In my last few posts, I provided direction on how to begin searching for job opportunities outside academia. I want to put the breaks on that for a moment, however. Are you sure industry is right for you?
While industry is a better fit for me than academia, it’s not for everyone. As a director at my last company, I was heavily involved in hiring new staff. I interviewed multiple academics, including planetary scientists. During the interviews, I pressed them on their motivations for leaving academia and their perceptions of industry.
As it turns out, some people think they would be happy in industry until they learn more about it. As you consider whether to pursue a career in industry, consider these 3 questions that I ask when interviewing academics interested in industry:
1. Are you okay with less autonomy?
A mentor once told me that he sees being an academic as a privilege because he gets to use other people’s money to selfishly pursue his own intellectual interests. I appreciate the humility expressed in that perspective, and it also captures the freedom that academics have in steering the direction of their work.
Such freedom is largely not the case in industry, though your mileage may vary based on the sector, company, and job duties. In general, you are beholden to the objectives of your employer, so the work you do must contribute to the corporate vision. Indeed, your salary and raises are an explicit quantification of how much value you are bringing them.
An exception to this is if you start your own company. Then you have all the autonomy you want!
2. Do you have deep, burning questions that keep you up at night?
I believe that the individuals best suited to academia have specific questions about the world(s) around us that drive their career. They are the people who spend their entire careers researching spinels in lunar samples or Jupiter's Great Red Spot or deltas on Mars or gaining an additional significant digit for the solar system’s age.
I am not one of those people. I have broad interests in planetary geology and geochemistry (and I’ll always have a soft spot for Mercury), but my CV is a scattershot of projects in tenuously related topics. In retrospect, that reflects my preference to work on many diverse projects for short periods of time rather than a few projects for long durations. Accordingly, the firm deadlines, shorter project lifecycles, and thinly veiled chaos of start-up companies are more my speed.
3. Does the idea of not publishing strike a pang of fear into your heart?
From the moment we enter grad school, the message of “publish or perish” is drilled into our brains. Our ability to get a permanent position and secure funding is heavily dependent on our publication record, so getting first-authored papers out there is critical to academic success.
While I understand the desire to quantify the quality of someone’s publication history, I object to the reliance on the h-index as a metric of one’s success as a scientist. And though it’s necessary to maintain a high standard for scientific research, I find the peer-review process to be the professional equivalent of pulling toenails. So personally, I am happy to leave that system behind.
Industry is different. In my experience, the deliverables I produce on behalf of my employer or a client become their intellectual property Publishing that work would the antithetical to the idea of intellectual property, which confers monetary value to intangible creations. The work might even be patented to protect the company’s ownership of it, and indeed, I am on 2 submitted patents.
Again, your mileage may vary based on the sector, company, and job. Some companies might let you publish on the side or as part of your job. Not everyone wants to let their publishing history dry up, so if it's important to you, take that into account as you explore your options outside academia.
Your takeaway message from this should not be that industry is better than academia but rather that they are simply different. Just like it’s okay to leave academia, it's also okay to stay! Which one is right for you depends in part on your answers to the questions above.
The thing is, humanity needs both types of people. Those driven by insatiable curiosity and intense dedication to a particular problem are the ones who push the bubble of human knowledge outward; those with diverse interests can draw from their breadth of experience and bring fresh perspectives to interdisciplinary projects. Neither is better than the other, and they’re both critical to progress in STEM and beyond.
Academia vs. Industry: The Difference Is in the Punctuation Marks (Harvard Business Review)
Industry or Academia? A Counterpoint (How to Do Great Research)