Academia or Industry: Where Would I Fit In?

At age 12, this just wasn't a question that came up. Although I already knew I wanted to be a scientist, my list of career requirements was vague--intellectually stimulating, of value to humanity, and with the potential to achieve fame. The academia/industry question began to get more focused as my education--an M.S. at the University of Maryland and a Ph.D. at Oxford--progressed. Although I haven't really come to any conclusions, I am now working for DuPont as a postdoctoral liaison with the University of Pennsylvania and am in the interesting position of living in both worlds simultaneously.

Put simply, my job is to enable technology transfer between the two institutions and to help establish and promote good relations. What I intend to do in this week's article is to illustrate the similarities and differences between industrial and academic laboratories--their work ethics and research goals. And in the next article I'd also like to offer a list of topics that you should think about when you're asking yourself the question posted in the title, "Academia or Industry: Where Would I Fit In?"

Horses of Different Colors

The British and Americans speak the same language--more or less--but the culture of each country is recognizably distinct. The same principal holds true for research conducted in industrial and academic settings, where different cultures have evolved as a result of the different philosophies and goals of the two kinds of organizations.

In industry, the philosophy centers on company success--you work to create products that generate financial benefit for the company, its employees, and shareholders. This is a unifying theme that encourages cooperative behavior among a company's employees, whose individual research goals are oriented toward the success of the company. Hence, projects are interdependent. By contrast, the philosophy in academia centers on encouraging individuals to work autonomously, and the goal is to provide people with the tools they need to think and act independently.

What does this mean in a practical sense? As an industrial research scientist, you'll quickly learn the value that is placed on working in and for a team. Your team's success will be measured by how many research milestones it meets within a given schedule, by how many patents come out of a project, and by how much money a new discovery generates for the company. And if you can work well with others, then you are likely to obtain promotion and individual recognition in terms of title, pay, and responsibilities.

In academia, by contrast, you'll feel less like the member of a team and more like the member of a family, with your own lab chores and your own projects. The overriding philosophy is centered more on the individual, albeit within the larger context of the lab's goals. Your success--again as an individual--will be measured by the number and quality of refereed papers that you publish and by the fellowships, awards, and grants that you obtain to support your research. Your research goals will be oriented toward producing work that is thorough and well thought out. And although it may be possible for you to publish and gain professional mileage from negative experiments, it is the breakthrough positive results that will gain you the most recognition.

The pace of research also differs in the two kinds of institutions, taking place at a more rapid clip in industrial labs than it does in academic ones. There are several reasons for this. First, industrial concerns have deeper pockets. Sufficient money is spent to keep facilities well equipped and supplies on hand. Second, individuals are assigned to teams on the basis of their abilities and the team's needs. And if you lack expertise in an area that the team needs, you will be expected to seek out others in the company and to rapidly learn the skills you need to become your team's expert. Furthermore, you'll be encouraged to do this before problems arise and not after. Third, industrial labs rely more heavily on "quick-and-dirty" experiments that serve to provide direction to a project but not necessarily depth. Progress is made by focusing on the possibilities uncovered during the scientific process and running with them to generate practical applications. In academia, you will be working on a more restricted budget, investigating both the negative and positive data coming out of an experiment, and adopting a generally more enquiry-based approach, and so progress may well be slower.

To summarize, research in industry is directed toward a market/product end, and so your work will be team- and company-oriented. In academic labs, by contrast, research is very much self-initiated and self-directed.

In the next article, I will pose a series of questions that you should ask yourself as you try to determine where you might most enjoy pursuing scientific research and where you think you would fit in best.

EDITOR'S NOTE: DuPont is a sponsor of the Next Wave site.

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