Choosing between academia and industry

"Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life" -Confucius

A lot of you in academia might be contemplating about moving into industry. And one obvious question you might have wondered is whether one is better than the other. As the title suggests, there is no right or wrong answer to this question. Both have their pros and cons, and choosing between the two will depend on your qualifications, needs and personality, amongst other factors, but as long as you find something that you enjoy doing, you will know you have made the right choice!
So how is working in industry different from academia? People tend to have varied opinions regarding the difference in the two work environments. For example, someone who did not fair well in industry might recommend staying or returning back to academics and vice versa. However, the general consensus is that the two environments can be very different. First, it is important to understand the focus of industry vs. academic labs. In academia, scientists are curious to explore the mechanisms that regulate functions in the body, and then report the findings in peer-reviewed publications. It is all about the papers – “publish or perish”. This is not to say that you don’t get to publish in industry. However, in industry, the reliability of the drugs or products developed is the primary focus. The experiments conducted are mostly to study the effects of the products and to ensure that they meet high quality standards. The products need to be effective, safe, and marketable.
Most academic labs are independent or form small collaborations. As a result of this, scientists in academics can propose any hypothesis as long as they can convince the big funding agencies for financial support. Although this is getting much harder day-by-day, timelines in academia are relatively flexible, and are guided by grant deadlines, or when an abstract is due. This means, you get to ask your own questions that are interesting to you, and no one tells you what to do, or how to do it. On the other hand, research and development (R&D) projects in industry do not have such freedom. They need to be aligned with the organization’s strategic plan. If the products prove to be promising enough, upper management or investors will be willing to support the project. For this reason, industry flexibility with time and project management is quite limited.
As projects are decided by the company’s model or goal, ongoing projects can get scrapped at any time and new projects can be assigned. As most of the time you are not part of making this decision, you need to be flexible to drop everything you are doing and work on the new project. This can be exciting to some who like to gain new experiences and enjoy the challenge of a new assignment. Also, this requires you to have a broader skill set and technical know-how about several fields. For example, if needed, you should be able to give yourself a crash course on any related subject and be ready to speak about it in the next day or two, in front of a group. In contrast, in academia, you are usually the expert in your field of study and you are required to have more in-depth scientific knowledge regarding it than anyone else around you.
Working in industry also provides you with opportunities beyond being a bench scientist. If you are thinking of leaving the bench, industry can provide ample exposure to other teams such as marketing, sales, or quality control. All of these skills can enhance your personal experience and might open doors for a future career change into non-scientist positions.
Seinfeld, Columbia Pictures.
Finally, working in industry is a collaborative team effort that is mostly unavoidable. For example, a product launch is a complicated and coordinated effort between several departments including production, operations, sales, marketing and R&D. This is one of the reasons that in industry, communication and interpersonal skills are equally important. Other people, and in fact, the company as a whole, are depending on you, just as much as you are dependent on them, even for your own personal success. It is a perfectly balanced symbiotic relationship. Whereas, academia has a more traditional hierarchical structure where your performance generally does not affect others in the lab. Although you can form collaborations in academia, you still report directly to your PIs and, being the master of your projects, you are mostly responsible for the project’s, as well as your own, success or failure.

The Office, Universal Television.
These are a few of the basic differences between the two work cultures. A large part of this is what I’ve learned from personal experiences and from talking to others who have had similar experiences of transitioning from one environment to the other. So, if you love science and would like to work in a dynamic and rewarding workplace, joining industry might be an excellent choice. However, if you feel you are going to miss out on being an independent researcher and being your own boss, then pursuing a tenure or non-tenure track academic career would be the best way to go. Please let us know if you have some interesting experiences from your career choices to share with us at Also enjoy the following articles for more information.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Sony Pictures Animation.
  1. Ten Simple Rules for Choosing between Industry and Academia.
  2. Industry or Academia – Where do I fit In?
  3. Mythbusting for Academics: Considering a Job in Biotech/ Pharma.
  4. For love and money.
  5. Should I stay or should I go?
Contributed by Mohar Chattopadhyay, Ph.D.
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