Hey All, Sorry I've been away from writing here so long. Work is killing me...but what else is new? I blog for my company also and that makes it difficult to keep writing, although I prefer to write independently and very much enjoy the conversations we have here. I am always happy to answer your questions about the biotech industry and careers. You can contact me @suzyscientist if you would like advice or feedback and I'll try to reply to you as soon as I can. Many thanks and kindest regards to all!
My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.
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I would like to thank AGreenMonster for these great questions for discussion. I am going to answer these from my perspective, which is from a life science company. I welcome anyone to give their feedback as well. In fact, if any of the readers out there feels like they have a lot to share, I would be happy to host your article on my blog so that you may provide more details. Just drop me a line.
The question from me would be, what would you say is the biggest difference between academic research and industrial research? You say you don't have the same independence- how does that translate day by day? Does that mean that you're given a project and are told what procedure to do at every step? Or do you mean, that you told you need to work on x and get y in whichever manner you can?
To answer this question, let's first list some of the pros about working in an academic setting. You get to ask your own questions, questions that are interesting to you personally. No one is telling you what to do, how to do it, or for that matter keeping track of your time in any way. As long as you are productive and moving forward, you are doing well.
In contrast, in a company, you may have to work on a project that doesn’t interest you much. You may have to work on a product that you don’t actually believe is a good idea. You might be told to get something to work that really does not work and no amount of tweaking will get to work well. Some scientists I know became frustrated at having to develop products that are think no one wants or that do not require creativity, such as line extensions (a product that is continuation of an existing product, for example, a PCR kit with a slightly different buffer). It really depends on the company of course, but it is likely that you will have a couple of projects, and one may be really exciting but the other may be something you wish would go away.
Because I work in life science, all of our research revolves around developing products. So what I find to be the most unsatisfying aspect of my job is that sometimes I wish I could ask questions about the sample or the system, but I can’t. I want to know why these two samples from these two sources are acting differently. I want to know why this person’s blood works and the other one doesn’t. I want to get real answers and not just yes or no. You learn to push aside those yearnings…or, find an academic lab looking for a cool project to assign to an upward bound college student interested in science and you work on it together. That’s what I do now.
Day by day, depends on the company. I worked in a company where no one kept track of me ever. But, my schedule was always updated in Outlook so that if ever someone wanted to know where I was at any time of day, they could see it. And since in large companies you are typically in meetings for 4-6 hours every day, you really don’t have time for long coffee breaks anyway or for catching up on the literature. The few hours you do have to get work done, you anxiously grab them, go to the lab and shut the door, or put on headphones (even if you aren’t listening to anything) and analyze data, pretending you aren’t in a cubicle surrounded by 50 other people.
Does someone tell you what to do step by step? No. Unless the scientist is not competent to make their own decisions on what procedures to do, micro-management in the lab should not be an issue. I have worked with a PhD scientist who was not capable of deciding what experiment to do next and needed to be told. This was a drag. She didn't last long. Of course, it’s always a good to discuss the results and bounce ideas off other people. And lab meetings are used to troubleshoot and help each other out. But most PhDs or senior scientists are expected to be able to work independently.
At an interview I had, the scientist talked about how the deadlines are different in academia and industry. Would you agree and what does it really mean in "every day" work?
I think maybe what they mean is that the deadlines are more often and usually with short notice. Like when a grant or an abstract is due, you know about it well ahead of time. And if you miss it, the impact is mainly on yourself. (And of course the people in your lab depending on you to pay their salaries.)
In Industry, it's not unusual for last minute projects to be thrown at you with very little time to turn it around. Never mind that you are in the middle of an experiment or some other deadline. Something new is now priority. There can be a lot of unexpected work that may not always be your own, but when the boss asks you to do something, you drop everything and do it. Sometimes opportunities come up and you have to grab them. Marketing gets an opportunity to host a seminar and send a scientist to speak. They need a willing scientist who communicates science well and enjoys meeting people. Should you do it? Definitely. Getting out there and showing that you're a team player and can represent your company is critical to getting high raises and promotions. You want to accept those last minute challenges and opportunities to help the team.
Other deadlines include product launches. A product launch is a team effort. The teams involved are production/ operations (the people who will buy the chemicals, make the solutions according to your formulas, bottle the solutions, and package the components and put them in a box), marketing (the people who make sure the entire world knows about the product, designs flyers, imagery, maybe a logo, and a cool box, go to trade shows and basically be the cheerleader for the product), and you- R&D- the inventor of the product. I am going to write up a longer post about this subject in the future. But for now, the product launch is a complicated and coordinated effort. You CANNOT miss your deadline or you will screw everyone up. Marketing has booked the dates for the email blasts and banner ads, they’ve paid the $50,000 for ads to appear within the first ten pages of the next four months of Science. They’ve booked the booth for the scientific conferences where they will promote your new product, at $20,000 per show. Operations has cleared their schedule to manufacture your product- making other people wait, maybe even putting other products on backorder, so that your buffers are made and sitting on the shelf in a box by launch time. All of these things are happening in a very tight timeline and who is really the central player for all these events? R&D. It’s a lot of pressure, let me tell you.
Having gone through this process on the marketing and R&D side, I can tell you, I have lost much more sleep being responsible for the R&D of a product than for the marketing of it.
I realize perhaps it's impossible to describe, but what I'm trying to understand is how different it is to work in an industrial laboratory vs academic laboratory in a practical sense. So far the things you're saying seems like an environment I wouldn't mind working in. I like team work, I'm not sure that I'd mind that my ideas are owned by the company (surely productivity is awarded still?)... Not sure yet about flexibility (depends where that flexibility is limited exactly).
Yes- productivity is rewarded. It always has been for me. There are always a lot of complaints about the fairness of rewards in biotech and the rating system for promotions and raises. However, if there is one thing I cannot complain about, it is the rewards of being a hard worker. People know who the best people are and they will fight to get you working on their projects. They will beg to work with you. I always made a case to get my favorite R&D person working on the projects I knew I would be marketing that year. In a practical sense, the difference is really only in what you work on and how you approach the problem. The questions are different but the way you work through them is the same. As soon as your product launches, you are on to the next thing.
One thing that really interests me however is being "current" on the latest things in science. I like knowing what is the latest science "question" of the year. I don't need to be doing that work, but I like the environment of hearing about these things. Are industrial scientists encouraged in attending conferences, etc? I understand though that people don't publish as much in industry (for obvious reasons) so I'm not sure how they approach this aspect exactly.
Me too. I LOVE being able to stay current in a wide range of subjects. And working in life sciences biotech means that you really do have to stay on top of a lot of different subjects and methods. You can’t stay on top of everything but your base of knowledge becomes so broad that you know that if needed, you can give yourself a crash course on any subject and be ready to speak about it the next day (or two) in front of a group. If you are thinking of leaving the bench but want to stay on top of what’s hot in science, and you love to help people, then you may enjoy working in technical service.
Yes- industrial scientists are strongly encouraged to go to conferences. I would beg my R&D scientists to go when I was in marketing. More often than not, the people I worked with did not want to go. They avoided travel as much as possible. Maybe this has to do with some scientists being introverted. Others do not want to ever be put into a "sales" role, such as talking to people in a booth at a conference. It is great to have the scientists out at conferences talking to people at the posters, representing their own posters, and being part of the marketing of the products they invented. Who knows the product better than you the inventor?
I know the scientists working for me thoroughly enjoy the time they spend at conferences and they come back totally pumped up about their work and with so many new ideas. Marketing usually pays for conferences, as they have the big budget, so ask marketing to pay for you. I only pay when it is a strictly science conference with no booth duty, such as a Gordon Conference.
At the end of the day, I'm wondering what I'm expected to "give up" from academic industry...
You will give up pursuing your own ideas for the ideas of the company. But there are ways around that, through collaborating with academic labs. It is a great way to support undergraduate research and satisfy your curiosity while keeping your product launches on time.
I think there are ways to fulfill whatever you are missing in your career, whether that is teaching or writing or being part of the creative process. In industry, there is abundant opportunity to work on the other teams and learn how to do the marketing or the production or QC. All of these skills can only enhance your personal marketability. Most CEOs have worked in many different departments before they got to the top. They didn't just stick to one thing. Neither should you.
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I have to second all the advice and experience given here. In my limited time in a biotech company, most of these trends existed. The only difference being that if the company is a small one, or a start-up, there may not be as much cash thrown around for tons of conferences and whatnot. However, these early/small-stage companies may also be more academic/industry hybrids as well. This can mean more flexibility in time management and overall responsibilities, as one would expect in early phases of development.
I think its a big opportunity when working in a large biotech that departments want scientists to go to conferences, its the best way to promote yourself and your science. Gotta burn that marketing money somehow!
<i>You will give up pursuing your own ideas for the ideas of the company.</i>
I've heard this, and in some respects it's true. However there are some things that are very important to consider here and I think they get overlooked from time to time. First, in academia you can really only work on what you're funded to do. You have to follow the money. Sure, you can redirect some funds from a project to get preliminary data on a side-related issue, but if you want to study a system no one gives a hoot about, you're not going to be able to make much progress without sufficient funds. Second, our ideas don't spring up in a vaccum. They're products of our environment, and your ideas are integral for the success of any project. I truly believe that if you enjoy your work atmosphere, you can handle the challenges given to you, take them as your own, and derive great satisfaction from it. Plus, no one is telling you not to push your ideas forward. I would be shocked if industry doesn't have meetings where the researchers don't get together and bounce ideas off of each other to improve their products.
So the question comes down to "Does this company have a model, an approach, a goal, that I'm drawn to?" Just as an ecologist wouldn't go work in a children's hospital, the same principle applies. Gravitate to the ideas you like, and the rest will fall into place.
@Mito: true- a small company spends a lot less money marketing a product. But it is all relative. At a large company the marketing budget may be $2 million and a small one may be $200,000. (Typically marketing budgets are 10% of the revenue of either the department or the company if it is small.) So if we spend $100,000 marketing a product at the big company and the small one spends $10,000, it still a lot of cash to spend for the small one (especially privately held). It just changes your tactics. You do a lot more email blasts and word-of-mouth marketing when you don't have the cash.
I am not in one of the supermarket biotechs any longer but going to conferences I think is always important for building the credibility of your scientists and the science behind your products. Even the small companies send their scientists to conferences. They want to build their reputation and find partners for business development. What costs the most with conferences is not the travel and hotel but hosting the booth. So we do sometimes just go as attendees and avoid the huge costs associated with that.
@TJ- good point and I thought of that when writing. I was collaborating with undergraduates in a lab and the PI kept telling me "we don't have a grant to work on this, you know" because things were moving slow. (All of the reagents were free). In the end the kids had an awesome poster and were complimented by many people for doing the complexity and amount of work they did as undergrads.
Our ideas are a product of our environment as well. Many of them come from attending conferences, talking to people.
We do often have to drop ideas. This can be tough especially when it is something you really believe in. Sometimes scientists work on a project for a year to be told that marketing doesn't think it will sell (in the big biotechs). I worked on a project for a good 6 months and then the company decided it wouldn't make enough money to justify the costs. I disagreed, I pleaded, I explained, and I showed examples where a similar idea was working for other people. They said no. Project over.
if anyone thinks this is too long, I can split it up into two posts.
It is 2000 words. I know sometimes if a post is too long, I don't get to the end. But if AGreenMonster has her questions answered, then I am happy.
No way, these length of posts are good, because its actually getting into the meat of a topic.
Hi Jade and everyone else that commented.
Thank you again for all that. It really helps, you can definitely hear your enthusiam for your work which is great. It makes me feel that perhaps indeed, this could be an area that I'd fit in. I still love the science and bench work but am not interested in going the PI route. Hopefully industry would be a good place for me in terms of getting my science fix but still allow a good work-life balance.
Perhaps it depends on the company, but would you say that the work-life balance in industry can be better?
I don't mind working hard but I like the opporunity to play hard too. I probably will never be someone who can leave at 5pm and not think of work but at the same time, I like my time off as well. I work better that way too. May indeed have to adjust to "regular" hours though.
And I agree- the post isn't too long.
Found out today that I might have an opportunity to try working iin ndustry, so this was especially timely. Thanks! :)
GREAT set of posts!!!
To me, the biggest plus of industry might actually be getting to take advantage of breadth of background. I feel like if you are incredibly passionate about one topic and believe that is what is needed to be studied for the next 20 years to advance the field, that's when you have to play the R01 game. On the other hand, if changing topics totally energizes you... there's something to be said for industry.
That said, this terrifies me: "You might be told to get something to work that dreally does not work and no amount of tweaking will get to work well" ICK! On the other hand, I think this happens in academia too, at least until you are the PI!
AGreenMonster- but would you say that the work-life balance in industry can be better?
My experience is that you can make it what you want. If you want to immerse yourself in your job, you can do that. If you want to travel as part of your job and be on the road all the time, you can do that too. If you want to have more balance, you can do that. I have found that there is a big mix. People with kids of course tend to be better at creating balance. I think when you have someone at home you can't wait to be with, priorities change and it is easier to let the work wait until tomorrow.
I know people who are excelling in their jobs and they don't work the way I do. It doesn't hold them back. I think if you are good at what you do, people recognize that and will work with you to keep you happy. It really is about the quality of your work. Someone who has to work 14 hrs a day because they are inefficient or makes a lot of mistakes is not going to be rewarded like someone who works 8 hrs a day and generates good results, is careful and detail oriented. It's not just about the hours.
So I would say the work life balance is whatever you want it to be. I would highly recommend putting in the extra effort at the start and then once you are established, you can ease up a bit. I would say it usually takes 6 months to a year to get comfortable anyway and to feel like you really know how to work the system and get things done.
@Becca- thanks very much! I do like the change in projects and getting to work on something new and exciting. Yes, sometimes it happens, just like being in an academic lab, you might get a stinker of a project. Usually, most projects in R&D wouldn't be there unless marketing decided that there was a big interest in the area and people wanted it. So everything you work on should be exciting and promising to do well. But there have been times where maybe a technology is not what everyone thought it was and you have to figure out how to make it work. The challenge can be fun, unless you have people breathing down your neck because the person who's idea it was to begin with needs to save face.
This takes us into the subjects of politics and managing up. Areas we all have to deal with at some point in time no matter where we work.
Oh- GreenMonster, I should add, the R&D people rarely work overtime and weekends. They work hard when they work but they are not typically working weekends unless they want to. I do know of one particular company that expects it of the scientists and I think they have a hard time retaining people. They are abusive in other ways besides their work load.
It is in marketing where you can literally work 24 hrs a day and never be bored. I found marketing to be the most demanding of time. It became where I had to work 60-70 hrs a week just to keep from sinking. It wasn't fun. While I think R&D has more pressure from a product success point of view, itis fun and each new product is your baby.
Marketing has more pressure directed at you from so many different people all needing something from you. It's non-stop.
@Becca: I think this happens in academia too, at least until you are the PI!
Yeah, and then you just force these unresolving projects onto your students and technicians. Within the first couple of years of academia, you'll find you'll be flying a desk rather than being productive at the bench.
Very interesting stuff!!
I have an opportunity to work in industry as a postdoc (would be a 2nd one) which I'm wrestling with. A great chance to see how it is in industry but at the same time further delays the getting of a "real" job- not that there's a guarantee of a real job right now either. I will definitely take the info you've written in consideration. It's very timely like I said. :)
Yeah but I bet that industry postdoc pays a lot more. Plus, once you are in, you can be promoted into a Staff Scientist or lab PI job. Getting in is the hard part. You won't have to go through the same hoops as someone who is interviewing for a senior position.
Don't be silly. Once you are the PI, there are no unresolving projects. Only lazy trainees.
Wow. Great post. Answered most of my questions. I was little late in reading this post.
Does industries publish? I did see few very good publications from industry.
How often do they publish and what kind of industries?
I'd like to add a few things to this post from my limited R&D experience:
1. Our R&D people routinely work weekends. Not long, and it's due to what we are working on now. (and it's more of a comp time type of thing)
2. I've been given a road map of what's to be accomplished this year. I've been given projects, and will have to present ideas, but I haven't been given a outline of experiments to do. I've essentially been given an endpoint to get to, and then the marketing people give me a list of information they need to sell the product (needs, wants, what type of data will make researchers look at something).
3. I spend a lot of time at the computer doing research/updating notebooks/designing things/preparing for meetings. It took a little bit of time to get used to how much time I spent doing work that wasn't at the lab bench.