What industry can teach academia

When I was considering a job with a pharmaceutical company after my postdoc, many of my academic colleagues and mentors were dubious. “You have to think this through very carefully,” one said. Some worried that my research progress would stall; others warned that my industry experience would be no help—and might even be a drawback—if I ever decided to apply for academic positions. But I had enjoyed collaborating with industry scientists, and I was curious to find out more about how treatments were developed from basic research. So I accepted the job. Now, 3 years later and contrary to my colleagues' predictions, I'm making the switch back to academia—where I think my industry experience will serve me well.

“My experience … opened my eyes to how academia could do things differently.”

Many academics view industry as a backup option, the place where scientists go if they aren't interested in discovering new things or are not cut out for a faculty position. But industry is full of bright, motivated people who are often happier than they would have been at a university. And translating basic research into impactful applications has lots of room for creativity and discovery.

My experience working there also opened my eyes to how academia could do things differently and better. As I embark on a faculty position this month, I plan to take some of those lessons with me—lessons that I hope will make me a happier, more productive academic scientist and a more effective mentor.

VALUE INTERDISCIPLINARY PERSPECTIVES. In academia, I worked almost exclusively with people in my field of immunology. In industry, I was one of only a few biology representatives on drug-discovery teams made up of people with diverse expertise, including chemistry and drug safety. At first, it was challenging to communicate with colleagues who didn't speak the same jargon I did. But over time it became more comfortable, and I came to see the value in working on these teams.

Academics would benefit from doing more to reach across disciplinary boundaries, to see where their knowledge ends and where other people can provide new and different perspectives. I plan to do that by reaching out to researchers in different fields and pursuing interdisciplinary collaborations. I also hope to draw my grad students and postdocs into those projects so that they can see the value in that kind of science for themselves.

MAINTAIN WORK-LIFE BALANCE. When I first started to work in industry, I was surprised to discover that I couldn't expect email responses from colleagues outside of working hours. My co-workers went home and left their work behind, spending evenings and weekends attending to their personal lives. Over time, I came to appreciate the mental space this schedule gave me when I went home—I could be fully engaged with my family, without any nagging feelings of guilt that I wasn't working. It also forced me to be more productive while I was at work, scheduling my time carefully, prioritizing important meetings, and protecting time for my science. As a faculty member, I plan to lead by example, making it clear that work-life balance is important to me.

PRIORITIZE CAREER DEVELOPMENT. From day one in industry, my manager told me to think about which jobs at the company interested me the most. That way, she said, I could work to build up the skills I would need to get there in the future. That sort of support was key to making me feel like a valued employee.

As a trainee in academia, by contrast, I didn't have a single meeting with an adviser that was fully focused on my career. I plan to do things differently. By taking time to talk with my group members about their career paths—and making it clear that I understand that some of them may not stay in academia, or even research—I can help make sure they have a positive training experience, which will benefit them, me, and the lab as a whole.

Por Yumeng Mao

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