Three Categories of Career “Rules” in Industry and Academia


Many of my blog columns here describe the difficulties that some experience when they discover how different life is between the university and industry. I write about these things because I have a great passion for training young scientists and engineers.  I’ve written about how each sector — academia and industry — has its own rulebook, and how new graduates often feel they’ve been thrown into the fire when they make the change to a company employer. The conventions at work in industry are not really taught in college.

Dr. Michael Zigmond (University of Pittsburgh, Department of Neurosciences) runs the highly regarded “Survival Skills and Ethics Training” seminars that were held each year in Aspen, Colorado, for many years. Michael told me a decade ago that he believes there are three categories of rules that we come across in our work lives. While Michael’s experience is at the university, his three categories hold true no matter where you work.

“First off, there are rules that are true and which deserve that distinction. In academia, one example of this category would be the rule that ‘research equals experiments plus publications,” explained Dr. Zigmond to his class in Aspen. “Another type of rule is one which is true, but which shouldn’t be. Some examples are ‘Always have preliminary data for proposals,’ or ‘Always do hypothesis-driven research.’ Lastly, some rules are not true but should be. ‘Good teaching is essential to promotion’ is an example that I point to from the world of academia, where countless students have wondered how some people have moved up the ranks.”

Sometimes a rule from the university will clash with one from industry. Consider Michael’s example of Research=Experiments+Publications. Would you land a job at top-tier biotech company if you went to an interview espousing this as a guiding rule for your career? No way!

In industry it looks like this: Research=Experiments+Products.

The single most important evidence of productive research in industry is the development of applications that can return shareholder value. Most of the time, this means products. While at some point in a well-run research organization you will be able to publish your work, it is only after the company has protected their intellectual property.

Through my blog posts, I point out how a rule really works, or make you aware of a rule that you may not have been familiar with at all from the world of industry. That’s my job here. In other cases, my columns advise you on how to work around the rules entirely.

In this month’s post, I’ve provided you with some examples of rules from the biotechnology industry, indexed into Dr. Zigmond’s three categories. It is my belief that by looking closely at all three categories of rules, you’ll come away with a better understanding of how company politics impacts life in a company, and why–on occasion–it is better to circumvent the rules than to follow what has always been done in the past.

Rules That Are True and Which Should Be

  • “Good communication skills are essential for success in any job.”

Read the job ads and good communication skills are mentioned in more than half of them. Insiders know this is more than just a standard inclusion from HR. A person who can communicate their strengths and relate them to a company’s needs gets more job offers; the applicant with a well-written resume and cover letter gets her foot in the door more often. Employers can’t help but be impressed with good communicators, because anyone who runs a job ad knows these people are actually few and far between. If someone asked me what the #1 skill is that impacts hiring decisions, it would be this one.

  • “Networking is a great way to find a job.”

Ads, job fairs, the Internet, headhunters, networking . . . Don’t miss any of these when you go looking for a new position, but stay particularly close to your networking contacts. This process, referred to many times over in my columns, is a life skill and not just a job search tool. Those who learn it early and practice it often are the successful ones in science. Years from now, you’ll be getting career opportunities because of contacts you make today.

  • “Industry job success requires teamwork and interdependence.”

Independence rules in academia. A lab of your own, trainees assisting you, your own grants . . . All of this, quite essential to success in academia, is not what industry employers want or need. The biologists and chemists who discover a new drug are working closely with the engineers who scale it up and turn it into a product – both of those groups rely on teams of regulatory and clinical professionals to make it happen from there. This term “teamwork” is more than an H/R buzzword in industry–it’s a way of life.

Rules That Are True and Which Should Not Be

  • “It takes a 60-hour work week to be a success in science.”

Is there any job in the biotech industry where successful people still go to work in a normal 40-hour week? I don’t think so. Normal was replaced a long time ago with early morning meetings, evening work, and Saturdays in the office or lab. Scientists always seem to win in the hours-per-week race, no doubt due to their passion for their work. Success (on either the academic or industry track) starts at 50 hours and often averages 60-65 hours a week. Wouldn’t it be nice for your family and outside interests if this rule were not true?

  • “It is really hard to find a job once you are over age 45.”

Let’s hope all of your job searches are while you are young. When you pass age 45 a job search can become very difficult. While it’s rare that a situation ever screams “age discrimination,” there is a subtle stagnancy that occurs in the process. Employers note the years of experience you bring to the table and use words like “over-qualified.” It’s wise to get on the career track you are looking for before then, so that your career has serious momentum when you get into this age-range and face possible unexpected job searches.

  • “You generally have to relocate to the coasts in order to find a biotech job.”

It would be great if there were biotechnology clusters such as San Diego, San Francisco or Boston in all regions. Unfortunately, despite the hoopla in states where biotechnology is now the major economic development dream for the future, it is unlikely that more than ten or twelve major biotechnology clusters will ever be a reality in the USA. This means that a great majority of the biotech jobs of the future will be generated in centers located on the coasts. Tough reality for a person not wanting to leave the Midwest.

Rules That Are Not True but Which Should Be

  • “Evidence of strong leadership skills is required for promotion.”

Strong leadership skills are always the first thing you’d think of when someone moves up the ladder into a management job. Unfortunately, regardless of the type of company, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes it is the person with the most skills in company politics, or someone who “knows someone” who gets that great opportunity. This is something that everyone always talks about, but which is actually given too little concern.

  • “Doing good science will always sell itself.”

Many young scientists were taught in academia not to worry about a job; to focus instead on doing good science and there would later be plenty of opportunities. Unfortunately, many job seekers have found this isn’t the case. In industry, you must be able to communicate your strengths to others. This can be really difficult for some! You need to stand up for who you are and what you are good at – a type of self-promotion that is very difficult for scientists to get their arms around. It is especially difficult for those from parts of Asia or South Asia, where personal selling of this kind runs counter to culture.

  • “Bright scientists have equally excellent people skills.”

People skills and scientific skills don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Unfortunately, there is a lack of interpersonal skills training in academia, which leaves many technical people expecting that all decisions about their future will be made based upon their scientific credentials. (We’ve all seen the first-rate scientist who did such a great job with her work that she got a promotion, never mind the fact that no one could stand working with her).

Different Rulebooks for Different Environments

At a recent AAAS seminar in San Francisco, our invited speaker panel included two of our Science Careers Career Discussion Forum advisers as well as two senior executives from the local biotech industry. The goal that night was to discuss what lessons had been learned along the way, the mistakes had been made, and what our speakers might want to pass along to those behind them on the career path.

The common thread that night through the panel? It was the different “rulebook” in industry . . . each speaker, very successful in their own field, actually felt that there was a time when they were poised between making that transition and falling through the cracks. It was only by learning all three types of rules that these well-known speakers smoothed their evolution from academic lab bench to industry job.