Is Industry Experience Beneficial Before Pursuing a Ph.D.?

June 24, 2024 | | 10 min read
Thank you so much to Samuel Landry for taking the time to sit down and chat about his experiences!

If you’re mulling over career paths and aren’t sure what you want to do after graduation, don’t worry. You’re not alone! Many students, including myself, enter college unsure of what they want to pursue. I didn’t know anything about pursuing a Ph.D., or even what it meant to work in industry.

In order to help out students like me, I interviewed Samuel (Sam) Landry, a 3rd-year graduate student in UC San Diego’s Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. program. Sam is currently researching how to engineer novel mRNA therapeutics under the supervision of Dr. Gene Yeo, a Professor of Cellular and Molecular Medicine. Before entering graduate school, Sam spent two years in academia working at the Human Embryonic Stem Cell Core at Boston Children’s Hospital, where he was exposed to CRISPR and stem cell biology. He also worked in industry exploring the field of gene and cell therapy. As someone who has seen both sides, he offers his advice to students who don’t know if they want to pursue industry or academia after graduation.

How would you compare industry and academia in terms of work environment?

First, Sam emphasizes the importance of a good environment in both academia and industry. In a good environment, a student learns fundamental skills and can be exposed to many things that ultimately contribute to their individual growth. They also learn to communicate more efficiently.

In industry, you are exposed to several aspects of science and work on multiple projects. With all these projects, you’re constantly presenting data and meeting with your team. This exercises your ability to communicate effectively.

“The main difference between academia and industry is that in industry, the technology has already been vetted by hundreds of scientists over the course of several decades…so it’s not entirely novel,” Sam says. “You’re a piece of the team in the sense that someone does tissue culture, someone does qPCR, someone does RNA extraction… Everyone is very open and collaborative,  but you don’t have ownership over the whole thing—only your specific piece. However, the tricky part about industry is you can fall into the trap of being a cog in the wheel, and if you aren’t with a good mentor, you can be doing the same assay over and over again.”

In academia, however, you are doing novel research with the goal of answering scientific questions. The work is more of a personal struggle as you work with novel technologies and plan your select projects. “No one is going to hold your hand to the degree like in industry. You really have to be able to manage your projects and your emotions,” says Sam. “You will still get help, but it is up to you to get the job done.”

Ensuring you work in a good environment, whether in graduate school or academia, should be your top priority. You’ll have the opportunity to grow as a person and a scientist. 

What kind of work did you do before industry? 

Sam studied engineering in college and was interested in processed design, manufacturing, biology, and stem cells. Then, one summer, he interned at a company where he worked with zebrafish and cardiomyocytes. From there, he decided to move away from engineering and pivot to biology. 

After working at the Boston Children’s Hospital and getting familiar with CRISPR and stem cell technology, Sam had the penultimate goal of attending graduate school to either go into financing or wet lab science within a company. He eventually decided to enter industry in order to gain business exposure and learn what it’s like to work in a company. He also wanted to explore more of his previous biology interests and how to commercialize his science.

Sam’s journey was unique for many reasons. He didn’t enter industry right after graduating, but rather stayed in academia to learn more about a field he wasn’t familiar with. When he entered industry, he worked at a startup, which allowed him to see everything from a small-scale startup to a well-established company. While in industry, he had good mentors and cooperative colleagues, which he says “isn’t always the case.”

“I was very fortunate because, at the company I was at, I very quickly demonstrated my value,” Sam says. “Every time I was like ‘I’m bored’, they were like ‘Here’s this new thing we want to start, let’s put you on it. So I had about seven bosses in two years and I worked on ten to twenty different projects… It ended up being really enlightening. I was able to learn some basic biology skills as well as how the field and industry think about cell and gene therapy.”

While Sam wanted to enter industry to gain more exposure before pursuing a Ph.D., he also gained wet lab experience and knowledge in a field he was interested in.

How did industry help you grow as a scientist, both in lab skills and thought processes?

Industry exposed Sam to many different projects, which helped him develop a scientific mindset. He became exposed to all the different ways a problem could be approached and gained “a good basis for a ton of different assays.” Industry also allowed him to train and master many types of technology, which he now uses as a Ph.D. student. “Because I would start projects so frequently, I got really good at reading literature and designing basic experiments such as cloning strategies, along with just learning new assays quickly,” he explains. 

Through his experience in industry, Sam greatly improved his communication skills, a vital aspect of science. “I had to give meetings probably once a week [so] I had to be good about getting my experiments done and preparing my slides in a cohesive way. From this, you just get good at presenting and knowing where something in your experiments or data isn’t great,” Sam states. “My whole communication style just got completely revamped through working in industry.”

What were some important factors you considered when deciding to go to graduate school?

“If you don’t have a type of environment where you are fortunate enough to be financially stable with good support, then that [deciding on going to grad school] is a hard calculation to make. If you want to go to grad school, make sure you know why you want to go because it’s not as clear as ‘I just want to do science’. You should kind of know what you want to do on the other side,” Sam says.

When I asked Sam how industry can help inform a student’s decision for what they want to do after graduating undergrad, he explained, “One thing that is helpful is knowing whether or not you want to do industry after getting a Ph.D. Maybe you go into industry first and you find out you like what you are doing, then you don’t need to go to grad school. Most likely, if you’re in industry for a long time, you will end up in similar positions [as someone who got their Ph.D.]”

Industry can be an incredibly useful step in a student’s career post-graduation because of how many paths you can take. If the company recognizes your strengths, you will have the opportunity to work on different projects, train in new technologies, and even pursue a Ph.D. at the same time.

It can often be hard to decide what you want to pursue after your undergraduate studies, especially when considering factors such as finances. However, realizing what you want out of industry or graduate school can help inform your decision. Just remember that trying and failing is part of the process of getting to where you should be.