Thursday, April 28, 2016

What happens to assistant professors who go into industry?

Professor Carolyn Bertozzi is the editor-in-chief of ACS Central Science, one of ACS's newer journals and the first that is entirely open-access. She has written a number of opening columns, and they're all worth reading and considering (how often do I get hear the internal thoughts of someone who is a heck of a lot closer to a trip to Stockholm than I ever will be?). Here's an interesting aside from her most recent column, which is about the dearth of senior women chemistry faculty: 
With autonomy comes responsibility, of course, and many people will count on you to keep the ship afloat and headed in the right direction. Occasionally women articulate to me that such responsibility looms large in their mind, that their aversion to academia is rooted in a fear of judgment and failure. In response, I share with them what my dad said to me when I once admitted these feelings. First, he reminded me of the first time he handed me the keys to the car, and I peeled out of the driveway without concern for the depth of my qualification. Then the conversation went like this:
Dad: “You got your own lab? Go for it. What do you have to lose?”
Me: “What if I can’t get grants funded?”
Dad: “So what, as long as you still get paid. Try again.”
Me: “What if I don’t get tenure?”
Dad: “So what, it is still a good starter job that builds skills for many other (higher paying) jobs.” 
He was right about that. My friends who didn’t get that coveted promotion jumped into high-level industrial positions they could never have acquired had they started their career in that same company. You see, after six years running a lab in academia, they had project and budget management experience. They had done HR, PR, and built a valuable network of colleagues and collaborators. No age-matched bench chemist in industry could develop that portfolio of skills at the same pace.
It is the last sentence that I would like to examine. Is this actually true? Far be it from me to doubt Professor Bertozzi's superior years of experience to mine own, but I find this to be a tiny bit skepticism-inducing. I suspect that it depends on the definition of "my friends" and "high-level". Also, is it really true that "no age-matched bench chemist in industry could develop that portfolio of skills?" I think there's plenty of argument to be made that industry is just as good at academia at forcing collaboration, and growing project and budget management experience.

(This draws me to another aside, and another CJ-like complaint about the lack of solid data about job cohorts: what happens to untenured assistant professors of chemistry? Where do they go? What do they end up doing? Do they actually go straight to "group leader" or "director" in industry? Rather than relying on the opinions of prominent chemical biologists or random bloggers, wouldn't it be great if we just knew, i.e. had a database somewhere?)

Readers, your thoughts? Is there enough anecdata out there to support this? 

39 comments:

  1. I think it's false. Some will but many others, most others will not. The skills academics learn don't translate well in a lot of chases. Someone at the right school, yeah BUT a chemist as the right company will still do better. Similarly a bench chemist at a smaller company may end up running projects and programs very quickly. It's glittering generality meant to comfort loser in the academic lottery.

    From 45 years in both, the personality types are often so different, the political culture of an academic department is so far from a for-profit, that I haven't seen it very often.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It seems like successful academic scientists can get awfully opionated, and this one has a bully pulpit to say things that may not be well substantiated. Reminds me of Greg Petsko.

    She's probably forming an opinion based on cherry picking her anecdotes. Some ego may be involved: I know many academic scientists get high opinions of themselves to think that the because they won the academic lottery, it must had been because they were smarter than everybody else, and no other reasons (like the name of their post-doctoral advisor) were important. Therefore, what they think must absolutely be right.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Data point of one:
    Assistant prof at an prestigious university was denied tenure and started out in industry as a "principal scientist". Which might be a couple of positions above an entry-level PhD, but not by much. It remains to be seen if they are promoted faster than a "regular" industrial scientist.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I don't know, but it could be - an assistant prof in six years will probably have worked twice the number of hours as the direct-to-industry person in the same span (unless they went to a startup or made their own).

    I could more easily believe this for mid-career academics, since 1) pharma thinks that the grass is always greener somewhere else, and 2) they have a long-term record of generating ideas and managing and getting funding. If an assistant professor isn't successful at being a professor, I'm not sure why pharma would think that they would be more successful for them unless they know that whatever they weren't good at in academia isn't relevant to them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Could be that they were good, but politics didn't work in their favor.

      Delete
    2. Possibly, but I can't guess politics are better in pharma at this point (though maybe if they have friends there, they will work in their favor instead of against them). I imagine that you'd have to look at that if you were hiring them.

      Delete
  5. Considering that academic jobs (aside from the adjunct variety) are extremely difficult to get, I would say that someone who was denied tenure at a big research university probably still has a stronger resume than almost all of the other PhD chemists out there. My recollection is that they usually end up at a lower-level department rather than in industry, say someone gets denied tenure at MIT and goes to Iowa State or something like that.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I read the column yesterday and found it to be interesting. Most of the non-tenured Asst. Profs of whom I know found other jobs in academia, overwhelmingly to positions that were one or more steps lower than where they started. Part of this may be because seeking an industrial job never occurred to them, so good for Bertozzi for pointing out that their skills may indeed be transferrable.

    NMH, with respect to the power of a post-doctoral advisor: those sorts of power players typically hire tons of post-docs. Having just sat in on a faculty search, I can tell you with absolute certainty that you'll need more than a nice name (or two or three) on your CV to land a position at an R1. And woe be to the applicant who goes to such a lab and doesn't have the production to show for it.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I have witnessed four assistant professors who were denied tenure at R1 schools. They each ended up moving to a less prestigious university. In three cases, they moved with an ofter of tenure. I would love to see concrete stats on industry promotions, academic promotions, and 'cross-overs' going both directions.

    ReplyDelete
  8. One thing that was new for me in industry compared to academia: the people you work with. Very different culture. Science and research is not the core of their life. I think HR is very different in industry compared to academia. In academia the motto seems to be sacrifice everything for your work and you will be rewarded in science heaven. In industry people have a very different idea, and they are not as attached to their identity as a scientist as people in academia are. Having said that I think running a lab in Academia is great experience for being a group leader in industry. Not necessarily a director though because you really should know the business if you want to make decisions about the next products.

    ReplyDelete
  9. My data set consists of maybe 10 people or so (there is a lot of movement back and forth for people from my graduate research group, and the company I was at hired a number of academics, and others started there then went into academics). Anyway, from this small set, it doesn't appear that there is a distinct advantage or disadvantage relative to someone who was equally competent but started off in industry and remained there.
    Incidentally, the people I know who have shifted from industry back to academics are also doing fine.

    ReplyDelete
  10. The are soooo many different policies when it comes to hiring PhD-level scientists and I think this is another really broad question that writers try to answer with anecdotes - so I'll give mine! At my company, an assistant professor with 6 years of academic group leadership wouldn't qualify for any position that requires application-specific experience (unless of course their academic research was in that area). This would leave them with entry-level positions, just like someone fresh out of grad school. I think the mentality here is that leading an academic group of grad students would not necessarily translate to leading an industry group of people ranging in age from 25-65.

    That being said, if someone came in with 5-6 years of academic group leadership and then did very well in a scientist position for 4-5 years, I think they would have a better chance of getting a technical manager position than a person with the same 4-5 years tenure at the company right out of grad school or post-doc.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Would they do better than someone with 10-11 years experience? If not, then that six years (10-12 based on working hours) isn't worth as much as it would have been to go to industry directly (there was a cost in going to academia).

      Delete
    2. Yeah good point. The six years was a bit wasteful as far as lifetime income, but think about all the life lessons learned from failing to get tenure :/

      Delete
    3. Well, we are all going to die someday. The 6 years wasn't wasteful if it was interesting.

      Delete
    4. Even if tenure does not come, having a guaranteed job for 6 years in this business (and almost unrivaled intellectual freedom, if one is bold enough to take it) is still nothing to sneeze at.

      Delete
    5. No, experience is probably never wasted. As a career move, though, an experience may not be useful, and so advising people that the experience might be useful for advancing one's career if it won't (or is not likely to) is unhelpful.

      Delete
  11. If academia were such excellent preparation for leadership in industry then you would expect to see industry poaching more faculty. Yeah yeah, there's always the story of This One Guy who jumped to industry to lead a group despite being in the middle of a successful and upward-trending academic career, but if academia were really such great preparation then there would be more than just This One Guy. In fact, deans would be telling rueful stories of the retention offers that they mustered resources for, only to have somebody jump to industry anyway, and when those stories were told other deans would nod their heads because it would be common, not just something that happened with This One Guy.

    ReplyDelete
  12. At my company the perception is that academics don't work well with other people. They were skeptical about hiring me because of my time in academia (post doc positions).

    ReplyDelete
  13. I too have a hard time agreeing with Bertozzi. The value systems of academia and industry are quite different and I don't think it's "axiomatic" that experiences in academia translate well to industry -- the "lone wolf" success that academia encourages is frowned upon in industry, and can be career suicide.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Those people are pains in the Ass for managers and colleagues in industry

      Delete
  14. Well, she's comparing an incoming denied-tenure academic with an "age-matched bench chemist". From that comment I take it to mean the poor slob who simply loves chemistry and wants a technical ladder career focused on experimentation, etc. That's the wrong comparison. There is no shortage of PhD chemists who go into industry and within 5 years have "done HR, PR, and built a valuable network of colleagues and collaborators" and are moving up the almighty management ladder. An aggressive industrial PhD with 5 years experience has also had several years of learning the system and company, learned to conform to the company culture (boy is that a big one!), presented to upper management, lead multidisciplinary teams, and probably just got their MBA as the cherry on top. So no, I don't agree with her.

    ReplyDelete
  15. When I initially read Bertozzi's statement I did see it might make sense regarding an upperly mobile transition as a prof to a jumped senior position in industry because the diverse responsibilities and influence or impacts of contributions probably are stronger than what majority of people get starting in industry. Especially at big companies bench chemists get labeled that is hard to break out of and have limited opportunities. Even at samll comapnies a person can learn more and get broadened experience there will be hurdles to advancement.However after reading a few comments and remembering situations were an academics tried to adapt to or worse change Phrama R&D I guess its an unlikely formula for success. The environments and cultures are widely different and even though high intelligence can be important if it comes with often retained arrogance or lingering attitude of industry as second rate and less ability to work in teams such people may only succeed because the best competition feel slighted and leave to other pastures. In the end the comments smack of continued elitism and nepotism that is strong in science circles we companies will bring someone in from a Big Name pedigree without providing equal considerations for people they may already have who have lesser backgrounds but greater potential if allowed and supported to develop

    ReplyDelete
  16. I don't know about this... of the two people who I've been told about that didn't get tenure at my current place, one became a diving instructor (still not sure I believe that story) and the other is an adjunct at an R1. Personally, I'm not holding out for industry rescuing me if it comes to that. I'm investing money into learning how to cook and finding out more about the regulations behind the food industry. Based on some places I've been to as a postdoc, I'm hoping to open something with the same atmosphere and big patron numbers close to my former university. I think it's mostly about music and decor, but I'm not sure how much money I need to put aside each year to open up a restaurant/club. I'll probably still have to take out a loan unfortunately. Academic salaries are nothing to write home about... (literally, I try not to say anything to my parents when they ask me how much I make).

    ReplyDelete
  17. I was talking to an editor of an ACS journal (where I publish) at a coffee break at some conference about random shit, and he said that he wants to get rid of tenure because it's a stupid system. I said that "no, it's not stupid" and he answered "no no, it's stupid". After one more round of this we dropped this, since I guess we didn't want to qualify the statement. I didn't really want to tell him that if tenure was not an option, then I would probably have gone to work in industry as academic salaries and workload are not worth it without employment security. And I guess he didn't really want to tell me something either.

    I still think I can make it in industry and do a pretty good job after five years of this crap. All this 'skills learning' talk is mostly bullshit. Most of it on dealing with people you either learn sometime in your life or not. Most of it I learned working in factories with African and Middle East immigrants, but I can't really put that in a resume when applying to a research job after being denied tenure. 'Working together in a team' is not something that you take a skills class in. Knowing that you should not talk loudly and interrupt when talking with a Japanese business partner and that detailed forms are important? I've got that covered without an overseas deployment. Still, it all doesn't matter to most companies.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Most job seekers in industry have seen the dreaded "min. 3 to 5 years prior industry experience required" statement somewhere in a job solicitation. If one has the stomach for it, might I suggest that one do a stint in industry prior to accepting a faculty position? It's a nice way to line one's pockets for a short time and establish industry credentials as an insurance policy in the event that one is denied tenure.

    ReplyDelete
  19. It's not unheard of for assistant professors to move directly to a director/VP-level job after being denied tenure, but I'd advise people not to count on it. I moved from an assistant professor position at a well-known R1 university to a lab head position at a large pharma. The industry job was a good one, and I was happy to get it, but it wasn't a higher-level position than I could have expected to get directly from a postdoc. A number of years later, I interviewed someone who had been denied tenure at an R1 university and was working as a bench chemist at a CRO; based on that person's resume, they would have been a strong candidate for a better-paying and more senior industrial position if they had applied for industrial jobs as a postdoc.

    Especially in big pharma, my experience has been that academic PI experience is only viewed as a positive for senior research management. For more junior people, there's a concern (fair or not) among hiring managers that academic scientists will have problems working effectively in project teams, and may be overly concerned with basic science/publications to the detriment of project goals.

    I think the key part of Carolyn Bertozzi's comment is "valuable network of colleagues and collaborators." The better connected a junior faculty member is with industry scientists and senior academics who consult for/work with pharma and biotech, the better shot he or she is likely to have at finding a more senior position in industry. However, factoring out the network issues, my experience has been that the market value of research management experience in academia at the assistant professor level is not very high in the industrial job market.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Professors have large supply of cheap labor. Industry = expensive labor. Academics have piss-poor safety record, industry is much better. And HR...you have to be kidding - how does one reprimand a tenured professor for bad behavior? Has that ever happened? Yelling at grad students is not HR. Finally what about project management? Do professors really deliver what is written in their grants and on time as promised? Profs are very smart people but I don't see how academic experience translates to industry so well that a prof can immediately jump into a high level position.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Well, to get that grant, one has to propose work that is by no means doable by support that the grant will provide...

    ReplyDelete
  22. I've known five assistants who didn't get tenure at our 2nd tier dept. Of those, 3 moved down to a lesser tier university. The other two jumped to federal govt labs. One of them actually did go in at a significantly higher level while the other didn't but moved up rapidly. So I think there is something to the argument, but it is probably more relevant in a jump to government than industry.

    ReplyDelete
  23. As an undergrad chemist planning on going to grad school in just over a year, this all sounds very scary.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It doesn't get better.

      Delete
    2. Don't let negative people get you down. Graduate school is amazing and I wouldn't trade my experience for anything.

      Delete
    3. If you love chemistry and want to eat, sleep, and drink it for 5-7 years, then it is probably a good place to go. Just be aware that it is not magic fairy dust for finding a job, and that is has some serious systematic flaws for grad students (see Derek Lowe's "Graduate School" category). Go in with open eyes, and get information about how it works, and you'll be as well off as you can be.

      Delete
    4. And you can always leave with a Master's.

      Delete
  24. As an industry hiring manager, I agree with most of the posts here and think that the Prof. Bertozzi doesn't really have much data to back up her claims. We have indeed hired former assistant prof.'s before and they either enter at entry level Ph.D. or maybe one level up (same level as someone who has been working in industry 3-5 years at best). We may trust them to solve complex chemistry problems, but would likely never entrust them to manage others until they've proven themselves over a few years. The only advantage that they enter with is a higher level of trust that they can solve tough chemistry problems. I would never assume that they know how to manage people for all the reasons stated in the above comments. For example, most industrial people managers actually know all the internal ins and outs of developing a drug and have a good support network, and more importantly, they have been through some formal management training classes, and/or have been leading a small cross-functional team. To be an industry manager at the director level, you really need a long track record as successful people manager and proven skills at complex project management, hence I could never envision a scenario as described by the Prof. (unless it was a small biotech/startup). It never ceases to amaze me the deep institutional disfunction in academia when it comes to providing a new Prof. with formal managerial skills and safety training...It's just such a stark contrast to industry where it's a long road before you get people management responsibilities and have enough of a track record to prove to upper managers that you posses those "soft" skills (teamwork, empathy, developing people, managing projects...). I wonder if there are any academic institutions that either require or provide actual management and safety training to new Profs?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If industry prefers 'soft' skills, then do you suggest a postdoc before joining industry? Almost all job posting I see tend to suggest a postdoc is necessary.

      Delete
  25. I have more commonly seen someone do a stint in industry and then move into academia than the other way around (although I'm sure it happens). This route seems more common 1) in engineering (or areas that touch engineering, like, say polymer chemistry) or 2) at lower tier R1s and PUIs.

    Generally, when people don't get tenure, they just move a faculty position a tier down in rankings. I have also seen former academics who didn't get tenure become group leaders at national labs.

    ReplyDelete