Are Academia and Industry Getting Any Closer?


A long time ago, a huge wall was built between the “ivory tower” of academia and industry. During 25+ years of work in industry sectors like biotechnology, ag research, and pharmaceuticals, I’ve faced this “wall” on many occasions. The nature of the wall–its substance–is a different mindset–indeed, a completely different set of activities–that characterize the work of scientists in industry and academia.

In some cases, people who have moved from the academic world to key positions in industry have failed and gone back to the university. Why? Because they never understood those differences, or there was some other reason why they couldn’t–or wouldn’t–make the necessary adjustments. Other former academics I’ve seen have been wildly successful in industry.

In this month’s column, I will explore this wall between industry and academia, and highlight how some I know have risen above the problem. I’ll ask my contacts about the wall: Is it shrinking? Will that “wall” ever get smaller, or disappear altogether?

My guess is that some of you who are reading this who do not even realize that there is a wall. That’s one of the biggest issues behind this separation between academia and the outside world . . . The ivory tower is so isolated that it is possible to go through your undergraduate years, into a grad program and out the other side without any knowledge being passed along to you about what life is like on the other side. (Another one of my inevitable movie references . . . Ever seen “The Truman Show,” where Jim Carrey is raised inside a dome, thinking that this is the entire world? That’s like some people in a postdoc today.)

One element of this wall is incorrect thinking

Many years ago I was given a recruiting assignment to find a PhD-level molecular biologist with strong technical abilities, but who could also sell. That search had me pulling my hair out, because 20 years ago there were not all that many “genetic engineers” (to use the parlance of the times) who had moved over to the business world.

When I finally found someone and filled that job, I asked my new contact what motivated him to make the shift into industry. “I remember how one professor put it,” Dick Woodward said. “He told me that ‘the purpose of academia is to train scientists for academia, not to train prostitutes for industry’.” That, Dick says, is the PG-rated version. Luckily for him, Dick was able to find other mentors during his training period and he eventually networked his way to the research bench in a small company. (In 1997, Dick and I co-wrote a story about his early career, still archived in Science Careers.)

Stories like Woodward’s point to the #1 element of this wall between industry and academia: It’s a mindset issue, in most cases based on bad or inaccurate information. On the academic side, it’s a distrust of those who express interest in industry. There is a “selling out” element bubbling in the background when discussing industry jobs with advisers; their past always seems littered with failed grad students who are off working in industry because they couldn’t hack it. Or so the story goes.

There is misinformation and mislabeling going on in industry as well. “Not capable of teamwork,” is a fixture of this mindset about academia. “Doing research on soft money doesn’t train you for the deadlines and pressures we face in companies” is another classic.

While both of these have eased up somewhat over the years, they are still present to a significant degree–with an associated effect on the chances of graduate students and postdocs who have an interest in something other than the track they are on. The wall may have shrunk a little over the past decades but it is still very real.

I can’t help wondering why, if only 15+% of grad students and postdocs go on to tenure-track academic careers, do we describe the career choices of the other 80-85% as “alternative”? What does it take to get universities to train for the majority, instead of focusing only on a job category that only a minority will find viable?

The answer is clear as I type the question . . . There are so many different alternatives out there in the 80% that it would be impossible to train for each of them. Still, there are certain core skills that academia could do a better job instilling in their graduates.

It is the job of graduate training to make one a good scientist. Remaking the university into an offshoot of industry, producing graduates exclusively for companies will never be in the cards. The wall in some form should always be there–there ought to be different career options for people with different motivations and goals–but it should be a wall of knowledge and not of ignorance. Those in academia are free to have their own views but students should be accurately informed about the nature of work on the other side of the divide and the skills it will require.

To assist, academia should also provide a way for those interested in industry to acquire those skills.

Regional Workforce Development Efforts

John Balchunas is one of a number of national experts on the topic of workforce development. He leads the workforce-training program at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, a state-funded effort that is a national model in workforce development for the life sciences. I asked him for his views on the subject.

“There are issues with culture on either side of the fence,” said Balchunas, “but the job of a workforce development officer is to build bridges between educators and the needs of employers. We’ve seen success at the community college level, and then we began working with undergraduate institutions. At some point in the future, we’ll work closer with graduate programs in the area.” Regional development areas, such as a state, city or region, employ workforce development staff like John to design programs that produce graduates with the skills to go immediately to work.

A new biotechnology research and training center at NC State resulted from the recent push to get undergraduate programs attuned to the needs of employers. But can something this dramatic happen in the upper echelon of a university? These kinds of facilities, as gorgeous as they are, have a sort of “trade school” look that wouldn’t easily fit a graduate program’s needs.

After sitting in on a few meetings with postdocs and industry attendees, John Balchunas thinks it is possible to bridge these two worlds, and that they are headed in that direction now in North Carolina. But, “It could be a ways off–there is such a wide separation between the two cultures.”

Duane Roth, Executive Director for UCSD Connect, an organization in San Diego that reaches out to the huge industry element around Southern California, is a former CEO of Alliance Pharmaceuticals. While he’s still working on formulating the plans, he sees UCSD Connect playing a major role in the conversion of academic scientists into industrial scientists.

“If academia doesn’t provide this training, then we could make an impact with an intense program of several weeks duration to correct what is primarily a vocabulary problem,” says Mr. Roth. I asked him what he meant by this and was taught a lesson about how important it is for job applicants to be at ease with the lingo of industry.

“Our managers may select five applicants for interviews, and three of them will be from industry. Even if the better scientists are from academia, they consistently come in with blank stares on their face when we start using jargon that is common throughout the biotechnology industry,” said Mr. Roth. “Our managers will choose to hire someone who already knows these terms, as opposed to taking the time for training that brings these academic scientists up to speed.”

It’s pathetic how little interest industry has in doing any kind of training for new employees. This whole academia/industry transfer thing could just go away if companies could spend three months with new hires in an industry indoctrination. Just hire the best minds, and then give them the vocabulary. But this will never happen.

On the other hand, perhaps an organization like UCSD Connect could fill this need–at least in San Diego County.

Climbing Up and Over

As a recruiter, I am always amazed at the number of people who find a way to get over the wall. One of them is my friend Geoff Meacham, a Ph.D.-level Cell Biologist, who began his “alternative career” job search directly after his Ph.D. in 2000. Without a postdoc, Geoff was able to secure a job as an Analyst at JP Morgan, the investment bank and financial services company.

Geoff knew that he wanted to be in an industry career, preferably in a biotech research analysis job for a VC or bank. He says that his grad school training was a huge advantage. “Every day I use the science that I learned during my years in grad school.” And yet, he doesn’t recall one person offering him positive comments about his goals during the process of being educated. “They considered me a total sellout,” Geoff told me.

So, he took a creative approach to job-hunting and networked himself into a job right after his Ph.D. He had no desire to take extra years of training for a postdoc so he put together a website and newsletter for retail stock investors. He assembled a team of grad-student writers to put together technology pieces to help people make sense of the science behind biotech companies. He put his name on the line by daring to make buy recommendations for specific stocks.

While his newsletter and website didn’t make him a fortune, it earned him a hard-to-land job in a hot employer, and 6 years later he’s the executive director of his business. Many members of his grad-school cohort are probably still doing postdocs.

I asked Geoff Meacham what he thinks of the chances that universities will begin to look more favorably on training for alternative careers.

“I went back with a friend and we counted the number of people we know who made it to a tenure track job, and there’s only a handful of them at best. Most everyone is off in some other kind of career. Personally, I don’t think that universities will ever change. I’m using what I went to school for, and that’s what matters to me.”

While academic institutions deserve some blame for failing to train their graduates in certain soft skills, they trained Meacham well and others like him. Because of the glacial speed of change in academia, job-hunters have to do some of the work themselves. That’s not an unreasonable expectation.