In Conversation with Dr. José Airas: Life Outside of Academia

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Author: Vanessa Hübner Edited by: Ruth Sang Jones 

Dr. José Airas, a Director of Inhouse Consulting at Merck KGaA, gives an insightful preview here of what SIU members can expect from his upcoming talk on “Academic Breakout: Alternative Careers in Biotech” on January 25th, 2018 in Frankfurt am Main. In his interview, he explains which skills scientists in academia need to learn in order to land the industry job they are looking for, which career paths are highly demanded at the moment and what the benefits are of a career in industry.

José started his career as a scientist. He did his PhD in Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt am Main and two Postdocs in the United States. However, he says, at some point in his academic credentials, he decided to change careers. He then realized that he was very familiar with the procedure of pursuing a career in academia but did not “see what is left and right outside of the academic world”. Thus, before starting his career at Merck KGaA as a Director of Inhouse Consulting five years ago, José deepened his scientific expertise as a research associate at EPFL in Switzerland and Sanofi. He also gained substantial non-academic experience by working as a consultant in the healthcare industry for IMS Health. 

“So, with my knowledge of the last years in consulting and in pharma companies, I think I can provide some help to young professionals to what is the life outside of the academic world”-José Airas

On alternative careers in industry

He describes that in his area of expertise, the pharma industry, there is a big hype to become digital and that every career in this direction, like big data management or multi-channel management, is trending. Besides this, José stresses that consulting was and always will be a major alternative career path for scientists. The pharma and chemical industry is increasingly adopting the model of Inhouse Consulting, where a team of consultants define strategies and optimise the organisation of a respective company. Furthermore, José explains that careers in all R&D functions such as Regulatory and Medical Affairs are steadily growing.

On pre-training opportunities

Since these and other potential career paths for scientists outside of academia require a certain level of prior knowledge that is rarely being taught in the classical science degree programmes, José suggests doing internships in industry and gaining skills in business administration during academic studies. He allays that this does not mean that scientists need to get an MBA or study economics in addition to their science master’s or PhD. Rather, he emphasizes that it is never too late to start a few courses in economics, innovation design or other disciplines on the side of their current academic career. José adds that it is a big pitfall if one does not prepare for a prospective career and he recommends to be as open-minded as possible for a change in career planning. However, he distinguishes: “It depends on what you want to do in the industry. If you decide to move into an R&D role, you don’t need extra studies.” But, “independent of what you want to do, skills in project management for example are most helpful”, José says. He admitted that if he had known project management strategies already during his scientific career, he would have been a better lab scientist.

“Good project management is a must. It will help in any kind of career. – And it is definitely a must if you want to move to big pharma, or to a small start-up.”

On the benefits of an industry career

Additionally, José points out that by facing the drawbacks of working in academia, such as the long time working in an unstable position to become a professor, a comparably small salary and the need to change countries from time to time, an industry career might have some interesting benefits to consider. He describes that industry employees get a higher compensation as well as higher job security. Big companies support their employees at planning their careers by providing them the opportunity to follow multiple career paths within the company. Moreover, they help to design the employees’ careers by offering training, workshops and more possibilities to switch careers and/or countries within the company. In the end, José reiterates that the benefits of a career in industry over one in academia are the higher job security, more chances for career development and more career choices:

“While in academia, there is one position you are aiming for, in industry there are like a zillion. So, you might want to consider early in your career to prepare for an alternative path to stay flexible and open-minded.”