Many researchers find themselves having to decide between pursuing a career in academia or industry. For – some graduates, the choice is obvious, but others may find it difficult to pick one path over the other. But what exactly is the difference between these two disparate career paths?

Research conducted in academia tends to be more discovery-driven, and the focus is mainly on learning instead of developing clinical applications. In addition to conducting self-directed research, an academic scientist needs to apply for grants, publish papers and mentor students. Industry scientists conduct applied research with direct clinical impact and as a result, they tend to approach research with a business mindset, though that is not to say that discovery research does not happen. A career in industry includes a broad range of research activities, such as working for a biotech startup or a multinational pharmaceutical company. Industry researchers might provide consulting services, assist with product development, or carry out quality control.

A recent survey published in Nature examining salaries and job satisfaction found that many scientists in academia are transitioning over to industry. The survey also revealed that those researchers working in industry are more satisfied and better paid than academic scientists. Survey respondents were composed of 3,200 scientists, 65% of which work in academia, 15% in industry and the remainder work for the government or non-profit organizations. Further understanding the differences between academia and industry might shed some light on the survey’s findings.

One key point that likely comes to mind regarding job satisfaction would be the salary differences. Industry researchers are typically paid 30% more than academic scientists. The Nature article points to labour-market economics as a potential explanation for the greater satisfaction and higher salary. Due to new companies emerging on a regular basis, industry employers find it challenging to fill vacancies. To attract strong candidates, they offer high salaries and benefits. The reality is that the academic sector is simply unable to compete, thereby fueling the shift to industry.

The consequences of the pandemic might also explain the higher satisfaction of industry scientists. Another survey of 1,000 UK faculty and staff conducted at the University of Bristol revealed a perception that university leaders were using the pandemic as an excuse to implement cost-cutting measures. Such cuts have led to the cultivation of fear among academics and the general sentiment that leadership in universities is becoming more autocratic.

Some other important distinctions between the two pathways can also clarify the survey’s findings. Scientists working within academic settings have some flexibility in planning their schedules, including choosing when they teach or carryout research. Industry scientists lack such flexibility as their work schedule is more structured, with employees mostly work 9 am to 5 pm during weekdays. Those working industry jobs need to meet specific deadlines, leading to a faster turnaround time for projects. Therapies developed by pharmaceutical companies are also quickly brought into clinical practice, allowing industry scientists to observe the direct impact of their work on patient lives.

One hindrance that academics have to deal with is access to funding, something that commercial scientists don’t need to be actively concerned about. Another major component of academia is teaching, whether that is acting as an instructor or assisting with running a course. Some graduate students might be uncomfortable with teaching, which may be another reason why they opt for a career outside of academia.

Of course, there are scientists that have successful and fulfilling careers in academia. They enjoy the flexibility that academic research offers and find satisfaction in pursuing knowledge for its own sake. Nonetheless, the increasing number of researchers leaving behind academia is concerning. University leaders must implement changes within academia to attract and retain the next generation of scientists.

Some concepts that can be borrowed from industry and applied to academia involve maintaining a work-life balance and focusing on career development. Trainees in academia should be encouraged by advisers to explore various career paths. Engaging in transparent conversations about professions in research would be of great benefit to graduate students, resulting in a more positive learning experience. An important aspect would be to bridge these two sectors, allowing individuals to easily move between the two. Such fluid movement is only possible if academia evolves to compete with the booming industry sector.

Researchers torn between industry and academia should first understand the distinguishing features of these two sectors. Scientists should then take a moment to consider their strengths as certain qualities would be more valuable in one setting over the other. Being willing to explore various career avenues would also be useful for recent graduates caught facing the common dilemma.






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Ammarah Naseer

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