Does accepting an industry position close the door to academia?

As young academics in the sciences, we sometimes have to consider job opportunities outside of our intended academic career paths. But, since science in an academic environment is all we are familiar with, a shift to another industry, such as biotechnology, may seem like turning our back to the science that we so much enjoy.

I recently made that choice. For a change, I decided to choose the country and city where I wanted to live, and that meant pursuing research positions available in the biotechnology industry, rather than in academia.

The day I stepped into my new role as a Senior Scientist in Research and Development (R&D), I literally stepped through the door and into a small, project-orientated lab meeting, attended by no more people than you’d find in an average academic lab. During that meeting, my new colleagues went around the table and discussed the progress and struggles in their various research projects. It all seemed very familiar, and I quickly felt at home.

One of the two things I feared the most switching from academia to industry was losing creative freedom in the lab. In academia, we are fortunate to choose our research topics based on our interests and what we perceive as knowledge gaps. However, our scientific exploration is quite often constrained by the limited availability of funding. In R&D it’s the inverse. The research direction is generally market driven and passed down a chain of authority. However, I’ve quickly realized that scientific creativity in R&D is highly sought after, and is generally much less constrained by budget.

My other fear was losing scientific relevance. However, that fear also quickly dissipated. In the position that I’m in now, I am part of a highly innovative, global team of researchers working towards developing new DNA sequencing technologies. These new DNA sequencing technologies are predicted to decrease the cost of sequencing the human genome, for example, by an order or magnitude. Such a dramatic decrease in cost will make routine sequencing for clinical diagnostic purposes an affordable reality, and will greatly benefit ambitious academic projects aimed at sequencing and understanding whole biomes and so much more.

Beyond the cutting edge science, the most exciting aspect is the potential to grow, not just as a professional, but also as a person. In industry, soft skills such as teamwork, effective communication and conflict resolution are valued as much as technical skills. Consequently, employees are routinely enrolled in personal development courses aimed at helping them work together as productive and cohesive units, and to provide them with the tools to manage stress and conflict in the workplace and at home. In my experience, academia places little emphasis on soft skills. This is unfortunate. I’ve just participated in the first of a series of personal development courses and it immediately became obvious to me how individuals, labs and departments in academia could also benefit from such workshops.

What I miss most from academia is the freedom to discuss my work openly with anyone willing to listen, to seek advice from academic colleagues without having to include a confidentiality request, and to use techniques and technologies without having to think about intellectual property (IP) rights first. However, at my new workplace I’m constantly surrounded by brilliant, innovative minds, and there is ample opportunity to attend international conferences. So stimulating conversation and networking opportunities are definitely not lacking. And although publication in scientific journals in is not an option right now, I have a unique opportunity to be involved in writing patents, which is a valued measure of scientific productivity.

So to end my thoughts, choosing to explore the biotech industry does not have to be a choice to walk away from science or academia. If chosen wisely and in such a way that you continue to publish in some format or another, practice innovative research, remain abreast with the current literature, and by continuing to grow your professional network, the door to academia remains open. In fact, with all the new (soft) skills and experiences gained, that door may open even wider should you choose to return.

Wesley Loftie-Eaton on FacebookWesley Loftie-Eaton on Twitter
Wesley Loftie-Eaton
Wesley Loftie-Eaton has a special interest in evolution and how it shapes the world. He earned his PhD at the University of Stellenbosch, worked as a postdoctoral scientist at the Institute of Microbial Biotechnology and Metagenomics (University of the Western Cape) and at the Institute for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies (University of Idaho). He is currently Senior R&D Scientist at Roche Sequencing Solutions in South Africa. Believing in adventure through science, Wesley completed a self-supported bicycle tour from Nairobi, Kenya, to Cape Town, South Africa, to support #ScienceInAfrica.

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