Deciding on a career path in science is a challenge for everyone, from those just out of undergrad to those at the postdoctoral level. It is widely considered that there are two main science career fields – academia and industry. The academic track is fairly straight forward: after undergrad comes graduate school, then you take postdoctoral positions until you are deemed experienced enough to be hired as tenure-track assistant professor.

The options in the industry field are not quite as well understood. To help clarify these options, on September 9th the Buck Institute’s Graduate Student Society hosted Dr. Toby Freedman, president of Synapsis Search recruiting firm and the author of Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development. Dr. Freedman has first-hand experience in both the academic and industry tracks and is an expert in explaining the career options available to those in science.

From left to right: Kenny Wilson (SAGE Editor and Graduate Student Society liaison), Dr. Toby Freedman, and Kandyce Hamilton (Graduate Student Society event organizer). Photo credit: Renuka Sivapatham.

Prior to her presentation at the Buck, I had the opportunity to discuss with Dr. Freedman the state of biological research and career options within the scientific community.  I asked her what she perceived to be the greatest strengths and weaknesses of jobs in industry. While they are both important to each other and our advancement in science, she pointed to the misconceptions she had heard regularly in her time as a postdoc. “I used to hear that work in industry was boring, and that it was for those who couldn’t make it in academia. In reality, this is far from the truth.” She proceeded to enumerate the many opportunities within the biotechnology industry that are available, and how many brilliant minds have become prominent within the industry field.

She did acknowledge, however, that it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain a tenure-track position in academia. The number of students earning their PhD has increased, whereas the number of faculty positions has not nearly increased at the same rate. To this point, she further emphasized the importance of adding value to oneself. “If you have good ideas, you will be successful in your field.” She clarified that each field is equally important.”

I inquired about what areas of biological research interested her most. “Oh, aging of course!” she says with a laugh. “Really, there is a lot of research within the aging field that is not well-understood and is important to discover. Age-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases are horrible, and there is a lot of research that needs to be done before we can hope to understand the aging process. I also really appreciate the work of Judy Campisi!”

During her presentation, her knowledge of the many available positions within in a company became instantly apparent. Using information from her book, she referenced her interviews from over 200 individuals within the industry field to determine their impressions from their position as well as what type of person and skills make the best fit for each position. She touched on tens of positions within any individual company which require a range of skills, such as those involving the legal branch of a company, those on the financial side, and those directly involved the research itself. She also provided numerous tips as to what companies will look for in various applications and explained which forms of experience are necessary to become an attractive candidate. Among the important skills to possess include strong interpersonal skills, as work within the industry requires a great deal of teamwork, as well as problem-solving skills, flexibility, and the ability to “see the forest through the trees” (meaning the ability to keep the big picture in mind). She also made sure to stress the value of networking, because who you know can be very helpful in securing a job down the road.

Dr. Freedman’s visit was undoubtedly a productive and useful one for the many postdocs and graduate students who attended her talk. She spoke to numerous attendees to provide personalized feedback about their own personal career tracks. Her intricate knowledge of what careers are available as well as what resources are useful for finding a career helped expose many available opportunities, and she consistently emphasized how one person with a vision can make a difference to form a successful company.