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Academia or Industry: Making a Conscious Decision

Should I pursue an academic career or join a company? It's often a difficult decision for those coming to the end of their university educations. Based on his personal experiences in both worlds, Tim Hulsen talks about the situation in the Netherlands.

It seemed only logical to go for a research job after finishing my master's in biology at the University of Nijmegen, but I hesitated about starting a Ph.D. A job at the university did not look very appealing: a lot of hard work for a relatively small amount of money and poor career prospects. In general, universities are famous, or should I say notorious, for their bad career-development support. After a Ph.D., most people start doing a postdoc, usually a short-term assignment, meaning a rather insecure position.

But I was still young--only 21 years old--so I thought I would try to get a temporary job at a company to see if I would like that better. If this didn't work out, I could still get a job at some university as a Ph.D. student. Luckily, my final project was in bioinformatics, which was just starting up in the Netherlands. A lot of bioinformaticians were needed, but there were not a lot of people with any relevant experience around. So, I had the security of believing that it wouldn't be a problem to find another job in the near future if things didn't work out in industry.

I identified some likely biology-related companies through a meeting at the university where companies made presentations to the students, and I sent them my CV. The pharmaceutical company Organon, which is part of Akzo Nobel and has its main research centre in Oss, was the first to contact me. After two or three rather informal discussions, Organon gave me a temporary contract, initially for 3 months, but it was soon extended to 1 year in total.

My first impressions were rather good. The atmosphere was quite relaxed, in contrast to some stories I had been told about other companies. But maybe this was just because of the location of the company, in a (southern) part of the Netherlands that is actually known for its laid-back attitude and easy-going atmosphere. The annoying workaholics of the university seemed absent at the company. These people were quite normal, working from 9 to 5, having a family life and hobbies, and discussing topics other than work during lunch. This was great, considering that some professors at the university seem to think it is very normal to want to talk about science all day, every day.

I guess this is one of the things that contributes to the love-hate relationship that exists between universities and companies. On the one hand, universities need companies for funding, and companies need universities to get fundamental scientific input. Moreover, companies rely on the universities to train people who will later work for them. On the other hand, as mentioned, the perspectives of the employees can be quite different. People who work at the university sometimes look down on their company counterparts because they seem to work just to earn money instead of working for the good of the scientific community. People working at a company generally see their academic colleagues as withdrawn and having developed tunnel vision, only looking at their own small field of expertise and not the rest of life. This description may appear to be a bit generalized and exaggerated, but I think in essence it is true for a lot of people.

The point is illustrated by the experience of one of my Organon colleagues during a foreign congress. He was talking about his research to an academic person, and everything was going quite well until he made the mistake of mentioning that he worked for a company. At that point, the academic person just turned around and walked away. It was as if he believed that my colleague had sold his soul to the devil when he got a job outside the academic world, not recognizing that there might be a lot of reasons other than money for choosing an industry instead of an academic career.

After about half a year working at Organon, I decided that it would be a good idea to get a Ph.D. I knew that I wanted to focus on research primarily, and this would ensure that I would not bump into a glass ceiling. I had observed that most of the researchers at the company had Ph.D.s.

I talked with Organon about my decision. I now have a Ph.D. position at the Centre for Molecular and Biomolecular Informatics ( CMBI), the bioinformatics department at the University of Nijmegen, and continue to work 1 day per week at Organon. The company already had a collaboration with CMBI, and the subject of my research--defining orthologous relationships between all of the proteins in the sequenced organisms--seemed to fit in well with one of the groups at CMBI. The company pays the university the amount of money that is needed for them to give me my salary and to compensate for travel expenses and so on.

Something I find really positive about doing research at a university is the freedom to publish--there are no restrictions. When working at a company, confidentiality is always a consideration. The details of your research need to be kept from competing companies, so an article shouldn't contain any confidential information, which makes the publishing procedure rather difficult. Moreover, the company has confidentiality contracts with other companies, such as microarray producers. Their data should in general be used only for internal research, without giving away the primary expression data. Luckily, I don't have these concerns at this moment, working primarily at the university, with its free access to a lot of resources and fewer publishing restrictions.

Another contrast is the difference between fundamental and applied research. The nice thing about working at a company is that the research always has a clearly articulated goal. All of the hard work will have a concrete result, just because that is how the company makes money. But the advantage of doing academic, fundamental research is that, again, there is more freedom. As long as you are able to find the money needed for your research, you can work, in principle, on any subject that you like. I hope to be able to combine fundamental and applied research in some way, as the results of my study should be interesting for both academics and Organon. But it is not always easy to be in the middle of these two approaches.

Right now, I am not really sure where my future lies. Of course, my experiences are personal and particular to my situation, but I hope they will help other young researchers make a good choice. And at least I have the advantage of seeing both sides of the coin, something I would recommend to anybody.

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