Although he always thought he was more suited to an academic career, David Pollock took a position at Abbott Laboratories after he finished his postdoc and stayed there almost 7 years. "The first 5 years were really fantastic," he says. "I was very active in a drug discovery area, and I was publishing a lot." Then his group got a drug candidate ready for the clinic, and he was reshuffled into a safety and pharmacology role--"a recipe for disaster," he calls it. Dissatisfied with the move away from basic research, he began to think about moving back to academia. He and his wife Jennifer, who was also a scientist at Abbott, decided to make a switch together.
After an intense, 18-month-long search, they found two tenure-track positions at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta in 1995. The move came with a tradeoff: Between the two of them, they lost $40,000 a year in salary. But the reduced cost of living in Augusta, Georgia--compared to their previous residence in Chicago--cushioned the blow. "I was basically willing to start over in academia," Pollock says.Today, both he and his wife are tenured faculty with active research programs at the Medical College of Georgia. Pollock considers himself lucky; he wonders if someone like him--away from academia for years and with no record of bringing in grants--would even get an interview today.
Conventional wisdom equates the move from academia to industry with, say, 19th-century immigration from the Old World to the New: people just don’t go back. But today a few trickle back into the academic pipeline. Some decide that training young scientists would be a way to give back to the scientific community after a fulfilling career in industry. Others wish to return to basic science research so that they don’t have to wonder whether corporate priorities are forcing them to change focus. A few find that the expertise they've acquired working in industry makes them attractive to academic institutions.
Whatever their background and motivation, those who make the transition back say that it definitely has its advantages. Experience in industry, they say, has given them insights that inform their day-to-day work as faculty members and allow them to expose their students and trainees to a wider perspective on research.
Culture clash—or, how to stay marketable
Where academia values publications and grant funding, industry focuses on getting products to the market. It's this culture clash between industry and academia creates this mostly one-way flow. Many companies encourage their employees to publish, but it is possible for an industrial researcher to do excellent science for years without maintaining a track record that would impress a potential academic employer. It's nearly impossible to get a grant in industry because many companies forbid them, Pollock says, leaving industry scientists with academic leanings in a quandary. In contrast to just 10 years ago, many departments, even those outside the top tier, now expect faculty candidates to have grant funding, he says. "If you don't have some kind of grant, you won't even get an interview. We have not hired very many new faculty in the last five years that didn't have an R01 or some sort of major grant," says Pollock.
For those who've returned, continuing to publish and network within the scientific community were critical to a successful backwards transition. "I think the biggest key was that we stayed active in the research community," Pollock says. "[My wife and I] both were publishing. We both were participating and presenting at meetings." Most of the people I talked to agreed that a love of basic science has carried them through both the industrial and academic portions of their careers.
The industrial variable in the academic equation
Some academic departments are looking beyond the culture clash, recognizing that faculty with an industry background can bring something special to their universities. Richard DiMarchi returned to Indiana University in Bloomington in 2003 after more than 20 years at Eli Lilly, most recently as Group Vice President for Biotechnology and Product Development. Best known for the co-development of Humalog, a biosynthetic insulin analog that was the first such protein approved for human use, he remains active in the industry, serving on the boards of several companies and advising others. His academic lab functions like a small pharmaceutical company: Basic scientists work side by side with toxicologists and pharmacologists to develop drug candidates.
A similar focus on commercial potential informs the work of Thomas Baer, head of the Stanford Photonics Research Center at Stanford University in California. Baer brings his years of industry experience, including launching a biotech company, to his current academic position. "People didn't understand," he says, "how you go through an evolution of deciding whether a particular scientific idea or concept has commercial potential." So Baer set up a seminar series at Stanford that invites successful people to show how they've taken their ideas to market.
"Working with technologies that have distinct commercial applications and seeing what the limitations of the technologies are often leads you to do the best science," he says. "And in many instances, [they] have really directed me toward interesting theoretical models and innovations that would be comparable to what you would arrive at through a curiosity-driven process."
Baer enjoys his work and his students at Stanford--for now. He sees his situation as "the revolving door in its most positive sense;" he expects to leave at some point to launch another new company.
Neither Baer nor DiMarchi expects industrial researchers to storm the ivory tower and take over university departments, but both believe that this kind of faculty diversity, and the increasing crosstalk between industry and academia that it facilitates, can benefit both sides.
Not everyone who returns to academia focuses on entrepreneurial science; others go back because they want to teach--which can require a different kind of risk-taking. Five years ago, chemist Lance Silverman wanted to take his 20 years of industrial experience in synthesis, materials science, and analytical techniques into the classroom. He had worked for several different companies, starting out at Engelhard and ending at Scott Specialty Gases. Teaching seemed like a way he could make a difference in the lives of young people, and he liked the idea of pursuing research without commercial constraints. "I don't have children," he says, "and I wanted to have younger people in my life." When he was offered a 1-year appointment at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, he took it.
At the end of that year, he accepted an instructor position at Yeshiva University in New York City. Then he faced the challenge of building an academic research area without the start-up package that universities offer tenure-track faculty, while starting over in research. "The things I'd worked on in industry were proprietary, dangerous, too expensive, or too applied to be suitable for academics," he says.
A former colleague--a researcher at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City--suggested that they collaborate on research into mineral deposition in bone tissue. It wasn't chemistry exactly, but it drew on his knowledge of inorganic chemistry, and it was a hot area that was relevant to his students--all are undergraduates, and many are premed. Initially, he centered his research program at the Hospital for Special Surgery, where he had a corporate grant that funded materials, a part-time technician, and a summer stipend for a Yeshiva student. At Yeshiva, he worked with students wherever he could, using the equipment and materials he could find.
After 3 years as an instructor, he was promoted to a tenure-track position--with a startup package and, finally, the opportunity to set up his laboratory on campus. He has applied for grants and is already publishing and presenting in his new field. In addition to finding fulfillment in teaching and mentoring students, he says, "I like the fact that I'm steering my own ship in terms of research. I feel like an entrepreneur."
Other lessons from industry
Scientists who have returned to academia often find themselves drawing from their experience in industry either directly or indirectly. Silverman tells his students "war stories" from his broad experience in industry. He explains how sulfur hexafluoride can create fine bubbles in blood or how doctors can use nitric oxide to help premature babies breathe.
Pollock says that what he learned in industry has made him a better academic. Management training gave him tools to seek out students' strengths and tailor projects to individuals in his laboratory. He takes stock regularly and asks, "Okay, is this idea going to make it or not?" Industry, he says, teaches you to ask, "What do we need to do to get this experiment done tomorrow?"
Sarah Webb has a Ph.D. in bioorganic chemistry. She writes from Brooklyn, New York.
Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor .