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11.05
2023

Taking the plunge: what’s it like to move from academia to industry?

The career path of a life sciences academic tends to be predictable: bachelor’s degree, Master’s, PhD, a temporary postdoc position or two – perhaps three or four – before applying for permanent lectureships and professorships. But what happens if you decide to stray from that path? And how do you get the skills you need to move to a position that requires more than lab experience? Our campus is full of people who have successfully made the transition from academic institutions to industry. We asked four such individuals about their journeys, the challenges they faced and any lessons they learned along the way.

Seeking impact beyond academia

Pomme Boissier, now Quality, Regulatory and Clinical Affairs Manager at Novostia, stayed on for a year at the University of Bern after her PhD in Biomedical Sciences. During her postdoc Pomme experienced frustrations: ‘The impact of your research is often limited. I felt like I was adding a drop to the ocean.’ But inadequate job prospects were also a factor: ‘Long-term job options in academia are restricted. You need to be among the best to get a permanent position; otherwise you’re condemned to go from one postdoc to another. I was given the good advice to leave as soon as possible if that wasn’t my career goal.’ Today the impact of her work is everything to her: ‘I like the variety of challenges I encounter but what I love most of all is developing a product that could save the lives of thousands of people and improve the lives of thousands more.’

For Dmitry Kopelyanskiy, Business Development and Corporate Development Project Manager at HAYA Therapeutics, the route was unconventional: ‘I earned an MD in Preventive Medicine, followed by a specialisation in Epidemiology, then spent a couple of years doing lab research before acquiring an MSc in Molecular Biology and a PhD in Immunology and Infectious Diseases. The whole academic journey lasted about 17 years.’ You might be curious why, after almost two decades, Dmitry decided to try a different path. The truth is, he was occupied by questions university research couldn’t answer: ‘How does a great idea develop into a meaningful product or solution? How does basic science become applied? How do new medicines travel from bench to bedside? I had all these fascinating questions, and I knew that I wouldn’t find the answers within academia.’

Networking, volunteering and internships to explore new possibilities

Beatrice Volpe, now Biomedical Marketing Manager at Vivactis Switzerland, found an area that sparked her interest while volunteering: ‘During my PhD I had the opportunity to get involved with the Innovation Forum Lausanne, an association that fosters interactions between academia and industry. There I realised that science communication could be an interesting field to explore after my studies.’ Today she reflects on how instrumental this was in her transition: ‘My involvement in the association and all its activities, including conferences and workshop organisation, sponsoring, communication and team management really helped to prepare me to work outside academia.’ But networking also helped Beatrice in a more concrete way: ‘I learned about what was outside the “lab bubble” in which researchers often stay, allowing me to know more about potential interesting opportunities, positions and career paths. Significantly, it was during a networking event that I met my future boss at Vivactis and found out about the company.’

For Alessia Baldo, now Business Development Manager at SEED Biosciences, the opportunities she found while doing her PhD were decisive: ‘Participating in Skills for Scientists and the Innovation Forum Lausanne as an event manager and following workshops in scientific communication organised by CUSO [Conférence Universaire de Suisse Occidentale] were experiences that added something valuable to my transition to industry.’ She also highlights the importance of work experience: ‘A marketing internship at Biopôle SA allowed me to learn on the job, plus I met great mentors who supported me every step of the way.’ But her PhD is what inspired and motivated Alessia to land her first post-academic position: ‘When I discovered the mission of SEED Biosciences, I saw right away it was trying to solve the need that I experienced myself during my Master’s and PhD. So I was enthusiastic to join the team and help them spread awareness of their technology and develop the business.’

Dmitry says soft skills development and volunteering in several associations ultimately helped him to change careers: ‘During my PhD I realised that I enjoy speaking about science, reading papers and “connecting the dots” more than actually working in a lab. So I got actively involved in different career and educational events. It was at a roundtable I organized for Skills for Scientists that I met Samir Ounzain, the future CEO and Co-Founder of HAYA Therapeutics, when the company was still in its infancy. Later, when I was organising a science festival called Pint of Science, I invited Samir to be one of the speakers. After that, we kept in touch and right after I finished my PhD, the company had acquired seed funding and started to grow. Hence there was an opportunity for me to join.’

Be humble yet proud of your academic background.

Alessia Baldo, Business Development Manager at SEED Biosciences

A PhD for an invaluable set of skills

Pomme shares with us that many of the skills she developed during her PhD are still of use: ‘I learned so many things during my academic career that I am still using today: how to learn, solve problems, work autonomously, manage bibliographies and literature reviews, and apply scientific rigour.’ These skills are crucial in her current role at Novostia.

For Beatrice, the scientific skills acquired during her PhD perfectly complement her professional abilities: ‘I leverage my scientific background to better understand the needs of our clients, then I apply my marketing and communication expertise to respond to their needs. I also have the opportunity to work on many different projects: there’s always something to learn and new challenges to overcome!’

For Dmitry, combining the skills he learned during his PhD and those he acquired while volunteering gave him the adaptability needed in a start-up: ‘You have to take on many different roles. I was writing non-dilutive grant applications, helping our scientists to create “scientific stories”, driving the hiring process and interviewing potential candidates, doing admin work, as well as analysing the competitive landscape and communicating with various external stakeholders, including investors and strategic partners.’

The secret? Step out of the lab

For Pomme, the key decisions start years before you even decide to make your move: ‘Choose your academia research project carefully. The more applicable it is to industry, the more opportunities you will have if you want to transition later on.’ But she also stresses that young researchers shouldn’t wait too long before taking the first step towards industry: ‘Academia and industry are two different worlds. It’s better to make the switch before you become too conditioned by academia. Take advice from people who know them both. Remember that the first step is the most difficult: once you have one foot in industry you’re halfway there.’

Alessia reminds us of the need to value your experience while paving your way forwards: ‘Be humble – you’re restarting from scratch – yet proud of your academic background. Stay motivated to learn new things every day. Take every opportunity to get out of the lab and collect experiences that will bring you closer to the position you want.’

Finally, Beatrice recommends keeping your eyes open: ‘Never miss the chance to explore what’s going on around you, just beyond your bench. Opportunities are often there – be ready to catch them.’ Dmitry also advocates a proactive approach: ‘Don’t spend all your time in a lab: you need to explore the world outside academia. Develop your soft and transferable skills, build your network and don’t wait for an opportunity to fall into your hands – you need to be the one actively seeking it. And when you find one, do your best to take it!’

Pomme Boissier
Pomme Boissier completed her PhD in Cellular and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Bern, where she then took a one-year postdoctoral position. Her total time working in academia was six years. She is now the Quality, Regulatory and Clinical Affairs Manager at Novostia.
Novostia
Dmitry Kopelyanskiy

Dmitry Kopelyanskiy holds a PhD in Immunology and Infectious Diseases from UNIL and is also a qualified Doctor of Medicine. He is now the Business Development and Corporate Development Project Manager at HAYA Therapeutics.

HAYA Therapeutics
Beatrice Volpe
Beatrice Volpe has a PHD in Molecular Life Sciences from EPFL (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology). Upon completion, she moved to industry, hence she spent five years in academia. She is now Biomedical Marketing Manager at Vivactis Switzerland.
Vivactis Switzerland
Alessia Baldo
Alessia Baldo has a PhD in Cancer Immunology from the University of Lausanne (UNIL). She spent a total of five years in academia during her Masters’ and PhD. She is the Business Development Manager at SEED Biosciences.
SEED Biosciences

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