Working as a drug discovery scientist in academia is often thought to be completely different to being a drug discovery scientist in pharma. For many, pharma can offer a dynamic, multi-disciplinary and fast-paced environment, leading them to consider saying farewell to academia and taking the plunge into pharma.
We caught up with ex-academic Dr David Brierley, Team Leader in the Screening Group at GSK, to understand how and why he made the switch from academia to pharma. Having completed his PhD and two post-docs, he felt a career in pharma was better suited to his personal aspirations. He now heads up a team of like-minded drug discovery scientists’ intent on discovering the next blockbuster drug to help treat patients.
Have you ever thought that pharma could be better suited to your way of working and if so, are you interested in learning about how to make the switch? Read on to get an insiders perspective on how pharma differs from academia, and find out what top tips Dr Brierley can offer to help you make the same career leap from academia to pharma too.
Why make the switch from academia to pharma?
As their careers progress, many academics are happy focusing on all-important grant applications and research papers, while others like Dr Brierley find they miss getting their hands dirty. For some, pharma can offer the opportunity to get back to the bench and pursue hands-on research once more.
Dr Brierley enjoyed working in a variety of drug discovery research areas during his career in academia. However, after two postdocs, he knew that the next step for him was likely to involve focusing on one pathway in one disease area, which clashed with his personal career goals. Instead, his ambition was to continue working across different fields and applying his skillset to discovering new therapies for multiple diseases.
“Many people in academia who are working within a narrow field want to apply their research more translationally. Pharma offers opportunities to work within multiple disciplines and technology areas, which was something that excited me and many of my colleagues here at GSK,” says Dr Brierley.
How does pharma differ to academia?
The greatest difference between academia and pharma for Dr Brierley has been the opportunity to work as part of a team. “Academia involves working in your own research area on your own project, which is your own responsibility,” he says. “It’s different in pharma, because in every program there’s a vast range of people working with you, so it offers a very different experience. The fantastic opportunities to work with people from different backgrounds and with diverse skillsets can result in real innovation,” he adds. “Ultimately, pharma offers me a truly dynamic environment, something I didn’t have when working in academia”.
The trade-off however is the limited amount of time you can spend digging deep into the science behind what you’re doing. “Within pharma, there’s considerably less time for exploring new lines of research unless it is clear it will help the program in the longer term,” says Dr Brierley. “Your mindset has to change from a research focus to dealing with constant change, to ultimately ensure your research aligns with business objectives,” he adds.
What are Dr Brierley’s top tips for switching from academia to pharma?
1. Do your research
“Firstly, you need to consider what your strengths, interests and transferable skills are,” says Dr Brierley. “Then take a proactive approach to find companies that are actively involved in the areas you want to focus on.”
2. Maximise your network
If you know someone who works in pharma, talk to them about what it’s like and how it works to help inform your decision. Attending meetings on these topics will also provide numerous opportunities to clarify what your options are. “Events offer a perfect forum for academics seeking to move into pharma, because they can increase their awareness of different companies and sectors they may like to work in,” highlights Dr Brierley. “It can be a real eye-opener to see the variety of roles open to academics in the industrial life sciences field that allow them to apply the skills they obtained during their PhD or post-doc,” he adds.
3. Consider which aspect of industry would suit you best
“I was keen to try big pharma, but there’s a whole range of industrial life science companies you could work for, including biotech’s and CROs as well as large pharma,” says Dr Brierley. Each company will have their own dynamic and way of working.
4. Tailor your CV to match the goals of the company you are interested in
Make sure the transferable skills and techniques that hiring managers are looking for jump out at them when they read your CV. “I don’t see lack of industry experience as a problem when hiring new people; I’m looking for evidence of specific skillsets rather than industrial experience itself,” explains Dr Brierley.
5. Be prepared for a competency based interview
Don’t expect to just talk about your research. Think about how your experiences along the way would be relevant to a role in industry, this is what the interviewers really want to know. Just remember to apply STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Results) to your answers and you won’t go far wrong.
6. Don’t be scared that it might not work out
“The skills, techniques and technologies you learn are all applicable to academia. Yes, you may not publish as much as you might have done in academia, but some group leaders might not see that as a problem,” notes Dr Brierley. “Instead, they are likely to see you’ve used cutting-edge technologies, which you could bring into their lab and enhance their research in the long term.”