A Career in Industry or Academia?

Content Developed by Dr. Madhura Pade (Materia Inc.) and Dr Dominik Konkolewicz

Where to start your career and when to start thinking about this?

This post focuses on industrial vs academic career tracks, how they are similar and unique features of both of these tracks. First up some good news:

  • Start with your values. Pick a career track that aligns with your own personal values. Apply the same question when selecting institutions or companies.
  • People switch from academia to industry and from industry to academia. This is becoming increasingly common, so you can adjust as your goals and plans change.
  • In both academic and industrial settings you can do really exciting impactful research.
  • Teamwork is likely to be substantial part of your career either in modern academic or industrial research.
  • Start planning your career early in your graduate studies or even as an undergraduate, but keep updating your plans as your experiences give new insights and priorities.

Overview of Academic Research

The main goal of academic research is to take a deep dive into the fundamentals of science. Most likely your research as a graduate student or postdoc is academic in nature. Academic research is intended to answer the question WHY (something does or doesn’t work). For the most part, academic research is focused on publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals that can add to the knowledge established in scientific literature. There is generally freedom to publish, travel to conferences, and present/attend seminars (especially webinars) relevant to your research. Often academic research focuses more on proof of concept or answering fundamental questions rather than the cost-effectiveness of a product or its ease of production.

It is common for academic research aims to “show great potential” and in many cases, academic projects have limited emphasis on transferring technology from lab to large scale applications. Furthermore, academic project tend to be rather long range, and it is common to remain with the project in your graduate or postdoctoral group from start to “end” (depending on whether the project ended or you left for another opportunity). Funds for conducting the research typically come from proposals written to funding agencies by senior researchers (generally post-doctoral researcher or higher), who will be in charge of the project. The details of the project and/or duration is dependent on the stipulations set forth by the approved proposal. Often times, moving on to a postdoctoral researcher position after graduate school is perceived as working towards becoming a professor.

Overview of Industrial Research

On the contrary, life in the industry revolves around developing products that generate revenue and will help the company make money. The goal is to innovate and develop new products quickly and economically. Contrary to academic research, industry work is intended to answer WHAT will work and HOW to make it work while preserving resources.

In many cases, little time is spent on the nitty gritty details or deeper aspects of the science behind “failed” experiments. Long term profitability is the driving force behind industry work. Projects can change or evolve depending on the situation at the time, sometimes on short notice. Customer focus/ satisfaction is of utmost importance. Well established companies re-invest part of their revenue into new projects. Furthermore, business development teams are generally tasked with scouting for new projects or clients for the company. But sometimes, research teams at the company can also submit funding proposals similar to academic research if they want to explore a potential application for their products. A common misconception is that industrial research is less innovative or creative, with some really exciting materials and discoveries having being made in industry. In spite of some innovative research, a lot of times industry work can be “secretive”. Although companies do file patents to block competitors from using their technology, publication of journal articles about the work may be limited. Working in the industry is a great way to expand your interpersonal skills because of exposure to team members or superiors from different backgrounds and disciplines. Industry track can also bring flexibility to your career plans- you can start working in the industry right after graduate school. Then, after a few years, you can either choose to stay in the industry or move back to academia

When to start looking for jobs?

Hiring process in both academia and industry can be long and arduous.

Academic jobs in the US are typically posted late in the summer, with interviews in fall or the winter and decisions sometimes not made until the following summer for a fall start the year after you applied. This timeline is true for both many research intensive academic positions, as well as, teaching intensive academic positions.

In industry the speed of the whole process can depend on a number of factors- how urgent/ time sensitive the project is, how much funding is available for the project, potential company reorganizations, “absorption” of the project by another group at the company, or simply cancellation of the project. A good time to start looking is at least 6 months before defending your PhD dissertation. Expect delays at both ends (employer and you). For example, immigration status of international students can be another roadblock in finding a job in the industry. So, add 6 more months to the timeline if work visa sponsorship is a requirement for you.

Where to look for jobs?

Academic jobs are generally posted on C&EN Jobs. Additionally the blog Chemjobber does really excellent work keeping up to date with chemistry related job openings. Keep checking these resources regularly, especially from late summer to early fall as new posts are placed regularly. It will take some time to build your independent research plans, your teaching philosophy, statements regarding diversity equity and inclusion, and of course make sure your CV is up to date.

The best places to look for industry job openings are sites such as LinkedIn, Indeed Jobs, Glassdoor, C&EN Jobs etc. Think of job search process as another full-time job. On LinkedIn, connect with professionals at different companies that can potentially be your employer. Keep looking (in fact, turn on notifications) for new job postings constantly. Employers don’t know who you are. So, your resume, cover letter or LinkedIn profile will create your first impression on a potential employer. Throughout the search process, your resume will remain a “living” document i.e., some details will change to cater to specific requirements posted in the job description. Since the general content/ format is standard, attend seminars/workshops or take help from facilities available at your university about writing resumes and cover letters. Similarly, update your LinkedIn profile periodically to ensure your latest achievements are included. Be sure to include as many details as possible.

Apart from online job search websites, networking at technical conferences can be another route to look for jobs. Update your CV/resume frequently. As you come closer to applying for jobs, you can pass your resume at technical conferences during poster session or mixers. You can also approach volunteers from different companies at their exhibition booths. Don’t lose the business cards you collect from company volunteers or other attendees you interact with at conferences.

How to choose a job?

Pick the job that you feel best fits your background and/or will be best for your future career path. Do research on the institution/company’s profile to understand their goals and gauge nature of the job and daily life at the company. The info you get from the research will also come in handy during the interview; you can ask the interviewer general questions about their work/ company, thus showing the employer that you took the initiative to learn about them as well. Decide for yourself the kind of environment you want to be in.

As an example, if direct interactions with students is high priority for you, then an academic position is likely to suite your career goals. Depending on your personal values, interest in a broad teaching portfolio vs extensive applications for research funding, and mentoring style a teaching intensive position or a research intensive position may be a better academic fit. Generally, teaching intensive positions, such as those at primarily undergraduate institutions will come with a higher teaching load, primarily mentoring will focus on undergraduate researchers, and a narrower scope of research projects. In contrast, positions at research intensive institutions will have a higher demand to obtain external research funding and establishment of an extensive publication record, mentoring will likely include extensive mentoring of graduate students postdocs and also undergraduates. MACRO is developing resources for choosing between teaching and research intensive academic positions, with a focus on evaluating which of these types of positions aligns best with your values and interests.

For industry track job, an opportunity at a big, well-known company can appear more attractive. Nobody will complain about having a big company name on their resumes when you switch to a new company! That opportunity can come with a better salary/ bonus/ benefits, job security (especially during unforeseen events like the year 2020), and open more doors for your future job/ career path. But that position can come with its own disadvantages- you may feel less connected to the company and its staff, especially right after graduate school. You may be just one among many others at the same level. The environment can get very competitive especially if multiple teams are working on similar projects. Learning might be limited to technical activities only; non-technical tasks, like direct customer interactions, inventory, safety, get distributed to personnel/ teams assigned to the tasks.

In contrast, a job opportunity at a smaller company or a start-up can come with relatively lower salary and/or perks. Job security can also be another issue, especially in early stage start-ups. In spite of the shortcomings, working at a small company can be a good starting point for life in the industry. Such a job will give you more visibility to your superiors and upper management. Chances of you can being the “alpha” for your project can be high. Therefore, the job can bring a sense of satisfaction to you and provide opportunities such as direct customer interactions and frequent participation in technical/non-technical discussions. There is relatively less interference from other teams. Also, after starting at a small company, you can only go upwards from there!

Bottom Line

Deciding on a career path is difficult but critically important. As yourself what do you value and what type of activities will interest you. Regardless of whether you pick industry or academia, spend the time to develop your strongest possible application packet. Finally, use your time at your first job out of graduate school wisely and expand your areas of expertise beyond just day to day activities and think about the big picture.