You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Mantinov/istock/getty images plus

Going from academe to industry is a natural career move for graduate students and postdocs. But how often has someone who transitioned from academe to industry decided to go back to the ivory tower? It’s hard to find much in terms of data, or even blog posts, about such a journey. Well, I made that transition, and I want to share my experience.

I completed my Ph.D. in neurobiology from California Institute of Technology in December 2019 -- right before most of us had heard of the coronavirus. I had an amazing job lined up as a patent analyst at a big law firm in San Francisco. The firm I worked for, and particularly the patent practice group, was an unusual team. Most of the analysts, agents and lawyers had Ph.D. degrees in the sciences, and the attorneys, by definition, have a J.D. on top of that. I received world-class training and resources from patent practitioners and support staff. I worked with diverse clients and gained invaluable experience across areas including, and not limited to, intellectual property, communication, strategy and project management.

When coronavirus cases starting growing to levels that necessitated urgent shelter-in-place orders, the firm was swift to act. Our teams transitioned to fully remote work practically overnight. We were lucky that the shutdown had absolutely zero impact on our ability to complete our assignments. In fact, with labs and biotech companies suddenly halting experiments and other in-person work, those of us who were researchers suddenly found ourselves with more time to write and analyze data. As a result, the patent team received a tsunami of patent inquires. We weren’t just lucky to be working, but we were extremely lucky that our services were in such high demand.

Despite all the exciting work coming my way, however, something was missing for me personally. Every now and then, I found myself checking scientific journals like Neuron and Current Biology for any new publications out there. I was disheartened when I hit paywall after paywall, and I only read journal titles, abstracts and free full texts when available. My Matlab subscription had expired, and my analysis scripts, which I’d used for years, were now obsolete. It hurt.

But I noticed my feelings were not just ego related. I started questioning my career choice. Did my current role complement my strengths? Did it suit my personality? Was I dedicated to this career path? It was exciting to see cutting-edge inventions sent to my desk every day. But I also discovered that I thrive more in settings where I can have hands-on involvement in science. I am a creative thinker at heart. So I gradually began to feel that I had left science a little too prematurely. I still had ideas for experiments that I could run. I still wanted to analyze data.

That realization caught me by surprise. I had committed to and planned to begin this job a full six months before my dissertation defense. I was convinced I would take on the firm’s offer to pursue part-time law school after a year or two of work. The firm kindly gave me freedom to choose my start date and patiently waited for me to defend my thesis. And once I was hired, it invested ample resources and time to train me.

What was I thinking?

Despite my surprise toward my own feelings, I knew that I had to act. I had heard time and time again from academic mentors that going back to academe after joining industry is quite unheard-of, if not impossible. I knew that if I wanted to switch back, I had to do it sooner than later. My thinking was that I hadn’t graduated all that long ago and that returning to academe would be more difficult the longer I waited. So I decided I truly had nothing to lose if I at least tried to apply to postdoc positions right away.

I started seeking postdoc opportunities during the pandemic, which, combined with my nontraditional background, created challenges I wouldn’t have faced if I were doing so while still enrolled in my Ph.D. program. I was not surprised that many labs ignored me, although I did hear back from a few. I met kind and open-minded professors who did not reprimand me on my patent law stint. I also met less open-minded professors who were taken aback and outright shocked that, given my current role, I even considered myself a viable candidate for their lab.

A Rigid Framework and Mind-Set

I should back up and explain that I was certainly academically qualified to be a postdoc. Prior to my stint in patent law, I was a full-fledged academic researcher. I completed a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering from the University of Pittsburgh, where I worked with amazing mentors in neural engineering and published a few papers as an undergraduate. I then moved to Caltech and obtained a neurobiology Ph.D., performing in vivo patch-clamp electrophysiology of fruit fly neurons. I had years of experience under my belt.

Yet the few months of my industry experience seemed to invalidate all of my past experiences to some people. I was asked, “Well, how do I know that you’d enjoy using a microscope?” “You've been doing very different work recently … Are you sure this is for you?” “I’d expect someone to stay several years. How do I know you’ll be committed?”

A postdoc application in life sciences typically consists of:

  1. Emailing a professor;
  2. Having an initial conversation with the principal investigator;
  3. Giving a presentation of your thesis work to the lab/department;
  4. Meeting one on one with members of the lab/department;
  5. Meeting with the principal investigator for further discussion;
  6. Waiting for the principal investigator to offer or decline a position for you (proceed to No. 7 if you receive an offer); and
  7. Repeating steps 4 and 5 as needed until you make your decision.

I was lucky to have been invited to talk to a few labs, all through Zoom. I wondered how the principal investigator would be introduce me. Would they mention my current job or not? I experienced a range of introductions and noticed that when I was introduced as a Ph.D. graduate currently working at a law firm, people tended to doubt my skills as a scientist. During my one-on-one meetings, people focused less on my actual dissertation work and more on why I decided to try industry, questioning my motivation.

In contrast, when professors did not mention my industry experience, people treated me like a scientist. They focused more on my dissertation work and asked interesting questions. They were more eager to discuss scientific ideas with me. It was as if they trusted me and perceived me to have more credibility.

Also, when lab members were not told about my industry experience ahead of time, I always mentioned it during my one-on-one meetings with them. I was fascinated to notice the stark difference in the way people reacted or perceived me when I willingly told them about my background. Lab members who listened to my talk without prior knowledge of my industry experience appeared to have less preconceived biases. They were more likely to fairly evaluate my comments as a colleague and scientist. Once I told those same people about my industry experience, they were more inquisitive and intrigued by my industry background rather than put off and confused.

I saw this particularly with graduate students. I noticed that they were especially interested to learn about my experience and even sought career advice from me. Granted, my sample size was limited to a few labs, but I was amazed how consistent the reactions were based on whether people learned about my industry experience before or after my talk. My takeaway: an introduction is powerful. The introduction given by a person of perceived power can change an audience’s mind-set and instill biases before you even say a word.

Fortunately, after a whirlwind several months of rejections and interviews, ample encouragement and support from my former mentors, I found my way back into academe. I hope that my experience can help shed some light on the perhaps rigid framework and mind-set that still exists in it. Academics need to accept people with diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds and professional experiences. Every person should feel free to follow their own path and seek their own experiences without reprimand from colleagues or future employers. In particular, academe should be more open to people moving fluidly between its ivory tower and the world outside. It would benefit from being more accepting of people with industry experience.

What can we do moving forward? First, those of us in academe need to think carefully about how we introduce people to an audience. Our words have the power to instill biases. We should also encourage graduate students to feel empowered to explore careers in academe and industry. Graduate programs should emphasize the importance of internships and remind students that it’s OK to step away from experiments for a few months. At the end of the day, we all want to work in an open and collegial environment and perform the best science possible. To do so, we need teams of people with a variety of experiences and perspectives.

Next Story

More from Career Advice