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Your Next Career Move: Academia vs Industry?

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Posted by Jami L. Milton, PhD - 07.18.2017

Most of us who have pursued a career in academia realized at some point along the way that we wanted to explore alternative job opportunities. Perhaps it was because we had other facets to our interests that we wanted to express, or we admired little about the lives of our advisors. Or it could be the cold truth that some 0.5 - 24% of PhD students will actually go on to score a seat as a tenure track professor in the ivory tower. It’s a problem of supply and demand, with too limited a supply for the over 50% of PhDs who claim to want a faculty position at a research institute or university. Yesterday, one of our Inscopix community members, Caitlin Vander Weele, a graduate student in Dr. Kay Tye’s laboratory at MIT asked on Twitter:

Hey tweeps. How did you decide between academia vs. other career opportunities post-PhD? What were key factors? -@caitvw

I found her question intriguing, as I’ve worked in academia, the non-profit scientific publishing sector, and the neurotechnology industry. Here are my views, combined with those from the long Twitter thread that ensued after Caitlin’s question.

Factors to consider:

1. Academic aptitude. If you are on a high research trajectory, enjoy publishing papers, writing grants, teaching, and you can’t imagine not being able to pursue your own research questions, then fight for the right to become a professor. Focus is your friend. Stay.

2. The high of discovery. This is where academia may clearly win out, but I can say that being in industry has been a journey of self discovery. Time and again I’m faced with novel problems that I solve as quickly as possible, and learn new skills for. Who benefits? I do, my team does, and the company does. If you believe your company is making a uniquely valuable contribution to society, then you get that same feeling that you’re contributing to something larger than yourself. But you need to ask yourself how important ownership and credit is to you. In industry, your contributions are made in the name of your company, and may not always get recognized externally the way they do with publications and grants in academia.

3. Independence and freedom. Do you truly get more freedom and independence as an academic, even when you’re limited by what projects you can fund? We all know the industry stories where someone is told one day to change research projects because it is no longer aligned with company goals. But, there are ways to gain some level of freedom and independence in industry, say by starting your own company, working at a startup, or being in a leadership role. In my experience, you can find degrees of independence in both sectors, but in general academia has greater opportunities for setting out on your own path.

Freedom is simply a question of how you set your priorities and has absolutely nothing to do with academia vs industry. - @ChrisWilms23

4. Ask “Who am I and what do I want” versus “which is best.” You've gotta weigh your own opportunities, probabilities of success, and dreams. When I decided to leave academia, I wanted to focus on science broadly, and as it relates to society and health. I knew I wanted to be involved in the communication of science, and so I chose to become a scientific editor at the journal PLOS Biology. It was a great fit at the time. Ask yourself, “Where can I create truly unique value by amalgamating my domain expertise, natural talents, and interests?” says Pushkar Joshi, a neuroscientist by training and Director of Strategy and Business Development at Inscopix.

5. Your marketability. The competitive academic environment has a tendency to beat us down into a nerve-wracking, insecure position of believing we have no profitable skills. This is far from the truth. The creative, problem-solving, data-driven, organizational, investigative skills honed by doing research transfer very well to industry, from project management to marketing. Feel confident that your training empowers you with the capacity to learn what you need to learn.

6. How you want to think about science.

Imagine waking every morning and not having your consciousness primarily thinking science. How does it make you feel? - there's your answer - @TJRyan_77

You can think nonstop about science however much you want, but ask yourself, “do I need to apply my scientific knowledge directly everyday?” Of course, you can make this happen in academia and industry, and so it’s really a question of what you want to do with that knowledge everyday. Do you want to slowly build on the same knowledge set, chipping away at related scientific problems, or are you happy with diversifying to thinking about all the skills you’ll learn from doing what it takes to run a successful company.

7. Work environment. There’s this notion that academia is a more toxic environment than most industry jobs, but that academia allows for more openness and collaboration. In actuality, industry can be a truly collaborative environment or a toxic one, depending on teams and managers. There is no perfect work environment, and so you can do your best to contribute to a positive work environment, regardless of where you work. The change you want to see has to start with you, I’m afraid, in both sectors. Or, as Mark Manson famously said, you have to decide which shit sandwich you’re willing to eat, because every job has its share of crap.

8. Burn out. It’s not uncommon to hit a wall in one’s PhD or postdoc work, and to see little desirable qualities in the lives of our advisors and mentors. Burn out can be a very foggy place where it seems the signals from your obsessively thinking brain become muffled and unable to reliably compel you forward into the actions necessary to do the thing. An interesting edge with industry is that if you start to burn out in one role, you can more easily change roles within a company, or find a new role in another company. Either way, self care takes priority at the slightest detection of burnout. Early intervention is key.

9. Stability vs flexibility. The claim is that you’ll make more money in industry, but have less flexibility. What’s important is that you’re able to pursue your goals in your chosen career. Plenty of people successfully pursue families in both sectors, but I think few would argue against the reality that academia is particularly tough on women during childbearing years. (Haven’t we fixed this problem yet?) It comes down to knowing yourself and how much money and flexibility you really need.

In the Twitter thread mentioned above, several said they chose industry for greater flexibility in where they lived, suggesting that industry jobs give you more options. But is this really true? At least in the United States in biotech, industry jobs are concentrated in a few metropolitan areas, like the Bay Area and Boston. Though in academia, you’re much more limited by a small pool of available jobs, you can get academic jobs all over the world (like my friend who took a faculty position in Lisbon). The more rigid your liveable region, the longer it may take for you to get a job.

10. Having multiple careers in one life-time. The academic ladder toward tenure locks you in, with little lateral flexibility. If a particular university doesn’t work out for you (because you don’t get tenure or they aren’t able to support your research goals, for example), you’ll find yourself back in the job search fray, fighting for those few available academic positions. Though you’ll wear many hats as an academic, your career path is limited.

In contrast, gone are the days when people spend their entire careers in one company. Today, industry provides an unparalleled opportunity for those seeking periodic career pivots, to creatively apply what they have learnt in one sector or role to another, and to have multiple careers in one lifetime.

Resources:

At the end of the day, it's a personal choice, but one best made with extensive consideration. In the Twitter thread, a couple of articles from CSHL press got mentioned. One paints a picture that those who decide to pursue alternative careers rarely regret their decisions. Another is on career decisions for Biomedical students. For general career advice about making an impact in neuroscience research, check out this post.

What other resources would you recommend to those in academia pondering their career future?

Be sure to search our careers page too! We’re a team primarily of PhDs who have found very fulfilling careers in the neurotech industry.

Afterthought: I deeply admired the lives of my academic advisors. The reason I moved on to industry had more to do with my desire to work in scientific communication and remain in the Bay Area.


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