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Beyond academia: how to select your first scientific role in industry

Volvo excavator machine on a construction site

Credit: Getty

Julie Gould hears how engineers at Swedish multinational Volvo collaborate with academic colleagues.

Start-ups can be fun; medium-sized companies suit fast learners; multinationals are well resourced, but their internal processes can be hard to navigate.

Industry insiders share their experiences of leaving academia after deciding which type of company best suited their skills, temperament and career goals. They include Bill Haynes, the site head and vice president of Novo Nordisk Research Center, Oxford, UK, and entrepreneur and technology-transfer professional Nessa Carey.

Finally, Anna Sannö, research strategy manager at Volvo Construction Equipment, based in Gothenburg, Sweden, compares problem solving across industry and academia, looking at time management, financial and ethical considerations, and preferred outcomes.

This six-part Working Scientist podcast series looks at porosity, the movement of people within academia and beyond.



Julie Gould hears how engineers at Swedish multinational Volvo collaborate with academic colleagues.

Julie Gould: 00:09

Hello, I'm Julie Gould. And this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Welcome to the series Beyond Academia, where we explore the movement of people between academia and other sectors.

We've heard it in this series, and in previous ones, and probably will again in future ones on this podcast, too. There are cultural differences between working in industry and working in academia.

Given that most of the audience for this podcast is based in academia, I think it's worth taking a little bit of time to talk about what it's actually like in industry, what industry is, and what some of those differences are between the two sectors.

What I see and hear a lot from young academics who are considering moving through the barrier into industry, is that they don't know where to start looking for this information. Nessa Carey, whose career has straddled academia and industry, including a senior role at Pfizer, has seen this too,

Nessa Carey: 01:13

They don't know who to go and talk to. They don't know how they would start forming relationships with people in non academic environments.

And that means they end up with not very clear ideas of what sort of jobs are available, what kind of career paths are available. And it's overcoming that first hurdle.

If you're a leading professor and you phone up a major company in your space and say, “I'm interested in talking to someone,” chances are somebody will get back to you.

If you're a PhD student nearing the end of your PhD, you're not going to have the confidence to do that.

And you're also not going to know who to pick the phone up to because you're not going to find a vice president of a major multinational.

And so, I think, being able to find those initial first links are really, really important. And very important in porosity. And in this movement,

Julie Gould: 02:15

If you're planning to explore a career outside of academia, then there are a few things to consider from a cultural perspective. A career (quote, unquote) outside academia covers a lot of different types of jobs and working environments. And even the term industry isn't as simple as it sounds, says Nessa.

Nessa Carey: 02:24

Industry is not one thing. The culture in a startup is completely different from a culture in a multinational. And both of those are different from the culture in a midsize company. And then those are also driven by other things like the business models. Is it a revenue generating company? Or is it a company that's planning for a big exit financially. And understanding that there is such a difference there can be really complex.

Julie Gould: 02:54

Throughout her career, Nessa has worked in startups, medium sized companies, and in big multinational companies. So she's seen it all. And she says that they all have their advantages and disadvantages.

Nessa Carey: 03:06

A startup is great fun, because you have so much autonomy. I was one of a team of three. And you're just kind of trying to work out what the company is, etc. And that is really good fun. But you can get a bit carried away with your own hype if you're not careful.

Being in a mid-sized company, that was a great entry point into industry for me. So the first company I joined at the time had about 200 employees and I came in at quite a high level.

And that was great, because I could see the whole operation. I could learn really, really fast about how the different bits of the company fitted together. Because it did go from basic research all the way up to something in late stage clinical trials.

Being at a multinational, one of the things that's fantastic about it is the level of resourcing and the scale at which multinationals operate.

The thing that's really difficult about joining a multinational is that it has enormous numbers of processes, and enormous numbers of committees and ways in which things have to happen that can be very difficult to get a grip on, if you're a newcomer.

So trying to navigate your way through processes and through quite opaque power structures… because every organization has power structures, some of which are explicit, and the organagrams and so on, and some of which are not.

And trying to negotiate your way through those is much more challenging in a really big company, because you don't know who are really the people who can make things happen or stop things from happening.

Julie Gould: 04:37

By experiencing these different working environments, Nessa learned a lot about how industry operates. But also about how she operates, which is just as important.

So you may decide that you'd like to work in industry, but there's more to think about than just academia versus industry.

Nessa Carey: 04:53

What kind of industry, what scale? What is it that you enjoy about your work? How much risk can you tolerate, as well, how much uncertainty? Because that's one of the other things that people need to realize is that industry is not a job for life.

In certain sectors, it's massively unstable. So it doesn't necessarily solve your problem of worrying about being on short term contracts. It's just they're not usually called short term contracts in industry. It's just they turn into short term contracts because the small company runs out of money

Julie Gould: 05:23

When it comes to finding the right position for you. It's also worth looking at the bigger picture, of how the big companies, little companies and all of those in between operate together, says Bill Haynes, the site head and vice president of Novo Nordisk Research Center, Oxford.

This industrial research center is situated on the University of Oxford campus in the UK, which has its benefits with respect to the movement of people across the barrier between the sectors, says Bill. And Bill works in the field of drug production. So what he's sharing is specific to that industry,

Bill Haynes: 05:57

Big Pharma is willing to hire people from academia and train them up, give them experience in how the pharma industry works. And then often they move from big pharma to small biotechs once they've got that experience. So to some degree, although it's not deliberate, Big Pharma acts as a bit of a talent incubator for for smaller biotechs.

Julie Gould: 06:27

Bill believes this kind of movement of people from Big Pharma to smaller companies is an advantage in some of these working ecosystems. Like for example, in Boston in the US, or Oxford, or Cambridge in the UK.

Bill Haynes: 06:39

What it means is that there's a pool of people who have experience in Big Pharma, who are now working in the biotechs, who academics can partner with. So that the University of Oxford professor of chemistry, or someone in physics or engineering, actually has access to people who, who've made that transition, who know how to take a project forward, and make it commercially attractive and get funding for it.

Julie Gould: 07:08

Whatever size company you choose to aim for, there are some other things to consider. Many academics who move across the porous barrier to industry find their way into a research position there. But here too the working styles, goals and values are very different. And understanding them is important to making a success of your job. Anna Sannö works as the research strategy manager at Volvo construction equipment in Sweden.

Anna Sannö 07:35

What I do in my daily work is actually to coordinate different research initiatives between the company and the different universities that we have partnership or relations to. So I'm a little bit in between, you know, boundary/spanner between the academia and industry,

Julie Gould: 07:52

Anna has the luxury of working with both groups, which means that she has an insight into how they operate. It's very important for her to understand the different working cultures, she says, because if she doesn't, then the partnerships and collaborations they create will not be as successful as they have the potential to be. In April 2019, Anna and her colleagues published a paper in Technology Innovation Management Review, titled Increasing the impact of industry academia, collaboration through co-production.

Anna Sannö 08:22

So what we did was to gather for many years in different workshops, and discuss how is we perceiving the world different between what we learned from industry and what we learned from academia.

Julie Gould: 08:37

There were three major outcomes to the work.

Anna Sannö 08:40

And the first of them was when we start to work on a research project, how do we formulate a problem?

Julie Gould 08:48

From an industrial perspective, you strive to solve a problem that is explicit. But from an academic perspective, you're more encouraged to find the gap in the research based on previous knowledge.

Anna Sannö 08:59

It's not directly solving something, but understanding and knowing why something is lacking. And then we saw the second category with a methodology.

Julie Gould 09:10

In industry the focus is on using best practice, based on organizational experience.

For academia, the methodology is about describing how the researcher arrived at a result. It allows for critical review and understanding of ethics. In academia, the methodology is always written up and reflected upon, which isn't standard in industry. The final finding was about the expected results. The results reached in a project may be the same across the two sectors, but each sector has a different way of presenting and utilizing them.

Anna Sannö 09:42

So we are expecting more demonstration, tangible output, that can be easily understood or implemented in some way. But when you look from the academic perspective, you are supposed to contribute to the educational system in one way. Or publishing. Or training students,

Julie Gould: 10:03

Those were the operational findings. But there were five more subtle ones, too with regards to counterproductive forces. One of them was on time management. In industry, the aim is to get things done efficiently, but quickly. There's often pressure from customers to make sure that the work gets done. In academia, time to publication can take longer, and research projects aren't always time-limited.

And learning is a nonlinear process that requires time. But the one that stood out the most for me was on the driving forces and rewards, or the motivation for participants.

Anna Sannö 10:41

So you're kind of so used to the system and the driving forces that you have, in each organization, that you don't reflect that this, actually this partner that I'm supposed to work with, expects something else from me.

Julie Gould: 10:54

In industry, there's a financial importance to a project. And often the more important projects are the ones with the bigger financial importance.

In academia, I've often heard that many do science research, because they love it. They love identifying a problem, or a gap in the knowledge. But the reward system is driven by getting your publication in a high ranking journal, which feeds into getting funding for future research.

And this “publish or perish” culture is very strong.

Now we'll make sure there's a link to the paper online so everyone can see the results, because I found that looking at the differences between academic and industry perspective, in a tabular form, as Anna and her colleagues put in the paper, is incredibly….I want to say satisfying….but also eye opening. Because it really does show the stark contrast between how the two sectors operate.

In episode two of this series, we heard from Nessa Carey that in order for a collaboration between the sectors to be successful, it requires that expectations are to be outlined before the project begins. And this makes sure that everyone knows the aims of the project, what's going on, who's required to do what? And what will happen at the end,

Anna Sannö 12:06

The scientific community is promoting the paper writing, the journals and the conference papers, etc. While someone from the industry is rather relating to, I mean, “How can we demonstrate this?” Or “Can we make a video out of this?” Or “How can we create learning in our organization based from, from what the researchers have found.”

Julie Gould: 12:28

When Volvo works on a collaboration with academic researchers, they make sure that they can set up workshops at the beginning of the process, to align the academics with the way industrial engineers work. The workshops are….

Anna Sannö 12:41

….for them to present what they what they're aiming for, and what the problems that they have found in the research gap, so to say in the scientific literature. But then we also asked them to reflect on both will the actual outcome be, And doing this as a workshop together with our industrial engineers.

Julie Gould: 13:02

Having a good understanding of the different working environments and cultures is beneficial, as it'll enable you to communicate your work to all participants. It'll also mean that finding a job in industry won't be such a shock to the system when you've just left academia for the first time.

But there are some people who start off in academia, move through that porous barrier towards industry, and then actually reverse their course and come back to academia.

And in the next episode, we'll hear from those people.

And we'll hear that it's incredibly beneficial to understand how both sectors operate, and often it's a unique selling point that will help land you a role in academia.

Thanks for listening. I'm Judy Gould.


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