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Making the Leap: 5 Tips for medical-based ECRs looking to move from academia to the pharmaceutical Industry

Making the Leap: 5 Tips for medical-based ECRs looking to move from academia to the pharmaceutical Industry

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By David Cipolla.

If you are a postdoctoral scientist or finishing up your PhD you may be interested in pursuing opportunities in the Pharmaceutical Industry.  If so, there are many differences between academia and industry and a number of them are highlighted in this article. 

1. Your Ability to Fit in the Team is Often More Important than Scientific Genius

For many scientists who have recently obtained a PhD, this transition may be challenging.  In many universities, your professor valued you for your ability to take initiative, generate ideas and conduct lots of experiments leading to innovative research publications that extended or expanded your advisor’s research focus. A PhD is not granted for being a good team player, or for helping out other students with their research, but solely based on your own achievements.  This is in stark contrast to most pharmaceutical companies, which, for the most part, value teamwork over pure scientific genius. Disruption of a positive team environment to accommodate a lone ranger usually does not make sense.  The ability to move a product through the various stage of development as rapidly as possible is key.  For a product that may generate billions of dollars in sales per year, each day that a product is delayed in getting approved can mean millions of dollars in lost sales.  So when you are interviewing for a position, the company will be focused on how well you will be able to work with others and your cultural fit within the organization. (If you are a team player, and also an innovative scientist, so much the better).

2. Collaboration is Key

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This concept may not be that new for many people in academia, because the best academic researchers will identify like-minded partners to collaborate with in order to expand their research focus and fill in gaps in their group’s expertise.  It is also typical for Postdocs to move from one lab to another and this fosters an exchange of ideas across labs. However, in industry the degree of collaboration goes many steps further.  A project team is formed to focus on each drug in development, and can even be divided into specific indications for that drug. On the project team are professionals from various departments which may include: research, preclinical safety, preclinical efficacy, formulation, analytical, process sciences, manufacturing, quality, medical affairs, regulatory, finance, and marketing, etc.  The glue holding this group together is the experts in project management. As a new scientist entering industry, you are now directly accountable to at least two people, your supervisor in your technical area as well as your project team leader, and your actions will influence and be affected by many more people. How can you achieve the most success in this new environment? It comes down to effective communication and treating your colleagues with respect.

3. Effective Communication is Critical: It starts with project teams.

They exist to facilitate communication across departments.  Project teams keep track of milestones (e.g., when will the clinical batches be released which gate trial start) and the timelines associated with those efforts.  The critical path activities are those that are linked and define the earliest that the milestone can be achieved.  If your deliverable is on the critical path, you will be under the microscope to ensure that your delivery date does not slip, and you will be challenged to bring it in earlier than anticipated. Understanding the risks that may arise, and how you are dependent on the inputs from others (e.g., the formulation group cannot conduct stability studies until they receive drug supplies from manufacturing) cannot be overstated. You should proactively engage the groups that you are dependent upon, and which are dependent upon you.  Recognize that turf battles can arise.  But if you remain humble, treat others with respect, acknowledge and recognize others’ contributions, and deliver on your commitments, you will be recognized as a team player and one who is sought out to work with.

4. Publishing is No Longer a Measure of Your Core Value

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In academia, the focus can often appear to be primarily the quantity and quality of your publications.  The measure of your worth can be quantified by the number of papers you have published and the impact factor of the journals you have published in.  This is important not only with respect to landing a position within an academic institution, and how rapidly you move up the ranks in that organization, but is critical to obtaining grants to fund your research.  However, once you begin working in industry, much of your research ideas and the data that you generate will become trade secrets within the organization, and will not be published for years, if at all.  This means that what has been the primary driving force for you for many years, i.e., the ‘be all and end all’, will have to be replaced with a new set of values. That can be a difficult transition for the unprepared. How do you cope with that change? Is there a middle ground?  

5. Focus on Inventions

One way to cope with that change is to focus on creating value for your organization by patenting your innovations as inventions, instead of by publication. Not all pharmaceutical companies are rigidly set against publications.  Some understand the importance for their scientists to be able to share their ideas with their colleagues.  They appreciate that this positive peer recognition will enhance the standing of their scientists, and by association, the esteem of their company. This gives their organization a more inviting culture and a leg-up on hiring the best talent. But before the innovative research can be published, the patent group will want to review the content and determine if it makes sense to keep the information as a trade secret or to file patents. It is important that you understand the patent process and are able to effectively communicate your innovations.  Typically, this is done by drafting a scientific report, like a publication, and sharing it with the patent lawyers.  They will do a survey of the patent literature to check for prior art, and if the innovation is novel and non-obvious, they may file a patent disclosure.  This process can take many years before patents are issued, but once the patent disclosure is published (typically 12-18 months after filing), it should be possible to publish the content as well.

It is hoped that these tips will give you a sense for some of the differences between academia and industry, and provide intellectual fodder for you as you weigh your career options. We have not discussed preparation for the interview itself, as there are many other resources specifically targeting that issue.


About David Cipolla: David has worked in the Pharmaceutical R&D Department at Genentech on a number of programs, the highlight being the approval of Pulmozyme rhDNase to treat cystic fibrosis in 1993.  Following Genentech, David worked at Aradigm Corporation in a number of roles overseeing the formulation and analytical development activities, as well as management of intellectual property.  He has been active in the inhalation field, having served on the Board of Directors of the IPAC-RS consortium, including a two-year term as Chair, and is currently serving on the Board for the International Society of Aerosols in Medicine (ISAM). David is currently completing his PhD in the Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Sydney. You can contact David here

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