No matter where researchers choose to work, they must collaborate and network, seize opportunities, and be realistic about change, said a panel of oncologists at the American Society of Clinical Oncology 2012 annual meeting.

Academia, industry, and government experts advise on career choices—and the need to stay flexible.

Deciding among career options in academia, industry, and government can be challenging for those aspiring to a career in cancer research, with its increasing demands for subspecialization, heightened competition for grants, and broadening requirements to address issues that stretch across the spectrum from basic to clinical research.

However, no matter which type of organization one chooses, one must collaborate and network, seize opportunities, and be realistic about change, said a panel of oncologists at a career-choice session at the American Society of Clinical Oncology 2012 annual meeting in Chicago in June.

Academic panelists Charles Blanke, MD, chief of medical oncology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and chair-elect of the SWOG cooperative group, and Lillian Siu, MD, senior staff physician at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, explained that collaboration and mentoring can be advantageous, and satisfying, components of an academic career. Academia also comes with the opportunity to carve out a niche—to become the “go-to” expert in a very specific area of research—which can bring a sense of fulfillment, they agreed.

On the downside, however, the combination of teaching, clinical, and research obligations can be overwhelming, leaving little time to keep up with the scientific literature, let alone generate ideas for grants and papers, Blanke and Siu commented.

Industry offers career paths that may not be found in academia or government, pointed out Mace Rothenberg, senior vice president of clinical development and medical affairs for Pfizer's oncology unit in La Jolla, CA. For instance, he said, in industry one may work as a clinician and oversee clinical trials or decide to focus on medical affairs or translational research.

Companies, however, dictate research priorities, which may be a drawback to those seeking to establish their own research programs, Rothenberg said. Researchers working in industry also often are not the individuals who present study results at conferences, and their names typically do not appear on scientific papers.

Richard Pazdur, MD, director of the office of hematology and oncology products in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, pointed out that similar limitations may arise in a scientific career in government, which also demands a certain level of tolerance for bureaucracy.

More positively, “oncology is a very active area of drug development in the world,” Pazdur emphasized, so government decisions can have profound influence on public health at national and international levels.

The career trajectories of Pazdur and Rothenberg attest to the practicality of being flexible in thinking about where to work. Pazdur said that he transitioned from academia to government when the right opportunity arose. Rothenberg's career has taken him across all 3 sectors—he started out in the Division of Cancer Treatment at the National Cancer Institute, later held a decade-long professorship at Vanderbilt University, and then seized his chance for a new opportunity at Pfizer.

Fadi Braiteh, MD, an oncologist with Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada in Las Vegas, added that hybrid positions that bring together private practice and academic pursuits can provide some researchers with just the right amount of flexibility and the best of both worlds.