In this post we discuss and compare major distinctions between careers in industry and academia. We want to help you, graduate students and early career professionals, determine which path best suits your personality, skills, qualifications, career objectives, desired lifestyles, and preferred work culture.
An important question that most graduate students and postdocs have contemplated is whether to pursue a career in academia, transition into industry, or do something completely different. While in graduate school, many students have considered academic research and becoming a tenured professor to be the “most natural career path”. However, less than 50% of PhDs and postdocs end up pursuing a career in academia, and even less are entering into tenure-track faculty positions. Moreover, fewer PhDs are choosing postdoc positions due to an increasing demand for advanced degrees in industry and a competition between industry and academic career opportunities. Nevertheless, before making a decision between these two common career paths, it is necessary to understand the differences between them and determine which career choice suits you most. Here we discuss and compare several determining factors for choosing a career in industry versus academia that PhDs and early professionals should consider.
The most common careers in academia are faculty positions and staff researchers. The general responsibilities in academia can include applying for grants, conducting self-directed research, publishing papers, teaching, mentoring students, and fulfilling departmental services. Academic positions are known to have a lot of flexibility and freedom in choosing work schedules, study topics, and work styles. However, such flexibility and freedom are a double-edged sword. Being able to freely allocate time also means that it is essential to be proficient at time management and prioritization. Having the flexibility of choosing one’s own work hours could easily turn into working 24/7 if healthy work-life balance is not reinforced. In addition, for academic researchers, it is extremely important to pick the right research projects because most academic research careers largely depend on obtaining personal funding via grant applications.
Other important aspects that distinguish academia from industry are impact, salary, and career advancement opportunities. Since faculty or academic researchers have greater opportunities to serve as leaders or main contributors of their work, it is more likely to gain individual recognition in academia than in industry. However, it generally takes more time and effort to transform knowledge in academia to more practical uses. On average, employees in academia make less money than industry employees. According to a biennial salary and job-satisfaction survey conducted by Nature, almost 30% of full-time researchers who replied had an income of less than US$30,000 a year. This group includes postdoctoral researchers, staff scientists, assistant professors and even full professors. Lastly, the career advancement prospect in academia is rather linear with the end goal being either a senior research staff or achieving tenure.
The term “industry” can refer to areas such as pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, nonprofit organizations, public health, patent law, consulting, private sector companies, teaching, and science communications, among others. Therefore, industry careers encompass a broad category of career types and job opportunities. As opposed to academia, industry jobs, especially in larger and more established companies, usually operate on the basis of a more standard schedule from 9am to 5pm. In smaller startup companies, the work schedule can become less predictable. Another major difference between industry and academia is that most industry positions are evaluated using performance indicators that are clearly defined and measured. Industry employees have less flexibility and freedom to choose what projects they want to work on because industry projects are usually determined by the business direction/vision of a company/organization. Industry positions are typically more deadline-driven because deadlines are associated with tight project timelines in accordance with larger product and business goals. Nonetheless, industry researchers do not need to worry about funding as industry projects are funded internally by company allocated budgets.
In contrast to academia, industry projects require tremendous collaboration between functional teams and team members for maximum productivity and efficiency. Since teamwork is an imperative part of industry, industry employees are rarely independently responsible for the completion of a project. Despite little personal recognition, industrial projects generally lead to immediately and directly impactful and meaningful outcomes. Finally, industry salaries are higher than academia salaries, on average, for similar-level positions.
In summary, there are pros and cons for both working in academia and industry. The ultimate decision has to be made based on a combination of factors such as your personality, skills, qualifications, career objectives, desired lifestyles and preferred work culture. Below is a table summary of what is discussed in this article for future reference.