The Transition from Academia to Industry

31 January, 2020
The Transition from Academia to Industry

Upon completing her PhD in 2004, Dr Sharon Sanderson held three positions in an academic setting. This included two postdocs and a part-time role to enable her to balance her career and family. As her funding approached the end, she considered alternative careers and joined the Bio-Rad Antibodies team in 2017 as a Flow Cytometry Research Associate.

In this blog, Sharon shares her experience of transitioning from academic research to working in an industry setting.

After embarking on a science career in academia following my PhD, I reached a point where job opportunities were becoming limited and so I decided to join the ‘dark side’ and move into industry. Three years on I haven’t looked back.

Six months before the end of my third university contract, I saw Bio-Rad's advertisement for a Flow Cytometry Research Associate. This looked perfect on paper; it sounded interesting, it was lab-based, local, and despite having no industry experience I largely met the job criteria.  However, I was concerned about the common misconception that there would be little freedom in an industry role; something that I have found to not be the case.  I applied for the job and I was successful. I then just had to work my three months’ notice period, which I used to finish a paper that was subsequently published.

In February 2017, I began a new chapter and,13 years after finishing my studies, I finally had a permanent position! The first week was like any new job, although it did strike me how organized everybody was. Within the first hour, I was clutching a folder containing, among other information, a plan of what I would be doing for the next two weeks, involving various inductions and meetings. Very quickly I realized the rumor that industry doesn't encourage you to work over your hours is actually true. Finishing an experiment at 2am was no longer an option, and so my work-life balance is much improved compared to life in academia. You are of course expected to work hard and there is less flexibility for long lunch breaks but this keeps you focused. At the university, if you had time, one hour was perfectly acceptable for lunch, whereas now it’s limited to 30 minutes, but then I can go home earlier.

What Is It Like to Work for Bio-Rad?

At the site where I work, in Kidlington, Oxfordshire, UK, the majority of the lab staff are involved in antibody manufacturing and have to follow very strict SOPs. However, my role is somewhat different with more freedom to plan my work myself. I work in the applications team, which is part of the marketing department, with my new love, my ZE5 Cell Analyzer, a 27-color flow cytometer. Product managers lead the direction of my work, to meet their needs, so  the subject area can be restricted, but this is not really different from academia. The way I plan and perform my experiments is very much a two-way discussion between the relevant product manager and me.

There are plenty of opportunities for me to suggest ideas and topics and I feel my input is truly valued. My years of postdoc experience have definitely proven to be useful, as I not only have lab expertise, but also knowledge about what information would convince me to buy a product.

The lab environment is more regulated than I was used to in academia. There are cleaning schedules and the equipment is regularly serviced. To ensure high standards are met, there are strict guidelines so everything I order requires a chemical number, every buffer I make requires a buffer number - even down to PBS! Planning work now takes a little more time as everything needs to be documented.

The Main Differences between Academia and Industry

Sharon on conference The focus in my academic roles was getting data for the next presentation, paper or grant application. In industry, this is very different, data is shared regularly and in general, the projects have a shorter duration. Your data and results do not belong to you, but to the company so you don't own your work in the same way. However, my data is used in marketing campaigns worldwide and I love this! The benefit of working for marketing is that there’s also the opportunity to do something a bit different, like design and present a webinar, or write a mini-review for the website.

As for publishing, as expected I don’t have any groundbreaking publications or as many collaborations as I used to in academia. There are no more visits to use equipment in other labs, or seminars to attend. However, something I wasn’t expecting was to be able to present posters and attend cytometry conferences, like Cyto in Vancouver in 2019, allowing me to keep up-to-date with the latest trends and technology and interact with other scientists. It’s good to leave the lab sometimes, so I make the most of those occasions when I get them. Last year, I had the opportunity to go to China, to present some of my work and in May, I will be organizing a workshop in Honolulu at the American Society of Immunology meeting.

Nearly three years into the job, I can honestly say that it was a great move and the ‘dark side’ is not actually dark, it’s just different but still very enjoyable. Some parts of my work can get repetitive, such as generating flow images for our catalog, but that’s mixed up with the fun stuff - trying out new things like products or equipment, as well as pushing me outside of my comfort zone.  If you are thinking of moving into industry just take the time to find the right role for what you want; for me it was to still have experimental design input and challenges, and to keep learning.


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