Research in Academia or Industry? How to transition both ways and succeed
In a continuation of our recent article series on research outside academia, we talk to Dr. Chris Langmead about his diverse and successful career in drug discovery. After completing his PhD. at GlaxoSmithKline and University College London, Dr. Langmead has transitioned between roles in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry — with a recent move back to academia. He compares and contrasts his experiences, offering guidance to those wanting to transition between these sectors. Chris highlights the convergence between academia and industry over the past decades and the increased career opportunities he's encountered, as a result. His career journey serves to emphasise — it’s not a stark unalterable career choice between the two sectors, you can move both ways.
Non-academic researchers, who I have met and interviewed, cite several motivating reasons for making the move away from academia into commercial research. One commonly quoted rationale is that positions tend to be permanent in industry, rather than on a short-term contractual basis. Others state they receive better remuneration and have more opportunities for career progression. Some individuals who thrive in a commercial setting mention they enjoy the focus on applied research, with a more tangible outcome (e.g. a drug, therapy, device or other innovation).
Research and development in an industry setting often involves working in a multidisciplinary team, with colleagues from other disciplines and backgrounds. The latter is of appeal to them as it instigates more teamwork and communication opportunities.
In this article, we interview Dr. Chris Langmead who provides his personal insights into a thriving career that has spanned two distinct industry sectors — pharmaceutical and biotech, before taking him back to academia.
What does your current role involve?
I currently work as the Head of the Servier Drug Discovery Program at the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS), within Monash University. I lead the collaboration between MIPS and Servier, a French pharmaceutical company. We are currently funded for three collaborative drug discovery projects targeting G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) across several disease areas, including cardiology, neuroscience, metabolic disorders and rheumatology.
Can you describe the career path that lead to your transition to industry?
My career is totally atypical, showing you there is more than one way to skin a cat! I did my undergraduate degree in pharmacology at Cambridge and at that point, I was deciding whether or not to do a PhD afterwards or alternatively, just get a job in scientific research, to see if I liked it.
In the end I decided to opt for the latter.
My first role was as a graduate researcher at the pharmaceutical company, SmithKline Beecham. I really enjoyed the project focus of the work. After a couple of years there I realised I liked the commercial research environment but I still wanted to get a PhD, as it would help my career. In the meantime, the company went through a merger, and became GlaxoSmithKline. I was lucky that I didn’t experience a huge change in my role as a result of the merger; the team structure pretty much stayed the same.
I was about to leave, but the company offered me the opportunity to do a PhD. part-time via University College London (UCL). It was over a period of 5 years. Whilst doing a PhD. part-time is not easy, the advantage was that I was well funded and resourced. Additionally, I was gaining valuable commercial experience about drug discovery and starting to lead projects.
After gaining your PhD., how did your career change?
It wasn’t long after I finished my PhD that I took on my first lab head role, with my team working on early stage targets in the Psychiatry Drug Discovery department. I was at GSK for a total of nine years.
What skills does the pharmaceutical industry look for in a candidate?
I think you obviously need to be good at your core discipline and bring technical expertise. Additionally, if you can communicate and engage well and be adaptable, that is very helpful. So much of working in biotech and the pharmaceutical industry is about working with other people. You have to be able to do that well. You can’t work in isolation, you are not an island and you work with people both internally or externally. The most successful people in industry have scientific expertise and good team and communication skills.
What then prompted your move to the biotechnology, (biotech), sector?
There was a big reorganisation at GSK, and I didn't secure the job that I wanted in Neuroscience. I started to look around at the job market and applied for a Head of Pharmacology job at what was then a small biotech company, Heptares Therapeutics. We were a dozen people in a portacabin. The company grew exponentially during my time there and established very successful partnerships with a range of large companies including AstraZeneca, Shire and Novartis. In 2014 they were sold to a larger Japanese pharmaceutical development company, Sosei, to become their research hub.
What did you enjoy most about your time in the biotech sector and how did it differ from the pharmaceutical Industry?
My experience in biotech was very different to that in the pharmaceutical industry. For one the company grew very quickly over that period, from a dozen to around 70 people by the time I left. What I loved about the sector was that you don’t have the limitations and bureaucracy to deal with that you may have in a larger company setting. You have the potential for a lot more influence.
For example, I made key decisions like how the drug screening would be done, in what instances we’d do our own research and development (R&D) and to whom we’d outsource. Although, on the flip side, if you get to make the big decisions, you have to remember that the consequences are yours to deal with too — positive or negative.
Additionally, I enjoyed the variance of the role. The skill set you learn goes beyond the technical expertise and scientific leadership - it goes to finance, legal, human resources, business development and creating collaborations. All of this experience develops skills that are incredibly valuable for your career development.
I was head of the pharmacology department, so I was making important strategic decisions one day, but on the next day I could be crawling around on the floor trying to fix a piece of lab equipment. This kept me grounded and gave me a sense that everyone was working together, regardless of his or her role. The other thing I really like about biotech was that if you get the right people who are committed, it’s incredible what you can achieve with a small team. It was a really “full on” job, but honestly, I learnt as much in those three and a half years as I had up to that point. You can learn and progress quickly in this sector.
“What I loved about the (biotech) sector was that you don’t have the limitations and bureaucracy to deal with that you may have in a larger company setting. You have the potential for a lot more influence.”
Are there any downsides to working in the biotech sector?
So for me personally there weren't - but I was lucky to join the right biotech company, at the right time working with great people, like Fiona Marshall and Miles Congreve. I know some other biotech companies that have had a very different experience. They hit a financial situation where their venture funding or start-up money was getting tight. As a result people are laid off or it affects the way that the company operates in a critical way.
Initially, I used to think that biotech was a risk compared to being in ‘big pharma’. That was definitely the case when I started out. However, for people wanting to advance their careers it’s no different in the pharmaceutical industry now; people are made redundant and there are mergers and acquisitions. The risk is almost completely equalised.
One piece of advice I’d give to anyone making a career move from big pharma into the biotech sector is to make sure you vet the company you join. Ask yourself questions like — are they at the top of their game? Are they super smart people who know what they are doing? Heptares Therapeutics definitely fitted into these criteria. It’s as much about you interviewing them as them interviewing you.
What were the key influencers for you choosing a non-academic research career?
The turning point came in my undergraduate degree where I did my final year research project at a biotech company in Cambridge. I really liked the atmosphere and the way they worked. I got the idea that I wanted to work in the biotech or pharmaceutical sector. That set me on the train.
One thing to note is, 20 years ago, when I started, you were generally forced to make a decision fairly early in your career; there was little movement between academia and industry. Today the environment is much less black and white. Academics, smaller companies and the biotech industry are increasingly discovering drugs that are then taken through the clinical development phases by larger pharmaceutical companies. There is increased collaboration between pharmaceutical industries and academia and this convergence creates opportunities to move between the two sectors.
“20 years ago, when I started,you were generally forced to make a decision fairly early in your career; there was little movement between academia and industry. Today the environment is much less black and white… There is increased collaboration between pharmaceutical industries and academia and this convergence creates opportunities to move”
How has the transition affected your career as a researcher?
In a commercial setting, I feel you engage with so many people from different disciplines and business areas and become a much more rounded scientist. So, you may no longer be the world-leading expert in a narrow area, but you have a broader skill set.
What’s taken you to your current role, back in academia?
I had previously collaborated with Arthur Christopoulos and Patrick Sexton, here at MIPS in Melbourne, whilst I was at GSK. We’d kept in touch over the years. I had been approached for a role at another academic drug discovery centre, so I contacted Arthur for some background information. He told me that MIPS were in the process of setting up a large collaboration with Servier and asked me if I would be interested in directing the program. They arranged for me to meet Bill Charman, the dean and director of the institute, during a visit to London and then I made the journey over to Australia, to meet with everyone in person and talk about the role.
MIPS is a unique research environment. It’s home to seven of the most highly cited researchers in pharmacology and toxicology. It has a huge breadth of researchers, including medicinal chemists, formulation scientists, GPCR biologists, nanomedicine and drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics (DMPK) scientists. All the groups engage with industry and the Centre for Drug Candidate Optimisation serves as a Contract Research Organisation (CRO) for Australia and Asian markets. Overall. I was impressed by the scale and quality of what MIPS do.
Overall, it was not just a professional decision but also a personal one with my wife. We decided it would be a good time to try something new in our lives, moving to a foreign country. We really enjoy it, no regrets — we’ve been here five years now and feel very settled.
“In a commercial setting, I feel you engage with so many people from different disciplines and business areas and become a much more rounded scientist.”
What do you enjoy most about your current role in academia?
In academia, you can be a little bit more innovative and flexible in how you operate; I always got a little frustrated with the limitations of working in a big company. At MIPS, we’ve got funding and support in an environment that fosters creativity and innovation coupled with the support of industrial backers like Servier.
My lab is primarily funded by Servier, so the majority of what we do is commercially driven drug discovery. However, by just being one step removed from the company, we have flexibility and have the freedom to innovate. This can help progress our collaborative projects faster.
We’ve got up to 15 people working on the projects - relatively small in pharma terms. But the team is highly skilled; they do everything from molecular biology and primary screening to electrophysiology and in vivo biology.. We are pretty flexible in the way we work and we can access a whole range of resources that Monash University has to offer, including biomedical imaging, transgenic platforms and antibody production.
The other advantage of being in an academic environment is that I also have grants from the National Health and Medical Research Council, run academic projects and supervise PhD students. I really enjoy working with my lab team; they are absolutely fantastic and they are truly talented and hardworking people.
“In academia, you can be a little bit more innovative and flexible in how you operate; I always got a little frustrated with the limitations of working in a big company.”
Do you see any disadvantages of working in an academic setting versus your former industry setting?
In the first instance, a lot of people in academia don't fully appreciate what is involved in a commercial drug discovery project. Fortunately, this is less true at MIPS, as there is a lot of engagement with industry and research staff that have followed a similar path to me. However, beyond that it requires coaching and mentoring of post-doctoral staff to adapt to working in a real drug discovery group. I can help bridge the gap due to my experiences across pharma, biotech and academia.
One thing I see in academia is that some researchers really struggle broaden their projects and remain highly specialised in a very narrow area. The opposite is true in industry; I worked on so many different projects in so many different disease areas, I learnt to be adaptable.
Another disadvantage is that of a very competitive research funding environment, which can encourage researchers to pursue an individual agenda, rather than in teams. As a result, I have to emphasise that in drug discovery projects, we succeed and fail as a team. It’s not your project or anyone else's project. Getting people to change that academic mindset can be hard. I’m very lucky that my team has taken this on board; they are very supportive of each other and of me. Unfortunately in academia I’ve seen examples where people simply don’t appreciate this concept.
Why do you think that people may have less of a team approach in academia?
Pressure to publish is one contributing factor. People can be caught up in the need to be the first author or the last author on a paper. They don't seem to see that more collaboration could actually result in publishing in a higher impact publication. Some academic researchers don’t want to share at the risk of not being the first author on a paper. The level of competition and self-service becomes higher. The increasingly challenging funding environment leads to the natural consequence that individuals can feel possessive, e.g. “this is my data on my grant money” and get caught up in their own personal achievements.
What I stress to my team is that we are lucky and have solid funding for a number of people. We won’t be losing part of the team and we can achieve a lot more together than we can as individuals.
What’s your current funding situation?
We had a first contract with Servier in 2012 for five years. In 2016 the contract was extended and we now have funding through to 2020. We’ve achieved a lot in that time; we have started and terminated projects rapidly and progressed others to their next milestones. Servier is an excellent partner and have been very committed to providing long-term funding. That support brings its own reward, in terms of longevity of projects. As a result, we can achieve a lot more.
To summarise from your experience, what 3 pieces of advice would you give others wanting to make a transition to research in industry?
- Make the transition sooner rather than later - Unless you are a true entrepreneur, the further you go as a ‘pure’ academic the harder it will be to get into industry. You are increasing your specialization, (and salary requirement) without gaining certain skills and experience that are desirable. In my opinion, moving into industry after a PhD or single post-doc is a good inflexion point - you will need to learn a lot about drug discovery, pharmaceutical or biotech R&D in a new job.
- Engage and educate yourself about the sector - Learn about what goes on in the industry sector you want to work for. What are their processes? What you might do practically on a day-to-day basis and how might the goals differ from academia? For the pharmaceutical industry, you can do things like read Nature Reviews Drug Discovery or other journals that provide excellent commentary on the sector.
- Be prepared for interview - Gain advance company knowledge. It’s essential to be able to name some of their products or what they work on. Take time to do some research in the area and on the people who will interview you. In the past, I’ve interviewed candidates that have come straight from academia who stated they wanted a job in a particular research area, but hadn't made the time or effort to find out what we do as a company. Remember, although the technical skills you need are going to be very similar, what you do every day is going to be very different. Engage with the industry you are applying to and learn about current developments.
Advice for making a transition to industry
Links for further information:
Monash-Servier Partnership in Drug Discovery
Langmead Laboratory & Servier Drug Discovery Program