Industry vs. Academia: Which is the Better Place to Work as a Life Scientist?
As a life science graduate student or postdoc, one of the key questions undoubtedly on your mind is, “Should I go into academia or industry?”
You may have already made the decision based on specific factors: you hate teaching, you hate writing grants, you’re more interested in basic research than applied research, or you have concerns, moral, ethical, or cultural, with the bottom line and commercial science. All of those are perfectly reasonable, depending on your own values, needs, wants and feelings regarding your career.
It’s also important to point out that “industry” is a very broad term that describes two-and-three-person biotech startups and international conglomerates with thousands of employees. So, generalities about the “industry” should be understood to be just that: generalities. The same goes for academia—there are some differences between any university setting based on the institutions themselves, but also from small-to-medium-sized universities to large universities.
There are two broader considerations. According to a report published by Nature, the number of academic research scientists in the U.S. alone rose by 150 percent between 2000 and 2012. However, the number of tenured and other full-time faculty positions plateaued and even declined in some places. And on top of that, in 2013, of more than 40,0000 postdocs in the U.S., almost 4,000 of them had been postdocs for more than six years.
In other words, on a jobs-available basis, the industry has a definite edge over academia.
Marie Lee, currently a technical product manager for WaferGen in Fremont, California, who worked in several industry positions as well as having been an adjunct professor at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), told BioSpace, “First, you might have to wait for one of your colleagues to pass away before you can get a professorship. Which is really unfortunate. And number two, you have to have almost a magic combination of exactly what the department needs for you to get that position. Those two things coming together are always difficult.”
With those factors in mind, let’s take a look at various things to take into consideration.
Industrial scientists generally make more money than academic researchers. A Life Sciences Salary Survey conducted by The Scientist found that American, Canadian, and European scientists that worked in the industry made about 30 percent more than those in academia.
On average, academics, including postdocs, made $88,693 annually, while commercial scientists made $129,507.
The same survey, however, suggests that the overall trend for scientists is that, as they gain experience, average salaries increase. Or, as Maria Zagorulya, writing for the Journal of Young Investigators said, “Persistence and hard work in a science career seem to pay off regardless of the particular branch one chooses to pursue.”
And, of course, money isn’t everything. It’s a lot—let’s not be crazy—but it shouldn’t be the only factor taken into consideration.
Flexibility is usually touted as an advantage for academic research scientists. This seems to typically fall into two categories: flexibility over your schedule, and flexibility over the type of research you work on.
Scientists working at a startup biotech firm are likely to be working around the clock because they have limited funds, what in the industry is referred to as a “runway,” in which to get their lead concept or product to a point where venture capital firms may want to pony up more money. That point is often at a proof-of-concept key landmark or into a Phase I clinical trial.
Big pharma is quite different. “If you’re at a large pharma,” Lee told BioSpace, “it’s going to be nine to five. Amgen, Genentech, even Agilent or, say, Thermo Fisher, those are really nine to five, and not so much stress. You’re comparing a large, settled company to a startup. Of course, in a startup, you’re going to work your tail off.”
Academia, on the other hand, has a different pace. Lee says, “A lot of people who are working in academia, and I see this in the older individuals, too, they’re obsessed. The work is their baby, they’re working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, back-burnering it when they’re at home, so it’s an all-encompassing thing.”
However, academic researchers, outside of their university-related duties, can generally schedule their research time any way they please. That doesn’t necessarily mean fewer hours, though. At least one study found professors work an average of 61 hours a week.
Philip Guo, an assistant professor of Cognitive Science at UC San Diego, wrote an article in December 2014, “Industry versus academia: A junior employee’s perspective,” and says, “It feels like your time belongs to yourself, not to your employer. That’s why academia wins for time flexibility.”
And at the same time, academic researchers generally are working on research that is of interest to them. In industry, the work has a specific commercial focus, researchers are part of a team, and everything is aimed toward accomplishing that commercial outcome.
Industry often works under SMART goals, which specify the objectives of the research: be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Result-Oriented and Time-Bound. Academic researchers have the flexibility, at least somewhat, to follow tangential leads and to pursue science that has no obvious commercial applications.
So, “freedom” is a word that is often used to describe an academic researcher’s work, although it should be pointed out that with that so-called freedom comes all the responsibility, as well. Responsibility to acquire and manage the funding, hire any staff, develop the experiments, write the papers, get the work done, stay on schedule, and so forth.
As mentioned earlier, academic researchers typically work alone. But in the industry, there are usually teams of individuals with specific work goals. Often, given the international scale of big pharma, those teams are scattered around the globe and the work essentially goes on 24/7, despite the nine to five work shifts.
Depending on your personality, this can be a good or a bad thing. Lee said, “As an academic scientist, especially as a postdoc, you’re solely in charge of your own project. Everything that moves forward in your project is dependent on you and your own time. You’re really just working within your own little bubble.”
She notes that the teamwork aspect of industry, on the other hand, can take some of the pressure off. “You also realize that this is not your work. This is work that you’re doing for someone else and the work will always be there. You’re not the one sole person responsible for it, so there’s not as much pressure. As you age, you realize you’re working in a company, we are working as a team, which is quite different than academia. I can depend on my team to help me with things. That’s kind of different. You can’t just go to another professor in academia and say, ‘Hey, can you do this seminar for me?’”
This has an impact on career progress. Klodjan Stafa, writing for the Cheeky Scientist, who is definitely pro-industry, notes that career advancement in academia is something of a nebulous thing, largely based on the number of papers published, the amount of research funding brought into the university, and less measurable factors based on your department head and academic administrators.
In industry, he wrote, “your performance on assigned work and shared goals is used to accurately measure your progress. Your performance is also used for determining promotions, salary increases, and bonuses.”
When an academic researcher makes a big discovery, there’s very little doubt about who takes credit. In industry, that’s more complicated.
Guo writes, “As a junior employee in industry, you rarely get external credit for your work. For instance, when a company advertises their products to the press, they usually credit the senior executive who sponsored the product’s development. The names of all of the workers such as yourself who brought that product to life aren’t ever shown. Also, your project might never get released publicly, so you won’t even get to discuss it on your own resume if it involves confidential company information. Everything you do belongs to your employer, not to yourself.”
In academia, although the university typically claims some ownership, that typically only comes into play if you plan to start a company based on your research.
This may or may not matter to you, depending on what your own personal definition of success is. Some people take great pride in being publicly recognized for their work, while others only care if their name is on the paycheck.
Little things—maybe not so little—can make a difference. For example, Guo notes that one of the things he loves about academia is a private office. Junior scientists in the industry tend to work in an open area or a “cubicle farm.” Although the camaraderie of the open space is great, he grew tired of it and relished having a private office.
He also points out that in academia, most of what you do does not directly advance your career. There are seven primary tasks a tenure-track professor does: teaching, student advising, research, fundraising (grants), department service, university service, and academic community service. The two that matter most for promotions are research and fundraising.
Although he was probably not the first person to say it, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is credited with saying, “Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.”
In discussing the differences between academic and industry science jobs, a number of people noted that academic politics can be far worse than in industry.
Lee told BioSpace, “You’re going to get politics everywhere, but I just didn’t think it was worth it in the academic environment, for the amount of pay I had and the amount of control other people had over my progression through my career.”
Guo echoes that, writing, “Organizational politics will always exist, but that’s more of a game for mid-level and senior employees to play. As a junior employee, if you do your assigned job well, then you’ll get promoted at least a few levels until reaching the point where politics begin to dominate.”
Opportunity and Reinvention
Generally speaking, an academic research scientist's career moves in a single direction—toward tenure and a full professorship. It’s possible that you may want to chair a department, move into administration, or actually leave academia to run a company based on your discoveries … which is another way of saying, Move to industry.
One puzzle for almost everybody, not just research scientists, is that thirteen to 20+ years of your life are spent in academic environments, starting with kindergarten. Making a transition to business can often be surprising, and not everyone is comfortable with that environment. Some prefer staying in academia. Some can’t wait to get out.
And some people, despite years of higher education in science, find at some point they would rather be doing something else, whether it’s administration, sales, management or something else entirely. The industry is likely to offer more and broader opportunities to move out of science.
Lee said, “Industry really gives you the opportunity to see what other people are doing in the organization, and that allows you to move around so you can figure out what you want to do, especially if you think science isn’t the perfect thing for you.
Tips for Making the Transition
Tradition would suggest that making a transition from academia to industry, or industry back to academia is difficult, but some insiders suggest it’s not that difficult. In answer to a question on the website Quora regarding the differences between academia and industry, Daniel Lemire, who has had roles in both, answered that, “It is a lot easier to move back and forth between these occupations than people make it out to be. So while you can’t go back in time per se, professors move to industry all the time, and vice versa. To a point, you can even do both. It is not difficult to get some kind of honorary position with a research institute when you work in industry. The key to mobility is to tell people about what you do, to leave a trace, and to be relevant.”
So what should you, as a doctoral or postdoc student do to best prepare for whichever role you’re interested in?
An article on the PennState Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences website notes that being a good scientist means publishing papers and producing good work. Another factor is finding a match with your skillset. If your expertise is in diabetes and pancreatic islet isolation, an industry job in oncology may be a tough match unless there’s some aspect of your technical skills that overlap.
Natalie Griffith, Regeneron’s Senior Manager of University Relations, told BioSpace, "We’re interested in the type of degree and focus area that translates into the specific skills or would allow for a quick learning curve required for a job position at Regeneron. … If we’re hiring a protein expression scientist, we look for a PhD with a focus area in molecular biology. In addition to degree, we want to see that graduates have relevant experience in the lab, internships or have completed thesis projects.”
Lee notes that, “Postdocs are woefully unprepared for the job market, interviewing skills, how to write a good CV, how to network, things like that. I think those are skills that should be taught.”
While a CV is essentially an organized list of all your education, skills, publications, and accomplishments, a good resume is a different animal. A good cover letter gets the reader to look at the resume. A resume is more equivalent to a highlight reel, and is best designed to pass the so-called 30-second test, where a busy HR or technical manager will be able to get the gist of who you are in 30 seconds, which will be designed to call you in for an interview. Hiring a professional resume writer is often worth the investment, if for no other reason than that a pro will have seen hundreds, even thousands, of resumes, and will know what works and what does not.
Networking is about connections. It’s not necessarily about asking people for a job, but about getting to know people. A good early start with networking, besides meeting people at conferences and being as friendly as your social skill set allows, is to ask for advice. It’s recommended, for example, that on LinkedIn, you contact people for advice, rather than asking them for a job. Collaborate with colleagues. Internships in the industry, even visits (by appointment) to get a sense of what a company is like, are a way of gaining entry to the industry culture.
If you’re inexperienced in job interviews, ask some friends to set up mock interviews. Although skills and experience are a big part of what employers are looking for, so is personality and how you will fit into the company or institution’s culture.
Don Tinker, a senior associate in Life Sciences for Hobson Associates, an executive search firm, notes that he ran a survey of hiring executives, and when two candidates are basically equal, “They’re going to go with the person they’d want to have a pint of beer with.”
Also, be aware that both industry and academia have a lot of what is also called the “gig economy.” In academia, it’s often as adjunct faculty paid per diem to teach classes. But industry is moving toward more of a contract or freelance focus. Jeff Shane, executive vice president of Allison & Taylor, a Reference Checking Service and Background Check Service, says, “By 2020, approximately 40 percent of Americans will be part of what has come to be called the ‘gig’ economy. … Job seekers anticipating ‘gig economy’ positions with higher turnover/shorter job stints will need to ensure that their references are solid at each new place of employment.”
And finally, Lee says, “If there’s anything I learned about job security is there’s never job security wherever you go. Things turn on a dime, anything can happen. You can get acquired, the board makes a decision to liquidate the company, there are just things that happen that you can’t control. What you can control is how marketable you are. I really think people who go with industry really need to understand this. Wherever you go, even in academia, is to ask, How am I marketing myself? Do I have the scientific skills I need to move forward in this world?”
Pay is Typically Less
Average Pay is More
Flexible Work Schedule
9 to 5 Schedule
Typically Work Alone
Work in Teams
More Likely To Get Credit For Discovery
Rarely Get External Credit for Your Work
Single Direction Career Growth
Broader Career Opportunities