Should I work in academia or industry? This is a question asked frequently by many Bio Careers job seekers and by an even larger pool of physicians, PhDs, and graduate-level scientists. Such a question is natural and ubiquitous, yet not easy to answer. It is one that I have thought about many times, and still have not fully resolved.
During physician training, many medical students or resident physicians may wrestle with pursuing an academic or private practice career. Usually less obvious in its decision-point, PhD level scientists must consider whether to embark on the academic rat-race of tenure and be comfortable moving from institution to institution, or skip this expected path and jump into industry. How should you make such a decision and what factors should you take into account? What have others who have “gone before” learned?
In thinking about these questions, there are three caveats I consider important:
First, when considering academia versus industry, it is easy to fall into thinking of comparing their “pros” and “cons.” However, I’d recommend thinking of them as each having a set of “features” or “specifications.” “Pros” and “cons” are often personal, based on one’s individual values, interests, skills, and stage of life. The difference and their “value” are usually relative rather than absolute, despite the fact that there are some absolute differences.
Second, while I refer to “feature sets” within academia versus industry, it must be kept in mind that there are jobs or positions that can be found in each area which will permit features from the other. As such, these feature sets are generalizations.
Third, within academia, there is still a significant difference amongst academic institutions. Institutions, even divisions or departments can vary drastically in their focus, emphasis and goals. The Milken Index ( http://www.milkeninstitute.org/publications/publications.taf?function=detail&ID=576&cat=ResRep ), which was developed by the Milken Institute (www.milkeninstitute.org) provides composite scores of publication versus commercialization amongst top-tier research universities. In my personal experience, and amongst colleagues who have studied and worked at different institutions, the mindset and focus amongst researchers can differ dramatically, with the faculty of one institution chasing the next publication in Nature or NEJM
Industry has many features that make it attractive. These are the features that draw the majority of workers in the U.S. to private industry. With many more work opportunities (and diversity of work opportunities) available in industry, considering industry can only expand your horizons.
Industry firms are focused. A firm is usually started based on a particular service or product endpoint. Its strategies and activities will be oriented around achieving these service or product goals. For those that desire direction or alignment across an organization, it is often more readily found in industry.
Also, in industry, there lies the possibility of entrepreneurship and/or “self-employment.” There is great flexibility in these paths, and you can easily arrange them by starting a firm or in setting yourself up as a “self-employed” consultant.
Innovation exists in many flavors and colors. Academic innovation is usually conceived of as invention or insight. In industry, innovation is viewed with the prism of commercialization and distribution. As such, innovation can take on multiple forms, ranging from a new molecule to a new business model.
An emphasis on commercialization permeates the focus of industry firms. This emphasis is not necessarily good or bad, it’s just a different state from academia.
Individual motivation and goals are different. Private industry workers may have identical goals for the outcome of their work, whether it’s to transform healthcare or develop a new therapy for those with diabetes or mitochondrial diseases. What often sets private industry workers apart from academic workers are the types of rewards they seek.
Academic researchers or physicians just as equally seek rewards as private industry researchers or physicians. However, while an industry researcher may have their eyes set on slightly higher salary or stock options or getting a drug past the FDA and into market through successful clinical trials, an academic researcher may be focused on that next publication in a top-tier journal, or being invited as a panelist at their domains annual conference or the size of the next grant for their lab.
Academia has many advantages and attractive features for a researcher or physician. A key differentiator is the opportunity to educate. For many, the role of seeking out new answers and touching young minds is appealing.
In comparing the nature of research in academia versus industry, academic researchers frequently offer more opportunities for blue sky thinking and research. It is not that these don’t exist in think tanks or sponsored-startups inside larger companies. It’s rather that the pressures and outputs are often different.
In academia, the focus is frequently on publishing and presenting research at conferences. This is how you develop a name for yourself, your research and your lab. The need to publish and produce leads to one of the more challenging, yet paradoxically liberating aspects of academia, tenure.
With tenure, academia offers a unique possibility for self-determination and self-direction and enjoying the affiliation of a large institution. However, to attain this stature often requires years of hard-work, struggle, and moving among institutions.
Innovation in academia is more frequently perceived of as discovery or invention. Through blue sky conception of a new process or understanding a new molecular signaling pathway, innovation takes on a de novo nature. Where overlap exists, and where there is much opportunity for collaboration amongst academia and industry is in the “reduction to practice,” or taking a discovery or concept and inventing it in a method or manner whereby it can be taken to trials or market.
With these high-level feature-sets as a guide, how do you decide?
Through personal introspection, discussions with those who know you well, and job pilots, you can better understand your personal dispositions, characterize your strengths and determine first hand if a particular industry, firm, or academic lab may be a good fit. I strongly urge everyone I speak with about such decisions, to know themselves well. Next, in speaking with others who know you well (family, friends, classmates, and colleagues), you can sketch a 2nd and 3rd party perspective of yourself. Finally, undertaking an internship or just trying something new, either in academia or industry, will give first-hand experience that may quickly serve to inform yourself of whether one is a better fit than the other.
This may seem like high-stakes and definitive in nature. While I, personally and observationally, understand how demanding this process can be, it is important to keep in mind that a job is not a career, and a career is not a lifetime. Again, a job is not a career, and a career is not a lifetime.
Past workers used to expect that, on finding a job at a company, they would work there for life. This mentality was reinforced with the proliferation of unions and large corporations with generous retirement benefits. However, young workers over the past two decades have started to show a flexibility in their job history and job seeking that is in sharp contrast with past generations. Many workers today anticipate a series of jobs, a series of firms, a series of careers, and of industries. The flexibility, and even the expectation, that one will work in another job or at another company some day, should ameliorate the stress you may feel in attempting to discern whether academia or industry is a better fit.
In fact, many researchers and physicians may find themselves as bridge-builders, bringing together those from both sectors. Cross-sector experience and collaboration may not only be where you finds yourself happiest, but may also be where you are able to provide the most value.
In summary, academia and industry both bring a rich feature set. One is not necessarily better than the other, but each are different, and may deliver a better fit depending on your personal passions, dispositions, skills and experience. Making a decision about a particular job or job search now is not an all-or-none decision on future opportunities or careers. If you perceive your job search and job possibilities as having the same plasticity as your brain, then you’ll be set for a more exciting, rewarding, and successful career.
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