Not So Different After All: 5 Overlapping Skills Needed in Life Science Academia vs. Industry

by Mark Terry
Republished from BioSpace, January 19, 2017

There is a notion that the skills needed for scientists in academia are dramatically different than those needed in industry. The technical skills are largely overlapping, but it’s also clear that much of the project management and business management skills overlap as well.

Stephanie Eberle, director of the Stanford University Medical Center Career Center, writing for Inside Higher Ed, describes the top skills needed and how they overlap. Before breaking down those specific skills, Eberle is careful to differentiate between “academic research” and “academe,” and parsing between “industry” and “biotechnology research” or “biotechnology business.”

As such, she writes, “Jobs within academe alone include: student/academic services at universities, academic research (often called R-1), university teaching and, perhaps, teaching at private high schools. ‘Industry,’ if taken to mean ‘everything else,’ most commonly includes: biotechnology/government research, policy, law, biotechnology business, finance, consulting and science communications.”

Keeping those broad divisions in mind, the National Association of College Employers (NACE) cites five skills that employers are looking for, and it’s clear that none of them are limited to academe or industry.

1. Leadership

The specifics of leadership may vary from industry to academia, although overlap is also possible. Leading a research group applies to both areas. And in academia, heading a committee or committees, organizing meetings, seminars, and events, would all have broad applicability to academia and industry.

2. Teamwork

Within academe and academic research, this can involve both leading a research team, working with peers on related research projects, studies and journal papers, as well as committee work. In a recent BioSpace article, “Industry vs. Academia: Which is the Better Place to Work as a Life Scientist,” we pointed out that the biopharma industry tends to place more emphasis on teamwork than academia does, in general. Marie Lee, a technical product manager for WaferGen in Fremont, Calif., who worked in several industry positions as well as having been an adjunct professor at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), told BioSpace, “As an academic scientist, especially as a postdoc, you’re solely in charge of your own project. Everything that moves forward in your project is dependent on you and your own time. You’re really just working within your own little bubble.”

3. Written Communication Skills

In comparison, in industry, “As you age, you realize you’re working in a company, we are working as a team, which is quite different than academia. I can depend on my team to help me with things. That’s kind of different. You can’t just go to another professor in academia and say, ‘Hey, can you do this seminar for me?’”

In academia, this focuses more on the publication of technical articles and grant proposals, both of which are less important in an industry setting. In industry, however, a great deal of communication between departments and to executives will be conducted via positions papers, internal documentation, etc., that will require significant expertise in writing. In the NACE Job Outlook 2016 report, 70 percent of respondents cited written communication skills at an attribute they sought in a job candidate.

4. Problem Solving

This should not be a surprise. Technical fields are all about solving problems. But in reality, almost all employment is about problem solving. The problem might be how to generate more sales, or the problem might be, how do you identify the next blockbuster drug. Either way, problem solving is the key skill being used. As such, be prepared in a job interview to be asked something along the lines of, “Tell me about a problem you encountered and how you went about solving it.”

5. Strong Work Ethic

Work ethic can be kind of hard to define. It’s not so much that people have a different definition—although perhaps they do—but that it seems to come down to: work hard, show up on time, be honest and reliable. In Small Business Chronicles, Amelia Jenkins identifies five things that demonstrate a strong work ethic: integrity, sense of responsibility, emphasis on quality, discipline, and sense of teamwork.

Eberle said, “The best way to transfer your training is to know what the job is so that you may adequately hone and communicate relevant skill sets for it—which is why it is so important to steer clear of vague terms like ‘academe vs. industry.’”

For academics, she said, “I encourage you to look more closely at what your PIs do, as well. While developing a lab and research agenda seems an independent process, it also requires university support and that of lab staff and funding agencies. While labs are a part of a larger university, the development and management of budgets and staff mean the labs are more like small businesses within a larger entity. … Though cultures vary, academic research is as much a management position as many positions in biotechnology business.”

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