Is a career in industry right for me?

Susan Reutzel-Edens

Industry. Admittedly, it’s not for everyone, but how truly equipped are you to make a decision about whether or not to pursue a career in industry, one that arguably could change the trajectory of your life? In speaking with students over many years, and not forgetting that at one point I myself was a student, it is clear that the perspective of an industrial scientist about what careers in industry can look like and how to be successful in them would be extremely helpful. Having spent the last 25+ years as a scientist developing drugs for the pharmaceutical industry, I can at least offer some personal views [my disclaimer here] on a few topics that continue to be raised in conversations with students and post docs, all of whom have or are contemplating, “Is a career in industry right for me?”

Students and post docs, for very good reason, are generally laser focused on getting their first real job. What the right career path is, whether it will be in academia or industry, is usually a very personal decision. You inevitably must decide what is important to you. Is it your lifestyle (earning potential, work-life balance, geographic preferences), your need for autonomy (will you be able to do what you love to do?), or advancement opportunities (title, responsibility, influence)? What motivates you and how will you know if industry is a good fit? In terms of earning potential, it is generally true that starting salaries in industry are higher. It is also true that in industry, you will not be under the same intense pressure to secure funding and publish your research, all while juggling teaching and other department activities, as would a tenure-track professor. However, do not expect to work only 40 hours per week in industry either. As an industrial scientist, you will inevitably be asked to work on projects to deliver products, improve process efficiency, reduce timelines, and various other company initiatives. You will be faced with deadlines and your ability to meet them is essential. Your performance on the job will be continually assessed against that of your peers, and in addition to your contributions to the business, you will be judged by your project leadership, external publications/patents, external outreach/influence, and ability to work with others. Given all of the expectations, it would be a mistake to underestimate just how competitive it can be to advance within a company.

What does a career in industry look like? One of the most surprising aspects of industry to me coming out of graduate school was seeing just how diverse the roles filled by PhDs were in the workplace. Should you choose industry, your first job is likely to be a technical position in a company. Some prospective employers will be looking for individuals with very specific technical skill sets that can be applied to solving industry problems on Day 1, while other positions may open up for people with general scientific core competencies who will be asked to do something different and possibly “grow into the role”. Once in the company, you will find many different opportunities for advancement, some staying on the technical track, and others in line management or on the business side of things. You can choose to remain on the technical track, venture into the management or professional tracks, and over the course of your career, switch between them. The good news is that industry needs talented people in all of these roles, and experience will present many new opportunities to grow further and advance.

What about doing research? I often hear from students that “in industry, you are limited in the research you can do to areas of interest to your company.” This is, for obvious reasons, true, although it can be argued that in academia, you are likely limited to what funding agencies (or industry) are willing to pay for as well. Most research in industry lies on the applied side of the research spectrum, but this can be equally rewarding. In fact, it was my summer internship at The Procter & Gamble Company many years ago that drew me to industry and my ability to develop medicines that has kept me there. To all students and post docs, I highly recommend exploring internships or even a[nother] post doc in industry if you are interested in learning or unsure about what being in industry is like.

Building your personal brand. One of my chemistry professors offered me this unforgettable advice before I entered graduate school: “Susan, the purpose of going to graduate school is to get out of graduate school!” He was right, of course. Graduate school would go on to become my singular focus over the next few years, until mission accomplished, I started my first job in industry. However, as the book of my life is still being written, the chapter in which I entered the workforce as an industrial research scientist was certainly not the last chapter. Few people, in fact, will ever work in one role or for just one company over their entire career. So, regardless of whether you land your dream job right away or accept a position “to get your foot in the door”, it is important to recognize that each role you take is but one stepping stone along your larger career path. You should know that even in the best of situations, you are only one organizational change away from being on the outside looking in. So, I often encourage students, as I have my colleagues in industry, to continuously build (remodel, if necessary) their personal brand. This means periodically asking yourself why a company should hire you, and throughout your career, why they should retain you. Strategically building your experience base (and your CV) and continually honing your skills will ensure that you not only give your best self to any company you work for, but also that you remain marketable and prepared for whatever comes next.

Dr. Susan Reutzel-Edens, Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, is a Senior Research Advisor in Small Molecule Design & Development at Eli Lilly and Company.

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