Why are Neuroscientists transitioning from Academia to Industry? Perspectives from Plexon PhDs


There has been a lot of discussions on Twitter and other platforms about graduate students and post-docs transitioning from academia to industry. Are trainees leaving for better salaries or work life balance? Are they walking away from academia because of toxic lab situations or lack of support? Several members of the Plexon sales team have transitioned from academia to industry, and their stories demonstrate that often many factors play a role in the decision to leave academia. Check out their experiences below and please feel free to contact them directly if you would like to talk about a career in industry.

Nioka Burns, PHD Niokab@plexon.com

I earned my PhD from the University of Illinois and then did a three-year post-doc at Texas A&M Health Science Center. I left my post-doc position after three years and I moved to Dallas unemployed! There were several things that influenced my decision to leave academia and I go back and forth as to what carried the most weight, but I think it was the desire to be near my family. I am from Dallas/Fort Worth, and I had missed my family while I was in grad school in Illinois. My post-doc was in Texas, but three hours away from my family. I also got married in my second year as a post-doc to someone that lived three hours away. My initial contract was for three years, so I decided that I would leave that position and move back to Dallas/Fort Worth to be with my family and husband. I was actively applying for new positions, but I was limiting myself to a very specific geographic location. I presented my last poster at SFN that year and by chance I found out that Plexon was located in Dallas and hiring. The rest is history. You might be asking why I didn’t pursue a post-doc position in Dallas. I wanted stability and I wanted to be near my family. Those were both things that I didn’t think I could get if I stayed in academia. If I accepted a post-doc position in Dallas, I would stay for 3-5 years and then I would start applying for my first faculty position. I had heard how difficult it was to get a faculty position and I felt like it would be almost impossible if I was unwilling to apply for positions outside of the Dallas area.

Nafi Yasar, PHD Nafi@plexon.com

For much of my time in grad school I was the sole engineer of a neuroscience lab, and designed and built most of the equipment that we used for our experiments. I found that what I enjoyed most was building equipment, programming, and designing experiments, and I thought I would be more likely to be spending more time on those kinds of projects in an industry setting. What I enjoyed least was writing, and was afraid that as result I would always be struggling with writing grants and getting funding were I to ever head my own lab. Also, I felt that academia would be a gamble for me, particularly at the time; I graduated shortly after the NIH had seen some large cuts in funding, and postdoc times were stretching out as a result. As a bioengineering PhD, getting an industry job would be easier than is often the case for neuroscience PhDs, but I felt that I would be at a disadvantage if I tried entering industry after several years as a postdoc compared to someone who entered industry right away, and after getting a job would be behind in my career compared to my peers.

Kristin Dartt, PHD Kristin@plexon.com

Ever since I completed a research summer internship as an undergrad, I have loved bench research. My favorite things were planning the experiments and then determining why they inevitably went wrong. It appealed to my logical thought process and my introverted personality. I went on to complete my PhD at the University of New Mexico, where I had a great lab with a great mentor. Despite the supportive environment, the stress accumulated, and I felt burnt out by the time I defended my dissertation. At this point, I was already questioning if I really wanted to stay in academic research, but I decided to continue on to a postdoc. Part of the reason for me continuing was peer expectation and part was that I didn’t know what else I was qualified to do.

My postdoc was a very different experience, and I felt very isolated. I never stopped loving research, however, and I found my postdoc extremely useful. Not only did I learn new techniques, but I gained confidence and was able to plan and carry out lines of research independently. However, with all my newfound autonomy, I realized I missed being part of a team. Being part of a team was an important aspect that I wanted in my career, and unlikely to happen in an academic research setting.

It was also at this time that I really began thinking about what working as a PI entailed. The more I thought about it, the more I concluded most of a PI’s job was things I either didn’t enjoy doing or felt I had little training for, including mentoring, teaching, and grant writing.

Even knowing that I wouldn’t really be happy in an academic research position, what finally gave me the gentle nudge to take the final plunge into industry was my life circumstances. My significant other is in the military, so I needed a job that I could do successfully from almost any location. As the goal of a PI is to get tenure, which means remaining at a single institution for your entire career, I knew this was not a path I could walk to achieve the career and life I wanted. In short, it was both experiences and life circumstances that determined a career in academic research was not for me. It was a fantastic decision to finally make the move and I have been happy in my industry position for the past year and a half.

Thinking of starting a career in industry, read more in our previous blog “Transitioning from Academia to Industry“.