Academia vs. Industry: Differences in Workplace Culture
Pictured: A scientist with a split background between academia and industry/Nicole Bean for BioSpace
In the realm of scientific innovation and discovery, industry and academia are sometimes pitted against each other, and working in the commercial sector can carry a stigma. Yet it’s not unusual for researchers to switch from academia to industry or vice versa over the course of their careers.
BioSpace spoke with some people who’ve done so about differences in culture between the two life sciences realms and other factors people may want to consider when deciding where to work.
In academia, collaborations tend to be slow and long-term, because researchers participate based on their interest or expertise in a particular technique, said Vivek Gupta, an associate dean of graduate education & research at St. John’s University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in New York.
Academic researchers also enjoy autonomy when it comes to choosing their collaborators, unlike in industry research, which largely focuses on shared goals of their employers and comes with tight deadlines and high stakes, said consultant Rohitesh Gupta, who worked at pharmaceutical companies in between his Ph.D. work and postdoctoral research in cell culture at the State University of New York at Buffalo and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
“In academia, you can choose to work at your own pace, but there is less monetary reward, which can be a point of stress for most researchers,” Rohitesh Gupta told BioSpace. “In industry, it is relatively fast-paced; you have to keep up with your team, but there is a higher monetary reward.”
A related way in which academia and industry differ is in their relative emphasis on recognizing individual contributions to a project or finding. In academic research, credit is the “currency of the realm,” noted physician Jeffrey S. Flier in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. Achievements in the form of publications and citations have a direct impact on a scientist’s promotion, reputation and ability to get funding.
Not so in industry. “Moving from academia to the industry involved a lot of unlearning,” said Debjani Saha, who joined Premas Life Sciences as a product manager after earning her Ph.D. and now serves as assistant general manager of marketing. “As an academic, one is responsible for moving a project along. . . . The industry involves a lot of teamwork and people management skills, and this may end up giving a person a feeling of not having enough control or ownership of one’s project. . . . Shedding inhibitions to network and [get] one’s job done is paramount.”
Scientists in academia must divide their attention among a multitude of tasks, often including teaching, securing grants and peer-reviewing journal articles. Grappling with all these responsibilities can leave academic researchers feeling overwhelmed, with little time left for research. In contrast, researchers working in industry don’t have to find funding or take on other responsibilities associated with academia, enabling them to laser focus on core projects.
One of the biggest challenges an industry researcher might face when returning to a university environment is managing all the competing priorities, noted James C. Barrow, an ex-Merck medicinal chemist currently at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in an article published in ACS Medicinal Chemistry Letters.
In the academic world, overwork has been accepted as a part of the profession, sometimes at the expense of one’s health, social life and mental wellbeing, early career researchers Feyza Nur Arslan and Michael Barlett noted in an article for ecrLife. They point to a 2019 survey of 1,434 individuals with Ph.D.s in which 45% of the participating Ph.D. supervisors reported an increase in cases of mental health issues among their students. The data also indicated that work-life balance satisfaction levels among researchers were declining.
On the other hand, a 2021 survey conducted by Nature found that scientists working in industry have higher satisfaction levels when compared to their colleagues in academia, with 64% of industry researchers and 42% of academic researchers reporting feeling positive about their careers.
“Academia gives you a lot of flexibility in what you want to do, when you want to do [it], but that flexibility goes both ways,” Vivek Gupta said of his work experiences. “You could work for 24 hours and it might still not be enough. In industry, the work hours are very structured.” He noted, however, that “there are also people in industry who work a lot.”
Freedom of Exploration
Industry work enables researchers to transform their research into something tangible, an opportunity that is often lacking in academic research. But companies also demand results that showcase direct impact.
“Frequently, industry decisions are driven by financial considerations, shaped by the responsibility towards shareholders,” wrote Adam O’Donnell, formerly a senior chemist at Concept Life Sciences, in a comment on LinkedIn. “Deadlines are rigid and unforgiving, necessitating strong time management.”
On the flip side, academia provides a researcher with the space and time to continue research even when facing challenges that might lead to the termination of a project in an industrial setting, Barrow wrote in his article. He also highlighted the possibility academia affords of having unexpected results lead to new side projects. That ability to explore without a definite outcome in mind is a feature of academia that Vivek Gupta also noted, attributing it to the fundamentally different goals of academia and industry.
Relatedly, leaders of academic labs enjoy a relatively high level of autonomy in setting their research agenda, whereas in large pharmaceutical companies, the decision-making process is rather slow and can be frustrating for researchers accustomed to academia, a head of R&D with experience of working at large pharmaceutical companies told Nature.
Whether these differences in workplace culture are pros or cons depends on an individual’s working style and personal goals. Despite their differences, both academic and industrial research are grounded in the scientific method and work toward advancing science and society.
Sanjukta Mondal is a freelance writer based in Kolkata, India. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.