Insights on transitioning from academia to industry


This month, AIOG had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Clifford J. Woolf who is presently the F. M. Kirby Neurobiology Center Director, Boston Children’s Hospital, and a Neurology/Neurobiology Professor at Harvard Medical School. In addition to these positions, Dr. Woolf is the co-founder of two precision medicine companies, QurAlis and Nocion Therapeutics. His current research focuses on adaptive and maladaptive plasticity of the nervous system. Dr. Woolf joined us for an informal discussion seminar where he gave valuable personal advice to attendees based on their research and intended career path, as well as his outlook on the current shift in career trends of science PhDs out of academia and into industry and what that means for mentoring and job searches.

As a mentor to many graduate students with his position at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Woolf has witnessed the collective shift in his students from wanting to pursue a career in academia to a career in industry as well as how this shift is reflected in the current trend of science PhDs at other institutes as well. While there are many differences between academia and industry, Dr. Woolf discussed the need for balance between scientists pursuing either direction as well as the intrinsic value of academia and industry collaborations. Pursuing academia is often perceived as a higher risk career in science. One has a hypothesis and pursues the experiments that will lead to answering these questions which is the basis of scientific experimentation and academic exploration for the pursuit of understanding the world around us. On the other hand, industry is driven not necessarily by questions but by products that provide a service or function in society and thus are likely commercialized. These products are however based on hypothesis driven scientific experimentation and industry allows for the execution of translated scientific discoveries in the world. 

How do you take your basic science idea and create a company from it? 

Dr. Woolf pulls from his own experience in founding two companies to guide us in the basic steps of the process. The first step is to have an innovative idea and understand where the application can be profitable. He gives the story of the founding of Nocion Therapeutics as an example: waiting with a colleague in the valet line after a department dinner presented the perfect opportunity to discuss the problem of local anesthetics non-specifically blocking all nerves in the area and to come up with a way to only block pain fibers. This conversation proved fruitful because after a few experiments to test their theory, along came the founding of Nocion to implement this research. Next, you have to undertake the process of protecting the intellectual property through patenting to ensure ownership of the innovation. Finally, you must present the work to draw in investors to fund the research and development of your company. This final step is one of the harder aspects for academics, Dr. Woolf points out, due to the nature of the presentations being less focused on theoretical science and more on how the science can translate into profit. 

Advice to students interested in industry 

One of the most important aspects of graduate school is receiving mentorship from those that can help lead you onto the correct paths for your career. When asked about how he mentors students interested in industry, Dr. Woolf says that he maintains the same style toward all students in his lab regardless of career path. His reasoning behind this is that industry utilizes the same tools as academia but in different ways. However, he did suggest to students that they should reach out to those currently working in industry to advise them as secondary mentors, using them as a more direct resource for entering industry. Dr. Woolf also emphasizes the importance of attending groups and seminars that provide insight into industry and a platform to build a network (like AIOG!). 

Lastly, Dr. Woolf touched on the more logistical aspects of entering industry, such as whether to pursue a postdoctoral position and differences in the timeline for hiring. On the subject of pursuing a postdoc, Dr. Woolf suggests that it may not be necessary for the work you want to do and to consider it on a case-by-case basis. He valued the hands-on experience of entering the job rather than continuing in the academic field to learn the skills necessary to the specific job. In simple terms and the main takeaway of his advice regarding this topic: once you are in the job, you don’t need a course because you’ll learn quickly what is needed for the tasks at hand. The last piece of advice given by Dr. Woolf is to consider the difference in the timeline of the hiring process between a postdoc and a company. When hired for a postdoc, it is usually months in advance of when you would start in the new lab and gives plenty of time to wrap up your current graduate work. For industry, the company will want you to start right away. All of this information should be taken into consideration as you move to look for jobs post-graduation.

If you are interested in hearing more about Dr. Woolf’s advice, please check out the video recording of his seminar on our website (

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