As budding researchers, students of science and technology are met with the same old question regarding their choice of career– “Academia or industry? Where would you like to work?”

While these two choices are not the only available career options anymore, they are indeed the more conventional paths that most young scientists tend to take. One may argue that, irrespective of the system you are in, at the end of the day, you are still a scientist – a person in pursuit of objective scientific truth. While this is not false, it is a distorted sense of the truth. One scientist in an academic institution and another scientist working for a company may be trying to answer the same broad fundamental question – but the lens through which they look at the question is heavily influenced by the system that houses them.

Working for an academic institution as a principal investigator (PI) involves taking care of a group of scientists. It is terribly similar to running your own company. You have employees that can be students, research associates, lab technicians and post-doctoral researchers. One of the main tasks as a scientist at an academic institution is to fund this company of researchers. This includes applying for grants, communicating, and propagating your group’s work to the masses, budgeting and managing your team.

Apart from this, you are involved in mentoring your students, taking up administrative tasks for the institution and teaching courses. The teaching component of your work would depend on your position and your institution. But contributing as a teacher at the institution in some capacity is required by most institutions when evaluating tenure which is a highly competitive process. Taking up administrative roles is more on a voluntary basis than a requirement, but it certainly helps your position in the institute as you get more involved in the behind-the-scenes of the management. Mentoring your students is an essential investment made for the well-being of your research group and helps increase the overall productive research output. You need to give attention to detail and provide constructive feedback and guidance on various aspects of your student’s research work – from experimental design to analysis of results. This also requires a good amount of reading literature and keeping up with the current knowledge in your field.

As a scientist, working in industry is similar to working in academia in many ways. You still need the same attention to detail and scientific prowess. However, depending on your position, it is likely that you will be working on the bench and doing experiments first-hand. As a scientist in industry, you will be part of a group of scientists which is led by a manager. You will be directly answerable to the manager who is responsible for reporting your team’s research progress to higher-ups. This setting might sound similar to working as a research associate in a research group in academia where your manager may be your PI. However, there are still several key differences between the two settings.

As a research associate or a PI in an academic institution, you are likely to be working majorly, if not entirely, in an independent manner. In contrast, there is more of a hierarchical structure to your position in industry where your manager is closely monitoring your progress. This may work better for people who like working towards a short-term goal within a limited time limit. In industry, you are more likely to be closely collaborating on the research project that is assigned to your whole team rather than you as an individual.

The second significant difference is the level of flexibility in these two jobs. This may be both in terms of working hours as well as the research questions you pursue. The underlying factor that gives rise to this difference is the motivation behind the research being conducted in academic and industrial settings. Industrial units are first and foremost, businesses, and their primary motive is to make profits. If the research being conducted by your team is not directly converting into profits, your question may be changed, and you may have little to no control over this. Moreover, research is largely driven by the company’s corporate goals and there are set milestones. Achieving these milestones is important for positive performance reviews and salary hikes.

In academic institutions, the foremost goal is to publish peer-reviewed scientific articles. This helps improve the world ranking of the institution and helps get government and non-government funding to further improve research and teaching at the institute. Money is important in both settings but in academia, it is more of an indirect outcome of the primary goal which is helping push the boundaries of our current knowledge. Thus, research projects in academia can be more obscure and long-term as they encompass a larger scope of exploration. One of the most important benefits of being a scientist in academia is being able to pursue research questions primarily, if not entirely, based on your interest. This is unfortunately not easily possible in an industrial setting.

This ties into the flexibility of working hours. In academia, the emphasis is on exploration of the scientific question which realistically, may take an indefinite amount of time on a given day. So, it is up to the scientist to decide their own working hours to best answer the research question. In industry, the emphasis is on efficiency, i.e., how can you get the most amount of useful information in the least amount of time within the limited time framework of your assigned project. Thus, most companies have set working hours – typically from 9am to 5pm. This ensures that each day is accounted for, efficiency can be measured and hence, improved. Money earned in profits is also often reinvested into buying latest high-throughput technology and equipment. Such fast technology upgradation in academia is harder because the return on this investment is accumulated over long periods of time.

In industry, fixed working hours and a focus on efficiency means that you are more likely to get immediate rewards for your hard work. Promotions and bonuses are given based on your efficiency which is regularly monitored through performance reviews. Given the relatively narrower and streamlined scope of the projects, this is more achievable than publishing peer-reviewed articles in broader self-directed projects. There are additional benefits to working for a company such as vacation days, more health benefits and paid leave, especially pai maternity leave.

The flexibility in working hours and self-direction of your research questions in academia come at a cost – your salary. Academia is infamous for underpaying its researchers at all levels, especially younger scientists. In Canada, research associates and post-doctoral fellows get paid an average salary that is at least thirty percent lower than an equivalent scientist position in a company. Your pay and other benefits increase as you go to higher positions in academia and as you gain experience. However, this is largely based on the quality of the research articles you publish and not necessarily on the number of hours you put into your work. One may argue that these two factors would likely correlate. However, scientific discoveries are not an outcome of a linear process and hence, it would be unfair to assume this.

All in all, industry and academia are both wonderful places to further your pursuit of scientific knowledge. They’re completely different but a whole lot similar. You might be a better fit for one over the other and that would depend on your priorities and who you are as a person.


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Manjula Kamath

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