"I feel bad that scientists in industry are often regarded as not as good as those in academia. I have not found that to be true," says Jane Brokaw, who spent 4 1/2 years as a postdoc at NCI and NIAID before joining U.S. Surgical Corp. in North Haven, Conn., last January as a staff scientist working on the biology of wound-healing.
Brokaw says she had several reasons for not even looking at academic positions during her job hunt, including the grim funding prospects for extramural grants and her preference for team-oriented bench research. And Brokaw is far from alone. In fact, her adviser from her graduate years at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., recently decided to leave academia to go into industry.
Although she's still "on the upside of the learning curve," Brokaw says her experience in industry has been going well so far. "One thing that's really different is the sense of isolation you feel at times. We are a small group, so it's been a bit of an adjustment from NIH, where you are used to having a lot of different types of researchers around and where you can find an expert on almost any topic you're interested in," she says. U.S. Surgical's strong emphasis on securing patents has also forced Brokaw to be more cautious than she was at NIH about publishing her findings and discussing her research with outside colleagues.
Josephine Cox, a British researcher who was a visiting fellow for five years in NIAID's Laboratory of Viral Diseases, says she became a senior staff scientist at SRA Technologies in Rockville, Md., two years ago after the small firm, which conducts clinical trials of experimental therapies for government and industry, agreed to support her work visa. Although she had also been hunting for academic positions, Cox says she feels fortunate that fate steered her to industry rather than academia. "I'm really glad to be here. One doesn't have the burdens of teaching, of supervising graduate students, and of having to write grants in a very, very competitive environment," says the immunologist, who spends about half her time on supervisory duties and half on bench work and other aspects of research and development.
Cox says one of the most pleasant surprises of corporate life-besides monetary bonuses for outstanding performance-has been the chance to flex her managerial muscle and to discover that "I'm good at it!" She suggests that to better equip Ph.D.s for careers in industry, NIH might consider giving senior postdocs some lab-management responsibilities and also sponsoring seminars or courses on good manufacturing practices (GMP) similar to those already offered on grant writing (see Grant-Writing Workshop).
For Cox, an unsettling difference between academia and industry is the lack of a clear career path for scientists in industry. ìI really question where I will go from here. There's no obvious next step. In academia, you know where to go-from assistant professor to professor to department chairman," she says. Another drawback of being a Ph.D. in industry, according to Cox, is that there are often not as many opportunities to publish, especially as first author.
Although salaries may be substantially higher in industry than academia, Brokaw points out that she and other industrial scientists do not necessarily have easier schedules than their academic counterparts. "For me, it's not a 9-to-5 job. I might not come in as much on weekends as I used to [at NIH], but that doesn't mean I'm working any less. If anything, I'm working harder," she says.
A prominent concern for many scientists considering positions in industry is job security. Tales of companies suddenly shuffling their research portfolios, being bought by competitors, or going out of business strike fear in the hearts of scientists who, over the course of a decade or more of pre- and postdoctoral training, have been taught to aspire to the permanence of a tenured position. But Brokaw observes, "Everything is uncertain, even academia. If you lose your [grant] funding, you may not have your lab for long."