If you are an early career researcher, this question might have crossed your mind at some point: “What’s the best career choice after finishing my PhD – ‘industry’ or ‘academia?'”
While you will still be called a researcher, the context of work changes when you pick one or the other option. Like myself, who is still contemplating between the options, it is really important to understand the differences between both career choices. It is also very critical to make your decision on basis of your interests, skills, qualifications and personality. I personally make my decisions with a critical eye listing all the pros and cons, which I will be sharing with you.
Your work responsibilities in an industry are based mostly on supply and demand. Whatever product is in demand, most likely your project will be focused on that specific product development. This can also mean that there will be clear direction of work without you wasting time on things which might be uncertain to work. This can be a best case scenario if your personal project interests align with the company’s. However, in most instances, your work (or broadly speaking, your career) will be controlled by higher authorities.
Whereas in academia, you have a freedom of exploring different horizons. It’s up to you to design and pursue your own project with or without limited direction from senior authority. Your job will be more intellectually adventurous as you will be constantly thinking, reading and exploring new ways to solve a problem.
To some of us, finance plays a big role in deciding our career… but for others, the decision is purely based on what you enjoy doing. Generally speaking, the salaries in industry are 1.5 to 2 times higher compared to academia. While the world is brighter on industry side, you don’t even want to know about how much graduate students and postdocs earn.
Late 20’s and early 30’s is typically the time when you want to buy a house or start a family, but these things just seem far-fetched in your early academic career years. On the positive side, if the promotion or bonuses sound unreal in academics, maintaining employee satisfaction is bit accessible. This can be a hard earned task in industry given the cost of bringing on a new hire is so high.
Most research jobs in the industry are standardized and structured to align with the company’s management. You may have more time to contribute to multiple projects, but the ideas/instructions may be coming from a different team directing which goals are best for company’s progress (and not your personal research interests).
Whereas in academia, as a PI for instance, the scope of your responsibilities would be much wider and entrepreneurial. It surely depends on your size of your institution, but more or less you will find yourself applying for grants, mentoring your students, publishing your research, looking over your finances, and at some places you will be responsible for teaching students, as well. If you obtain tenure, you are pretty much guaranteed a job, which can be a struggle in industry if you unable to reach the goals set for that particular year. Academia also gives you the liberty of finding your own boss, whereas industry doesn’t.
If you are a family person or likes to work at your pace, then academia is the way to go. In most cases, you don’t have to stick to work hours. You are able to make your own work schedule and hence work environment in your lab. You may have grant and manuscript revision deadlines, but they can’t be compared with rigorous quarterly deadlines or monthly reports in an industry.
The pace at which these 2 sectors works is also very contrasting. Where academia is free of short term deadlines and focuses on long-term education and learning goals, industry is fast paced where most of work is done on quick timeline driven by product development goals.
So, if you are asking yourself this big question about which career path to choose, first understand what kind of personality you have and what your life priorities are. It is really important to know your strengths and which place they can be more effectively applied. Also, it is of great importance to be open minded and keep your options open – especially now when industry is collaborating with academia to conduct research, it has become little smoother to transition between the sectors. I hope some of my thoughts would help you choose the right direction.