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Beyond Academia: Is A Career In Industrial Research Right For You?

May 14, 2010

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By Alisa Kim

The scarcity of tenure-track positions in North America, and an increasingly competitive (even ruthless, some would say) research funding climate have many graduate students considering careers outside the ivory tower. Dr. Jason Szeto, who earned his PhD in microbiology and immunology from the University of Ottawa, has made the leap from academe to the private sector. After completing postdoctoral work at the Hospital for Sick Children, Szeto accepted a position as a scientist at sanofi pasteur Canada to do preclinical vaccine research. While you may have been able to rub shoulders with him on S wing during the last two years, Szeto, along with the rest of his sanofi colleagues stationed at Sunnybrook, has since moved to the company’s Canadian headquarters on Steeles Avenue West. Here, he shares what led him to this path, and the pros and cons of working in industry.

What do you do at sanofi pasteur and how do you like your work?

As a research scientist I design assays to test the efficacy of new vaccine candidates. This tells us more about how our new vaccines work, for example what type of immune responses from what type of immune cells are turned on.

So far it’s been very good. Before, I had the impression that going into industry was going to the “dark side”—that you’d no longer answer academic questions. But I’m still doing cutting-edge, basic research trying to answer fundamental questions. Of course you can’t stray too far because there’s a budget and a mandate dictated by senior management, but I’ve been fortunate and given freedom to engage in some exploratory projects. I’ve been able to do fundamental studies as opposed to straight testing of product.

What drew you to a career in industry? When did you realize that you didn’t want to pursue a career in academia?

As I was wrapping up my postdoc, I had three things in consideration: industry, academia and government. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to get into, but I wasn’t set on one particular route. I love academia, and I applied for positions at some universities in this area, but it can be “publish or perish” in the academic world, so that was always in my mind. I was open. That’s advice I’d give to people: consider the options out there and network.

What do you wish you had known when you were a student contemplating your career options?

Some advice before grad school: if you really love science, then do a PhD; but if you want to work in science, sometimes having a PhD can make it a little more difficult to find positions because there aren’t that many out there to accommodate this level of education. These positions tend to be more senior, or managerial and are more rare. I think anyone with a doctoral degree, or working to obtain one, can understand that. If, however, you like science and want to work in a scientific field, often a master’s degree will be sufficient to get your foot inside industry or government within a variety of interesting occupations.

What are some of the advantages of working in industry?

The funding can be a little more assured. This isn’t always the case, but you’re not the one writing the grants, for example. Another advantage is the pay. It tends to be slightly higher at entry-level for a technologist or a scientist versus a junior PI [principal investigator] or a technologist in academia. Also, industry can be slightly more “nine-to-five,” but this is not a set rule, of course. You have to keep in mind that there are competitors who may be working on the same vaccines and drugs as you, so there’s still a balance of intense work and more regular hours depending on project demands.

Is there anything else you think students should know about working in industry?

Industry is constantly changing. What students should realize is that projects can change, and it’s not necessarily based directly on the results or the findings. The mandate of upper management can dictate which projects survive, and which are set aside or reprioritized. You may be dedicated to a certain project and have invested a lot of effort in it, but if there’s a change in direction in the company, or a change in a vaccine target, you may find that your role in a project is diminished or altered. It may be a little shocking to someone who has invested so much in researching a particular pathogen or immune pathway when a project is suddenly cut. Your role may quickly change and you have to adapt. In industry it pays to be flexible.