The Tough Choice of a Life Scientist: Industry vs. Academia
The most obvious career choice for life sciences students is research, and the essential dilemma of aspiring researchers is the choice between industry and academia. There are certainly other career options—government positions and scientific consulting, for instance—but industry versus academia remains the popular set of choices for many biology students. This article provides a comparative overview of these different career paths.
Money is certainly an important factor in choosing a career, and compared to academic researchers, industrial scientists have an advantage salary-wise. According to The Scientist’s 2014 Life Sciences Salary Survey results, American, Canadian, and European scientists working in industry earned approximately 30% more than their counterparts in academia.
However, according to the same survey, the overall trend for scientists is increasing average salaries with professional experience, meaning that persistence and hard work in a science career seem to pay off regardless of the particular branch one chooses to pursue.
Another concern is research funding. In academia, scientists need to constantly apply for grants to fund their projects, which often takes up a considerable amount of time; in contrast, industry funding is generally less of a concern, though this added security comes with price as we shall see.
Academic researchers have a lot more time flexibility than their peers in industry. In academia, researchers set their own research schedules as long as they fulfill their teaching and departmental obligations. In industry, the work hours are strictly set, and the employee will be expected to be present at work from nine to five, Monday to Friday. Similarly, vacation time is closely monitored in a company setting, while academic researchers often have more latitude and can go on longer holidays, especially in summers when they do not need to teach. The difference stems from the fact that academic researchers are their own bosses, while industrial researchers have to report to their superiors.
However, greater scheduling flexibility does not mean that scientists in academia work fewer hours. On the contrary, professors work an average of 61 hours a week. This is not surprising given the range of obligations they have: teaching, research, applying for grants, student mentoring, and department meetings. Among these, only research and grant applications are directly related to career advancement. In contrast, industrial researchers spend most of their time doing research and attending meetings, which are immediately relevant to advancement. The broad range of responsibilities in academia can be considered advantageous as it allows scientists to develop skills in many different areas; however, for those interested in pursuing only scientific research with no distractions, industry may be a better choice.
Academic researchers benefit from significant freedom when choosing their research topics, approaches, and collaborators, while industrial scientists have significantly less say in the direction of their work. However, with freedom comes responsibility—the viability of academic projects depends on researchers’ ability to obtain grant funding. On the other hand, funding in industry often comes from within the company and is assigned to a specific project destined to produce a commercially viable product. Thus, it is easier for industrial scientists to obtain funding for their work, but as a result they are much more restricted in their topic.
As a result of the difference in the extent of freedom offered to researchers in industry and academia, there is also significant difference in their relative impacts of work. From the very beginning, everything done in a company is directed at creating a product or service for sale, so there is always a tangible result in the end: in biomedicine it could be a drug, a therapy or a new technology. In contrast, in academia, although research results still carry incredible value and may inspire future groundbreaking discoveries, at the time of publication, they may only be of use and interest to a few other scientists working in the same highly specialized field.
In academic research, there are considerably more opportunities for independent work compared to industrial science. Although academic scientists form collaborations, these are rarely long-term, as there is significant emphasis on building personal portfolios in academia; in most research labs, each member works on a distinct project independently. In industry scientists work in teams to maximize productivity and efficiency. However, industrial scientists usually receive less credit for their work, and their discoveries will belong to the company. Academic scientists get credit and ownership for all of their intellectual outputs.
As evidenced above, there are certainly pros and cons for research careers in both academia and industry. The preference of industry versus academia will depend on personality and priorities: some people need quick results with immediate impact, while others value freedom of choosing the research topic and credit for their discoveries. However, the comparison offered in this article is quite general, and in reality everything is not so black and white. Scientists’ experience in industry will vary greatly depending on whether they are in start-ups or in multinational corporations; similarly, in the academic setting, experience will be different for researchers in small schools compared to those in large research institutions. Given the diversity of options, there will certainly be a perfect job for anyone, in either career path. For some, it may not be necessary to make the choice at all—when motivated by an interest in a particular research topic, one will recognize and seize the best opportunity, whether it be in an academic or an industrial setting.
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