We are excited to share our next career corner interview with Dr. Corinne Sadlowski, a scientist who agreed to share her experience in Industry and some key aspects about transition from academia to Industry. Dr. Sadlowski received her Ph.D. in Organic chemistry from University of Vermont and her postdoctoral training from University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Sadlowski serves as a Scientist of Medicinal Chemistry at R2M Pharma, Inc. focusing on development of opioid receptor modulators.
You’ve chosen to transition to a career in industry after a fruitful career in academia. How did you determine that industry is the right fit for you?
Initially, I envisioned myself as a lifetime academic and had no intention of leaving the academic sector. During my postdoc, I became involved in the postdoc association and took advantage of the many opportunities they offered. I attended several site visits to local pharmaceutical companies and one speaker in particular at Novartis discussed his transition to industry. He was first a professor at UCSF and after a decade there, could summarize his entire research efforts as one sentence in a textbook. He moved because of the potential to have a greater impact on human health in an industry setting. I found this to be very enlightening, so I compared the potential impact that my academic research would optimally provide to that of being a medicinal chemist in industry and decided that having greater impact to me, meant developing potential life-saving drugs in industry.
This understanding developed over the period of about a year until I fully decided that I wanted to learn the trade of an industrial medicinal chemist. I intend to teach at some point during my career or perhaps even fully transition back to academia where my experience from both sides of the fence would be useful for students considering both.
In your opinion, what transferable skills are valued for recruiting recent PhDs to industry positions?
I came from a postdoc in the department of bioengineering, not chemistry, so my competition was steep, and I wasn’t convinced I could even get my CV looked at for a Chemist position. So, I reached out to peers that had the position I wanted and asked what was most important in getting an industry job. The number one response was that you must be trainable. Part of this means that you must be a good communicator and play well with others.
Another part of this involves being malleable and having an attitude open to learning. This isn’t an obvious transferrable skill, though it was mentioned to me on several different occasions and has turned out to be invaluable to both setting up my resume to showcase this, as well as in practice once I obtained an industry position.
Describe similarities and differences that you perceived between research in academia and in industry.
I was really afraid when I started my job that my skills wouldn’t be “up to speed”. My supervisor quickly dispelled this belief and insisted that academia is great as training, but you’ll learn most of the trade once you start. The skills you learned are applied in essentially the same manner, just maybe shinier instrumentation that enables you to get answers faster.
Because of this, your workflow is much more efficient and therefore, expectations and timelines tend to be shorter. I was honestly surprised at how little of a difference there was. After the initial learning curve, the skillset you acquire in any academic lab transfers readily to an industry lab.
One major difference is how your time is split. Academia has weekly seminars, group meetings, classes, whereas in industry, your time is committed mostly to lab work (in my case), with maybe one or two meetings a week.
What advice can you give to a young scientist looking to transfer to industry?
You are more capable than you think. I can’t tell you how much I wish I had someone tell me that! For some reason, the field of chemistry lacks adequate mentors and having an advocate would have given me confidence to approach an industry position much earlier.
I remember hearing from a professor in my department that there was no reason to pursue a PhD if you had no intention of becoming an academic professor. Now I know this is complete nonsense, but as a meager student I didn’t know any better, so I completely shied away from even entertaining the idea of working in industry. Don’t be afraid to look into careers that interest you even if your PI isn’t supportive. Find the right people who are supportive and never stop asking questions!
Most people are incredibly willing to discuss their opinions and dish advice. LinkedIn is a great place for this, and cold-messaging someone who has a job you eventually want is a great place to start. Also, take advantage of professional meetings. This is the play place of your profession and people tend to speak very freely about their career. I benefited greatly from industrial site visits. If you don’t have this at your institution, look into establishing a group of peers with shared interests. It’s hard for a department to be unsupportive of this; after all, your department is responsible for providing you with an education and being informed about job opportunities is part of this.
In your view, what is the most challenging aspect of your job compared to academia?
Honestly, the lack of freedom in schedule. Graduate and postdoc labs usually allow you the freedom to conduct research that adheres to your own schedule, with the caveat that you’re expected to work much more than a 40 hr work week. Industry jobs have a start and end time, and getting used to this inflexibility was challenging. Learning to work within the constraints of deadlines, I would rank second to this. Compounds need to be finished within a specified window so that the biology team can get their assays ready. Being late slows down this process and creates inefficiencies, so learning to manage your time in order to meet deadlines had a steep learning curve. Once you get into the groove of your workflow, this becomes much more manageable.
Do you think that your academic curriculum prepared you well for an industry position? Have you ever felt that there could be some changes for better preparation?
I think it did a great job at providing me with the technical tools needed to succeed. In my case, this was the practical skills that you are expected to enter knowing (i.e., proper organic chemistry technique, designing compounds routes, running and interpreting NMR data, etc.). It did not prepare me for adequately presenting science.
I think having more opportunities to discuss your data would have been beneficial. My graduate group did not regularly hold group meetings, so I didn’t have much practice at putting together talks that were efficient at communicating data. Being able to speak using appropriate terminology is an exercise that gets easier only after ample practice.
What parts of your job do you enjoy most and why?
Getting to see the theory of organic chemistry put into practice. By this, I mean that you can make logical changes on a molecular scaffold and observe how these changes result in a predicted effect. For example, when I started on my current project, we had a lead molecule that did not penetrate the blood-brain barrier. We made several structural changes, and in no time, we had a structure that got into the brain. Both knowing and seeing with my own eyes that science is a logical practice in observance of the natural world is an incredible phenomenon. Oh, and happy hour!