Earlier this year we put out a call for members’ questions about working in industry. We put your questions to EACR member Francesco Greco, who works as a senior scientist in industry. He gives his answers below, including discussing his own path into industry and sharing his advice and experiences to help others starting this journey.

“Until now you played at the parish pitch, now you are going to play at the Bernabéu Stadium!”

My PhD supervisor told those exact words before my interview with Tes Pharma’s CEO.

At that time (already 6 years, time flies when you have fun!) I was less than 6 months from the end of my PhD.  I remember those days as plenty of opportunities in front of me: post-doc experience in the same University (Univ. of Perugia, Italy) or in other institutions outside of Italy. One of the latter was really teasing my mind, with the opportunity to join a famous research institution in the US.

As usual, things happen when you least expect them.

My PhD supervisor told me that Tes Pharma, a biotech company focused on delivering first-in class therapeutics for high unmet medical needs, was dealing with a last-minute vacancy. One of their CADD scientists was leaving in less than a month and they’d like to cover that position as soon as possible. At that time, I knew Tes Pharma but I was also aware that the possibility they were looking for a new hiring was remote…

I went through a couple of interviews and then I started my traineeship there for 6 months as a CADD scientist. After I completed my PhD, and then I had the opportunity to continue working at Tes Pharma as a Research Scientist in Medicinal Computational Chemistry.

In Tes’ integrated drug discovery team, I found my perfect environment, since during my PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences I had the opportunity to work both in in silico as well in wet (biophysical) lab.

My multidisciplinary background gave me the opportunity to work as a CADD scientist, supporting the drug discovery engine in hit identification and hit-to-lead optimization, assessing druggability of novel targets as well as working together with the ADME and biology team to better design the screening cascade to evaluate the profile of our own small molecules. Those wide experience earned me the responsibility as Project Leader for one of our innovative program in immunotherapy.

Despite my (still!) limited experience in industry, here are my answers to some questions from other EACR members:

Q: What are the most valuable skills that academic scientists could offer to the industry?

A: An open mind. The biggest advantage of academia is the freedom to operate in terms of basic research. This gives you the opportunity to spread your efforts far and you do not always have a clear picture or hypothesis for what you are doing. To be honest this can be a disadvantage if you cannot define some limits at a certain point.

Differently, in the industry you must be focused on your goals. You cannot waste time and resources for additional studies unless they can really add something to your targets.

Thus, if you go from academia to industry, try keeping that state of open mindedness to have out-of-the-box ideas, but be aware to do not transform it in a drawback.

Q: How do you get a traineeship in industry in Europe? I am a PhD with 5 years of postdoc experience in cancer biology and no industry experience and want to make a switch to industry but unable to do so since I have no industry experience.

A: Traineeships are a good tool only in certain cases. For someone who has collected 5y of post-doc experience, I do not think a traineeship is mandatory.

You have already gained a lot of experience at the bench (technical skills), which are going to be the solid background the company will look for. What you may lack are some soft skills and operational practices that you can obtain only working in the industry. But companies know that, and they are not going to ask you to have it.

Obviously, you cannot have industry experience without working in the industry, but a traineeship is difficult to obtain after you spent more than a couple of years as post-doc in academia. Apply for an open position instead!

Q: Which skills do you think are required to apply for a traineeship in industry?

A: I guess none. The only thing you need is the will to enter in the industry. You need to show that you’d like to start a career in the industry over academia. That’s it. Of course, the stronger your technical skills are the easier you will win the position compared to other applicants.

As mentioned above, if you spend 2+ years as post-doc in academia, go for an open position and not for a traineeship, you don’t need that!

Q: Where would one find industry training opportunities for PhD students?

A: Linkedin is the best web portal. Currently, more and more companies are advertising training/intern positions there, compared to few years ago.

Otherwise, don’t be shy to send cover letters and CVs to companies you think may be a good fit for you.

Q: When would be the best time/career stage to transition? Is doing a post-doc in academia increase/ decrease your appeal to employers from the industry? Is there a ‘too late’ to transition stage?

A: As mentioned above, it is difficult to obtain a traineeship when you spent 2+ years in academia after your PhD. However, many companies would be happy to receive applications for an open job by an experienced person, even if it lacks industry experience.

Industry experience may be a must in case of very large company and/or senior position.

If you’d like to make the jump from academia to industry when you are “older”, you may need to apply for not-so senior position to cover the gap in type of career.

Q: What interview questions would you expect from industry positions that you wouldn’t get in interviews for academic positions?

A: HR-kind of questions. How do you work in team, how do you deal with personal challenges or bad situations among colleagues, what are your strengths and weakness. Those are the most different questions in my experience.

Academia is a network of many great scientists. A company is a single organism where people define the various parts. People in industry know that.

On the technical side, questions can be similar. But in industry, interviews mentioning papers and publications are very rare. They’d like to know what you are able to do, not what you have published.

Q: What are the prospects of career progression in industry?

A: Generally, in industry, career progression is a part of the package. In large companies, you will easily progress in the very first years from junior to senior position. After that, to gain responsibility as lab/team leader or more may need years or you may prefer to jump into another company that have that position open.

In smaller company it may be slower or faster, the variables there are many (depending on how the company business evolve though the years).

Q: Can you still get the opportunity to publish and present at conferences?

Generally, the possibility to participate to conferences is good. However, publications and oral communications are very limited compared to academia.

In academia publications are the main goals. In industry publications are a part of the strategic view, so it can change a lot going from one company to another.

Q: How much input do you have in experimental design? How much information do you have about the overall research project?

A: Again, this may change a lot going from small-sized to huge company. The latter works more as departments, so only the team leaders and directors have control of the decision-making process and know all the details of a project.

Within the team, all scientists will know a lot about it, but more focused on their part of the job.

In smaller company, however, the scientists are the ones that can really contribute to experimental design while they can have a good level of involvement in overall aspects of a project.

Q: Are you expected to keep in touch with the latest scientific developments in the field? And if so, do you have protected time to read papers?

Reading papers and stay on the edge of what is happening in the scientific community is essential in the industry. Reading papers is a key part of the job and it can make a difference between a good and a great scientist in the industry. The difficulty is to manage your time to do that. No one will say you have to do it, so it is your aim to manage your time, finding slots dedicated to it.

Participation to conferences is encouraged since you can update yourself a lot in few days.

About the author:

Francesco A. Greco
Senior Scientist and Project Leader, Tes Pharma Srl

Francesco A. Greco is an EACR member and Ambassador who received his PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences from the University of Perugia, Italy, in 2018. During the last months of his PhD, he completed a traineeship in the industry before joining Tes Pharma, where he now works as a Senior Scientist and Project Leader.