Think You Can Teach? Tips on Moving from Pharma to Academia

March 15, 2012
You will need to work at least twice as hard, says an ex-Pfizer scientist. "This is NOT a retirement, fade-into-the-sunset kind of job."

[Editor's note: It’s a good bet that most experienced drug industry professionals have, at one time or another, wondered what it would be like to teach—even full time, to make the switch from the corporate/industrial world to academia. What follows are the experiences of Michael Pollastri, Associate Professor of Chemistry & Chemical Biology at Northeastern University, and a former principal scientist in Chemistry at Pfizer Global R&D. The text was originally posted as a comment on Derek Lowe’s In the Pipeline blog. Permission to republish has been granted by the author and Lowe.]

From Pharma to Academia

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. 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. 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. Salarywise, 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.

About the Author

Michael Pollastri | Michael Pollastri