As we approach the finishing lines of our PhD programmes, our stress levels about what comes next are rising. We worry about how to get a foothold in areas that interest us professionally once we have our degrees. We all felt a pull towards industry and wanted to learn more about this sector.
We are three fourth-year PhD students at Norwegian universities. E. J. is studying antibiotic resistance, K. A. H. is studying precision oncology and N. S. B. is studying psychiatry genetics. We all expect to receive our degrees in the next year.
Reports have documented that the majority of new PhD holders will not land an academic research position1–4. But most PhD programmes don’t prepare students for a career in industry. Many of us find it hard to get information about how to make the leap. This can be not only a huge struggle, but also extremely demotivating after having completed a PhD and feeling ready to tackle the world.
For a successful transition from PhD to employment in industry, you need to take the reins yourself — and the earlier you start, the better. After reading up on corporate life, including how to write a CV that would land us job offers from private companies, we learnt about an enormous opportunity: a funded industry internship through the Center for Digital Life Norway, a collaboration among several Norwegian universities that is funded by the Research Council of Norway.
We signed up straight away. One application letter later, and with our supervisors on board, we were each able to take a three-month leave of absence from our PhD programmes and depart to Trondheim, Norway; Oslo; and Stockholm.
My journey took me to Trondheim, where I worked from September to December 2020 at a small start-up called GlucoSet, which is developing a glucose sensor made of glass fibre and polymers. This company is filled with smart people with a really good, marketable idea. I chose the company to get completely out of my comfort zone.
So what did a microbiologist learn in a company that focuses on creating and selling a disposable glucose sensor?
Be adaptable. I had no petri dishes or media to grow my bacteria in, but I did have lots of medical plastic and optics. Getting thrown into the deep end, I quickly realized that being a good scientist can land you a job almost anywhere. Even if the topic is out of your comfort zone, most workplaces need people with research skills (such as analytical thinking) who can conduct literature reviews, check lab consumables and perform statistical analyses. And, with our own PhD training, we have each of these skills already.
‘Done’ is the new ‘perfect’. I needed to learn to fight my perfectionism. It was more important for me to adhere to the baseline of industry standards — it didn’t matter by what margin. Your test set-up needs to fulfil all the basic requirements; perfection will follow. Those small victories are fuel to propel you onwards and help you to gain momentum.
Work it out. It took me a while to realize that knowledge is money. In academia, you can strike up a conversation with most people, and get protocols or clear up a misunderstanding over Zoom. But in industry, at least in my case, it was hard to get external knowledge for a project. Information was scarce in general; I would just hear about standards set by the International Organization for Standardization mentioning that I would need ‘devices a, b and c’ and that ‘the measured result should be ±4’. Which manufacturer you buy devices from, and the procedures for using them, are generally up to you, and nobody will tell you. I seldom got help from anyone outside the company.
Value your time and labour. Working at a company means conducting a constant cost–benefit analysis: should I buy new, state-of-the-art equipment, or should I try to muddle along in a similar set-up with old devices? And how much time do I need to invest to get the equipment up and running? Are we confident that it will work at all? Most surprisingly, spending huge amounts of money for new equipment is often more cost-effective than labouring away for days or weeks using old equipment. Keep your value in mind.
My internship took me to the research and development department at IDL Biotech in Stockholm. The company’s focus on in vitro diagnostic tests for cancer and bacterial infections matched my interests perfectly, and I was part of the team in no time. Here’s what I learnt.
Think outside the box. Does my wet-lab background mean that I must apply only for jobs requiring lab-based experience? Absolutely not. My daily interactions with other departments, such as marketing and sales, and quality control, allowed me to pick up knowledge and new experience in fields that I had never known would spark my interest. Don’t ring-fence yourself: be open to learning new skills and discovering unknown career trajectories.
Change your thinking. Coming from academia, I was taken by surprise when encountering questions such as “How will it sell, and who is the target?” while I discussed a new medical device with the marketing team. I became aware that, for a product to hit the market properly, the product maker must understand the end user and their needs. A solution on paper might not always be a marketable one.
Combat ‘fear of missing out’. Before the internship, I worried whether industry was the right destination for me — but most of all, I feared that the time away from my research project would affect my PhD programme. However, the internship in Stockholm allowed me to gain invaluable skills and to develop myself personally. This not only benefited my PhD programme on my return, but also changed my outlook on future opportunities. The short time I took for the internship was not lost and was truly worth the effort.
Snakker du Skandinavisk/Do you speak Scandinavian? Like many expats in PhD programmes, I have struggled to balance learning Norwegian with my daily work. However, having a good foundation in one of the Scandinavian languages, which have many similarities, allowed me to go abroad and work in a Swedish company. This emphasized to me the value of putting in the time and effort to learn the local language, which can open doors for personal and professional gain, even across borders.
My interest in taking an industrial internship was sparked when my principal supervisor shared her journey in a biotechnology company with me. Besides revealing some of the intricacies of the industry, my internship at Theracule — a start-up company that focuses on developing therapies for people with drug-refractory epilepsy — brought me valuable experiences that perhaps my PhD training alone could never have offered.
Be flexible. The internship helped me to realize the importance of versatility. Most start-ups tend to have a smaller workforce in which an employee assumes multiple roles. Although I used my competence as an experimenter, I soon found myself working on tasks from regulatory requirements to writing investigational new-drug applications for clinical trials in the United States.
Details matter. Quality management is king. Every detail from procurement to production processes must be archived and tracked: the more details you document, the less you have to worry about product management. This, in turn, allows the company to run a tight ship, slimming down costs and facilitating collaborations. During my internship, another company wanted to outsource some experimental work to us. Before we could accept the contract, we had to answer an audit questionnaire largely based on animal welfare (regarding, for example, husbandry, health monitoring and veterinary services). To do that, we had to unearth years of paperwork — and we had all the details we needed to fulfil that company’s needs. Our inability to satisfy its requirements would have meant losing out on a lucrative opportunity.
Translational value rules. Research in industry is not just for the sake of knowledge. Whatever question a company might explore must be based on solving a societal problem. The incentive that drives industry is the need for a product to improve the life of an end user. The product will not sell otherwise.
Reflecting on our individual experiences as interns, we are surprised by how many feelings and observations we share. Although we were all drawn to industry, none of us had completely grasped how different each subsector is.
All in all, these internships were a golden ticket for each of us: the positive feedback from our work, the skills we got to apply and the insight we gained allowed us to prove our worth as scientists. A change is as good as a rest. We are thankful to Digital Life Norway for the opportunity to undertake this journey and for the support it offered. We encourage every PhD student to look for similar opportunities to expand their horizons.