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The Black Hole

So, you want to be a researcher in industry…

BY DAVID KENT | AUG 16 2010

QUICK HITS:

1.  If you were interested in previous posts of mine about how well science information is distributed and received in the UK, then you might also want to have a gander at a recent post that I made on the Stem Cell Network Blog entitled Science, Science, everywhere

2.  The Council of Canadian Academies has released their annual report.  A good read if you have not yet heard of them and what they do, but it still leaves large question marks regarding its future which I’ve written about before.

So, you want to be a Researcher in Industry…
I think it’s a real shame that a research career in industry is black-listed as “selling your soul” or “giving up” at almost every juncture in academic training.  Yes, there are compromises that you will make with respect to research independence, daily schedule, and potential removal from the sharpest part of the cutting edge of research ((Thanks Trev for directing this my way!)), but the enormous benefits that derive from industry involvement in the research enterprise are not to be scoffed at – not to mention its benefit to the Canadian economy.
Make no mistake, I am a huge fan of academic research, blue sky thinking, and avoiding cookie-cutter PhDs and I am not a fan of tying economic outcomes or “deliverables” to all academic research.  I am also, however, not impressed by the villainization of working for money while doing research – in fact I see it as one of the very real faces of future scientific research, especially in medical science.  Underpinning this transition is the human resources shift that is resulting in far more graduates with highly specialised knowledge and the presumption from many trainees that this leads to an academic career.  While the percentages of successful bids for professorship have not shifted so pointedly over time, the absolute number of PhD graduates has dramatically increased and they are flooding into the workforce.

So, if you find yourself even moderately inclined to consider a career in industry, I offer some advice for places to look and strategies to take on your journey.  Again, if there is some specific help out there from Engineers, Physicists, Chemists, etc, please do leave a comment as most of my meagre help will be biotech/medical science related.

Know and Expand your Current Networks
First thing is first, look around you at people who are similarly inclined.  Perhaps a professor in your department owns a company on the side or a fellow trainee has a background in business or economics.  These are great places to start for grabbing some quick advice from someone who probably understands your particular perspective.  In British Columbia, there is a great resource called the Student Biotechnology Network which hosts numerous events in Vancouver that are directly aimed at giving trainees a glimpse into the sector.  It has strong support from long term and emerging companies in the region and offers the vast majority of its events free of charge. It was started by a former UBC student and has grown continuously over the last decade.

Hands On?
I think one of the most critical questions that people have to ask themselves before embarking on a career search in industry is whether or not they want to physically do the research, direct the research, or simply understand the research.  Inevitably there are careers that will allow you to drift across these loose categories, but going in with your head up about your likes and dislikes for a career path is never a bad idea.  Physically doing the research should inspire job searches like “research or bench scientist”, “product development”, or “staff scientist” while directing the research would be more along the lines of “team leader” and “head or director of R/D” – though the latter would not necessarily be available without industry and research experience in the bigger companies.  The understanding of research is perhaps the most diverse and simply means putting your knowledge to use in a particular companies “other departments” like sales, marketing, technical writing, etc.

Stuck in the Middle with You (or not…)
Something that Canada has been rumoured to lack and I’ve not had reason to disagree yet is “mid level” biotech careers.  Essentially, what this means is that you either start/own a company or you are very junior in that company and there appears to be an extremely tiny middle ground of very good pay for very good work with moderate to low chances of moving higher unless your boss retires.  This stress is compounded by the situation to the south where a plethora of such positions exist in places like San Francisco and Boston, resulting in speedy depletion of talented middle managers and researchers if the wait for upward mobility begins to look lengthy.

Standardization of Tools and Reagents
One thing that industry can provide at a much higher level than the transient trainee body of graduate students and post doctoral fellows is standardization.  If a biological reagent is developed (i.e.: something that particular cell types like to grow in) in an academic lab, it often resides within that lab and its small networks.  If that reagent is of substantial interest to a wider community, a company can standardize the reagent and bring it to those markets (both academic and industrial).  The same goes for particular tools and technologies that are developed within academic settings, especially from engineering, chemistry, and medical science.

Money Matters
Quite literally… and this can be a huge problem in some companies where scruples are sacrificed for the sake of this quarter’s profits or for the survival of the company.  The consequences of such unscrupulous behaviour, particularly in medical sciences and the production + prescription of the wrong pharmaceutical, can be dire, and proper regulatory checks and balances need to be in place.  One of the best examples of such an initiative is the UBC Therapeutics Initiative where academics work with physicians and pharmacists to provide up-to-date, evidence-based, practical information on prescription drug therapy.

In medical science I believe these lines are blurring more and more, especially with the need for academic labs to generate heaps of data and the subsequent rise of cookie cutter PhDs.  No doubt, we need well trained researchers to do this kind of work, but in the end, if your research project is along the lines of optimizing a biological system/reagent, sequencing a genome (or several), or screening small molecule libraries for potential drug interactions – why not get paid well for it?

Resources to check out
BIOTECanada – A national non-profit association dedicated to building the bio-based economy in Canada.
NSERC Industrial Post Doc Fellowships – Funding opportunities that will make you substantially more attractive as an entry level candidate.
The 1998 Canadian Biotechnology Strategy – The Government of Canada’s last major policy paper outlining their strategy on Biotechnology.

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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