Despite years of study, training and hands-on experience, life sciences students and researchers can often find the transition to a career path outside academia difficult. We spoke to representatives from Skills for Scientists, HUB Entrepreneurship and Innovation at UNIL (University of Lausanne), SV Industry and the BioScience Network Lausanne (BSNL) to get expert insights into the issues surrounding the transition from academia to industry or entrepreneurship.
Why do students and researchers want to leave academia?
We asked Slavica Masina, Co-Founder of Skills for Scientists, why academics want to transition to alternative careers: ‘Over the past two and a half years I’ve done over 200 one-to-one consultations and, based on those conversations, I’ve found that 60–70% of early careers researchers want to leave academia.’
Slavica explains they have different motivations. People may be concerned about their future employability or by the precariousness of short-term academic contracts, or they may wish to have a more direct impact on saving people’s lives, tackling environmental issues or advancing cutting-edge fields like AI. She also highlights issues with the work–life balance in academic institutions: ‘Some people feel there are no boundaries between their lab life and their personal life. If they don’t work in the evenings or on the weekends, they say they’re not considered to be serious researchers.’ According to a study by EY, this trend can be seen across a whole generation: Swiss millennials are prioritising a positive working atmosphere and good work–life balance above salary when looking for a job.
Meanwhile, Suna In, President of BSNL, says the slow speed of progress in academia can be frustrating to students: ‘Some want to switch to industry because of the pace of work, which is usually faster. With innovation and competition at the heart of industrial research, the different dynamic can be appealing.’
Suna also thinks students find the opportunities offered by industry enticing: ‘There’s more potential for faster promotion and easier transitions between different positions. Researchers who are fed up with pipettes and centrifuges can move to the office to become a Quality Control or Compliance Manager. For the adventurous, the lengthy academic track is not as sexy as launching their own business.’
What support is out there?
Angelica Reitelli, President of SV industry, explains why support is necessary: ‘When life sciences students finish their studies, they might not know what industry can offer them – they may be confused by the structure of the industry. SV Industry invites speakers, usually EPFL [the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne] alumni, to explain to students how they have transitioned from academia to industry. We also organise conferences on specific topics and industry visits, so students can see what their daily life might look like if they pursue a particular career.’
Slavica from Skills for Scientists clarifies why the options can be puzzling: ‘Most researchers are drawn to R&D, perhaps a start-up where they’re back working on the bench, but more and more people are interested in other paths, like entrepreneurship, regulatory affairs, quality control, patent offices, medical science liaison, marketing and science communication, public health, policymaking or education.’ With so many possibilities, Skills for Scientists offers guidance in the form of one-to-one personal consultations, career roundtables with UNIL alumni, training workshops and educational courses.
BSNL organises networking events and seminars where academics can meet and interact with industry professionals, learn about job openings and gain insights into industry trends and developments. One such event is Life Science Career Day (on 16th May at the Swiss Tech Convention Centre this year), which provides extensive networking opportunities and career guidance for students and young scientists to help them explore possible future career paths and access their first job outside academia. Suna explains why such opportunities are important: ‘Attendees can broaden their career visibility by listening to talks and visiting booths. On top of that, networking sessions with speakers, recruiters, potential employers, guests and alumni from various fields offer the chance to gain in-depth knowledge about specific and diverse career options.’