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Transitioning between academia and industry in the life science sector
Duke-NUS Medical School researchers say the key to transitioning successfully between academia and industry is to highlight skills in teamwork and meeting deadlines.
by Lim Guan Yu

One of the most significant decisions scientists face after getting their PhD, also known as a doctorate, is choosing to pursue their careers in academia or industry. While there are a number of pathways available to science PhD students in academia, industry, as well as commerce or even in a not-for-profit organisation, many of them lack a clear vision of their future.

A 2017 study from Nature, surveyed more than 5,700 science doctoral students in Asia, Europe and North America. The survey responses suggested that many PhD students lacked a clear vision of their future. Nearly 75 per cent of respondents said that they would like a job in academia as an option after they graduate, whereas 55 per cent said that they would like to work in industry. That might partly be down to indecision as nearly half of respondents indicated that they were likely or very likely to pursue a career in either sector.

The PhD survey also revealed that, despite many problems with doctoral programmes, PhD students are as committed as ever to pursuing research careers. The strong interest in academia echoes findings from the 2015 survey in which 78 per cent of respondents said that they were likely or very likely to pursue a career in academia despite a lack of job opportunities.

While academia is still a popular and easy option for some, it can be challenging for others. And if you have started off in academia, and planned on moving to the industry mid-career or vice versa, it will be a different challenge.

We interviewed two Duke-NUS Medical School (Singapore) researchers and share some insights to help you make the transition between academia and industry successfully.

Career opportunities with a science PhD

There are a number of pathways available to science PhD researchers in the life science industry, such as research and development, sales, pharmacovigilance, medical affairs, recruitment, and even working in start-ups.

Professor Patrick Casey, the senior vice dean of research at the Duke-NUS Medical School (Singapore) says he has trained 20 PhD students and 25 postdoctoral fellows over the years, and they have pursued careers as faculty in major research universities and liberal arts colleges, researchers in major pharmaceutical companies, founders of successful biotech companies, medical writers, clinical research coordinators, and one even became a program director at the National Institutes of Health. He mentioned that some have also gone into regulatory affairs and patent law.

For those thinking of transitioning to industry, we asked Professor Casey the difference between working in a small and large company. “In a start-up, one needs to be prepared to work long hours and be very flexible in terms of tackling problems and dealing with often-changing expectations. At more mature biotech and pharmaceutical companies, the job will be better defined and the expectations clearer”.

A solid training in biomedical sciences will prepare one for a wide variety of careers. Professor Casey says what matter most is the individual learns how to approach problems in a systematic and focused fashion, and complete the tasks at hand.


When applying for positions, whether in academia or industry, employers look out for specific skills set so it is important to highlight that you have taken on complex problems, and carried the work through to completion. Every employer is familiar with the phenotype of a very bright person who just cannot seem to finish anything they start, and you want to provide confidence that you are not in that category.

Professor Casey suggests specific skills to emphasise on your CV when applying for certain positions. If the job is lab/bench-oriented, highlight the range of techniques you have used in training. If the job is administrative/editorial/regulatory, highlight your writing and communication skills.

For Professor Subhash Vasudevan from the emerging infectious diseases program at Duke-NUS Medical School (Singapore), he says employers look for proven teamwork experience as it requires multiple expertise and teamwork to achieve high quality supporting data for scientific research.

Trending: Academia to industry

By the nature of the training, most researchers start in academia after completing at least one postdoctoral stint that most often occurs in an academic institution. Researchers beginning an independent career as an assistant professor in academia tend to stay in academia, but about one-third of them move out at some point in their career.

They often move to the biotechnology or pharmaceutical sector, but some have pursued careers in government agencies or large philanthropic entities such as Gates Foundation, Wellcome Trust, American Cancer Society, etc. in research-portfolio management roles.

Starting an independent career in biopharma and then moving to academia is however much more rare, about 1 in 50 to 100 according to Professor Casey. But some do so successfully. He spots a trend, “In Singapore, most MSc/PhD/MBBS-trained individual move straight into a government non-research (e.g. admin) role as soon as they complete their training. This is unlike the trend seen in the US, where most individuals would first complete a stint running a research lab/seeing patients, before moving into the industry”.

Aspiring: Industry to academia

For aspiring industry researchers switching across to academia, a team of people with diverse expertise is already in place and they work together to achieve the goals of the project. On the other hand, in academia, they will first need to form a good team with a wide range of expertise to drive the projects.

Additionally, in industry, projects are funded by one source, which is not the case in academia. Principal investigators at universities drive their scientific projects. To sustain in academia, researchers have to constantly push their limits and acquire highly competitive grants from funding agencies to conduct their research, which makes it more challenging.

The key to a successful career in translational research within academia is to be an outstanding team player in a good team with diverse expertise.

For Professor Vasudevan who has worked at Novartis for five years as the unit head of dengue research, he says that his transition to academia was relatively easy. His experience at Novartis exposed him to building project teams and used it to his advantage when building his team at Duke-NUS.

When to make the transition?

Would it be easier for researchers to make the switch early or later in their careers?

Professor Casey says it is easier for senior researchers to transition and secure an opportunity by the sheer fact that they have more experience and hence can likely position themselves for many opportunities.

That said, it might be easier for junior researchers to actually make a switch, as they are less likely to have specific work habits so embedded that changing them is not easy.

There are several differences between working in industry and academia. It is critical to consider your skills, qualifications, priorities, personality and career goals when deciding your career path.

But it is also important to note that the industry and academia are increasingly working together to reap better benefits. In areas like the study of disease prevention and treatment, pharmaceutical companies and academia are working together in drug development to discover new drugs and produce these viable drugs to bring to market, with a final endpoint of a treatment reaching the general population.

Whether you choose to work in academia or industry, stay true to yourself. Consider what you are most passionate about, and you will find success in whichever path you choose.

Woolston, C. (2017). Graduate survey: A love–hurt relationship. Nature 550, 549–552. https://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v550/n7677/full/nj7677-549a.html

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