When I interviewed for Ph.D. programs in the spring of 2020, instead of glossing over my industry experience, I proudly highlighted it. A couple of decades ago, my interviewers might have seen this as a sign that I wasn’t fit for Academia; instead, they were only impressed in the diversity of experience and skills that I had gained in Biotech.
It also used to be that Academia and Biotech served different purposes; the former produced research and the latter used that research to make products. Nowadays, a lot of incredible basic research is being done at biotech companies, with publications and datasets pouring out into the public knowledgebase.
Thus, more and more new scientists are asking themselves whether they want to continue upward through the ivory tower or try an industry job. Unfortunately, there still aren’t a lot of recourses available to college and Ph.D. graduates to help them figure out whether Biotech would be a good fit for them. Some say a Ph.D. is necessary, others say a Ph.D. is not required.
I did a lot of academic research during my undergrad and my work was entirely basic research. After graduating, I wanted to do work that would have more of an impact on patients, and I also wanted to try out industry research to see what it was like; so I took a job at a drug discovery Biotech. Over the past year, I’ve noticed a lot of ways in which my industry research experience differed from what I saw when I was in a university.
Naturally, each lab and company are going to have a unique culture. But there are structural differences between how you do research in an academic vs. an industry lab. In this article, I’m going to detail three such differences relating to 1) Recourses and money; 2) Collaboration; and 3) Research goals.
Recourses and money
There is a lot of money available in Biotech and companies are willing to spend what they have to if their science calls for it. It is true, that because a Biotech researcher acquires all of their reagents from commercial vendors, some things cost a lot of money that could have been acquired freely at a university by sharing recourses between labs. However, that loss is greatly outweighed by the abundance of services available through commercial vendors that a researcher can afford with a Biotech’s deeper pockets.
Access to such services can make a big difference in research. If you needed to run a new type of assay at a university, often you’d have to learn how to run it yourself. Depending on your level of expertise and the instruments available at your institution, this could take a huge amount of time. However at a Biotech, with the available funding, you could commission the assay and have it run by experts with state-of-the-art technology, saving a lot of time. Having more recourses gives you the space to focus on your science and allows you to move your project forward at a much faster pace.
There were some recourses that I missed when I left academia. As a computational biologist, some of my work depended on utilizing university-wide computing clusters. This infrastructure was maintained by a whole team of engineers and I was able to focus on running my scripts.
In general, there is a lot of support infrastructure freely available at universities (eg. sequencing cores, immunology cores) that individual Biotechs need to set up for themselves or hire consultants for. However, as I said above, if something is important, a Biotech can and will set aside funds for it. As a researcher, this opens up your possibilities to do work at a scale that may have not been possible before.
One of the things that I enjoyed most about working at a Biotech, was the immense diversity of scientists that I got to collaborate with. During my undergraduate research, I felt quite siloed into my own project and only really interacted with my mentor. My experience was probably an outlier example of academic work: most academic researchers collaborate with many scientists within their lab, outside their lab, and even outside their institution. Often these academic collaborations bring together people with different expertise to tackle different sides of a project.
In my opinion, however, there is something great about how a Biotech puts an entire team of scientists, all with unique specializations, together under one roof. Individuals are specially picked to serve particular roles in projects, leading to an incredible synergy in the research team.
This was especially great for my experience as a young scientist. I ended up learning about fields that I had no prior exposure to, from people that had ample experience and expertise in each area. Moreover, many Biotech startups have quite a flat organizational structure. This meant that I felt like I was equal with my more experienced colleagues. I felt like they took my ideas seriously in our conversations. Thus I played an active part in these collaborations, enabling me to learn so much more.
One of the most common reasons I hear from scientists who are determined to stay in academia is that they want to be in total control over what they work on. Truthfully, in a Biotech you will have a lot less independence over your program’s research goals as these will probably be decided by the executive team and the company board. Of course, depending on your seniority and how flatly organized your company is, you could have more say in the direction that projects go. But, this is still a far shot from the independence even early scientists have in academia.
However, you’re still going to have ample opportunities to do innovative and fulfilling science. While the overarching project goals might be decided by higher-ups, how you proceed to achieve those goals is totally up to you. Figuring out how to answer the questions set out for your program can still be a uniquely exciting endeavor.
On the topic of goals, Biotech and academic labs generally have different aims for their research, and I found that this ends up affecting the path your work takes. In academia, the goal is to publish interesting papers. When working towards a compelling story, you follow the most interesting questions that come up in your work, even if you end up deviating from the original aims of your project. At a Biotech, however, whether your product is a drug, software services, or anything else — your goal is to produce. Because of this, when faced with multiple different directions that your project could go down, you will have to focus on the questions that lead to producing your product, even if there are other directions that are more interesting to you as a scientist.
Admittedly, this was one of the more disappointing parts of my job. On one occasion, some of my colleagues and I made novel modifications to one of our assays at the protocol and the data analysis level that would have been really fun to write up in a paper. However, going for a publication would have required running experiments to produce publishable results. Unfortunately, because there was so much work to do in the therapeutic programs we were involved in, we didn’t have the time to flesh out the narrative of our method and publish a paper. However, even though it was sad to not publish that method, it still had a big impact on the program’s progress, and it remains one of the contributions I am most proud of.
As an individual scientist, you must decide what sort of goal-setting is more important to you, as neither one is intrinsically more fulfilling than the other. Some want complete independence to follow their interests wherever it takes them. It is important that some researchers have this kind of freedom because it often leads to the most unexpected and ground-breaking findings. However, others will enjoy working towards a common set of company goals. While you may have less say in where the project ends up going, it still leaves more than enough space to do interesting research and it is still incredibly fulfilling to contribute to your company’s agenda.
So let me sum up my thoughts:
- Biotechs have a lot of money and this makes it easy to acquire commercially available recourses if it is required for research. However, many academic labs may also have access to similar services cheaply through university-wide research cores and infrastructure.
- Collaboration is a big part of both Academia and Biotech. An academic researcher can probably connect to scientists in other labs to bring added expertise to a project. However, in Biotech, the project teams are curated specifically to address research goals and bringing together these experts all under one roof with the same purpose allows for really remarkable collaboration.
- The biggest difference arises in the goals of industry research vs. academic research which will affect the path your research will take. Choose Academia if your goal is to independently follow your interests and publish. However, if your interests align with a particular company’s goals, you might find it highly fulfilling to work at a Biotech.
There is a place for every scientist, whether it’s in an academic lab or in Biotech. There are advantages on both sides and each individual needs to find out which is best for them.
With that in mind, especially if you’re coming out of an undergraduate program, my advice is that you give industry a try! Biotech is booming right now and every year more startups come on to the scene, each with its own unique culture. Companies are starting that fully leverage state-of-the-art technologies with visions of revolutionizing healthcare (check out Insitro: an ML-therapeutics company started by one of my biggest inspirations, Daphne Koller).
You are bound to find a company that aligns with the type of research you want to do. And if you find that it’s not to your liking, other companies are always hiring.
It’s an exciting time to be a life sciences researcher!
I’m a Ph.D. student in Bioinformatics at Harvard Medical School working on Explainable Artificial Intelligence (XAI). I’m super excited about new technologies emerging in the Biotech industry and I think data science and computational biology are going to play a huge role in the next generation of therapeutics.
Let me know what else you’d like to know about Biotech and/or Computational Biology!