Benchwork Outside of Academia: A Career Interview with an Industry Scientist

By Stephanie Baringer

Many trainees enter graduate school because they truly enjoy performing experiments. They live off the feeling of when an assay finally works after months of optimization. For some, the highs of success outweigh the lows of failed experiments. However, the thought of becoming a principal investigator (PI) and running your own lab, complete with having to write grant after grant to ensure funding may not be appealing. An alternative option to keep your love of the bench is to become a scientist in industry, usually at a pharmaceutical or biotech company. While this position was once viewed as “selling out” by those in academia, more and more researchers are finding the professional and personal benefits of staying at the bench in this environment. If you are interested in industry benchwork but worried about myths you have heard, I highly recommend checking out the NIH Office of Intramural Training Education blog. From development of drugs to assay validation, there are many paths an industry scientist can take.

Below is my interview with Stefka Gyoneva, a Scientist II at Biogen working on developing treatments for pediatric epilepsies that are caused by single gene mutations. If you are interested in learning more about this career path, you can reach her via LinkedIn.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions presented are her own and do not reflect those of her current or past employers.

Can you please tell me about your career path?

I got my PhD in biological and biomedical sciences at Emory University working on the modulation of microglial motility by G-protein coupled receptors and its relevance to neurodegenerative diseases in the pharmacology department. After grad school, I knew I was interested in working in industry. I also knew I had to do a postdoc to be competitive. I found a postdoc position in an academic lab at the Lerner Research Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. About one year into my postdoc, the PI of the lab decided to move into industry to start a lab, and he took many of us with him. I thus continued my postdoc at Biogen. This was my “in” with the company, and when a full-time position of Scientist became available, I applied and got it. I should mention that this path into industry is kind of rare. Most people will not join a lab that moves everyone to a company. It is much more common for an individual to get an industry postdoc. Anyway, I have been moving up in Biogen ever since, and that was about 6 years ago.

What made you leave academia? Did you always know that wasn’t the right path for you?

Yes, I knew I wanted to go into industry as I was finishing undergrad. I did a summer internship with Merck and really liked how collaborative and friendly the environment was. Additionally, the idea of working on a project that is very close to the clinic appealed to me. In industry, the science is very driven by the goals of the project. You hear that industry scientists don’t have freedom or flexibility, and this is true in some sense. We have a goal for the project, so we are limited on exploratory research. Furthermore, you are always trying to “kill” a project. That might sound counterintuitive, but if you actively try to disprove your hypothesis, the science can be more rigorous. If a project survives, the therapeutic target is more likely to work. We want to determine very early if the science is there because it costs a lot of money to keep a project going.

What are your main responsibilities?

My responsibilities are very similar to those of academic research. When I first started at Biogen as a Scientist I, I was at the bench most of the time. Overall, there is a lot of collaborating with others and project meetings, similar to lab meetings. Eventually as the project moves forward, you get more people on your team and you move up as a manager, like a senior scientist in a lab. This results in more data review and presentations than benchwork. As with most things, this varies from company to company.

What does a typical week look like?

Right now, because of the needs of the project, I do very little bench work, and that was the case before COVID. I spend about half my time in meetings with my team that is doing the benchwork, other groups at Biogen that we collaborate with on different aspects of the project, and with other scientists to talk about science. The majority of my remaining time is spent preparing presentations or reports and administrative work. Sometimes when needed, I return to the bench.

What kind of salary can one in this position expect?

This varies widely based on location, company, and experience. Speaking from my personal experience living in the Boston area, which is very expensive, an entry level Scientist I after a postdoc can make in the range of $80,000 – $100,000 and this goes up with experience. Benefit packages are something else to think about; things like vacation days, retirement options, stock options, and more. Larger companies typically have better benefits than smaller companies or start-ups, which could balance out a lower base salary.

What do you like most/least about your job?

What I like most is how scientific and driven the work is. There is always a goal to reach for and I find that very inspiring. There is a lot of critical evaluation of data and projects, with lots of discussion, even more so than academia. This is to ensure we are doing the best possible science. My colleagues are supportive and critical of our work in order to make projects stronger and more likely to succeed in the clinic. What I like least is the business-driven decision making. Projects can be stopped for a business reason rather than a scientific reason. While this makes sense from the company standpoint, which is a for-profit business, it can be hard to let things go.

What traits or skills do you think are most beneficial for this career?

I think the most important skills are scientific thinking and critical evaluation of science. It is important that you can understand and communicate science. You need to be able to constantly read literature and see the caveats of the data. These are the skills that you cultivate in graduate school.

What kind of advancement opportunities does your position have?

This is something I am still learning, but any opportunity is open. If I want to stay along the scientific path, you can move up overseeing a large group of scientists, akin to running your own lab, to department chair or even head of research and development. However, this isn’t the only thing you can do with your scientific skills. You can move into other areas like science communication, patient advocacy, communicating with investors, and medical affairs. It is much easier to move into these areas if you are already in the company as a Scientist.

How do most people get into this field? What are common entry-level jobs?

Most people can get hired fairly easily if they have been exposed to industry science at some point. It is best to find and apply through job postings online. In Boston, since there are so many companies concentrated here, it is very common to build a network and find scientist careers. It is also common for a person to work in an academic lab that has a partnership with a company and that person transitions to the company.

Do you think a postdoc is required? Why or why not? 

A postdoc is not required, but it is very difficult to be offered this job without one. The postdoc serves as a conformation of your skills and independence. Some say it is better to get an industry postdoc, but I would say there is not much of a difference between industry or academic postdocs in terms of successfully getting this position.

What current issues and trends in the field should those considering this position know about/be aware of?

One trend that I have noticed being in R&D is that there has been a transition of drug development to more experimental therapeutic approaches such as gene therapy and RNA interference. There is a general shift away from small molecules. People with experiences in those approaches would have an advantage over those who do not.

Any last bit of advice for people considering this position?

I would say the most important thing is to keep looking for job postings. Contact people you know at the company to help get you connected to the hiring manager. When you get to the interview stage, it is important to be able to communicate effectively. Additionally, companies look for independent critical thinking skills as well as the ability new learn things.

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