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Academia or Industry: Considering the Fit


After reading the first and second articles in this series, you may already have made up your mind which arena you want to work in. That's great! But before you start making contacts and sending out resumes, you need to assess whether you've really got what it takes to catch the eye of employers in the domain you've chosen.

In this article I'll cover some practical matters that could influence significantly your options for determining the direction of your career. These include your publication record, the extent of your professional network, and--when you get to the point of considering offers--the specific personalities involved (i.e., do yours and your prospective employer's make a workable match). Again, as I mentioned in the second article, you should maintain a long-term view when working through these decisions. And if you make a realistic assessment of where you currently stand then, if needs be, you can do what is necessary to add to your skill set those skills that will help you to hit your career target.

Publications: Do They Really Matter?

What does your publication record look like? A good number of people fret about academia's focus on papers as a benchmark for gauging research progress. But like it or not, this benchmark exists in most academic settings. Therefore, if you think you may want to end up in an academia at some point in your career, you should be sure to consider carefully your publication record as a postdoc. But does this mean you shouldn't try an industrial postdoc if you don't want to close the door on academia completely? No, you just have to try to leave yourself an out. Try to get into a situation that will allow you to write a patent and maybe a paper after the patent is granted. This will make it easier to move back into a faculty position in academia without first having to do a second postdoc in academia. So you should ask about publication records and policies when interviewing with companies for postdoctoral positions. Companies do vary on their willingness to publish research.

But you should not take this to mean that industrial employers do not care much about publications ... they do. And although hiring decisions in industry tend to focus on the technical skills you've acquired, if you have no (or very few) publications from your previous project--in academia or in industry--you should expect to be asked to explain why that is.

So, what makes for a good publication record? The easy answer is that it depends! It depends most on the topic of your work and on the perceived quality of the journals in which your work has been published. In general, having fewer papers in highly respected journals tends to give a better impression than lots of papers in "lesser" journals. The best way to figure out whether your own publication record cuts the mustard in your particular discipline is to ask someone who has served on search committees what they think of it.

What if you are already in academia and you find out that you don't really have the papers you need to pursue an academic position? Well, important as they are, publications aren't everything. As a professor you will also be required to organize a lab, to manage people, and to run a teaching program. So you should also try to develop your teaching and management skills while you are a postdoc. Either volunteer or, better yet, get hired to teach a lab or help design a course. This helps to show potential academic employers that you are dedicated to working in academia. And--just as important--this will allow you to gauge how much you enjoy these activities.

On the other hand, if you do an academic postdoc that has papers to show for it, you can more easily move into industry or stay in academia for that permanent position. In fact, you'll be able to move into industry at anytime from an academic setting (provided you have the required technical skills)--outside expertise is always valued by industry.

What's My Choice?

What will I decide? I haven't closed any doors completely yet ... it is hard to let go of academia. But I've come to appreciate the decent income potential and benefits that come with an industry job, and I find that I value financial freedom and being appropriately compensated for all the time I spend working.

So, I'm less likely to chose academia. Academic jobs do not pay for all the time one works, and the research itself is often underfunded. But I must admit I didn't always feel this way. Crucial life events such as parental illnesses and the desire to have a life outside of work changed my tune.

The hardest thing to come to terms with is the difference in research independence. I have always wanted to come up with and pursue my own research interests. I don't like being told what to do--especially if I think it is boring.

The way I envision dealing with my own academia-versus-industry dilemma is to seek out those opportunities that allow me to choose or recommend research directions for a company. Therefore, I am hoping to end up in industry in more of a managerial or business development position ... Now, I just have to get there!

Will Your Net Catch the Right Fish?

As regular readers of Next Wave know only too well, replying to an ad is not the best way to get a job, particularly an industrial job--your CV, good as it may be, will be just one in a pile of about 50 to 300 others.

The best way to land that job--in both settings--is to network. As a student or postdoc you may not feel that you have a network, but you do. However, you need to assess how large your network is and how helpful it will be as you define a target area for your job search. When fishing, a bigger net that covers a large area always looks good, but if the net has the wrong sized mesh for the fish you're after, it won't do you much good. So look at where you want to be working and determine whether or not your network includes people in those areas. Chances are that simply because you've been working on a Ph.D. in academia your network will be stronger on the academia side. But many of your professors will have contacts in industrial labs. Try to leverage those contacts if you need to build up your industrial network.

The size, strength, and focus of your network will be determined by the amount of forethought and effort you have invested in generating it. So you shouldn't ignore developing one. As you assess your existing network in relation to the direction you want your career to go, you may want to check out Next Wave's Tooling Up articles on networking and start building or filling in the holes that you perceive need attention.

Personality Fits--The Little Things Do Matter

After figuring out whether you want to work in industry or academia, putting in all that effort to get your publications out, and readying your network, you'd think all that's left to do is to get a job offer and sign on the dotted line. Right?

Wrong! The saying "it's the little things that matter" is true--they really do matter. And although it's easy to forget this in the thrill of the "I got an offer!" moment, little things on the job can pile up over time until they become unbearable.

So, what, other than the project, the salary, and the geography, matters? As I indicated in the second article, one thing that matters greatly is the communication style of the people in the lab or organization. Think about the way people communicate in the lab you are considering joining. Analyze how you felt when you interacted with those people and with others in the department during your interview. Did your styles mesh? Your gut feeling means something here--so pay attention! If you have misgivings, try to speak some more with your erstwhile colleagues to get a better feel for their personalities.

"Hold on," you say. "As a postdoc, I'm only going to be in this lab for a relatively short time. Why should be concerned about the 'fit'?" Well, there are two good reasons you should be. First, your interactions with colleagues as a postdoc will affect your future job opportunities--they can build or burn bridges you may need later in your career. And second, it is good practice for the future, when your career decisions will most likely involve much longer-term positions.

Another "little" aspect you might want to consider is whether you need to receive the recognition of others for a job well done or if instead you find that you can sustain yourself knowing that you've done your best. Making sure that your needs are met in this domain can have a major impact on your happiness on the job, too.

Finally be aware of what the expected work habits are for the lab. If your supervisor expects everyone to work 10-hour days and you want to work 8-hour days, then you can bet on some trouble.

In Conclusion

Choosing between academia and industry isn't very easy. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. But hopefully, after reading these three articles, you will be able to make a better informed decision. Here, briefly, is what we've covered...

The first article emphasized that research in industry is:

  • team oriented

  • directed toward a specific market or product end

  • generally faster and less all encompassing

  • company funded

  • more patent than paper oriented

Whereas research in academia is:

  • individualistic

  • generally slower and self directed

  • enquiry-based and all encompassing

  • externally funded

  • paper oriented

In the second article, I talked about some of the more personal aspects of the choice between academia and industry, including:

  • your personal values (preferred work habits, rewards of work, forms of advancement, social values)

  • what kinds of questions you want to address with your research (nature-based or practical)

  • assessing your research skills base (what skills do you have already, and what skills do you still need to acquire?)

  • assessing people skills (yours and theirs)

And in this article, I've given you an idea of some of the important practical considerations for landing a job in either arena:

  • publishing record

  • your job network (size, strength, and appropriate focus for the career of interest)

  • the little things (communication styles, reward systems, work habits)

You shouldn't feel dissuaded if you don't think you yet have the skills you'll need to pursue a long-term career in academia or in industry. You can develop the skills you want as a postdoc. Like a chess player, you should be considering moves several steps ahead, particularly if you're going to pursue a postdoc in industry. Another way of putting this is to say that a postdoc is an opportunity to build your personal and professional skill sets. And the kinds of skills that you feel you will need to acquire to meet your medium- to long-term career objectives should heavily inform your choice of postdoc lab.

But and even more important facet of the decision-making process is to know yourself and what you really want out of your career and your life. A serious dose of reality check will help you to determine with greater clarity of thought to which type of institution--academic or industrial--that your personality and career aspirations are best suited. Good luck!