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4 Ways Academia And Industry Differ For Research Scientists

How research scientists differ between academia and industry
Written by: Abha Chalpe, Ph.D.

Scientists… the researchers, discoverers, and curious people who dig deeper until they find what they were looking for and then research why and how it got there.

Sounds amazing, doesn’t it?

As the old saying goes, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’.

Scientists are therefore the facilitators who realize these necessities and invent what we all need.

At least that’s the idea.

And why I got into research.

All scientists are groomed in the academic environment, and most of us thrive there while we work towards our masters and doctorates.

However, the thriving transforms into suffering when the academic goal of achieving the degree is postponed for an indefinite amount of time.

PhDs are overworked, underpaid, and certainly undervalued.

That’s when a PhD will start to question their decisions.

Why did I get into research?

What happened to the motivation I used to have?

Is this even worth it?

This negative thinking soon snowballs out of control.

The desire to do research remains, but as in my case, I knew I had to change locations — and fast.

I felt lost, and was yearning to get out.

Enough of applying for postdocs and staying in this non-motivating environment.

After having several informational interviews with research scientists in industry, I learned that I could still do research and regain the positive motivation for discovery that I once had.

What I had to remember was that academia provided the training to reach my goals, but it was not the final destination.

The sooner I did that, the sooner I started focusing on strategically job-searching for my next research scientist position in industry.

I gained back confidence and energy.

I went through industry interviews and faced the toughest R&D questions.

I came through it successfully and now could not be happier in my current principal scientist role.

Competition for research scientists in academia is fierce

Why PhDs Must Develop An Industry Mindset

PhDs are no longer as valuable in academia as in industry.

In a recent study by Larson et al., it was reported that, at a steady state, only 12.8% of PhD graduates can attain academic positions in the USA.

Meanwhile, in the span of 10 years, the number of PhDs in biomedical sciences increased 83%.

The number of PhDs vying for academic positions is growing at an alarming rate and will continue to do so.

In academia, you are just another PhD… another tenure-track wannabe.

It is difficult to distinguish yourself from the pack.

Instead of doing research for the love of research, you are forced to take on projects that will bring in papers and potential grant money.

The romantic notion of academia is over.

But don’t be discouraged.

Your PhD is extremely valuable in industry.

Now is the time to learn the critical differences between academia and industry so you can become the next top job candidate.

Hiring managers will want to know that you understand the industry, have business acumen, and can apply transferable skills — such as project management and communication — to business.

Science is consistent between academia and industry

4 Ways Research Differs In Industry Versus Academia

While the meaning of research remains the same, the context changes when one transitions from academia to industry.

Industry goals are aligned with market requirements and are far more stringent, compared to the academic goal of earning a degree.

The biggest commonality between researching in academia and industry is that the science remains the same, so it helps immensely to arrive at industry with a strong scientific understanding.

Both offer platforms to develop professionally, but in very different ways.

Chronologically, academia precedes industry in offering the opportunities to chase your passion for research.

Industry, in turn, allows you to focus that passion toward a particular goal.

Here are four ways research differs in industry versus academia…

1. Supply and demand.

If there is a need (demand) for anti-cancer drugs, the industry will produce (supply) anti-cancer drugs.

The advantage here is that the supply and demand chain can align your individual goals with the goals of the company.

Though industry is also categorized into different departments (R&D, quality control, manufacturing, processing, clone development, and so on), the departments are closely connected, unlike academia.

You work in isolation in academic labs, but this isolation is replaced by inter-departmental collaboration, forming a chain reaction in industry.

For example, the clone development department produces the clone of the molecule of interest, passes it on to the processing department to build a batch, which is then characterized by the analytical (and characterization) teams, finally landing into the manufacturing unit for scaling-up of the product before it is sent for clinical trials and marketed to the patients.

Delays or anomalies in any department affect all the other departments, ultimately affecting the overall product being produced.

Hence, it is imperative to meet all the departmental timelines, and in turn maintain the timeline of launching the product.

The average age of a research scientist in academia when obtaing a first grant is 42

2. Pace.

This chain reaction also has a great effect on the performance of an individual.

‘Bottleneck’ is a very common term used in industry to describe a particular parameter or individual that hinders the progress of a product from department to department.

No one wants to contribute to the ‘bottleneck’, so everyone has to be on their toes to support and perform to the best of their ability.

Add the factor of time (which is never enough) to the mix and you’re operating in a high-pressure, extremely volatile environment.

This environment is a perfect fit for individuals who are goal-oriented and extremely organized.

The career advancement in industry is also at a much faster pace, compared to academia, as well.

Within a few years, you can work your way up from scientist, to principal scientist, to group leader, and even director.

The New York Times recently reported that the average age at which a scientist obtains a grant in academia is 42, which equates to a biomedical scientist acting as an apprentice until middle-age.

The corporate ladder is primed for PhDs to climb and your career advancement has the potential to be much more satisfying.

3. Project volume.

In industry, a research scientist works on multiple products (projects) at the same time, while in academia one mostly sticks to a couple of projects at the maximum.

Along with the scientific responsibilities of designing and conducting experiments, a research scientist is also responsible for managing people.

Most industries have a standard organizational structure where a research scientist is regarded as a manager and is responsible for developing assays, helping others develop assays (managing people), bringing in new projects for the company (either through collaboration or outsourcing), and participating in activities such as budgeting and planning ahead.

Academia may demand a few of these things occasionally from a scientist, but the main goal is always to write and procure grants for the continuation of the research.

Academia provides you with the basis to develop the transferable skills to manage people and lead projects, but it is not until you enter industry that you are fully able to grow and expand your reach and potential.

The opportunity to work on multiple projects at a time within a team environment provides stimulating diversity, along with opportunity for career advancement, that academia just cannot provide.

4. End of year appraisals.

A research scientist, just like any other professional in industry, is appraised at the end of every financial year based on her/his progress throughout the year.

This could be a gruesome process if the individual was unable to reach the set goals for that particular year.

Promotion to a higher position greatly depends on this performance evaluation.

While such performance evaluations might happen with the academic advisor if you are lucky, it seldom translates into a promotion or demotion.

In industry, giving and receiving feedback is an essential part of an employee’s development and is essential for the success of a company.

It is financially detrimental for an employee to go months performing the same task incorrectly.

Not only that, but companies strive to maintain employee satisfaction and retain their employees as a measure of good business.

With the cost of bringing on a new hire being so high, it is in the company’s best interest to ensure its employees are performing to the best of their abilities and enjoying doing so.

Performance reviews, likewise, continue to ensure that you are also fitting into the industry environment in a way that is satisfying for your short and long-term goals.

Scientists are already well-equipped to thrive in industry. It is up to you to extract the skills from academia and apply them to your roles in industry and build upon them. There are key differences in industry that every PhD must be aware of. It will be important in interviews and during your first months on the job to recognize these differences so you can excel in the new environment. You don’t have to pay your dues in academia forever. Understand these key differences between academia and industry and start enjoying the journey you began.

To learn more about the four ways academia and industry differ for research scientists, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Abha J. Chalpe, Ph.D.

Abha J. Chalpe, Ph.D.

Passion drives everything I do! Being a scientist by training (molecular endocrinology), I tend to analyze (sometimes over-analyze) situations. The learning that comes from this analysis is what my life thrives on. My Ph.D. and postdoctoral work has taught me to streamline my ideas and channel them to ignite the flame of success. My current role in the biotech industry allows me to characterize generic drugs such a monoclonal antibodies before sending theses drugs for clinical trials. Additionally, recently I secured the opportunity to become a branding ambassador of the same company. This is allowing me to use my creative side of things to achieve success beyond the scientific world.
Abha J. Chalpe, Ph.D.
  • Julian Holst

    You hit on something right at the beginning that impressed me. We get into science because we love the research, love the process, love the discovery, and would love to see something you discover get used to better the world. But we get hung up when it comes time for the reality of science in the academic context. It’s really easy to lose a sense of direction once we’re doing so well in academia, but in order to really meet our ultimate goal, which is to have an impact, it’s really wise to get the heck out of academia. So thanks — it’s always good to have confirmation.

    • Abha J. Chalpe

      Glad our thoughts resonate with each other, Julian.

  • Kathy Azalea

    It occurs to me that academia should start updating and preparing its PhD candidates for a job in industry, or at least talk about it as the opportunity it is. I know the ivy-covered institutions are slow to change, but it might be nice!

    • Abha J. Chalpe

      I agree, Kathy. Some institutes do have open forums where they invite industry personnels to share their experiences but it should be on a larger scale and also should included in the curriculum.

  • Sonja Luther

    I can see the major differences between academia and the industrial environment outside of academia. It seems a lot more obvious to me now why there is so much room to advance in industry as compared to academia.

    • Abha J. Chalpe

      I am glad you found the article helpful, Sonja.

  • Theo

    I think it’s cool that departments collaborate more in industry. It seems like a whole different world, and some of us actually like more breathing room as far as associating with partners while we don’t mind the extra pressure of having to get stuff done on time. I don’t mind getting the stuff done ASAP as it is; wouldn’t mind moving on to an industry where that’s appreciated.

    • Abha J. Chalpe

      Great! All the best, Theo!

  • Madeline Rosemary

    When you think of it, a lot of the performance evaluation has to do with meeting goals and deadlines, but a big factor in undermining success could be shyness. If you’re not bold enough to get your questions answered and make sure you and your supervisors are on the same page, or ask for help from other collaborators, you may very well struggle meeting deadlines. While most of us do have enough confidence or develop it in the course of completing our PhD requirements, people who are very shy or overly used to academia may have to step up their social game a bit.

    • Abha J. Chalpe

      Good point, Madeline. Working in isolation is inviting trouble in the corporate world! One could simply start by asking the right questions to their colleagues and then choose who they want to be friendly with. As one moves up the corporate ladder the freedom to choose a team increases which in turn helps to form a stronger network.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    We need to continue to remind our younger PhDs that their achievements mean a lot in industry. Too many times, I see green PhDs struggling with feeling inadequate, and I hate to see that. It reminds me of when I was looking for my first position and struggling myself. Abha, I appreciate your spelling out some of these requirements so newcomers can realize that they have more to offer than they may think.

    • Abha J. Chalpe

      It’s my pleasure to share my experience, Carlie! We all possess the skills we need to survive and thrive in the industry; we just have to hone in on them and display the best in us!

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    I’m glad to hear that employers like to hang on to their newest people to save money. It makes sense – a win for the company and a win for the employee, too.

    • Abha J. Chalpe

      Absolutely! People hold the power to make or break a company!

  • Shawn Lyons, PhD

    I appreciate your enthusiasm, because that’s why I went into research science. I love the science part. It’s very fun to me, and although I was accused of being a geek in high school, now I have my PhD and I’m excited to be getting into industry.

    • Abha J. Chalpe

      All the best, Shawn! Lets be governed by science and driven by passion!

  • Harvey Delano

    I’m probably not alone when I say I’m looking forward to the pace of an industry-level career. I like academia, but I’ll be happy when I’m out of there and able to spend more time enjoying life. My mom used to always tell me not to grow up to be a starving artist, but I have no interest in being a starving scientist, either.

    • Abha J. Chalpe

      You will be a successful scientist, Harvey. All the best!

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    Abha, I’m really impressed with your scientific and vocational achievements. The truth is that biotech companies want to partner with employees to bring the very best results to market. Your bio is a great example of the kinds of steps one can take to branch out and develop not just a career, but a multifaceted presence in the marketplace. Thanks so much for sharing your ideas.

    • Abha J. Chalpe

      Thank you so much for the kind words, Matthew.

  • Rama

    I’m not a PhD so I can’t say with certainty what the differences are. From my perspective it would appear that industry research is more in the realm of applied science in order to create a product or service. Academic research is more fundamental and basic in terms of discovering new theories and the focus being on advancing knowledge for knowledge sake. If the goal of your science is to help people in a practical day to day way then industry may be better but I wonder if your goal is to increase and expand on the advancement of human knowledge then the academic route might be better. I know of no one working on big paradigm shifting theory level research in industry. As I mentioned before I do not have a PhD so I can only speak on this from a third party view and not as someone who has worked in these capacities so I whole heartedly accept any critique or correction of my statements.