The Ph.D. Scientist Beyond Academia:
A Perspective on Why Young Scientists
are Excited About Industry and Entrepreneurship
For those whose careers have been entirely in academia, it can be hard to peer over the high walls of a Ph.D. or Postdoc and feel confident about the next step forward. From discussions with peers, PIs, and friends, we learn there are two paths: academia or industry. Knowing which is the “right” path for yourself can be stressful, given that one is well-worn and the other veers off into the void of “other.” The stereotype says staying in academia means to conduct basic science while moving into the private sector leads to translational projects.
The times they are a changing, however. The roles of academia and industry have increasingly blurred, especially as the stigma against industry has begun to break down. Part of the shift arises from the fact that for the first time in the post-World War II era, the government no longer funds the majority of basic research1. In its place, private corporations have stepped up to fund the gap, hoping that investing in basic research will provide avenues to explore new therapeutics. This offers a glimmer of hope for not only those planning to do translational work but also for those hoping to leave academia yet still pursue basic questions. In tandem with a shift in funding, based on the “birth rate” of PhDs against the retiring rate of tenured professors, only 16% of new biology and biomedical Ph.D. students will be able to pursue tenure-track academic positions2. Given the push-and-pull nature of the trend towards industry, it is not surprising that young scientists are more open and confident transitioning to what is still sometimes referred to as the “dark side”— neither a government nor a grant-funded research.
What this transition really provides though, is a chance for both scientific and professional exploration. With funding coming from novel places and companies interested in purchasing ideas, scientists have more freedom than ever to take concepts relegated to the “maybe one day” part of their heads and bring them to light. Because of this, careers in industry and bio-entrepreneurship are building towards the mainstream. Entrepreneurship especially, like many careers in science, presents a high-risk high-reward system that places the responsibility on researchers to convince investors that their project is worth supporting. Creating your own company from the ground up gives researchers the exciting opportunity to explore new roles beyond the bench and the flexibility to pursue professional interests.
Yes, it is intimidating to think of a career in which your duties extend beyond bringing in data. But the potential to create and explore is a hard opportunity to pass up. After all, isn’t it our job as scientists to stare directly into the unknown and dive in?
Featured photo courtesy of Eliot Wyatt
1. Mervis, J. Data Check: Federal share of basic research hits new low. Science (80-. ). 355, 1005–1005 (2017).
2. Gelaye, B., Rondon, M., Araya, P. R. & A, P. M. A Note on Ph.D. Population Growth in Biomedical Sciences. 3, 973–982 (2016).
Submitted By Lawrence Jones
Editor-in-Chief, Hopkins Biotech Network