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Working in Industry vs Academia: Which is Right For You?

Industry Advice Science & Mathematics

8 Differences Between Working in Industry vs. Academia

One of the most significant decisions scientists face is choosing whether to pursue a career in industry or academia. While this decision is easy for some, it can be incredibly challenging for others. If you’ve struggled with this question of which career path you’ll choose after your formal education ends, you’re not alone. 

There are several key differences between working in industry and academia. It’s critical to understand these nuances and consider your skills, qualifications, personality, and career goals when deciding which path is right for you.


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1. Responsibilities

Academic careers will vary, depending on the size of an institution, but in an academic research career, most professionals have some version of the following broad responsibilities:

  • Applying for grants
  • Conducting self-directed research
  • Publishing papers
  • Teaching courses
  • Mentoring students
  • Performing departmental service

Working in “industry” can mean many things, as the term encompasses all research work that occurs outside of universities. Professionals who choose this route can work for small biotech startups, mid-size corporations, or even international organizations with thousands of employees. The scope of work is typically focused on applied research that will have direct, clinical value. Industry work also requires a more business-minded approach. You must be able to develop projects that meet the company goals as you support the business plan of the company.

 2. Flexibility

For some, an appealing aspect of working in academia is the freedom to dictate your own schedule, choosing when to teach, conduct research, and publish your work. By not having to answer to anyone about how you allocate your time, however, also means you must be proficient in time management and prioritization.

Time in a business organization’s research lab is more structured and typically revolves around a standard 9-to-5 workday. For some people, this type of structure is preferable to ensure maximum productivity.

 3. Collaboration

Academic research is largely collaborative and team-work oriented. An academic environment creates an extraordinary opportunity for cross-disciplinary thinking and research. You can, however, enjoy a large sense of autonomy, should you choose, with the freedom to choose when, and with whom, you collaborate.

In industry, researchers are working toward a larger, shared goal. Due to the complex nature of drug discovery, there is much collaboration across multiple functional areas and disciplines. Whereas researchers in academia can be highly competitive, in industry, it’s critical for researchers to be able to collaborate and work as a team.

 4. Workplace Culture

Academia is highly research and discovery focused, and much research is done for the sake of learning, as opposed to clinical application. In contrast, “industry” work allows researchers to feel a sense of immediate impact on patient lives.

Both workplaces have their own share of pressures and demands, as well. In academia, the researcher’s plight is often “obtain funding and publish, or perish.” Academics are under immense pressure to be self-starters, continually publish their research, and to promote and advocate for their work.

In industry, the pressures are typically more deadline-driven, as teams work to integrate science and business-focused problem solving on tight project timelines in accordance with larger product and business goals. Thus, it’s important for people working in industry to be excellent communicators and have sharp people skills to manage projects.

The pace of work also differs between industry and academia. In contrast to the fast-paced nature of drug development, academic timelines tend to be longer and focused more on long-term goals and education.

 5. Individual Impact

As an academic, you’ll typically not have quarterly deadlines to meet, monthly reports to file, or a superior that you’re being held directly accountable to. Thus, the ability to make an individual impact and receive recognition for your work can be greater than in industry, where you are a single member working on behalf of an organization.

The flip side, however, is that academics can struggle to have their ideas adopted in practice, whereas the work that that industry researchers do is often directly motivated by business goals.  Although this does remove a measure of autonomy, the positive aspect is that research results are often immediately and directly impactful. To work in industry, one must be willing to work on a team and share credit. This teamwork aspect can also take off some of the pressure of having to individually achieve results.

 6. Intellectual Freedom

In academia, professionals enjoy intellectual freedom, free from the constraints of short-term deadlines and having to answer to those setting the research priorities. This allows individuals to choose what they would prefer to spend their time researching, and how to pursue it. With this freedom also comes the responsibility of securing funding and resources.

When working in industry, most work is done on a quick timeline and is driven by a product or business goals. This type of clear direction can be very appealing to some researchers, while others may see it as a hindrance to their ability to investigate their own areas of personal interest. A benefit of working in industry is that the funding and more state-of-the-art resources will be supplied by the larger organization.

 7. Salary

On average, industry scientists typically make more money than academic researchers. A 2014 Life Sciences Salary Survey found that American, Canadian, and European scientists that worked in industry made about 30 percent more than those in academia. On average, academics, including postdocs, make $88,693 annually, while commercial scientists make $129,507.

8. Career Advancement

Generally speaking, an academic research scientist’s career moves one of two directions—toward tenure and professorship, or toward work as an academic staff scientist. The career ladder can be difficult if only a handful of universities that may specialize in your discipline, or are actively hiring in a given year. There is great job security, however, if you achieve tenure.

Industry career opportunities are broader, however, and can range from research at the bench to work in product marketing or development. In industry, you also have the opportunity to climb the organizational ladder to manage larger teams and projects.

How to Decide Whether Academia or Industry Is Right for You

Ultimately, the choice between academia and an industry research lab involves many compromises, and the best “fit” for you will likely depend on your individual preference and working style.

Here are some factors to consider before heading down either career path:

  • Determine your priorities. Consider what matters most to you. Whether you’re most concerned about salary potential, intellectual freedom, or flexibility, it’s important to do some soul-searching to decide what you value most.
  • Think about how you want to spend your time. Consider how you actually want to spend your time day-to-day. Think about how you feel about teaching, publishing, managing, interacting, traveling, negotiating, collaborating, presenting, reporting, reviewing, fundraising, etc.
  • Know your strengths. Are you a self-starter who is able to proactively manage your own time? Or do you prefer to work in a more structured, process-oriented environment? Knowing your strengths can help direct you to the path that will increase your chances of success.
  • Factor in your personality. Do you prefer to work independently, or do you thrive when working alongside others? Are you comfortable with self-promotion, or would you be more comfortable sharing your successes with a team?
  • Think long-term, but keep your options open. Where do you see yourself in five years? 10? 20? Think about where you’d like to be long-term, but remember the choice you make is merely for the next step in your career. It doesn’t have to be final. The field is currently more conducive to transitions between the two fields more than ever before.
  • Be true to yourself. Most of all, be honest with yourself. Stay true to who you are, and consider what you are most passionate about. If you do this, you will find success in whichever path you choose.

To learn more about careers, trends, and market outlook for the biotechnology industry and find out how to prepare yourself to advance your career, explore our related posts


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