Transition and working in industry: a journey of adaptability and role changes

By: Sally Wang

Academia is perhaps well-known for its stability (if you achieve tenure), continuity, and lifelong dedication to one area of expertise. This is evident in how academic success is defined (being “known for something”) and how academic departments are constructed.  However, Dr. Kenneth Maynard shared at a recent seminar co-hosted by Rutgers iJOBS and The Erdos Institute, a successful industry career often hinges on being adaptable to both people and job functions.

Dr. Maynard—currently a Senior Director of Pharmacovigilance (PV) Affiliate Relations and Global Patient Safety and Evaluation at Takeda Pharmaceuticals—transitioned into industry over twenty years ago. From his first job at Aventis Pharmaceuticals (now Sanofi) as a consultant to his current position, he has navigated eight career transitions and counting. Some of these transitions were uncontrollable (e.g., pharma company shutting down research programs) while others were due to mergers (e.g., when Sanofi acquired Aventis). Yet most transitions were driven by seizing opportunities as they came knocking: moving to a different but higher role within the same company. Dr. Maynard’s industry career trajectory sharply contrasts with the rather linear career path in academia, and it makes navigating the career path in industry seem quite convoluted. That is by design because compared to academic pond, industry is the ocean. Within this ocean, individuals who are adaptable and ready to grab onto opportunities are rewarded. According to Dr. Maynard, the opportunities are there and are plentiful. Perhaps we are wrong to dichotomize the PhD career debate into academia versus industry in the first place, because academia is one career path and industry represents a sea of career paths for PhDs.

For Dr. Maynard, his career progression involves recurrent role changes (e.g., principal scientist/project director/portfolio strategist) that carry different job responsibilities and skill requirements. But all of these positions ask for the same essential skills: adaptability and managing a cross-functional team effectively and professionally. In fact, collaborating with and managing people are important skills in any field including academia, but they are often not emphasized enough. As PhDs, we are trained to learn technical skills—be it a new technique or decoding a new regulatory document—but people skills are oftentimes left on the backburner. Why should they be that important when you’re surrounding by like-minded, similarly-trained people in academia? Good luck finding that in industry meeting rooms. So for those aspiring industry scientist and leaders, it is critical that you can work with and lead people of all backgrounds and expertise if you want to be successful.

One important tip from Dr. Maynard is to be strategic and intentional about your career.

In addition to developing and honing people skills, what else should PhDs consider when transitioning into industry? One important tip from Dr. Maynard is to be strategic and intentional about your career. Timing is very important in any transition, be it from academia to industry or within industry, or perhaps even industry back to academia (yes, that is a career path). One of the ageless questions related to timing is “should I do a post-doc?” Well, it depends on individual career goals and plans. If a post-doc can expose you to a new subfield with techniques and tools (e.g., machine learning or deep learning) that will woo industry hiring managers, then perhaps pursuing a short post-doc is on the table. Even the opportunity to write a grant (which seems to be a skillset endemic to academia) can show prospective industry employers that you have vital skills such as strategic thinking, effective communication with stakeholders and budget-planning insights. But on the other hand, if you’re contemplating career trajectories that emphasize on-the-job experiences (e.g., medical writer or user experience researcher), then a PhD has probably more than prepared you to transition right out of graduate school.

The takeaway is: any career transition requires some level of introspection and knowing what and when works best for you. Be prepared to adapt and be flexible throughout this journey. The key is to make career transitions work for you rather than you working for them. Insights from folks who have done it before you are valuable, but it is ultimately your own journey that is set by your personality, skillsets, interests, motivations and the impacts you want to have. Just as knowledge without implementation is useless, career transition without adaptability is impractical.

This article was edited by Senior Editors Helena Mello and Samantha Avina.

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