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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 7, 2012

Making the Move From Industry to Academia

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Posted by Derek

I have a reader who's in the process of moving from an industrial setting to teaching medicinal chemistry. He wanted to know if I'd ever written about that topic, and I have to say, I don't think there's been a post dedicated to it yet. I know that many people have done just this (and there are many more who are thinking about it).

So let's talk - are there are others out there who've made the switch? What are some of the things to look out for? I know that this answer will vary, depending on the job and the type of academia, but it'll be worthwhile hearing some first-hand experiences. Anything from dealing with funding, to integrating your industry experience into your teaching, to the whole culture shift - comment away, and thanks!

Comments (40) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Academia (vs. Industry)


1. bastard on March 7, 2012 7:48 AM writes...

Who can afford to move in that direction?

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2. CR on March 7, 2012 7:56 AM writes...

Who can't afford to move in that direction?

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3. former schmerckoid on March 7, 2012 8:01 AM writes...

Dear bastard,

It's not always a matter of economics.

After being downsized as a bench scientist at Merck (>20 years), I found that there are not too many industry jobs out there - especially in ID research.

I was lucky enough to land a job in an academic lab, with an OK salary and great projects. By "OK salary" I mean I can at least pay the mortgage and stay in my house


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4. 4 on March 7, 2012 8:08 AM writes...

I think John Porco is a good example of an industry to academia move. I'm sure there are many others.

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5. p on March 7, 2012 8:18 AM writes...

As an academic with a deep respect and appreciation for industrial scientists, my advice would be to make that feeling mutual. I've known several industrial chemists who move to academia and see it as a "retirement" of sorts. They both have the feeling that the job is easy and that, because their salary goes down, they don't have to work as hard. Those folks also tend to think industrial scientists are "better".

Needless to say, those folks do not endear them to their colleagues. If arrogance and laziness are the first impression, you never get over it, no matter how fast you learn.

I do say this with respect. I've seen plenty of folks make the move and bring in a fresh perspective and work their butts off. Those folks tend to do well and are well liked.

As for specific advice: seek out advice from colleagues on teaching, make sure you get several perspectives on your proposals, don't expect first year grad students to be as good in the lab as your former tech who had 20 years of experience. Don't be afraid to speak your mind about foolish stuff you see, just do so tactfully. There is a lot of foolishness in academia and, by and large, academics know it. If you can offer a solution or can minimize the foolishness in some way, most will appreciate it.

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6. The Heterocyclist on March 7, 2012 8:21 AM writes...

Another good example is Chris Hulme (ex-Amgen & Lilly) at Arizona.

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7. PharmaHeretic on March 7, 2012 8:26 AM writes...

Any thoughts on virtual clinical trails?

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8. Loving_It on March 7, 2012 8:33 AM writes...

It's been about 7 years now since I left the halls of Merck and joined the ranks of academia. I was lucky enough to have a nice stepping-stone transition initially into a non-tenure track research position for a few years that allowed me to "ease" my way back into academia and gain some invaluable advice as I began to carve a path towards a tenure-track position. This was ideal for me. To land a tenure-track position directly from industry you will need to convince your future colleagues that your research proposals are novel (not simply targets you worked on in industry), that you have much to offer in the way of training students both in the classroom and the lab and you have a good handle on how the NSF and NIH funding mechanisms work (i.e. the difference between an R21 and R01 and where you will apply). If you land a faculty position, depending on your level of experience, chances are you will be better equipped to bring your lab up to speed, manage your group more efficiently and inspire students in the classroom with real-world experiences easier than those assistant profs coming straight out of a post-doc. Pace yourself and pick projects that you can turnaround on a dime (i.e. methodology) since you will be busy learning the ropes (and getting papers are your golden ticket to "American Idol" status). Find a senior colleague who can mentor you and help manage your time writing grant proposals to agencies where you have a decent shot (not all money comes from NIH/NSF). Remember, you are on an island now and ideas must flow from you rather than the management ether from up above. Use your training from industry to set milestones and goals for yourself and your group and I believe you will find yourself loving your new digs. Oh, don't forget that your previous mentors in academia are a great resource as well. There is much more (i.e., negotiating start-up package, titrating your administration, teaching load, etc.) I would love to share but I've ran out of time......have to write another grant proposal..........

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9. Anonymous on March 7, 2012 8:37 AM writes...

Paul Reider - Merck to Princeton
Jim Janetka - AZ to Washington University

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10. Just Sayin' on March 7, 2012 8:45 AM writes...

Sylvia Jurrison: Ex-BMS now at Missouri (radiochemistry).

Majid Abou Gharbia: Ex-Wyeth big shot now at Temple (medchem).

Donna Huryn: Ex-Roche/Wyeth now at Penn & Pitt (organic & medchem).

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11. Anon on March 7, 2012 8:52 AM writes...

Craig Lindsley - Merck ->Vanderbilt
James Barrow - Merck -> Johns Hopkins

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12. jd on March 7, 2012 9:20 AM writes...

Despite the examples above, this kind of transition is rare and much more difficult than industry people think. It makes me laugh when I hear younger industry colleagues say things like, "maybe I'll send my CV for academic jobs and see what happens". Ok. Sure, chief. Needless to say few if any even get an interview.

The main problem is that the typical research I tenure-track position is far more competitive than an entry level Ph.D. industry position - even in this economy. Unless you've really made a name for yourself in industry, I'm skeptical that this is a viable option. Keep in mind that the people above who have successfully pulled this off could have EASILY found jobs at other large pharma and biotech firms if they wanted to, even in this crappy job climate. People toying with the idea of making the transition simply because they read the 'writing on the wall', or because they're thinking now (in hindsight) that the downsides of industry really do suck, are being a bit naive.

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13. Rick Wobbe on March 7, 2012 9:27 AM writes...

Two points,
1. Whether currently employed or not, to try to get an adjunct position at a local university and teach a graduate level class in your specialty. I did and it was a great experience that richly informed my career ideas.

2. Teaching high school science. I taught high school chemistry. Yes the pay is lousy, so it's not a good financial move. But, equally importantly, it is much harder than most people, myself included, ever would think and the majority of people simply aren't cut out for it. Nonetheless, I can tell you there is a significant need for well-qualified secondary school science teachers and our industry experience does add something uniquely valuable. If you would like to discuss the pros and cons of this, feel free to contact me at

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14. You're Pfizered on March 7, 2012 9:53 AM writes...

T. V. (Babu) RajanBabu at OSU, although his industrial job was more or less academic

Steve Fesik former Abbott Oncology VP, now at Vanderbilt

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15. Curious Wavefunction on March 7, 2012 10:06 AM writes...

I think the people who moved from industry to academia were mainly those who published lots of academic-style papers during their industrial career. Most of those cited in this comment thread were in that category. Those days of course are behind us.

A recent example of the move is Terry Kenakin from GSK (now at UNC) who published groundbreaking papers on GPCR function.

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16. p on March 7, 2012 10:07 AM writes...

Incidentally, I know academics who frequently consider sending in CVs for industrial jobs because it would be less...something. Pressure, intensity, demanding?

Basically, the grass is always greener and humans have a wonderful capacity to convince themselves they and their kind are better than others.

I think 8, 12 and 13 make good points. It's a good job (academics) in many ways and, if you are of a certain temperment, it's a great job. But it is a job. It can be hard, frustrating and there will be lots of days where you just want to chuck it all. As I imagine, in that respect, it's much like an industrial job. Or any job.

Also, the pay isn't up to what pharma pays but teaching at the college level (at least outside of community colleges and the like) is hardly subsistence living.

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17. chemistsanonymous on March 7, 2012 10:11 AM writes...

Agree with #5 - academia is not a way to ease into retirement. If you join the faculty at a small,undergraduate-only institution, be ready to do it all: be a solid teacher in the classroom, mentor undergraduate research students and try to maintain an active and productive research program without graduate students or post-docs. Meanwhile, you'll need to fulfill your committee duties, repair instruments (they always fail at the most "convenient" times), maintain instruments (yes, we do our own N2 and He fills on our NMR), prep your teaching labs, maintain a stockroom, deal with waste disposal, etc. Don't get me wrong - teaching at a small college is VERY rewarding, but it most definitely is not a part time job!

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18. Chemjobber on March 7, 2012 10:55 AM writes...

For those considering moving from industry to academia, I ask the question: Does the academic funding situation seem better?

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19. respisci on March 7, 2012 11:10 AM writes...

Cultural differences- I found the pace of academia to be slow (glacial) for decision making, changing direction, getting accounts opened, getting personnel on payroll etc Remember some universities have been here for over a hundred years and they aren't about to change their culture just for you. (Do agree that some universities are more efficient than others and some companies are slow too). As there is no common goal you may face resistance or complete lack of interest in getting help and support. For example a certain administrator gets paid whether your grant gets accepted or not so they may not help you to get signatures or whatever you need. ( I have heard the phrase "not my job" often in academia). Also you may find internal processes are vague and while people are eager to tell you that you can't do it that way they aren't as forthcoming on the correct way/procedure to do it. You may also face changes in policies that seem to exist to just mess your life-for example, how to activate a Purchase order to obtain reagents or equipment etc. Now depending on the industrial company you just left you may not notice a difference!

If you are becoming the PI of a lab does your university have grant writing support? You most likely may need help in this area. Keep up your industry contacts and see if you can get some initial funds from them. (Some universities love industrial support!) Search out other means of funding along with the standard gov't agencies -check out trusts, charities etc. Try to establish collaborations with colleagues early on as you spend time setting up your lab.

You can have more "freedom" for your research focus in academia which may be exactly what you want and need.

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20. milkshake on March 7, 2012 11:24 AM writes...

A number of ex-industry chemists moved to Scripps Florida when the funding there was good. There was functioning HTS center with very large and good quality chemical collection libraries. Soon sampant fight over the control of projects and people ensued. Then the money run out. The published results are distinctively a mixed bag, the inability to identify and develop a clinical candidate related to mismanagement of the (weakened) medchem groups there. They have been in cost-cutting/survival mode for awhile, with the hoods staffed mostly by postdocs from South Asia. Getting NIH to fund traditional medchem is hard indeed.

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21. darwin on March 7, 2012 11:36 AM writes...

...and such the revolving door starts spinning full circle. Pharma has succeeded in exhausting every avenue of corporate shenanigans other than focusing on a commitment to develop medicines.

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22. skeptical on March 7, 2012 11:41 AM writes...

These types of moves seem to be most beneficial for the PI-type who will spearhead the research - and so be it, obviously they need a job, but what will happen to the students and post-docs in such groups? As has been debated in this blog in the past, it's generally given that students from med-chem & chemical biology groups and programs are regarded as second-rate by hard-core biologists and chemists. And these folks had a tough time getting jobs when the industry was in much better shape. Some of the chemistry and biology carried out in research and publications by these groups is pretty straightforward.

I think this is a trend of ex-director and VP-level folks finding jobs in academia, but, I don't think it bodes well for students and post-docs in such groups because such training is generally frowned upon by industry folks who come from hard-core biology or total synthesis backgrounds.

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23. Wheels17 on March 7, 2012 11:49 AM writes...

I can't comment on industrial chemist -> chemistry professor, but when I was a chemical engineering student, the professors that had some industry experience were much more effective.

The ability to relate the studies to practical application made the courses much more interesting. They also seemed to stay much more on track, as the academia-only professors tended to wander deeply into their favorite subtopics at the expense of the broader curriculum.

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24. Zippy on March 7, 2012 11:57 AM writes...

Not surprisingly, a lot of drug discovery scientists have moved from industry to academics. Molecular Libraries and other academic programs have substantial contingents from Merck and other pharma. The research climate at many pharma has been degraded to such a degree that it seems as if anyone that can leave, does.

Grants and papers are the coin of the realm in academics, so to move successfully, it is necessary to have a continuous and abundant publication record and to increase the output quickly after moving. Experience reviewing NIH/NSF grants before moving can help. The biggest source of frustration after moving is the low funding levels and stochastic nature of grant review. Increased shots on goal is the usual adaptation.

Some things on the positive side include the energy of students/postdocs and the constant influx of new ideas and projects. Also, you may not make a drug, but at least your work can see the light of day. Down side considerations include: 1) most people are on a learning curve so that things that should be simple and quick are not, 2) US government support of research is not reliable on a long term basis, which may provide relative advantages to countries with better long term planning and commitment.

If you worked brutal hours in industry, it won’t get better, but you will have somewhat more control.

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25. partial agonist on March 7, 2012 1:05 PM writes...

I made the move several years ago after more than a decade in both large and mid-sized pharma. My move was to a research institute, so little teaching is involved.

Keep your eyes open to collaborate on good multidisciplinary projects, and find a place where that is possible. Many outstanding biologists have excellent targets but no chemistry resources. Remember that chemistry is needed to solve the problems, whether the issues are potency, selectivity, PK, whatever. Pharma has trained you to work in a team. That is a skill many academics lack, preferring to work more in isolation, so if you apply it well it gets you ahead.

It helps to be at a large place with screening capabilities and with animal pharmacology.

Many research institutes operate on 100% soft money, meaning your grants have to pay for everything, including institutional overhead (costs of maintaining the facility). It's a rough go, since you generally cannot apply for grants from foundations, which don't pay overhead. If you can get a start-up fund it will help! If you can get your department head to state in writing that you can seek and receive foundation support that doesn't pay full overhead, do it!

If you are instead at a place with teaching responsibilities, particularly undergrads, that can help with supporting your students.

Otherwise, use your expertise. From pharma it will be in drug discovery, so you will likely craft R21 grants, R01 grants, etc. that are likely partnered with co-PIs in biology and/or pharmacology. It is hard to get chemistry-only grants from a pharma background- the study sections are filled with only academics who are pedigree- and publication-conscious and don't understand that you likely have a long list of patents. Grants with study sections geared toward drug discovery will appreciate your knowledge, background, and skills better.

Start in a field /disease area you know and that offers possibilities to collaborate with other PIs in biology.

Hope this helps!

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26. MIMD on March 7, 2012 6:33 PM writes...

I went from academia to industry and then back to academia again. But that was a decade ago and longer. That is not an easy thing to do anymore.

I found academia and industry almost equally problematic, except that in academia (medical side anyway) the really bright people could shine, whereas in pharma, PC had made it impolitic to actually act like a smart, critically thinking person.

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27. hn on March 7, 2012 7:42 PM writes...

I moved from a small startup to academia. At my old company, I didn't have much fancy equipment. With equipment sharing and core labs, I actually have more resources now than I had in industry, and I am at a lower ranked R1 university. The biggest challenge is working with students. At my company, I was lucky to work with highly experienced scientists and research associates. Now I am working with completely inexperienced graduate and undergraduate students. By the time they are fairly well trained, they will have moved on. Finding good postdocs is really hard when you are starting out, especially for the 99% of us not at elite institutions. You really need to enjoy working with students. Otherwise, you will feel frustrated. You also need to learn how to motivate them now that you can't give out money, promotions, and stock options.

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28. ex-academic on March 7, 2012 8:09 PM writes...

As someone recently (last year) transitioned from academia (Assistant Professor) to industry, I can say with confidence that in today's funding climate, academia sucks big-time. If you're well-funded, academia rocks, but if you're a VP, industry rocks too. For us spear-chuckers that just to make things work, industry is way better.

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29. Entreprenuer on March 7, 2012 9:30 PM writes...

Why teach medicinal chemistry? If there are no jobs available in this country, why do you want students to go through all this pain for nothing?

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30. Dickweed Jones on March 7, 2012 9:49 PM writes...

Majid Abou Gharbia: Ex-Wyeth big shot?
You used the wrong vowel in "shot"

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31. Anonymous on March 7, 2012 10:01 PM writes...

Depending on which company a scientist is coming from, it might be hard to get a good resume together. I worked for a large chemical (not pharma) company where the best scientists were at the same level as P.I.'s at big universities, but almost all of their work was published in internal reports and not the open literature. People usually stayed for life until we were acquired a few years ago, so no one worried about a lack of external publications - all anyone needed was a good internal reputation. Not knowing you're going to be job-hunting until a few years ago is a huge obstacle to many people seeking to enter academia.

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32. Grignard on March 8, 2012 3:11 AM writes...

#31 I agree, fortunately, there is Org. Process Res. Dev., the ACS journal, filling this gap. There are tons of innovative results slumbering in batch records, reports, etc. that are not disclosed (even if they could from an IP perspective). I think process chemists could be more generous in sharing their great results, while simultaneously grading up their resume.

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33. dingdong on March 8, 2012 7:54 AM writes...

29. Entreprenuer on March 7, 2012 9:30 PM writes...

Why teach medicinal chemistry? If there are no jobs available in this country, why do you want students to go through all this pain for nothing?

That's the thing bro... I don't really know why. I feel like I'm the ruining lives of people from milli to kilo to mega scale, and as long as I get to play with my lab toys, it's justified.

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34. Rick Wobbe on March 8, 2012 9:01 AM writes...

As Derek suggests in his nice Atlantic piece, perhaps we don't need more scientists. Making more "mini-me's" will only increase (and possibly dilute) a pool of people who already can't find jobs in our current, scientifically gullible society. A more durable, beneficial goal would be to produce more scientifically literate non-scientist citizens who can better sift out the cynical rhetoric and anti-science biases that pervade American society and make informed votes and investments. THAT is the major underserved need in academic science, but it requires being willing to engage in the classroom at least as much as in the lab.

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35. BeenThereDoneThat on March 8, 2012 9:44 AM writes...

Did the switch some time ago. Many posts offer the same advice I would give. The only thing I could add concerns compensation. I was very well paid in pharma, but with consulting income added to my academic year and summer salary income from the university, I would estimate my current pay is twice what I would be getting if I stayed in industry. The downside is that you must put in very long hours - many more than the pharma folks.

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36. Mike Pollastri on March 8, 2012 10:40 AM writes...

I made the switch from industry in 2007, having been at Pfizer, and it’s too early to decide if it’s been successful or not. I started out at BU in a research faculty position doing hit follow-up med chem and providing med chem and synthesis support to several investigators at the med school, and was very lucky to have strong mentorship (John Porco, primarily) in grant writing and in running an academic lab. It was a soft money position, which required securing funding for my own salary plus lab supplies after a 3 year induction period. It takes a certain phenotype of person to be able to function well in that situation, especially given the funding challenges that are today’s reality. I realized that I am not that type of person.

I transitioned into a tenure track slot at Northeastern in 2009, and am continuing to build my med chem program in neglected disease drug discovery, which is a niche that I think can be nicely filled in the academic environment, especially by those who have done drug discovery in industry.

Some advice to those who are thinking of transitioning.

(1) Get good mentors who can show you the ropes at NIH and in your department. Collaborate with established investigators on grants as a co-Investigator. While you can read books about how to write grants, “grantsmanship” is an art form that is only learned over time and experience. Mentorship will make all the difference.
(2) Getting things done in academia often requires creativity and good knowledge of how things work in your institution. Per the comment above, academia moves slowly, but the environment is infinitely more flexible to allow you to achieve what you want to achieve.
(3) Research. Find a research niche where you can make a real impact as a med chemist. This will frequently be as a member of a larger, multidisciplinary team of other faculty collaborators, and this requires patience and perseverance to build these teams. Everyone has different priorities for their own research labs etc, and it takes a careful relationship builder to balance these and still make forward progress.
(4) Finding and maintaining collaborators. There is a huge wealth of investigators out there who have found great targets/pathways but do not know how to start the process of translating into a drug. This is a phenomenal opportunity for a med chemist with industrial experience to begin to build a program. However, you will find that the understanding of what drug discovery requires (what a druggable target/pathway is, what a druglike molecule is etc), varies widely across academia. Obviously a common theme on this blog. Once you find people you want to work with, take the time to teach what you know, rather than telling people “how we used to do it in pharma.” You get a lot further by sharing the “whys” than by telling “how it must be”.
(5) Look beyond NIH for funding – foundations, small companies, etc., and consider starting to grow relationships with small fee-for-service projects. These can sometimes blossom into sponsored research.
(6) You will need to work at least twice as hard, or more. This is NOT a retirement, fade-into-the-sunset kind of job. This is true even for those academic jobs where there is little or no research requirement….teaching is hard and time consuming if you want to do it well. The pressure in academia is real, and is different from person to person. For me, the pressure is keeping the lab funded. People like to get paid. Tenure is another kind of pressure: if you are brought in untenured, you will have 5-6 years to develop your program and demonstrate that you’re a keeper. There are very few jobs in the world that will give you 5-6 years of leeway to develop yourself and your programs, so in that sense, the pressure is lower (ie you won’t get laid off in a year or two). However, if you want to get tenure, you need to keep your eye on what the expectations are in your department, your Institution, and in your field. It can be a great unknown, and I am trying to navigate this myself.
(7) Maintain your industrial network – you will find that connections you have will be very useful to you down the road in terms of getting advice, placing students, acquiring cast-off equipment, etc.
(8) Have a few good research proposals in hand that you can submit for consideration. These proposals should develop a theme for your program, and clearly show how you will interface with others at the University and outside the University to achieve your goals. Importantly, give some serious thought about how you will fund this work – this specific question will come up when you are interviewing. Visit the NIH RePORT database to see what has been funded in the past. Do your homework.
(9) Salary wise- I agree with @35 above. You will likely take a salary cut, but remember that the salary quoted is typically an academic year salary (8 or 9 months), which leaves 3-4 months of summer salary that you can fill by getting grants funded. Most institutions also allow for as much as 20% consulting time on the side, which can improve your take-home. You also can get royalties for IP that you generate that is licensed.

Almost every day, I miss working in industry. Good projects, good science, great resources. However I do not miss the industrial worries about layoffs. I savor having the ability to initiate and advance projects I believe in, but, on the other hand, despise the constant battle to get funded. I enjoy teaching very much, both undergraduates and graduate students, and love mentoring my lab team. On the other hand, I worry about their jobs in the future, and try to teach my group as many employable skills as I can to try to improve their flexibility.

On the balance, I’m very happy I made the switch. It’s been really difficult, but well worth it.

While we’re on the topic, Northeastern is launching a sizable global health initiative for neglected disease drug discovery (4+ open tenured or tenure-track positions, all levels), and since we envision implementing an industrialized process, we’re looking for folks that have some industrial experience. We realize the publication and funding records of industrial drug hunters is sometimes lower, but the value of the experience is very high.

Hope this is useful.

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37. hn on March 8, 2012 10:02 PM writes...

Thanks, Mike, for the great post!

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38. alchemist on March 9, 2012 10:11 AM writes...

Yet another one: Youla Tsantrizos, BI -> McGill

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39. Goyard on May 19, 2012 12:57 AM writes...


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40. Terrell on May 29, 2013 10:53 AM writes...

This is the perfect site for everyone who wishes to understand this topic.

You understand so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that
I personally will need to…HaHa). You definitely put a fresh spin on a subject that has been discussed for years.
Excellent stuff, just wonderful!

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