Opinion: Taking the leap: transitioning from academia to industry – by Christina Kulis
October 12, 2022
Leaving academia is rarely a simple decision, no matter what career stage you are at or where you are headed next. Change is not always easy. Researchers looking to transition into industry are often faced with some uncertainty, but also lots of opportunities.
A PhD degree will set you up with perseverance and tenacity. Australia is well-positioned to integrate PhD graduates and researchers who aspire to work in industry or the private sector into the wider innovation system, ultimately building our ‘biotech ecosystem’. Many universities are engaging more with industry; some universities offer PhD positions co-supervised by industry or agency partners, or internships where students are matched with industry partners. At the postdoctoral level, there are industry grants, internships and Fellowships available to enrich and foster collaboration between academia and industry. But despite these connections, why do researchers still find it hard to transition from academia to industry? I think there are two main reasons: peer pressure and fear of the unknown. There is an assumption that the purpose of a PhD is to stay in academia and strive towards becoming a principal investigator, publishing quality research in top tier publications. Peer pressure can be perpetuated by other academics focused on this well-defined career path. Academia is the place you know. Transitioning outside of academia feels risky. “What if I move from academia and I do not like it?”, “Does industry value a PhD?”, “What is my career path outside of academia?”, “What if my new career is uninspiring?”. A PhD and postdoc are invaluable training. You are learning theories, new techniques, data analysis, critical thinking, communication skills and project management. You can apply this training across a spectrum of different fields to find fulfilling careers. You also do not need to have clear career path mapped out – you may find yourself in an area or role you never knew existed. Follow your interest, meet lots of people and say ‘yes’ to opportunities. It is also important to realise that transitioning is not an irreversible action – you can go back, or you can do both.
The science industry is growing in Australia. Within this industry, there is great porosity and movement of people between incubators, funds, start-ups, spin-outs, biotechs, contract research organisations (CROs), intellectual property (IP) firms and pharmaceutical companies. While industry contracts may not be permanent, you will have a lot more exposure to larger networks, upcoming jobs and lucrative opportunities for greater career advancement. Careers in industry often go through various phases, roles, responsibilities and jobs. This ‘recycling’ within industry is dynamic and helps build our ‘biotech ecosystem’ through reshaping the transfer of knowledge and skills into the innovation system.
There are many great examples of people within our ‘biotech ecosystem’ each with their own story that began with the same underlying decision to take the leap from academia. Dr Amanda Vrselja is the Program Head of CUREator, Brandon BioCatalyst’s national biotech incubator and made the transition to industry early. Prior to joining CUREator, Amanda was a Clinical Scientist at QUE Oncology, a clinical stage company developing a novel, non-hormonal treatment for vasomotor symptoms. At QUE Oncology, Amanda was involved in the strategic planning and implementation of clinical and R&D project activities, and she oversaw the project management of all functional divisions. Amanda started at QUE Oncology as an intern during her PhD in Developmental Biology at Monash University. Dr Vrselja reflects on her transition into a biotech start-up as “exciting and challenging at the same time” but being driven by “wanting to improve patient outcomes”. Dr Michal Pasternak has only recently made the transition to industry a few months ago as Research Project Manager at Denteric, a biotech company developing vaccines for periodontal disease. Before this, Dr Pasternak was a postdoctoral researcher for 6 years at WEHI who was “passionate about biomedical research but wished it had a more immediate impact on improving people’s lives” so completed an internship at WEHI’s business development office and participated in the national Bridge Program to develop commercial awareness. Michal obtained a MSc in Biotechnology from the University of Warsaw, a PhD in Molecular Biology from the University of Cambridge and Fellowships from EMBO and Wellcome Trust. Dr Fay Khong is Vice President of Research and Development (R&D) at Certa Therapeutics, a clinical stage biopharmaceutical company developing treatments for fibrotic diseases. Fay holds a dual role as Project Manager at the University of Melbourne Biomedical Translational Research Group, Department of Medicine (St Vincent’s), where she oversees the commercial and collaborative research programs in the laboratory. Prior to this, Fay held consecutive positions at OccuRx, a biotech developing drugs for ophthalmic disorders, including Senior Associate of Research & Commercialisation, Head of R&D and Project Manager. Fay also worked with the team at Fibrotech Therapeutics, where she provided strategic research direction for the drug discovery and development programs. Fay was also an Investment Analyst with Brandon Capital Partners. Fay recalls “the decision to leave academia was driven by the passion to bring new treatments one step closer to patients and opportunities to be able to advance the science without the constraints of limited funding within academia”.
So, it is time to change the narrative around ‘leaving academia’, ’quitting academia’, ‘dropping out of academia’ or ‘going to the dark side’. Transitioning from academia should not be seen as a lesser option but a different option. Transitioning from academia does not mean you are leaving science. Remember why you choose science – to innovate, satiate your curiosity and be someone that plays an important part in society. You can still do that in industry.
Dr Christina Kulis is an Analyst at Brandon Capital. Dr Kulis transitioned from The University of Queensland through the Research Exchange and Development within Industry (REDI) Fellowship delivered by MTPConnect for the Australian Government’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF). The REDI initiative is building an industry-ready workforce with the skills and capacity to keep pace with the demands of a rapidly changing sector. Based in Brisbane, Dr Kulis has an extensive background in drug discovery and development as a former project lead at the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience.