Academia or Industry: Finding the Fit


Last time, I discussed the similarities and differences between industrial and academic laboratories concerning work ethics and research goals. This time, I'd like to offer you a series of topics to think about as you face your own "academia or industry?" dilemma, the goal being to assess what you value in your work and what you really want out of your career as a scientist. And in the concluding article, I will discuss a couple of reality checks that you'll need to make as you're thinking about and getting ready to make your next career transition. Are you properly prepared to work in one arena or the other? What do you need to do to get a job in academia or in industry?

Keep in mind as you work through this decision-making process that your priorities are likely to change as your life unfolds. So try to determine not only what it is you like or want right now but what you will want and like later--much later--in your career. This kind of forethought, coupled with an ongoing search for balance between work and personal responsibilities, may actually lead you to ... gasp! ... career fulfillment!

Assess Your Values and Determine What You Want to Accomplish in Your Research


If you value the team approach and a more or less regular work schedule, and if you enjoy a pleasing work environment, then postdocing in industry may be your best option. Also, if you stay in industry long-term, then you'll likely be pulling in a handsome salary, and you can develop opportunities to advance your career away from the bench--into management, for example, or other business-oriented activities such as product development or regulatory affairs. Be advised, however, that you might be required to obtain an MBA or law degree before you can make moves of that kind.

On the other hand, an academic postdoc better satisfies those who value status, prestige, competition, and autonomy. Additionally, further along in an academic career, you can expect research independence, supervisory and influential roles (i.e., training graduate students and postdocs), and the opportunity for travel and public contact (i.e., speaking at conferences, taking sabbaticals, teaching undergraduates, consulting with other organizations). That's not to say that scientists in industry do not get the opportunity to travel or interact with the public--they do. But because industrial labs need to prevent the competition from learning the details of what is going on and also to make sure that the company is properly represented to the public, any such opportunities tend to be quite carefully vetted.

Managerial opportunities also exist for academic researchers, as department heads, deans, and provosts are often appointed from the faculty. These positions focus on running a department, college, or university, so the incumbents must deal with different issues from those faced by upper management in industry. Additional qualifications may not be needed for advancement in this domain; however, obtaining a degree in education might be beneficial if your goal is to move up the academic ladder.

You may also want to think about your societal values. In academia, your research may benefit humanity, but, depending on the discipline, it could be years before any benefit is actually realized. In industry, it is likely that your research will have a more immediate impact on society. However, the company's shareholders and the government will probably have a say in defining just what that impact is going to be.


Now that you've thought about where your values lie, you need to turn to the kinds of questions you wish to study. If you're most interested in identifying basic and unifying principles of nature, then academia is the place for you. If you're more interested in the technical applications of science, then you'll probably be better off in industry. There are exceptions, of course; some companies have departments in which individuals pursue research without prior plans for technical or commercial application. Additionally, universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and California Institute of Technology specialize in research projects that link basic research to commercial applications. And these days you can find a bit of both--basic and practical science--in start-ups. Start-up companies may also be fulfilling to those who value high-risk activities and working at the frontier of both scientific and business opportunity.

Assess Your Current Skills and Identify Those Activities That Most Interest You

Your research skills

Most of us can see clearly the research skills we have acquired while working on our various projects. Often too, we'll know what questions we need to answer next and what new skills we'll need to obtain to do so. This sort of incremental, needs-based approach to acquiring new skills is most applicable for academic positions. Hence, you generally will only need to show that you have the potential to master new research skills as proof of success and you won't necessarily need to develop a futuristic view of what research skills you'll use later.

But far-away outer-galaxy thinking is often needed to land a job in industry! In addition, if you have a flair for recognizing the practical applications of concepts, theories, and research, then you should do well. When industry hires, they look for a perfect fit between your existing research skills, your general and specific knowledge, and the job at hand. So, if you wish to pursue an industrial position, you should look at job ads on an ongoing basis. Keep up-to-date. See what the companies are asking for in the disciplines you would like to work in. And if the newest set of practical "in vogue" research skills piques your interest, then find some way to add them to your repertoire. Take a course; sit in on a class; learn them from another colleague; or give a new angle to your project. You may even want to volunteer to help someone else in the lab (or department) who is using the technique. The closer your research skill fit, the greater your chances of landing that industry job.

Your people skills

As I pointed out in the first article, to be successful in an industrial setting requires the ability to function in a team environment. So if you like interacting with people at all levels of education, enjoy sharing credit, and can express appreciation for everyone's contribution to the team effort, then you'll likely fit in well in industry. That's not to say that these kinds of people skills are not appreciated in academia--they are--but they are not often emphasized to the same degree. Furthermore, in industry, you'll need to be able to explain your work at a level that is appropriate for nonexperts who can influence your project, a patent examiner, for example, or a budgetary manager.

Verbal and written communication skills are important in academia, too, and you'll need to be outgoing and enthusiastic about your research to attract attention (and funding). Attending meetings and talking about your work are the best ways to further your research interests. It will attract the interest of potential graduate students, postdocs, and colleagues alike. Additionally, it helps when applying for competitively awarded grants. It's an easier read, for instance, if the reviewers have heard about your work before and think of you as a bright young prospect with a pleasant personality whose ideas are worth supporting in those start-up years.

In industry, being able to adapt behavior to suit the culture is a valued skill. Alternatively, in academia, you'll need those people skills that fit with teaching: Can you encourage people to seek more information? Are you able to see people's strengths and weaknesses? Do you want to help build their self-esteem and motivate them to learn?

Don't forget that people skills are really all about communication, which can be done in a range of different styles. So, as a part of the process of evaluating your skills and interests, take a look at your communication style NOW and be ready to analyze the styles of others. If you wait until you're considering specific job opportunities, you're likely to be too wrapped up in thoughts of projects, research skills, and geography to give communication styles much emphasis.

The point is that some styles mesh and others don't. And you don't want to find yourself in a lab where you don't feel you fit in. So, think about those teachers or lab mates whose communication styles make science fun for you. What is it that they are doing to leave you with good feelings? Conversely, if you find that you just can't get on with some people, try to figure out what it is about that interaction that doesn't work for you. This sort of analysis requires careful thought and takes time. To help start your analysis, you may want to take the plunge and ask others for their impression of your communication style.

What kinds of day-to-day activities most interest you?

Although the scientific focus of your work may differ in academia and industry, the fact is that as a postdoc, you should expect to spend most of your time at the bench. Granted, real differences in day-to-day activities will emerge as your career progresses. And there will be immediate differences in how (and by whom) your postdoctoral work is directed. You should think about how you like to work now--independently or as part of a team, for example--and you should consider what kind of responsibilities you'd like to have later on in your career.

In academia, you'll tend to leave the bench sooner than you would in industry, where you could continue working at the bench for the remainder of your career. And although some academic researchers continue to put in time at the bench, even outside of sabbaticals, most spend their lab time directing the work of students, technicians, and postdocs. They also must find time to prepare classes, write papers and grants, and carry out administrative duties.

Later in your career in industry, you may also instruct technicians or postdocs on what to do in the lab; however, every day you will also work at the bench doing experiments for the team project, which is supervised by a research manager. That research manager will often approach you for your ideas about new research directions that may be profitable and of interest to the company as a whole. So, you will have the opportunity for individual and creative scientific thought, but you are not necessarily going to be doing the project that you suggest. And instead of the papers, abstracts, and posters that you would be working on in academia, in industry you will be expected to write patents and quarterly reports on the progress of your work.

Having read the first article in this series, you'll have an idea of where the real differences between industrial and academic postdocs lie. And with some consideration of the points raised in this article, you will--I hope--be able to develop a sense of where you might best fit in. Next time, I'll look at some practical matters that are bound to affect the way in which your career develops: publications (yes, they really do matter--in both arenas), and the kinds of approaches that you should adopt after you've made your academia-versus-industry decision and you're going for specific jobs.

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