Outlook: Newsletter of the Society of Behavorial Medicine

Perspectives on Careers in Industry from SBM Members

Ellen Beckjord, PhD Digital Health Council (DHC) Chair, Sherri Sheinfeld Gorin, Scientific and Professional Liaison Council (SPLC) Chair and Julie Wright Behavioral Informatics and Technology Special Interest Group (BIT SIG) Chair

While there have always been career opportunities outside of academia for behavioral medicine professionals, perhaps now more than ever before, SBM members are working outside of academia or are considering non-academic career paths. Reasons for this include an increase in non-academic jobs for individuals trained in behavioral medicine, particularly in the area of digital health, changes in the federal funding climate for research, and access to adequate compensation for the time spent working, among others.

The Society of Behavioral Medicine (SBM) is committed to supporting its members to pursue “better health through behavior change” in their careers whether in academia or in non-academic “industry” jobs – which may include large, for-profit companies, small start-ups, or non-profit organizations. One way of providing this support is to share the perspectives of SBM members who have worked both inside and outside of academia to empower other SBM members to consider varied career paths. SBM members who have chosen to work in industry could also offer relevant information to others as they seek meaningful careers in behavioral medicine.

Through our networks in the SBM Behavioral Informatics and Technology Special Interest Group; the Digital Health Council; and the Scientific and Professional Liaison Council, we recruited and interviewed five SBM members about their career choices. All have worked inside of academia and/or industry for varied periods of time. Their responses offer helpful insights into the factors to consider when evaluating both academic and industry career opportunities in behavioral medicine.

We are grateful to the following SBM members who took the time to share their thoughts with us:

Koyya Lewis-Powell, PhD: Fitness Research Manager at Beachbody, LLC

Cynthia Castro Sweet, PhD: Director of Medical Affairs at Omada Health, Inc.

Michael Taitel, PhD: Senior Director, Health Analytics, Research & Reporting at Walgreens

David Ahern, PhD: Senior Scientist and Co-Founder, Abacus Health Solutions; Director of the Program in Behavioral Informatics and eHealth, Department of Psychiatry at the Brigham & Women’s Hospital; Assistant Professor of Psychology (Psychiatry), Harvard Medical School; and Special Advisor on health information technology, National Cancer Institute

Greg Norman, PhD: Senior Director of Clinical Research and Principal Investigator, West Health Institute

What do you like best about your job?

Koyya

Intellectual freedom on completing projects.

Cynthia

Research is heavy on delayed gratification and the unknown of who is reading your papers or using your evidence to move the needle. In my current role, my research products are more rapidly utilized and shared with organizational leaders who make the decisions about the kinds of programs and services to put in place.  I am learning a ton about business strategy and development, commercial operations, and health care operations.  I also work with a great team of people who are passionate about what they do: we share an ambitious and unified mission to "inspire and enable people everywhere to live free of chronic disease."

Michael

My position at Walgreens allows me to use my skills and experience in research and innovation to support the corporate purpose “to champion everyone's right to be happy and healthy.” Applied research often supports the rollout of products and services that can rapidly benefit millions of people.

David

I really enjoy the diversity of roles that I have in both the private sector and my academic position.  Although it takes some creative "juggling" to balance the various duties and responsibilities, I've learned how to manage it over the last two decades.  Most recently my position at NCI as a Special Advisor has given me enormous opportunities to contribute to advancing cancer research and the role of HIT and informatics to improve cancer care.

Greg

We do applied clinical research with an emphasis on how our work can influence practice and policy to help seniors age in place. We are solely supported by the Gary and Mary West Endowment.  As a result, we are able to focus on finding collaborative research projects that can have the greatest impact without needing to obtain extramural funding. I like that we are able to move more quickly on new projects compared to working within typical grant funding cycles.  

What do you like the least?

Koyya

The position is new and there is a learning curve for myself and my department to understand how my position can be utilized.

Cynthia

Honestly, my commute is my least favorite thing (I live 50 miles from headquarters) but I consider myself lucky that such a small inconvenience is the biggest downside. It's not even that bad because I get to commute with my husband and I never get tired of being in downtown San Francisco; I love the energy of the city.

Michael

The harsh realities of market fluctuations, the economy, and changing healthcare policies are always looming in the background. There are more risks and less stability.  It's also more exciting too; you have to make peace with your own risk tolerance.

David

Corporations are driven to grow and manage resources efficiently while adapting to the market needs. As a result we are continuously changing and reorganizing. Managing this environment can be stressful even when the change is good.

Greg

The continual demand of seeking and securing funding for research and successfully navigating the grant process.

If you have had the experience of an academic position, how is the work that you are doing in industry different from what you would be doing in academia? What are some of the similarities between your work in industry and that in academia?

Koyya

I decided to accept an industry job directly out of my PhD program, so I do not have experience of an academic position. However, the work I'm doing is very similar to my dissertation work in that I have a hypothesis and I have to design an analytical approach with the available data to answer the question.

Cynthia

I am still doing the same kind of work (running research studies, analyzing and presenting/publishing results) but the intended audience for my work products is different. My work is now focused on health care payers who are looking for and deciding on solutions to improve the health of their constituents. In academia, my goal was building the evidence base for the efficacy of behavior change programs. I still use all the same principles of behavior science and rigorous research methods, but the output of the research serves a different purpose. 

Michael

I began working outside academia after receiving my PhD; however, I am fortunate to have a job that I consider quasi-academic. While I don’t teach classes, I am occasionally invited to guest lecture a class session, and I also mentor students and analysts.  I manage a research team and design and conduct research studies with the goal of submitting results to academic conferences and peer-reviewed journals. I give back to the field by reviewing conference abstracts and articles for several journals.  My performance is based on the quantity and quality of my work and the value I bring to my organization.   

David

There are certainly differences in that the goals of the two pursuits are not always entirely consistent.  For example, the pursuit of discovery and knowledge acquisition are highly valued academic goals, which often take years or even decades to achieve, whereas for industry the value is more about the economics and near- or short- term priorities.

Greg

In some ways my current position is similar to being a researcher in an academic setting. I work on a number of studies and am involved with all aspects of research including proposal development, executing study protocols, data analysis, writing manuscripts.  But I am also involved more now in the policy aspects of our work.  Particularly with studies on implementing new care pathways for seniors, we have to consider the implications for Medicare and Medicaid for payment.

What advice would you give to an SBM member considering a switch from academia to industry? From industry to academia? How to move between the two over time?

Koyya

I believe that it is important to maintain an academic presence if you decide to work within industry because there is overlap in research between the two.

Cynthia

If the switch is from academia to industry: do your research!  Explore companies of all sizes that are doing work in behavior science, reach out, make connections, and ask your questions.  Follow companies on social media, and up your tech skills.  Read more, and read more broadly.  I skim Fortune's Term Sheet, Politico, JAMA weekly table of contents, AHIP, and a few others to stay up to date on the health care field at large. When it comes time to apply for a position, look at your career from a different angle: Industry is not interested in your long chronological list of papers and presentations. Learn how to quantify what you have done, the reach and impact you have made, and the influence you have had. 

Michael

Be confident that your analytic and research skills are valuable and transferable. Be adaptable to apply your skills on projects that may not be in your previous line of research. Understand that industry is usually not interested in research to develop new theories or constructs. Demonstrate how your skills and experience can be applied to solve business problems.  Remember that industry always seeks profit; find an industry that also does good.         

David

I've bridged the two worlds of academia and industry for most of my career and see tremendous value in understanding the culture of both pursuits.  Moving from one to another requires flexibility and recognition of the different cultures, goals, and priorities for each.  I think the future of academic and industry partnerships is very promising and I'd encourage SBM members to be open to these kinds of relationships.

Greg

I get asked this question from time to time, particularly at SBM conferences.  The first thing I say is that there are definitely opportunities out there for behavioral scientists in for-profit and non-profit organizations. We bring a lot of skills from academia such as critical thinking, organizing information, as well as writing and presenting skills.  Having experience working with data and applied statistical analyses is also in demand in industry. As behavior scientists we know about theories of behavior change, measuring behavior and psychosocial constructs, and developing and implementing different types of interventions. I think having established a track record of publications and some completed projects helps to “sell” yourself (i.e., your brand) in industry and shows the value you can add to an organization.

How could SBM help with these transitions?

Koyya

More advertisements of industry positions to bring awareness of other opportunities.

Cynthia

Create opportunities for academia-industry networking and collaboration. The Digital Health Council has been a great "home" for me in SBM and keeps me plugged into a network of behavior scientists in both settings. SBM could also reach out to industry partners to remind them that they should post their job listings on SBM; that is how I found my position!

Michael

SBM helped me find my first job. After graduating with a master’s degree in clinical psychology, I moved to Washington DC with my fiancé (now wife). I didn’t know anyone else, and I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do. I opened my SBM membership directory (pre-internet and email) and called every member in town asking for a 30-minute informational interview. Most agreed. I happened to call Stephen Weiss (not realizing he was a founder and past president of SBM). His kind advice and referral to a position at The American University-National Center for Health Fitness launched my career. 

SBM can facilitate networking by connecting those in academia with industry professionals. This should certainly occur during the Annual Meeting, and throughout the year by actively exploring opportunities to reach out and build relationships with fellow SBM colleagues.

David

SBM already has created an important infrastructure through the Digital Health Council to foster academic/industry partnerships among members from both domains.  It is critically important that SBM continue to nurture and foster these relationships to support its members and contribute to the field.

Greg

I think SBM is already helping.  In the last few years at the Annual Meeting there have been panel discussions on academic and industry relationships, and talks from people working in industry.  Continuing to feature at the conference those behavioral scientists working in industry and creating forums where those interested in industry can meet colleagues in industry would be helpful. 

As these articulate and forthright SBM interviewees have noted, if the fit is right, industry can be a collaborative home for SBM members’ academic skills, expertise, and interests.  As these interviewees have also noted, SBM can be an important contributor to this career growth, through Annual meetings, communications, and networking opportunities offered by its Councils, Committees, and SIGs, particularly those relating to digital health. SBM’s professional and scientific liaisons, as well as mentorship by supportive SBM leaders and in leadership programs offer promising avenues for pursuing non-academic careers.  A meaningful career in behavioral medicine can develop in academia, industry, with governmental entities, or in transitions among them.

The forthcoming SBM 2017 Annual Meeting offers numerous opportunities for exploring and forming connections with industry, including ones co-sponsored by the DHC, BIT SIG, and the SPLC. The full 2017 Annual Meeting Program can be found here.

We look forward to continuing the conversation in San Diego, and in the meantime, on Twitter at @BehavioralMed.