“The transition from academia to industry can be intimidating”: Career insights from a recent move to research in industry

by Nicole M. Reilly, an EACR Member and EACR Ambassador

“Toto, we’re not in academia anymore…”

…this was one of the first sentences I said when I walked into my new office in Boston, USA, just six months ago. I had just finished a four-year post-doctoral fellowship in Turin, Italy, and was still quite jetlagged. I was excited, terrified, and ready to get to work. My scientific training up to this point had only been in academia.

I earned my Ph.D. at the University of South Carolina studying mechanisms of DNA repair. I then completed an AIRC funded Post-Doctoral Fellowship in the laboratory of Professor Alberto Bardelli during which I investigated targeting DNA repair mechanisms for treatment of colorectal cancer. My background and expertise in DNA repair and synthetic lethality led me to pursue a transition from academia to industry through my current position as Senior Scientist at Cyteir Therapeutics – a biotechnology company in the greater Boston area developing novel synthetic lethal therapies to treat cancer.

When I was looking for an industry job, I focused on the type of work I wanted to do (synthetic lethality and DNA repair), the type of company I wanted to work for, and a leadership team who would give me the opportunity to learn and grow as a scientist. I started looking at job listings on websites of companies I was interested in and on LinkedIn, and I did a lot of networking through conferences and colleagues.

I had (and still have!) many questions about working in industry and I know a lot of other people do too. Here are my answers to some questions from other EACR members:

Q: Why did you decide to pursue the postdoc? Was there a benefit from having a postdoc in your job search? What are the main reasons for your transition to industry? Do you feel that you have an impact on patients when working in industry?

A: I chose to do a post-doc to expand my DNA repair expertise in a more translational academic setting. The skills and knowledge that I gained from my post-doc experience are invaluable, and gave me a unique perspective that I have channeled into my current position. I wanted to transition to industry to work in a high pace scientific environment more directly related to patients and, by working at a company that has a drug in clinical trials, I am aware every day that my work has a direct impact on our patients.

Q: Employers in industry are often reluctant to hire a person without previous experience of working in industry; how can you demonstrate that the multidisciplinary skill set you acquired through academic experience qualifies you for a given position? Are you expected to have direct experience e.g., biomarker discovery, or is training common?

A: When applying for jobs (in the cover letter and during the interview) you should specifically describe the unique skills you have acquired through your studies and directly state how you can use your skills to fulfill the job requirements. If you are looking for a “translational research” position, then having some background in drug/biomarker discovery is important but there is always the opportunity to learn on the job.

If you’re looking for a job immediately after finishing your Ph.D., then you should look for jobs that require a Ph.D. but minimal industry experience, usually “Scientist” or “Scientist I” positions. If you are applying after completing a post-doc, then you should look for “Scientist II” or “Senior Scientist” jobs and emphasize how the skills you developed during your post-doc will advance the goals of the company. Also remember that job titles can vary between companies and even between small biotech companies and larger pharmaceutical companies. More important than the job title is the job description, what skills you need to have to fulfill the role, and how you can learn and grow as a scientist within that role.

Q: I am in the third year of my PhD, but I would like to move to academy once I finish it (next year). Can I apply now? How long did it take you to land a job and how difficult it was to get to a job interview?

A: You should start looking at job descriptions during your last year of your Ph.D. to understand what skills companies are interested in and to understand which types of jobs sound interesting to you, but you should not start applying unless you are able to start working within the next 1 – 3 months. In general, companies are looking to fill an open position as quickly as possible. If you fit their criteria, you should hear back for a phone interview with the hiring manager or human resources within two to three weeks.

Final thoughts…

The transition from academia to industry can be intimidating. From my perspective, the most important thing to remember is that industry is still a research setting, and the skills you have acquired during your PhD studies and your post-doctoral work are exactly what companies are interested in. And just as important is how you feel about the company you will work for. You want to make sure that you find a place where you feel valued and that your work will advance the goals of the company and help patients. Find a manager who will teach you and give you the opportunity to learn, grow and to achieve your own personal and career goals. And don’t be afraid to take a risk!

Nicole Reilly

About the author:

Nicole M. Reilly, Ph.D.,
Senior Scientist, Translational Research, Cyteir Therapeutics

Nicole is an EACR Ambassador who received her PhD from the University of South Carolina, USA, in 2018 and spent three years as a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the IRCCS, Italy, before switching to work in industry as a Senior Scientist for Cyteir Therapeutics in 2021.