Our Experience in Government, Academic, and Industry Based Research Labs (pt 4 of 4)

If you are thinking about making the transition to industry, or are interested in more information, PLEASE leave a comment or email me! I WISH someone had done the same for me and I would have made the move much sooner!! 

I personally separate government and industry based lab for two reasons, the first is the overall structure of this type of lab is different, and the second is that I consider industry to include for-profit science, such as biotech, pharma, some hospitals, private for profit companies, etc. This seems to be the type of lab people know the least about and it was hard for me to make the transition, but after having a horrible experience in an academic lab, and knowing that I’ll never be promoted any further than I already have been, it just wasn’t worth it to me anymore, so I made the jump. If there is interest, I’ll do a follow up post on the interview process, offer packages, etc.


Site Description

I currently work in an industry based lab, and have several friends who work for different companies that do similar work. Dr Hops has never worked in industry, so this will mainly be me describing my experience, and that of my friends who work for different companies. I work in a disease state and do metabolic research.

Institution Size 

This is a more complex question than for other types of research. Because we are all one company, we work as a unit with different functions. I personally work in a smaller unit of a larger whole. Because the structure and interaction of different groups is so different in industry than in the more common academic lab, see the attached figures for a pictorial representation of the general structure I’m going to discuss. There are about 15 people in my unit, and around 200 across different sites. When you include our support groups, this number is even higher.

Time Spent There

I have been with this company for about a year now. The average number of years in industry for my group is about 10, with a maximum of 20 years and the minimum being me at one year in industrial research.

Position & Short Job Description 

I am a scientist and the lab manager for a metabolic disease state group. Unlike academic science where you typically have all more senior people doing little actual lab work, everyone works in the lab in my group in varied degrees. The only exception is our director, which is the rough equivalent of the department chair. My position is a mixture of cell culture, in vivo and in vitro, and I am the primary user for our LC/MS system (UPLC-Mass Spec).

Gender Breakdown

As previously stated, please keep in mind that this varies HIGHLY by field of research.

For my particular group, it’s a slightly male heavy mix of general scientists, and all the team leaders are male. My director is also male, as are all of his bosses. Two of our support teams have female heads, and the same general breakdown by staff (with only slight skewing to male or female by group). One of these support groups has a female VP. Entry level positions are more likely to be female and higher level positions are much more likely to be male, but this is more of a retention issue than a lack of opportunity for advancement. I believe I’m the only female mass spec user at my site, or our two disease state affiliate sites (so around 20 people).

Interpersonal Interactions by Level  

How you’re treated based on educational background or position.

I am NEVER treated like my opinion doesn’t matter and the management genuinely cares when we purpose improvements for methods or general practices in the lab. I have face time with the VP of disease state cluster, which in academic equivalent is a tech getting to meet personally with the head of a collage.

Possibility for Advancement 

This is the one place I’ve worked that you can actually advance with only a BS or an MS. I’ll never be a department head, but they recognize intellectual and team contributions, so my formal title (and salary) can advance despite that. The higher you start, the easier it is to do this, but several people I work with have BS degrees and started in industry straight out of college. These people have been promoted 3 levels beyond a starting PhD, and have been at this level in two different companies, so it is not specific to where they work now.

Average Rate of Turnover   

The most common reason I’ve seen so far is that you are recruited to another company. Industry is notorious for layoffs, and I’ve seen 3 thus far, but it’s not as surprising as everyone outside of industry makes it seem. From what I’ve observed, the majority of people who make the transition to industry never go back to any other form of scientific lab, but very few stay until retirement at one facility. One of my coworkers stayed at the same site for another company for 15 years, but then the offer to leave was too good to pass up.

Another common reason for leaving is “restructuring” which is a major dirty word in this little corner of science. The company tends to try to shuffle current employees into newly created positions, over firing them or letting a whole group go, but this means you have to be MUCH more flexible so far as your range of scientific interest in order to not leave when they discontinue your favorite pet project (which they will do and it will be often). Some people don’t like this and decide to leave, others don’t feel the need to learn new skills associated with the new targets or areas of interest and also decide to leave.

If you like rapid change, and learning new skills often, industry is amazing! If you aren’t able to meet tight deadlines though, or are wasting resources and time, you will be fired. They also monitor all internet and computer activity while at work, and between that and all the cameras, you’ll get caught if you screw around all day. This doesn’t mean we don’t have fun at work, we definitely do.

Common Industry Lab Rumors Answered 

You make a lot more money than other forms of research labs 

Completely true. I more than doubled my salary by switching to industry based research.

Work-life balance? 

Since they pay us more, our time is very valuable. Because of this you have required vacations every year, which at my company, if you include our allotted vacation time with year end closures, adds up to ~5 weeks a year of vacation.

My company offers paternal leave when their spouse has a baby or when you adopt, and flexible work hours for new moms who decide to come back. A coworker took flexible work time after her maternity time, and didn’t come back full time again until 6-months post birth. Which in the US is an INSANE amount of time off.

They encourage us to use holidays and weekends to unwind and NOT check our work email. If I follow up on something during my technical time off, I get a thank you from my manager and then a comment that I should be enjoying my weekend. After nearly working myself to death at my last job, I can’t describe how refreshing this is… which makes me WANT to work harder for them.

All this being said, when you’re at work you’re expected to work and typically have a lot more projects running at once compared to academic labs. You’re also responsible for deadlines, and as I’ve mentioned, this is something we DO NOT miss.

Working for a for-profit research lab is extremely stressful and people burnout quickly 

Just like working in any scientific lab, sometimes it is stressful, particularly when we have approaching deadlines. Unlike most of the academic labs I’ve worked in, you NEVER miss a deadline in industry. For anything. Period. Negative results are expected at times, and are valued almost as much as positive results. Since you are in a for-profit environment, saving resources and working with a few very critical experiments to determine if a project is worth continuing and then deciding it isn’t, is just as valuable because then we can move on to other topics (they call these, go/ no go decisions).

You have to know someone in industry to get an industry job 

This isn’t always the case but I would say it is the norm. I didn’t know ANYONE in this area or in this company prior to starting. I was a cold online applicant AND interview, but was hired the same day as my 8 hour in person interview. None of the other people in my group were cold hires. They all were in industry before and knew someone who knew the hiring team or someone already hired. Industry science is a surprisingly small world, and because people tend to switch companies fairly often, it’s easy to know people at lots of different companies doing the same work as you. I don’t think this is any different than referrals in academia from someone you know over someone you don’t.

I do think the actual work and structure is different and I think that’s why they prefer people who have worked in industry or other high throughput facilities. It was an adjustment for me, for sure.

You don’t have a budget in industry  

Not true. Everyone has a budget. I think our budget is higher than any of my previous labs, but we also are expected to produce A LOT more work. Because we are one company but have multiple sites, part of our budget includes travel to and collaboration with these other groups.

One day you’ll get to work and be greeted by security, who has a box with all your things and you’ll be fired.  

I have no idea where this came from. No one at my level or above major management has ever had or seen this happen. The ONLY case where this is true is if you’re VP level or other positions where you have access to a lot of sensitive company information. My current director had this happen at a previous company because he had 2000 employees under him, and that was how the company dealt with EVERYONE at that level. It wasn’t malicious and everyone went to lunch with him afterward.

Yes, layoffs are pretty common, but you generally know about them in advance and because other companies love to hire each others staff, finding another job isn’t as hard as it sounds (per my friends who have worked in industry for a long time). You are also not tossed out on your ass, you’re typically offered a severance package from anywhere of a month to six months of pay (sometimes a percentage sometimes your full salary).


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