A different journey: academia to industry and back.

Hi Franklin Women! I am Yosephine, a new member of FW. Unlike with other FW’s blog, I would like to share a rather different story - my personal story of transitioning from a job in industry back to academia!

Yosephine_in_labPart 1 - Multiple pathways lead to a successful career. I finished my PhD in protein engineering in 2010. I was working on improving the desired property of enzymes so that they could be useful for industrial applications, ranging from pharmaceuticals to bioremediation. I had always thought that I was not suited for a traditional academic career as I preferred doing applied rather than basic research. I was lucky enough that my main PhD project was applied however I also had side projects that were more around deepening basic knowledge. When an opportunity to work in industry came by after finishing my PhD (a former colleague who went to industry following her post-doc offered me a position in her company) I knew I had to take up my dream job as Product Development Manager. My key responsibilities in this role were to develop ideas and new formulations for product launches, to prepare and present the concepts/product prototypes to customers, to generate preliminary costs for new products and reformulations and to maintain knowledge on regulation issues and competitor business. In addition, I had to monitor efficient working of all projects and ensure compliance to project plan/timeframe and allocate appropriate resources for project and prioritise them. Phew...a lot!

I was initially satisfied with the work however after spending 1.5 years in industry I felt there was something missing in my career. Instead of applying for similar jobs in another company I re-entered academia by taking up a post-doctoral research position at The University of Queensland (UQ). To my own surprise, despite the pressure of having to publish and obtain grants, I now enjoy the privilege of doing research that I am passionate about (learning from the nature on the best ways of engineering enzymes, for example by resurrecting ancient proteins to create robust enzymes!). Unlike being tied to the rigid corporate structure, working in an university environment offers you appealing aspects that the job can offer - freedom (you can write, develop and even apply funds to support your own ideas/ passion) and working with students (which could be fun but also stressful which leads me to Part 2 of this post...)

Part 2 - The ups and downs doing postdoctoral research in Australia.  As we all know post-doctoral positions in Australia can be a very stressful, especially as your day-to-day tasks often extend beyond just your research project. In one day you could go from designing and carrying out your own experiment to showing students how to design theirs. Especially as a senior fellow as you become a role model for the students and junior researchers, both in laboratory practice but also in academic performance. Working with students can be very stressful - I remember the time when I tried to explain a theoretical concept of ligand binding meanwhile the student had no idea what the word ligand means! Yet it can also lead to lots of joyful moments like the excitement of when they get their first successful experimental results. Not only do the students learn from you but you will also learn extremely important skills from teaching students such as the ability to describe your ideas well enough for others to comprehend them. This is a very important and transferable skill.

Your job can also include laboratory technician tasks (which I am not very keen of!) to enable the laboratory to function effectively while adhering to correct procedures and health and safety guidelines. The tasks can vary from maintaining standard laboratory equipment (e.g. centrifuges and pH meter) to ensuring the laboratory is well stocked and resourced. And of course, the most exciting and important task for a post-doctoral researcher is publishing your research in peer reviewed journals (preferably in high impact ones!) which is extremely important for your career progression.

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Part 3 - How industry experience can contribute to a successful academic career. The long-standing paradigm that research conducted at universities is focussed on basic understanding of scientific concepts whereas industry are more interested in applied research, has shifted. This has been driven by competitiveness in acquiring government funding and increases in industry funding for university research. Having industrial experience can give you major advantages when you are pursuing academic career. It offers you soft skills that you don’t learn from doing PhD such as project management (you learn how to finish your work in a restricted amount of time – no time to procrastinate) and teamwork (industrial projects are tend to be multidisciplinary whereas PhD graduates tend to be too independent – maybe due to be trained to be independent researcher). Not only that, the industrial network that you have could be very helpful with grant applications as there is a linkage project scheme which supports R&D partnerships between university-based researchers and the industry.

Many researchers have trouble figuring out out what they want to do after finishing their PhD. Maybe you are like me and don't want to stay in academia due to the high pressure of publishing and uncertainty in grant funding. Getting an industry job would be a good alternative that could provide you with useful skills, independently what career path you are decide to persue afterward. I would have never accomplished what I have achieved so far during my postdoctoral position (e.g. one provisional patent and two further patent applications) if I never had any industry experiences. From being on both sides of the fence, I have found that the focus on 'practical' outcomes from research is becoming more common in both academia and industry. There is a desire to see concrete results/products from the money that has been invested into the research.

Thank you for reading my post. Hopefully some useful insight for your future career journey, regardless if it is an academia or industry!

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