitioning industrial researcher, too!) The article is a good intro to what to expect, and how to start arranging things so that you have the greatest chances for success. Remember, everyone in the drug industry came from academia in one form or another (grad students and post-docs at the very least). Having people move from industry back into the universities is a real opportunity that shouldn’t go to waste.

18 comments on “From Industry to Academia”

  1. John Wayne says:

    A subset of people can make the industry/academic transition without much trouble. On average, it seems like the industry people have an easier time transitioning than the academics. When you first do it, the hard part seems to be that you are both an expert and a novice at the same time. The further along you are in your career, the worse this is.

    To be less even-handed, some of the biggest disasters I’m aware of are academics being hired into senior positions within industry. This appears hard to pull off well.

  2. BTDT says:

    I couldn’t agree more with Derek’s last sentence in his post. I spent roughly half of my 45 year career in med chem drug discovery in pharma and the last half at an R1 research university. The transition was tough but had more to do with personal matters than professional matters. I had a three year tenure clock which was a bit stressful but the time whizzed by. I too, found that academic biologists love molecule makers and that establishing collaborations was not difficult. My academic year salary was embarrassingly low and retirement benefits poor; but consulting (including expert witness) made up for it.

    1. Anon says:

      @ BTDT…Wow! You did OK, my friend and I agree with you wholesome! As someone transitioned from (once a bench chemist, always bench chemist) pharma industry (let us just say it was long time ago, when it was golden period) to academia, intellectually for me it was well short of industry standards! Waiting for those chemicals to arrive (especially TCI!), generating those PDF copies of price quotes, waiting on those Shimadzu (HPLC) guys to come and fix instruments, those regulations, SOP and left me with enough time do some productive, and focused research. No re-discovering wheels here and keep it simple! That said, no pressure to deliver on time either. Collaborative research meant that others (biology, animal model, cell biologist etc.) are delaying you and chemistry already delivered!! More tranquil life and we are strictly doing 8h! And if your group is small, then you are one man army and no competition. Real benefits IMHO was immense opportunity to listen great talks by others unrelated to chemistry.

      1. NQ says:

        You could not freaking pay me enough to move into academia. And clearly, they don’t.

        1. anonymous says:

          @ NQ…Do not worry, you will be not paid enough in academia! People move into academia (against the disappearing landscape of no organic chemistry job!) to find stability and especially if you have family to support. I do not know what you do for the living, but I know many friends of mine who were ready to take any job (including academia), after the big layoff at Pharma. People lost their job in their late forties or early fifties!

          1. NMH says:

            What job security? Sure, if you can become a faculty member. Many of us are back to being post-docs or research associates in academia….

          2. NQ says:

            Ironically enough I just got laid off. But I am young and don’t have a family, so I’m fine, I guess (no sarcasm). Anyway I’m moving on… to another pharma job.

          3. Anon says:

            @ NMH……Job security? None, in any job and that is the fact we all have to reckon with.

  3. Uncle Al says:

    Consider a Chinese Big Pharma city (re New Jersey before diversity and Enviro-whinerism): Everything aggressive superior research groups need, at the cutting edge of technology, with the singular goal of honest overwhelming success at near any price. Human Resources would be a very different endeavor seizing the international best, brightest, most creative, most productive.

    Google is the model. Entry required demonstrating inhuman competence. A flood of autists remade the world, creating and reducing to practice what the socially acceptable could not even imagine. Google also provided a Nanny matrix so they would feed and occasionally bathe. The future was meant to be dangerous (on the other side of the user interface).

    1. Icefox says:

      Spoken like a non-techie who hasn’t has to deal with Google’s dysfunctions and depredations, only the dollar signs they result in.

      Never ignore the human factor.

  4. luysii says:

    It is very sad to see the bloodbath taking place among drug chemists. The success rate is very low primarily because drug development is so hard. There are so many biological and chemical pitfalls in the way.

    Reason #32 — an example of a gene found only in man (CHRFAM7A) which loused up an anti-inflammatory which worked beautifully in mice.

    Reason #33 — an example of a therapeutic action of MI-2 completely different from the rationale for its development.

    For more info please see —

  5. Watson says:

    That which our *umwelt* doesn’t provide, the *zeitgeist* forgets

    1. german native says:

      What is that supposed to mean? Using buzzwords only looks fancy…

    2. biochemist9 says:

      Haha…I’m also confused and a German speaker

  6. Me says:

    I tried this when i got fed up with med chem. Basically, unless you are director level or higher, which means you get your name on a ton of papers and patents, academia is closed to you.

    1. CR says:

      That is not true. One does not need to be a director level; you need to be productive for sure and moving up to a project leader is ideal. But, saying director level is simply false. I know (and from first-hand knowledge) many researchers that have made the transition and none of them (myself included) were directors.

  7. Dr U says:

    I guess most of the comments here relate to the situation in the US. How about Europe ? There seem to be less role models for moving from industry to academia

    1. NQ says:

      European academia has even less money (in the relative sense) than US academia…

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