Into industry and back again, how I navigated the next steps after my PhD

Into industry and back again, how I navigated the next steps after my PhD

Into industry and back again, how I navigated the next steps after my PhD

In early 2022, I found myself in a situation that might sound familiar to a lot of scientists - I was coming towards the end of my PhD, studying the epigenetic regulation of human stem cell reprogramming, and I was not sure what I wanted to do next. My PhD was an amazing experience and I learnt and grew so much, both professionally and personally. But that time was coming to an end, and beyond the daunting prospect of writing my thesis, I also faced a crossroads in my career.

I knew I wanted to continue to work in the scientific field and that I wanted a position where I continued to constantly learn. Having only worked in academic settings, I was curious about the industrial laboratory setting and working outside of the lab altogether. I attended all of the 鶹Ƶ’s 360 Science talks organised by support teams where I learnt about the speakers’ own motivations for moving away from the bench, and how their start in science supported their current career.

Luckily for me, I got to experience a taste of life outside of the lab as part of my PhD programme, by working for three months in a Cambridgeshire-based medical communications firm and this experience could not have been more different from day-to-day life in the laboratory! I swapped my pipettes and lab coat for a desk and client meetings, working on topics far outside my expertise, with projects ranging from applied human medicine to malaria, diabetes and promoting proper prescription of antimicrobials. I learnt how to write scientific documents, prepare engaging infographics, and developed my customer-facing skills all while meeting the team-based project deadlines.

All of these skills I developed were highly transferable and became particularly valuable for writing my PhD thesis. However, I missed working in the laboratory environment during my internship, especially being on my feet, working with my hands, multi-tasking and being physically busy. With all of this in mind, I decided to apply for jobs within the biotechnology industry, combining the laboratory environment with a commercial mindset. Despite speaking with individuals who have worked in both academic and industrial lab environments, I was surprised to discover how many differences there are between the two.

Academia is driven by curiosity, a desire to learn about the underlying processes and mechanisms that make things work, to progress our knowledge of the field and contribute to our collective understanding by publishing papers in journals outlining our findings. These are often passion projects, built pain-stakingly from collecting data, generating hypotheses, following different leads, and becoming an authority on a very specific scientific niche.

Industry instead is influenced by the desires of investors, looking to generate a profitable product that can come to market. With that clear goal in mind, projects within industry are far more targeted, are treated less sentimentally and belong collectively to the team rather than to any one individual. Rather than a broad experimental toolkit, a smaller number of focused techniques are often utilised, often working to tight deadlines. Varying workloads can mean that continuity is not maintained from project conception to delivery, with individuals being moved between projects at short notice. If a project reveals an interesting or novel finding that doesn’t advance the goals of the company, it is not pursued and months’ worth of work can be discarded if priorities change.

Many of my colleagues thrived in this fast-paced environment, using strategic decision-making to achieve scientific milestones for the company as quickly as possible. However, I found this style of working difficult. Ultimately though, I found value from this year, where I would continuously explain and discuss my work, which strengthened my ability to communicate in a more concise manner verbally, as well as working with different personalities within in a team and keeping organised records of my work that could be continued by another scientist at short notice.

After a year working within industry, I reflected on how I felt about my job and if it suited my personality. I often felt frustrated by the strict structure that industry creates, for example, passing on my sequencing data to a dedicated bioinformatician rather than analysing it myself, or working extensively on projects designed simply to optimise procedures rather than getting to the heart of an intriguing biological question. I knew that I needed a change to feel fulfilled and I had so many key research questions about human stem cells and development that I was unable to drop and that I remained intrigued to explore. I should have noticed when I actually enjoyed re-reading my thesis to prepare for my viva that something was not right!

As a result, I made the decision to return to academia as a postdoctoral research scientist and have rejoined the Rugg-Gunn lab to study stem cell biology and epigenetics, working back with the protein complex that I love. I have brought back a number of skills from industry that I believe make me a better scientist. I am far more organised in my record keeping and sample inventories, I am a more effective communicator and I am better at setting my priorities and evaluating when a project should be left behind or delayed.

This process has taught me that trying different things, particularly if you are unsure of your direction, is never a bad thing. Sometimes you have to try something to know if it is your calling or ultimately if it is not. But equally, the grass is not always greener, and if you love what you currently do, that is probably a sign that you are in the right place. My advice if you are unsure about your career after your PhD would be to speak to as many people as possible, carefully consider your possibilities, try to gain experience if you can but that ultimately, you are allowed to change your mind and you don’t have to get it right the first time.

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Watch this video interview with Adam from when he was still studying for his PhD