Industry vs. Academia: Weighing Pro’s and Con’s of Career Choice
For some new investigators, the choice of whether to build their scientific careers in industry or academia may be easy. But others struggle with it, especially in today’s competitive funding environment. The choice also faces experienced PIs considering a career change.
Here are some considerations to weigh for each of the two pathways:
One of the most basic differences, experts say, is that a position in academia comes with more freedom to research what interests you and to develop your own study projects, while a career in industry affords you the opportunity for more collaboration across a broader range of disciplines. There’s a strong upside to each; your personal goals, motivation, and personality all factor in to your choice.
A scientific career in industry can be extremely rewarding for someone who wants to have a meaningful impact on humanity within his or her lifetime, according to Robert Copeland, Chief Scientific Officer and Executive Vice President at Epizyme Inc., based in Cambridge, Mass.
Here are a few general points Copeland says PIs should know first:
- While academic researchers tend to ask questions of broad interest, the industrial researcher must take a more practical view, focusing attention almost exclusively on questions of pathobiology that have a direct clinical value.
For example, consider an academically trained scientist who is conducting research to determine whether targeting a particular protein will have a desired effect on a particular disease. If that scientist discovers the protein is not appropriate for drug discovery, he or she might try to learn more about the molecule itself. The industrial scientist, on the other hand, must immediately stop working on that target because the work isn’t helping develop new medicines.
- The lifetime of a project in the industrial setting is limited either because a drug is developed and put on the market, or the project is suspended because of lack of progress. However, an academic scientist often pursues an elusive research target for much of his career.
- For young investigators in academic settings (assistant professors, for example), there usually is a strong incentive to be an independent researcher. That’s because collaborating on projects makes it difficult for tenure committees to determine the significance of an individual investigator’s contributions.
But basically all research in the industrial sector is done collaboratively. That’s because of the highly complex nature of drug discovery, which requires the concerted efforts of talented scientists from multiple disciplines — from molecular biologists and biochemists to clinicians. So newcomers to the pharmaceutical industry must adapt to this style of interactive and interdependent science.
- In academia the ultimate research product usually is information that’s typically disseminated in the form of scholarly publications and lectures. However, in industry the ultimate product of research is something that’s very tangible, such as a new medicine. And, although industrial scientists share this information with the general scientific community in the form of scholarly publications, lectures and patents, the sharing of that information is just a by-product — albeit an important one — of industrial research.
If you’re getting serious about a career in industry, Copeland offers these four tips:
- Be a scientist, not a technologist. After their academic training, scientists will have honed their skills in specific types of technologies. Employers expect you to have mastered your craft. But don’t market yourself on the basis of a collection of specific techniques that you’ve been trained in. Rather, represent yourself as someone with good scientific problem-solving abilities who can effectively communicate the conclusions of the impact of your research in the broader context of a drug discovery to fellow scientists and lay people.
- Demonstrate quantitative skills. Researchers who can analyze and interpret data in quantitative terms, using appropriate mathematical models, are highly sought after by businesses in industrial science. The reason is that quantitative data is needed for discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry.
- Be a team player. Remember industrial science is a team sport. You’ll be more successful in industry if you work well with others, but if you try to work alone because you need all the glory you’ll be doomed to failure in an industrial setting. Drug discovery is just too complicated for any one person to master. It is only through team efforts that new medicines can be successfully discovered and developed.
- Think holistically. Although you’re expected to be a master of your specific discipline, a successful researcher in the pharmaceutical industry must also understand a project in its entirety. That means you must make a commitment to learning enough about each aspect of a project that you can be an effective collaborator with colleagues from different disciplines, and so you can put your own research in the correct context of the team’s objectives.
If you are considering a career in academia, here are five points to consider, according to Ronald Vale, Professor and Chair of the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology and Investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of California, San Francisco:
- You have the freedom to choose your direction. One of the biggest attractions and one of the most important parts of an academic scientist’s job is to launch a research program. Unlike working in industry, academic research projects aren’t dictated or handed down by a senior authority. Rather, it’s up to you to decide what research to perform and how to pursue it. Freedom to do so is also protected by tenure. (Editor’s note: But it will usually be your responsibility to round up the funding to support your self-chosen research.)
- You can reinvent yourself throughout your career. In an academic position, your work is constantly changing and research projects constantly lead into new areas. The job is challenging and never dull — you’re forced to think about new fields, and you have the opportunity to look for new intellectual adventures. In contrast, many types of industry jobs only change in limited ways over a similar time span.
- You’re part of an international community connected by common interests. Scientists working in different countries are connected through long-lasting intellectual bonds and not by corporate structures that hold individuals together one day and then might dis- solve the next. Scientists connect through common interests, not through top-down partnerships.
- Your daily schedule is flexible. Academic scientists typically do not have to adhere to work hours. The time you have to arrive at work isn’t dictated by the opening bell of the stock market. And lunch breaks don’t have to end at exactly 1 p.m. You have the luxury of planning your day, week, and month, as well as your work environment. Sometimes you might want to work on your manscript in a coffee shop instead of your office so you won’t be interrupted. However, although your schedule is flexible, you still have to get the work done.
- You can focus on the problems and activities you find interesting. Even if your research doesn’t result in a new discovery or a new technology that leads to the creation of a new drug, the bulk of your scientific work will contribute to the understanding of the world. Knowledge, either pure or sometimes practical, is a good “product” and something that you can be proud of generating.
In general, experts say that industrial positions are generally better equipped than those in academia because a company that’s trying to solve specific problems is more likely to invest in core facilities and equipment. That would be hard to do with grant funding.
Although a career in industry pays more and may provide broader opportunities, there’s no tenure, so job security becomes a consideration. (Editor’s note: Recent communications from readers indicate that tenure might be losing some of the financial underpinnings it used to carry.)
Finally, because industry puts a premium on collaboration, “people skills” are much more important there. Managers will be more concerned about your ability to communicate and collaborate than they are about your brilliance.