Interesting Careers

An interesting career in psychological science: Industry scientist and professor


By Robert Gerlai

Robert Gerlai, PhDRobert Gerlai

PhD (1989) - Biology
Eötvös Loránd  University, Budapest, Hungary

Professor, Department of Psychology
University of Toronto, Missassauga

Former Industry Scientist: Genentech, Eli Lilly, Saegis

At a Society for Neuroscience conference a panel of three Nobel Laureates was asked from the audience: “Could you give us some advice as to what we need to do to be successful in science?” The speakers gave the audience a lot of good advice: “work hard,” “believe in yourself,” “always challenge the status quo.” But at the end of the session, the audience had to realize there is really no recipe for how to become successful. Each of us may get there differently. This is what I tell my students, and this is what my disclaimer is here too. Each paper about interesting careers in psychological sciences tells a different story. What yours will be really depends on you. Here is mine, and it is still unfolding.

I always loved animals. I recall the story my parents told me: I was two years old when instead of playing with sand, my sand bucket was filled up with tiny frogs I collected, which sufficiently grossed out all parents looking after their children at the playground. This passion (for animals, that is) remained. I loved observing how animals (including humans) behave. I was fascinated by the question of how behavior arose, what may be behind it from mechanistic and evolutionary viewpoints. As an undergraduate student I was trained in experimental biology at the Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest (Hungary), one of the oldest and most reputable Universities of Central Europe. I received my MSc and PhD degrees in biology with specialization in animal behavior and genetics under the supervision of Vilmos Csányi, “Mr. Ethology” in Hungary, an amazingly stimulating and creative scientist and nationally celebrated educator and writer. My hobby became my profession. First I was an assistant prof at the Behaviour Genetics Department of the Eötvös Loránd University. Subsequently, I was a visiting professor at the University of Toronto and later a fellow and associate scientist at the Mount Sinai Hospital Research Institute, also in Toronto. In Toronto I became well versed in neuroscience and molecular biology but my main interest remained animal psychology. 

Around that time, i.e., the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, an increasing number of laboratories started to employ powerful multidisciplinary approaches to study such complex questions as the biological mechanisms of learning and memory. I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful mentor, colleague and later friend, John Roder, who was a leader in this field in Canada. I enjoyed academic freedom and the excitement that comes from studying the unknown, but life took an unexpected turn that steered me away from Academia.

My multidisciplinary background, i.e., the fact that I could speak the language of psychology, neuroscience and genetics at the same time, drew the attention of a wonderful company, Genentech Inc., to me. I never wanted to work for Industry. I heard bad things about “them.” “You’ll be a soldier who just follows orders,” some of my colleagues warned. But when I was invited for a job interview to Genentech in San Francisco, the company mesmerized me. I found a vibrant and open-minded scientific culture there, one which fostered “blue sky research” (company jargon for basic research unrelated to product development). They actually mandated that scientists spend a quarter of their time on such research. Of course, companies have to develop and sell products, but after my interview I checked and Genentech appeared to be the least company-like among companies. I accepted the position.

It turned out to be a great decision. I loved the environment, the science, the infrastructure and the fact that one could dream up practically anything and there seemed to be limitless resources for making these dreams happen. But, as I found out later with other companies too, these dreams do not last forever. Market conditions change, companies merge or get bought up, etc. After four years of some of my most productive research life, the wake-up call at Genentech came in the form of the complete closure of the Neuroscience Department. 

It was a shocking and unexpected event, as it never happened in the history of Genentech, so I was told. But as I learned later, this is the nature of Industry: things that never happened before do happen on a regular basis. I was considering moving back to Academia but then another wonderful opportunity arose, a senior scientist position at Eli Lilly and Company in Indiana. You may know that “Lilly” is one of the largest pharmaceutical companies, which grew a lot as a result of their neuroscience products. The company makes numerous non-neuroscience related drugs too but when I visited them I was very much impressed by how much they are dedicated to neuroscience and psychopharmacology research. I accepted the position and again had a wonderfully productive and rewarding time at that company. Lilly is a classical big pharma company. They too had excellent resources, a lot of talented people and a true dedication to improving human health. 

But with size, came certain negative features too. Lilly was much less nimble than Genentech and when it experienced some financial setbacks leading to reorganizations within the company, I decided not to wait to see where these changes were taking the company. I accepted a position at a small biopharmaceutical research company, back in the San Francisco Bay area, and started to work there as Vice President of Research. Saegis, the small company, was the exact opposite of Lilly. While Lilly felt like a gigantic cruise ship, Saegis was a jet ski. It moved very fast, and it turned well too. Once you were at the helm, it rewarded you with instantaneous responses. 

Although wonderful overall, after trying out biotech, big and small pharma, I realized that my heart really lay in academic research. Thus, I decided to take up a position as professor, first at the Department of Psychology of the University of Hawaii and subsequently at the Department of Psychology of the University of Toronto Mississauga, where I have been since 2004.

What did I learn from working at all these different places? Do I have some advice for students or young PhDs who are considering starting a career? Well, I have learned a lot, and I have a lot of advice. But recall my opening example: there is no recipe for success.

The best advice I can give is that you have to do what you really love doing. If you enjoy the journey, it will become irrelevant how far you get. So, should you aim for Academia or Industry? The mistrust one often senses in Academia towards Industry and vice versa, I believe, is largely misplaced. It’s the same gene pool after all! Scientists are scientists in both places. Yes, there are differences. There is more money in Industry for your research and in your pocket. But perhaps there are more choices and a wider variety of possibilities in Academia. On the one hand, you don’t have a teaching “load” in Industry and you don’t have to worry about applying for grants either. On the other hand, in Academia usually you have more stability and you can interact with young and enthusiastic minds in the classroom and in the lab, which is quite rewarding. Each place has its own beauty: which one you prefer is really a matter of personal taste. 

So, here is my advice: explore both! Do not allow others to bias you. Decide for yourself what may suit you best. A good strategy may be to take up a postdoc position in Industry. Often companies offer their own fellowships. In these positions you are usually required (not just allowed) to do blue sky research. This way you have the best of both worlds: you will have access to all the great resources Industry can offer and you will likely publish. And while you are working on exciting scientific questions and publishing, you are getting to know the inner workings of a company. At the end of such a postdoc position, you could easily go in either direction: Academia or Industry.

Another point I want to make addresses an important question many of my students ask me. “What if I make the wrong choice?“ I also posed this question to myself many times. I was worried that all the changes in my life will cost me and once I go down the road in one direction, I won’t be able to turn back.  Not true!  I started out in Academia, went to Industry and came back to Academia. I admit though that I deliberately structured my work so that such changes would be possible. But everyone can do this. Publishing is possible in Industry and conducting translationally relevant research is not prohibited in Academia.

My other worry also didn’t turn out to be correct. I was worried that having to start over every time I moved (and these moves were large ones averaging thousands of miles each time) will really slow down my scientific career.   But it did the opposite: I learned from every move, from every work place, from every new colleague I met.  These changes allowed me to have a broad perspective, and not just from a scientific viewpoint. So, the bottom line is that you should not be afraid of making a choice. Career paths may change but if you keep an open mind and enjoy the journey you will be successful.