An NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center
By Greg Cherryholmes | May 13, 2014

David WebbWhile many scientists have continued their career paths into industry, or stayed in academia, there are few who have been able to successfully traverse both arenas of research as well as David Webb. I recently had a discussion with Dr. Webb about some of the transitions that young scientists (graduate students and post-doctoral fellows) face when looking to enter positions in academia or industry.

GC: The world is producing more Ph.D.s than ever before and the US is constantly competing with other countries to produce the brightest and highest caliber of scientists. Despite this, the US has seen a decrease in the academic job market for recent graduates. How do we redefine the Ph.D. program to compete with other countries and better prepare graduate students for careers outside of academia? What advice do you give a Ph.D .student or postdoc looking to augment their current training so as to make themselves more marketable for academia and industry?

DW: These are very difficult questions for which there are no obvious answers. There are government-academic commissions devoted to addressing these issues and it remains to be seen what can be done on a national scale to change the current state of affairs. The training of graduate students has also been a long debated topic going back to before there was the expansion of biotechnology companies to take up the slack. The international nature of science means that students in the U.S. are in competition for jobs with colleagues from all over the world.

Insofar as grad student training is concerned, the whole purpose of the Ph.D. experience is to train young scientists to be able to independently define a problem, set up experiments to test their hypotheses and interpret the data and then move forward to the next phase of their research. Such skills are useful in almost any setting including more business-oriented ones and the discipline learned at the bench is easily applied to non-science related careers. I have often said that it is far easier to teach a scientist about business than the other way around.

There are also now some wonderful programs online that can provide some insight for students and post-docs into industry style work. One program that I am quite familiar with is the Biocom Institute’s Biocollaborative Life Science Immersion Program Industry Certificate which is an online program for delivering industry based education (

To be marketable as an academic, the process has been the same for many decades. Work on big, important questions, under a faculty member of good reputation nationally and internationally, and produce a piece of research that is recognized by your peers as a real contribution to your field. Having a mentor who will actively help in your career development is a plus. Networking with scientists that you meet at scientific conferences is also a useful skill to develop. Lastly, it goes without saying that publishing in good journals and speaking at high quality meetings still remains the key to a successful academic career.

In his illustrious 40+ year career, Dr. David Webb (currently an Adjunct Professor at the Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in La Jolla, California) has been actively involved in both academia and industry, holding senior positions at numerous companies and adjunct/consulting professorships at several prestigious institutions. Dr. Webb graduated from Rutgers University with a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology. Following graduation, he became a Dernham Junior Fellow of the American Cancer Society at University of California San Francisco from 1971-1973. Since then, Dr. Webb has been actively involved in both academia and industry, including positions such as Associate member at the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology and Distinguished Scientist and Institute Director positions at Syntex, Inc. Dr. Webb has held many academic research jobs in addition to the Roche Institute: Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University, Adjunct Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at New York Medical College, and a Consulting Professor of Cancer Biology at Stanford University. Dr. Webb has also held several management positions, in both academia and the life science industry, including: senior manager positions at several biotechnology companies (including Syrrx, OSI Pharmaceuticals, and Cadus Pharmaceutical Corp.), Chairman of the Board of Sorrento Therapeutics, Chairman Emeritus of the Board of BIOCOM, Member of the Executive Committee of the Board of CONNECT (San Diego), and Vice President of Research at Celgene-San Diego.