Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Taken for Granted: Trying to Account for Tastes

(Jeff Leigh and Dylan Snider)

Here's a remark that I often hear from young scientists: In the eyes of their grad-school professors or postdoc PIs, taking a job outside the academy is "going over to the dark side." The fact that most newly minted Ph.D.s have little chance of landing attractive, long-term university employment in no way dissuades said mentors from subtly or overtly discouraging careers in industry. Worthwhile science, these academics believe, necessarily follows the norms and values that govern academe.

But recent research suggests that these academic scientists are overstating the real distinctions. A survey of thousands of scientists working in academic and industrial settings found differences that are real but, in important respects, not nearly as great as the stereotypes imply. Indeed, some "remarkable" similarities exist between the two career paths, according to an as-yet-unpublished paper by the survey's authors, Henry Sauermann of the College of Management at Georgia Institute of Technology and Paula Stephan of Georgia State University, both in Atlanta.

[A] significant number of the young scientists seeking to start careers have values and desires closer to the reality of industry.

Furthermore, a recent article by Sauermann and Michael Roach of the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, reports that the realities of industrial employment may provide a better fit for many young scientists than would academe. That's because, this research finds, aspiring scientists' views and values are also more diverse than many in the academy assume.

A consequence of this diversity of views and values, Sauermann says, is that young scientists starting their careers need the most accurate information they can get, both about work settings and about their own preferences and beliefs. Working with both Roach and Stephan, he has compared academic and industrial science along several dimensions. Grad students and postdocs generally "think they know a lot about academia, and I think to a large extent they're right," Sauermann tells Science Careers in an interview. "But they don't have a good idea about those other jobs" and thus risk making important decisions based on false impressions.

Finding a fit

Each type of job "has different attributes," he says, but, just as important, "each person has different preferences." Grad school and the postdoc years often involve intense immersion in the culture and values of academic science. The data showed, however, that a significant number of the young scientists seeking to start careers have values and desires closer to the reality of industry. Choosing intelligently means following one's own ideas -- and not those of mentors or colleagues -- about what's important.

In the stereotypical image, Sauermann and Stephan say, the cultures of academic and industrial science diverge sharply. Academe, in the classic formulation, focuses on basic research, seeking knowledge for its own sake. Industry, meanwhile, chases commercial products or processes to produce profits for employers. Academic scientists, this version continues, are supported by grant funding and enjoy considerable freedom in determining what problems to study and what methods to use. Industrial researchers, this formulation has it, are tethered to their companies' business goals. Academics are said to participate actively in the wider world of science, attending conferences and publishing their results in peer-reviewed journals, even as industrial researchers keep their results secret, protect them by applying for patents, and eschew networking and information exchange with each other and the larger scientific community.

According to this standard script, the need for secrecy prevents industrial scientists from pursuing a research career's highest goal: recognition by fellow scientists for priority in significant advances, documented by widely cited, peer-reviewed publications. To compensate for the need to work in a way that violates science's true values, it follows, companies must pay their employees more than universities do.

It turns out, however, that graduate students in the sciences don't share a uniform taste for academic science's cliché virtues, despite the widespread reinforcement of this message. A survey by Roach and Sauermann of more than 400 graduate students at three Research I universities shows that some of the aspiring researchers do strongly possess what Sauermann and other researchers call "a taste for science," which they define as a desire to do basic research, to determine the direction of one's projects, to publish in peer-reviewed journals, and to participate actively in the scientific community. But for others, the attraction of these values is relatively weak.

Nor do the realities of the two work settings exactly match the stereotypes, Sauermann and Stephan found in their survey of more than 5000 scientists employed in industry or academe. The responses revealed both significant differences and important, unsuspected similarities between industry and academic careers. The data did confirm the broad outlines of the conventional image. The split between basic and applied research proved real, as did the significantly higher earnings of industrial scientists, who, the survey shows, generally place a greater value on income than academics do. Industrial scientists also valued intellectual stimulation less than their academic peers.

But over half of the industrial respondents declared themselves "very satisfied" with the level of independence in their work, and over 60% reported publishing in scientific journals, although at a lower rate than their campus colleagues. The industrial scientists, furthermore, generally belong to professional societies -- though also at a lower rate than the academics. Nearly three-quarters of the industrial scientists attend professional meetings, although, again, this proportion is smaller than it is among their academic counterparts. In short, Sauermann and Stephan write, the industrial researchers show "remarkable level of engagement in the broader scientific community."

Differences between disciplines also appeared. "The industry-academia gap may be smaller in the life sciences than in the physical sciences," Sauermann and Stephan observe. Life scientists in companies are likelier than their physical science counterparts to do basic research, whereas life scientists on campus are likelier than comparable physical scientists to do applied work. Industrial life scientists are also substantially likelier than industrial physical scientists to publish.

Several factors appear to be shrinking the overall industrial-academic gap. Ever-greater competition for funding ups the pressure on academics to align their research with funding agencies' priorities. Growing commercial involvement in university research raises the pressure on academics to patent. Increasing emphasis on "translation" in academic life science focuses more research on applications and encourages universities to hire faculty members with a practical bent -- and, often, industrial experience. At the same time, companies' rising interest in the basic mechanisms of disease creates opportunities for "upstream" research.

Know thyself

Henry Sauermann

Henry Sauermann

Credit: Georgia Tech, College of Management

The strength of graduate students' "taste for science" comes into play in career decisions because, the data show, it strongly influences how attractive they find work in industry or academe. Roach and Sauermann asked students to rate the importance of 10 potential job attributes. "Intellectual challenge, funding, job security, and salary are generally considered the most important, whereas peer recognition and publishing are among the least important attributes," the Research Policy article states. Freedom to determine one's own projects ranked sixth. But the key finding is "the considerable amount of variation" among people's preferences.

The students with the strongest "taste for science" not surprisingly "have a clear preference for academia." Publications while in graduate school "predict" that bent, Roach and Sauermann write. Equally unsurprising, students strongly motivated by income, job security, and "access to resources, in particular access to cutting-edge technologies," are apt to prefer positions in large, established companies. Those who value personal responsibility highly, on the other hand, tend to favor employment in start-up companies.

In determining one's own course, Sauermann therefore advises, the important thing to remember is that there's no right answer -- that individuals differ greatly in what they value and enjoy. "Some people like movies, some people like concerts," he notes. So everyone needs to form his or her own opinions and beware of "someone telling you what you should want to do." It's important to learn as much as possible about career options but also to keep in mind that "no matter who you ask, you're going to get a biased answer." People tend to self-select into career tracks and to "rationalize their decisions" after the fact, he says.

Sauermann sees internships as a useful way to experience and evaluate the reality of nonacademic work environments. Teaching, he adds, brings some people great satisfaction, but the "lower status" of teaching faculty at many research universities can discourage students from considering a career heavy on classroom interactions. He urges people to look closely at the values, preferences, and experiences that have meaning for themselves. One way to do this, he suggests, is reflecting on times when one was happy and on which aspects of the experience made it so.

Above all, Sauermann says, "You have to form your own opinions" about what suits you, regardless of what others -- including academic authority figures -- may think. In choosing your own path, "it's okay to be different," he says.