Careers in Industry Beyond the Research Track

Byline: Anna A. Pimenova, PhD


Emily Bauer, PhD                         Bristol-Myers Squibb, Princeton, NJ

Nancy Ilaya, PhD                          Estee Lauder, New York, NY

Stephen Shannon, PhD              Novocure, New York, NY

Divya Vasudevan, PhD               Agenus, Lexington, MA


Keywords used for the brain word cloud (Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development by Toby Freedman, 2008, CSHL, with additions from Nancy Ilaya):

Discovery Research; Preclinical Research; Clinical Research; Claims Substantiation and Development; Bio/Pharmaceutical Product Development; Project Management; Clinical Development; Regulatory Affairs; Medical Affairs; Scientific Affairs; Marketing; Sales; Product Support; Corporate Communications; Scientific Communications; Consumer Product Goods; Business Development; Operations; Quality; Bio IT (Information Technology); Management Consulting; Venture Capital & Banking; Law; Recruiting

When looking for jobs outside of academia, PhDs often make the mistake of believing that in a company, they will continue pipetting at the bench as before. In reality, industry offers many opportunities beyond the research and development path—all working to support the research product line in such fields as management consulting, business development, operations, regulatory/medical/scientific affairs, quality, law, marketing, and sales, to name a few (see Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development by Toby Freedman, 2008, CSHL). These industry careers often require PhD-level or other advanced degree-level skills to fulfill the job description and advance into a senior level position. The “What Can You Be with a PhD?” (WCUB) 2017 event gave ample opportunity to learn about these career paths firsthand at the session dedicated to non-research careers in industry. The panelists included four scientists: Emily Bauer and Nancy Ilaya, who left academia after obtaining their PhD degrees and have both held roles in several different companies; and Steven Shannon and Divya Vasudevan, who more recently transitioned into industry positions after brief postdoctoral experiences. The session was moderated by Emily Bauer, a science communication professional, who made the discussion exciting and successful for a full auditorium.

The speakers were first asked to reflect on what made them decide to leave the bench. Nancy Ilaya realized early on in her PhD training that research was not for her, and became involved in science education programs and outreach. Similarly, Divya Vasudevan envisioned her role at the intersection of scientific research and patient care to take the discoveries from bench to bedside, which prompted her to get involved with the consulting opportunities offered at the university. Steven Shannon realized that funding rates in the US continue to decline, with less than 8% of research projects supported by the NIH. Nonetheless, he believes it is important to acknowledge that the relationship between academic research and industry is “symbiotic,” as everyone in science starts at the bench. Emily Bauer was determined to become an independent investigator, but she eventually realized that the pace of academic research limits the impact of a single person on patient’s life. The consensus among speakers was that once you decide to pursue a career away from the bench, there are many ways to get on the right path.

Several activities outside the lab—teaching, industry internships, consulting, or being involved in the postdoctoral community—helped the panelists to obtain an industry position. These experiences help PhDs develop soft skills important for their future careers. Other transferable skills include scientific knowledge, analytical and critical thinking, attention to details, writing scientific and lay material, and the ability to collaborate across disciplines and borders. In addition to the soft and transferable skills acquired during graduate school, PhDs have to learn how to pitch their skills and ideas as their personal brand. For instance, start by preparing a resume specifically meeting the requirements of the job description. It should be typo-free, well-edited, and concise (1-2 pages maximum), and must not be generic. Listing key extracurricular activities that relate to the description of the desired position is a good way to show your ability to apply your soft skills in a different setting, while your academic accomplishments demonstrate the impact of your work. Nancy Ilaya also recommended putting together a digital portfolio containing posters, abstracts, and presentations to showcase your communication skills and provide material for discussion at your job interview.

Networking with peers who have made the leap into industry careers is the best way to learn about the job requirements and expectations, which in turn can help you to design your desired career path. When applying for several jobs, the speakers suggested taking every opportunity to interview; even if the position is not offered, connections are made and your interview skills are further refined. Be well prepared, ask many questions and be energetic throughout the interview. Be aware that the whole process varies between companies and industries and may take weeks to months, depending on how many rounds a company requires for screening candidates. It is important to follow up with the interviewers by sending a thank-you note: personalize the message by bringing up one insight from your meeting. Rejections are commonplace and do not have to be taken personally. There may be other reasons beyond the qualifications of the candidate that weigh in on the company decision to hire. Ask for feedback and continue networking at events and online; approach and learn from people that have your dream job for advice on how to tailor your current training for the future. It is possible to make connections by asking people for informational interviews, to shadow a company worker for half a day, or ask for a coffee chat meeting—activities which our panelists would all respond to favorably.

Another important aspect of networking events is the opportunity to learn about the company rules at the workplace. Our panelists agreed that their work-life balance improved in an industry job. The general work day for our speakers starts at 8-8.30 am and ends at 5-6 pm. The majority of time (25-50%) is spent in meetings, because collaborative effort is important to meet deadlines. Generally, evening and weekend work is less common than in an academic lab, allowing time flexibility, respect for family obligations, and the need for rest to bolster productivity. Unlike in academia when graduate or postdoctoral trainees’ time in a given lab is transient, companies want to keep their employees, and invest in them to sustain and boost productivity.

The process of a job search can be fierce. Remember that if there is no fit during the initial meetings, then it may never be, and life is too precious to confine yourself to working in a field that does not suit your interests. It is always the first job outside of academia that is hard to get, but afterwards you will find yourself in a market that has high demand for experienced PhDs, and you may find it easier to change positions.


The author would like to thank Emily Bauer, Nancy Ilaya and Chiara Bertipaglia for valuable edits and comments on the text. The figure was made using Special thanks to Tristan Fehr and Jackie Kubala from NYCSciComm for the opportunity to cover the WCUB 2017 event (


Keywords: industry, non-academic research, career development

About the Author: Anna A. Pimenova, PhD is an experienced scientist with a keen interest in medical writing and science communication.

Editors: Chiara Bertipaglia, Tristan Fehr