Putting The “In” in Industry: Top Tips for a Successful Transition


By Esther Cooke, PhD


The plight of early career researchers was magnified last month (October 2016) by demoralizing news features in Nature entitled “Young scientists under pressure,” and “Young, talented and fed-up….” New research shows that annual increases in science-related doctorates, coupled with flat-lining or faltering funding opportunities and full-time faculty positions, is creating stiffer competition and lower success rates for young scientists in academia. Unsurprisingly, more and more PhDs are exploring alternative avenues, notably within pharmaceutical/biotechnology companies.

Vice President of Diagnostic Development at Illumina, Karen Gutekunst, PhD shared insights with the Scripps Consulting Club on how to successfully flee to pharma.

Gutekunst completed her doctorate in molecular genetics at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her first whiff of R&D in industry came from a headhunt call about a job in New Jersey. Although not ready to leave Atlanta, Gutekunst liked the idea of applying “tech” to real medical problems. She landed her first industry position at Roche and stayed with the company for 18 years, working in project management, development, and regulatory affairs. She then spent two years with Clarient before landing her current job. During the workshop, Gutekunst reflected on personal experiences to highlight key pieces of advice for grad students and postdocs considering a similar path:


  1. Be open to possibilities. We often hold back from opportunities because they don’t fully satisfy our criteria, or for FOMO – that is, fear of missing out – on the “perfect” job that could be just around the corner. Gutekunst advises to keep an open mind: “Don’t be afraid to branch out, as no decision you make is forever.” New opportunities will present, and things will happen in the future that you can’t plan for. It’s all good experience (even the application process) and could be an important step towards that dream job. To be successful in industry, Gutekunst admits, “You have to be willing to change direction on the fly.” Adaptability is a must.


  1. Broaden your skillset. Don’t be an out-and-out lab rat. Gutekunst emphasizes that transferable skills are just as important as research skills. “You need to be a well-rounded person to grow and succeed in industry. It’s not just about how smart you are,” she says. All of the applicants will be smart, so it comes down to how well you will fit in with the culture. Unlike academia, where for the most part you work independently on your own project, research in an industrial setting is much more collaborative – people work together for the good of the company. Look for creative ways to demonstrate communication skills, leadership and project management skills, problem solving ability, and teamwork.


  1. Learn the lingo. Familiarize yourself with insiders’ jargon and acronyms that you might run into during interviews, such as GLP, GMP and GCP (good laboratory, manufacturing and clinical practices, respectively). Gain an understanding of company frameworks and the processes of production, development, and life cycle management, bearing in mind that these may differ between small and large companies. Gutekunst suggests that you tailor your research: “If you’re interested in marketing, understand what product requirements are and why they’re important.” Once you’ve mastered the language, speak it with passion – you’ll need to be able to convince someone to give you a job!


  1. Network, network, network. This one gets drummed into us all of the time, and that’s because it really is important. “You never know what might come of a conversation,” says Gutekunst. Maintain good relations with your colleagues and collaborators, attend conferences, join clubs and societies, and get stuck into professional networking sites like LinkedIn. Be proactive in asking questions and reaching out to people; be willing to stick your neck out. Made connections already? Hold on to them! Speaking from experience, Gutekunst adds, “Connections lead to random phone calls, and random phone calls lead to jobs.”


  1. Don’t wait! When asked about the best time to make the transition, Gutekunst responds, “If you want to go into industry, I’d try to get in as quickly as you can.” The earlier you are in your career, the easier it is to get over the hump of academic stereotypes. It comes back to adaptability; employers are looking for candidates who will adjust quickly to their way of doing things, i.e. before the rhythms of academic research become ingrained. If you’re sure it’s the right direction, don’t wait for that next paper or fellowship – you’ll always put one more hurdle in front of you. Work with what you have, and get in!


  1. Believe in yourself. It’s as simple as that. Have confidence and don’t be intimidated!A career in industry is absolutely attainable for academic PhDs, but a smooth transition requires careful planning and consideration, with some gumption and flexibility thrown in the mix. Check with your graduate students or postdoc services office for more information and resources. If you’re struggling to make the call, the most important thing is to trust your instincts and strive to do what you love – you’ll be happier!