Science in Review: Lab Coats and Business Suits

Array of Erlenmeyer flasks

Industry flasks are just like academic flasks! (Photo by Republica)

I just changed positions from teaching at a university to a lab position at a biotech company. I’m struggling to adjust to the industry environment. What are the biggest changes in my thinking, approach to work, and job expectations I need to make?

This question comes from the American Scientific Affiliation‘s Nexus Forum. (Have a question you want to ask a group of scientists? Submit it here!) I’ll be giving my answer here, then participating in the discussion over at that forum. I recommend joining the forum to hear what other scientists have to say, whether you are currently considering a job outside of academia or not. I never really considered such a job, pretty much right until I actually had one.

As I mentioned in my Jurassic July series, science careers are coarsely classified as academic, government, or “industry” (turns out, not all private sector jobs are all that industrial). As a graduate student — essentially an entry level academic position — I imagined myself continuing on to a postdoctoral fellowship and then a tenure track position. The faculty encouraged this, although in hindsight that’s probably to be expected given their own career choices. I did go on to an academic postdoc, but after that I couldn’t get so much as a “thank you for your interest in the position” courtesy response from academic jobs. So I took a job at a small software company where I have worked for 7 years.

Let’s be frank; as a graduate student, I would have joked about this job as “selling out.” I’d say that’s where the biggest change in my thinking has come. Yes, I started at a salary that was probably higher than I would have made in academia, but not ridiculously so. And I actually had more benefits as a postdoc, including college tuition assistance for my children that in this era is no minor consideration — a benefit my then-toddler children oddly weren’t interested in. While I do work for a software company, a life-changing buyout payday almost certainly isn’t in my future. Our software is purchased by public health agencies, which they sometimes pay for with the government-funding equivalent of sofa-cushion money; Google and Facebook aren’t lining up to get into our business.

Yes, money changes hands in the private sector, but then again it also does in academia and in industry. I see that as evidence that our company provides something of value to others, something they use regularly to help them do their jobs. It is gratifying to me that what I do on a daily basis is useful. For example, the World Meeting of Families, a large Catholic conference, is coming up and will include a visit from the Pope himself. Our software, including analysis methods I developed personally, will be one of the tools used to make sure everyone in attendance is safe and healthy. I haven’t “sold out;” I’m making my skills available to others in a useful, productive way.

Scientist in a lab coat

Fun fact: when I was doing lab research, I never had my own lab coat. Now that I work in an office for a software company, I do have my own lab coat. (Photo by DarkoStojanovic)

Personally, I think my approach to work has remained fairly steady from graduate school through my postdoc and my current job. One of the things I appreciate about working with data and statistical analysis is that I don’t have to feed anything at odds hours or run assays that take many hours to complete, so I can maintain a fairly consistent work schedule. For some, a more consistent work schedule may be a perk of moving to a private sector job. Some employers have clearly defined work hours, and may discourage or even prevent working outside those hours. On the other hand, some appreciate the flexibility of academia and may find a 9-to-5 routine stifling. Of course, some employers are more flexible with work hours, and some corporate environments will officially or unofficially expect 60- or 80-hour work weeks. The greater variability of approaches to work hours in the private sector means you need to do a little more homework on each specific job to find a good fit.

As far as expectations go, I can think of two big differences. The first is an expectation of what your job will and won’t involve. I work for a company with about a dozen employees; when something needs to get done, there are only 11 other potential candidates for doing it. At times, my job has involved more programming and software development, while at others it has focused more on research. Every so often, I have to do odd jobs like clean a refrigerator or replace the hard drive on my computer. Sometimes it’s nice to have a change of pace; sometimes it’s frustrating to be doing jobs for which I feel ill-equipped. But being flexible about my role has helped to make sure the company continues to exist to support myself, my family, and my coworkers, so it is worthwhile to keep an open mind about my job description. Of course, in a larger company that may be less of an issue. In fact, you might find the opposite problem; you’ll have a very specific role within the company with little opportunity to go outside of it.

The other area where I’ve had to adjust expectations is my connection to the scientific community of my field. When I attend conferences, I’m not always welcomed as a peer but instead seen as representing a vendor. I don’t have access to paid journals, and publishing research papers is not a central part of my job. Maintaining those connections may require some creativity, but can be valuable, particularly if you think you might return to academia some day. With some persistence and help from colleagues willing to coauthor submissions, I’ve been able to get my work accepted for presentation at conferences. Some companies may have restrictions on what you can publish or present from your work; it may be considered proprietary. If you do desire to present or publish, you may need to negotiate with your employer or think laterally to identify topics where that would be acceptable.

Those are some thoughts from my experience in the private sector. I look forward to hearing what everyone else has to say.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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