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Academia or Industry? Finding the Right Fit

In the early days of his chemistry training at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, French chemist Christophe Eychenne expected to spend his scientific career in academia. "I really [wanted] to go deeply [into] some scientific topic," Eychenne says. But soon after, he realized it was also important for him to see his research applied to real life. He found a niche for himself at the chemical company Rhodia, near Paris, soon after earning his Ph.D. He worked on nanomaterial chemistry projects that could lead to new additives for "toothpaste or car-tire applications" down the line, he says.

Depending on the industry, scientists contemplating a job at a particular company may have to do a bit more soul-searching than their academic counterparts do.

Industry is not a good fit for everyone; corporate mandates affect both what and how research is done. But "don't go for cliché answers. ... There is no such thing as research in academia and research in industry," says Martin Ebeling, head of the computational biology group at pharma giant Hoffmann-La Roche in Basel, Switzerland. Rather, job seekers need to view the employment marketplace as an array of specific opportunities, each with its own characteristics. "Look at it open-minded and without any prejudice," he says. "There will be good and bad positions offered in both academia and industry."

Research under the industry lens

(Courtesy, Christophe Eychenne)
Christophe Eychenne

When young scientists "first start becoming acquainted with what it means to do research in the private sector, it's really quite a culture shock," says Michael A. Santoro, a business ethics professor at Rutgers Business School in New Jersey. "In business, everything begins with the profit motive. ... Just the very idea of research is geared towards a product rather than knowledge itself. The most critical factor in determining whether a scientist is going to be successful in making the transition from the university to the private sector is the ability to buy into that point of view."

That product-driven mission means that research freedom can be limited. In most companies, research topics are largely chosen by the business or marketing departments. At Chryso, for example, where Eychenne today leads an R&D team for construction materials chemicals near Paris, research is almost always initiated from a marketing brief, "a precise and accurate description of the unmet needs of the customers," he says. That's not true in every industry, however: In the software industry, projects are often chosen in a more bottom-up approach. "We go to the product teams and ask them what sort of projects they are interested in," says Jaime Teevan, a scientist at Microsoft Research in Redmond, Washington. Teevan feels she has "a lot of freedom to do whatever kind of research that I want."

Courtesy, Michael A. Santoro
Michael Santoro

In the corporate setting, research projects are regularly evaluated against their objectives, targeted costs, and timeline. "In industry, there is always the tendency in the management to have more control, get more accountability, measure things, milestones here, milestones there," Ebeling says. And if your project doesn't meet all of its objectives, it may be killed. If "we're making nice progress and a project is terminated for whatever other ... financial, patent, marketing reasons, then we have to take a professional attitude and say 'Okay, ... it's not going where we wanted it to go,' " Ebeling says. You just have to get your act together and move on to the next project, he adds.

There's also the issue of the freedom to publish. In industry, you can't just say, "This is a brand-new result and others may be working on it, so I want to get it published next week," Ebeling says. Your company will first want to check whether they can file patent applications, and "you have to wait until you get clearance, ... because, at the end of the day, we need to earn the money we want to spend on new projects."

Jaime Teevan

Pressures to show immediate and positive results can also challenge the best ethical and professional standards. "The major problem is that a lot of this is out of a scientist's hands: how her clinical research is going to be conducted, and where it's going to be published, and how it might be presented, and all the different kinds of issues that have arisen over and over again," especially in the pharmaceutical industry, Santoro says.

Yet it's important for scientists to understand "that they're not just passive actors in the ethical dramas," Santoro adds. "While they're working with businesspeople and others who are going to be, in essence, putting pressure on them, they have a responsibility to act with integrity within their own organizations. And it may require a lot of bravery. It may require sometimes putting your job at risk."

What there is to gain

It's easy to focus on the challenges of doing for-profit science, but there are many reasons to consider an industry career. One of scientists' main motivations for going to industry is to see their research improve people's lives. You can do so in academia as well, but "if you would like to see in a short time period the impact of your research on the real life, you need to go to the industry," Eychenne says.

(Hoffmann-La Roche)
Martin Ebeling

Your research may be best done within a company. "Because of the resources available and the scientific talent that's already in the private sector, ... many scientists will find that good science in a pure sense is being done in many world-class companies," Santoro says. Outside of shiny equipment, companies can offer access to unique research tools and databases. Jennifer Rexford, now a tenured computer scientist at Princeton University, spent 8 years at local company AT&T Labs - Research. "Being inside a company that was running an Internet backbone and had a lot of measurement data and access to interesting research, ... I actually was able to work on things that if I had been an academic I would have had a hard time doing," she says.

Rexford also found more space to reinvent herself within industry. The scientific community's interest in her Ph.D. topic had started to wane, and she felt that changing her area of expertise while trying to juggle research, grant-writing, teaching, and advising as a junior faculty member would be too difficult. At AT&T, however, Rexford could spend her first couple of years exploring new research topics, generating preliminary data, and building relationships. "I was actually better able to take risks like that without having to worry about the tenure pipeline."

Choosing Industry

Also in Science Careers this week:

- Building a Science Career in the Defense Industry. The defense industry offers opportunities for scientists and engineers that go beyond designing weapons and aircraft.

- Pharma Offers Bench-to-Bedside Opportunities. Scientists working in pharma say the industry is among the most direct ways to improve human health.

Industry research can also prove very rewarding. Research is often carried out in teams that are dependent on each member's input, so your work will be highly valued. "In an industrial setting, you have a sense of fitting into a larger whole and being valued for that," Rexford says. Ebeling has found that to be true as well: At Hoffmann-La Roche, he says that people "come to me and they ask for my advice and they are ready to bet [their] work on the correctness of my theoretical predictions. That is the most rewarding experience I have ever had." All he would get for this in academia is to "be a third and fourth author on many, many publications, but I wouldn't qualify for heading a bioinformatics department in a university," Ebeling says.

Of course, there are also the monetary aspects: Industry usually pays much better than academia and offers more competitive benefits packages. And, in general, industry jobs have a favorable work-life balance: Without the added commitments of teaching, advising students, and applying for grants that come with an academic job, industry scientists can stay focused on their research. "The administrative overhead in academia is probably higher than in most industry environments," Ebeling says. Industry scientists also generally work within normal business hours, often on a flexible work schedule. Ebeling has two boys, ages 5 and 7, and says, "It's extremely important for me to be a major part of their lives, not somebody who says 'goodbye' in the morning and then kisses them goodnight in the late evening," he says.

Decision time

If you're considering a career in industry, identify your values and priorities and see what companies offer a good match for your research topic and ideal working culture.

A good way to figure out whether industrial life at a specific company could be for you is to do an internship. Rexford had worked at AT&T for four summers before deciding to work there full-time. "I knew the place and I knew that I fit in it and that I would have the kind of research freedom I wanted to have," she says. If you can't get an internship, find another excuse to visit. "You should go there and you should talk ... not only to the boss but also to potential colleagues," Ebeling says.

(Courtesy, Jennifer Rexford )
Jennifer Rexford

You also need to pay attention to the ethics behind your company's products. Ask yourself how comfortable you are with the impact the products you will be working on will have on society. "You need to love the final product," Eychenne says. You also need to weigh what it will take to develop those products. For young researchers in particular, it may be important to work in an environmentally sustainable industry, Eychenne says. Ultimately, "you need to be in line with the ethics of your company. Of course, some companies are less ethic[al] than others," he adds.

Depending on the industry, scientists contemplating a job at a particular company may have to do a bit more soul-searching than their academic counterparts do. "Anyone going from academia to the private sector should ask themselves, 'Am I selling out?' And they should have a good answer for that," Santoro says. But today, they are not the only ones to be confronted with the profit motive. With universities always keen to collaborate with industry and make money out of their intellectual property, research commercialization has become pervasive in academia, too, Santoro says. Whether in academia or industry, "that is part and parcel of the ethical training and life of any scientist to think about how practicalities are causing compromises in one's work," he adds.

Industry "is not the dark side," Eychenne says. "Mostly, we can't find breakthroughs in the industry without the academy, and we can't find money for the academy without applications in the real life." Rather, Eychenne adds, it's just "another side" of the research endeavor. 

Photo (top): Kazue