3 Huge Benefits Of Being An Industry Research Scientist
Contributing Author: Aditya Sharma, PhD
For years, I was trapped at the academic bench.
I spent a long time as a graduate student, and then as a postdoc, working mostly alone.
Some days I would do a ton of experiments, fuelled by a sense of urgency…
Surely, THIS was the year I would graduate – the year I might finally transition into an industry job.
Other days, I would stumble along, going at my own pace, depressed by how slowly my career was moving forward.
In academia, I was never quite clear on where I was going.
I never even knew whether I was actually making progress.
Tangible feedback from the principal investigator or department head was rare.
There was no real ladder to climb – no measurable goals aside from:
- Do a postdoc (eventually)
- Become a professor (if you’re lucky)
- Keep doing pointless experiments (forever)
Finally, I made a decision to leave academia behind and get a job in industry as a research scientist.
It took me a while to figure out how to start getting interviews for R&D positions, but eventually, I was going to interviews every week.
At this point, I knew getting an entry-level job was imminent.
Only now, I had a new problem.
I had no idea what working in industry would be like.
Would I be able to adapt to a totally new environment?
After all, I had been in academia my whole life…
I had an academic mindset – that was a huge part of my problem.
Even though I knew things were different in industry, I didn’t know exactly how they were different.
Most of my friends had been working in industry for many years.
Compared to them, I was getting a very late start.
The same questions came into my mind over and over again…
Would things be better in industry?
It wasn’t until I was hired as an industry research scientist that I learned just how different (and better) it was to work at the industry bench.
At that point, I could NEVER go back to academia…
Why Academia Has Nothing To Offer You – But Industry Does
The main reason is simple:
There are too many academic research scientists.
Nature reported that in the last decade, the number of academic research scientists jumped by 150%.
Meanwhile, the number of tenured and other full-time faculty positions has plateaued and, in many places, even declined.
Around 10% of all postdocs in the U.S have been going on for more than 6 years.
Imagine doing a postdoc for 6 or more years.
1 out of 10 postdocs doesn’t have to imagine that scenario – they are living it.
Yet in industry, there are not enough research scientists.
Society as a whole is increasingly reliant on technology and pharmaceuticals.
It is also becoming more affluent, allowing for more spending on medicine.
As a result, industry employers need PhD-level research scientists.
Yet academic researchers are afraid to go for an industry position, mostly because they don’t know what to expect.
I had both of these problems until I joined the Cheeky Scientist Association.
The Association taught me what I needed to know to get hired, and has continued to support me in my industry career.
3 Benefits Of Working In Industry You Will Never See In Academia
Industry research scientists still do benchwork.
They are responsible for different experiments and projects.
If you want to escape the bench, then do NOT transition into a research scientist role.
Instead, transition into one of these other top 20 industry positions.
However, if you enjoy benchwork but want to have a competitive salary AND do meaningful work, a research scientist position is the right fit for you.
Sadly, many PhDs believe they cannot have both of these things – or either of them.
Thankfully, reality is different…
In industry, you can be paid well and do meaningful work with a supportive team in a supportive environment.
There are many advantages to working as an industry research scientist over an academic research scientist – not just the money.
Yes, the money is nice, and a PhD deserves pay reflective of the massive work that went into acquiring that advanced degree.
But there are many other benefits too.
Here are the 3 biggest advantages of working as an industry research scientist versus an academic research scientist…
Industry Benefit #1: You have a structured, collaborative work environment.
One of the biggest problems with working in an academic lab?
Sometimes, there’s too much independence in academia.
For example, when you’re a 5th-year graduate student and your academic advisor won’t support you.
Or when you’re in the middle of your second postdoc, and your principal investigator hasn’t been in the lab in 3 months.
In these situations, it’s easy to feel like you’re completely alone.
You might begin to wonder why you’re even working in science…
What’s the point of my project?
Does anyone care?
Why am I here?
As a result, your morale drops and your career loses momentum.
On top of this, in academia, you never know where your career is headed – it’s a total mystery.
For PhDs, the academic ladder consists of being a graduate student, postdoc, or professor.
All that distinguishes one graduate student, postdoc, or professor from another is the number of years they’ve been working.
But as an industry research scientist, you are NOT alone, and you know EXACTLY where you’re going.
In industry, every scientist has their own project.
At the same time, every scientist collaborates on projects with other scientists.
They don’t just help in the academic way, by letting you borrow a little bit of reagent or showing you where the cold room is.
In industry, other scientists really help you.
Everyone is trained to support each other.
In fact, the ability to work well independently AND as part of a team is the main requirement for research scientists in industry.
Industry teams are not only very supportive, they are also highly structured.
Scientific teams in industry include entry-level and senior scientists, as well as scientific directors.
Scientific directors manage different projects, support team members, and have research scientists report directly to them.
Scientific directors are responsible for both managing the laboratory and liaising with the local and global R&D, Regulatory Affairs, and Legal departments, as well as external vendors.
Scientific directors report to executive directors who report to company vice presidents.
Executive directors have in-depth knowledge of the company’s values, goals, and strengths.
They know how to effectively navigate and manage different internal departments as well as external entities.
Each company vice president is effectively a spokesperson for an entire arm of the company.
One major result of industry’s smart organizational structure is accountability.
There is no such thing as tenure in business – you need to earn your continued place in the hierarchy by doing your job and doing it well.
Industry Benefit #2: There are clear and accurate measures for success
Career advancement in academia is like a “black box.”
You never really know how you are performing, and you get very little feedback.
This is because the only things that are valued in academia are:
- The number of years you’ve accumulated in the system
- The number of publications that have your name on them
Occasionally, you’ll hold journal clubs and lab meetings.
You’ll also hold thesis, postdoc, or even tenure meetings…
But let’s be honest: these meetings basically amount to little more than someone telling you to do more experiments faster.
Is there a worse way to measure progress?
If there is, I don’t know of it.
If you’re a “good little researcher” and you stay in the system for an extra year, you might make an extra few hundred dollars the following year.
As a result of academia’s foggy measuring tape, many graduate students are forced to spend 10+ years working towards their degree, and many PhD graduates are forced to spend 6 years or more on their postdocs.
The root cause of this is a complete lack of enforcement.
Universities and other institutions do not enforce relevant productivity measures on their academic advisors and principal investigators.
Professors are rarely held responsible for promoting the progress of their graduate students and postdocs.
This is not the case in industry.
In industry, your performance on assigned work and shared goals are used to measure your progress accurately.
Therefore, performance determines how your salary increases, your bonuses, and if you get promoted.
Additionally, specific people are responsible for measuring your progress, and they are held accountable for this duty.
As a research scientist in industry, you will report to a manager who will be responsible for advancing your team’s goals and the company’s vision.
To this end, at the beginning of every fiscal year, you will write a Performance Development Plan (PDP) with clear business and personal goals.
These goals must be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Result-Oriented, and Time-Bound, also known as SMART goals.
Your goals will represent specific projects that take advantage of your specific skills.
Finally, you will rate your goals according to the possibility of achieving them by the end of the year (as estimated by you).
The PDP represents your ability to establish strategic goals aimed at an end result.
The PDP is also a symbolic “checklist” that allows both you and your manager to stay focused and aligned with the company’s vision of growth.
Most importantly, it helps you and your manager to stay aligned in terms of timelines and expectations.
Progress is tracked throughout the year, including a mid-year and end-of-year review, where you and your manager will check the status of your goals and what progress you’ve made on each.
The mid-review provides the perfect time to modify goals that are not advancing and report potential pitfalls.
If your end-of-year review shows strong progress and the completion of key results, you can get prematurely promoted and receive an increase in salary or bonus.
The important takeaway here is that in industry, you know what your goals are and what you need to do to accomplish them.
Your goals, your manager’s goals, and the company’s goals are aligned, which helps manage expectations.
Don’t underestimate the motivational power of this kind of clarity and feedback.
It’s powerful, and it leads to a much happier personal and professional lifestyle.
Industry Benefit #3: Industry rewards you for being a leader and showing initiative
In academia, your project can drag on forever.
Some days, it feels like you’re just going in circles.
Yet no matter how dire your project seems, you must continue to work on it.
This is because most academic projects are attached to long-term grants, and your principal investigator must continue to collect relevant data – even if you know the project is a dead-end.
Working on a project you know is going nowhere is exhausting.
This kind of work eats away at you until you’ve completely lost your motivation.
It’s something all academics have faced at one time or another, and it’s the main reason why so many PhDs end up poor and unhappy.
The academic system teaches you to be passive – to follow what everyone else is doing.
Instead of encouraging you to differentiate yourself, you’re told to toe the line – to do the next experiment in line with the grant’s objectives, even if the grant is 5 years old.
In industry, however, you will work with a very fast work pace and be expected to deliver accurate results quickly.
This is a good thing.
In industry, you are working with a team whose goals are aligned with your own.
You are rewarded for finding better ways of doing things.
In industry, if you take the initiative to improve the workflow of a system, improve a product, or make any part of the company better – you’re rewarded.
The more confidently you take the initiative, the more you are rewarded.
This can be quite difficult for a lot of academics to understand.
How can initiative be so valuable?
How can confidence be valuable?
The short answer to both of those questions is this:
In industry, time is money – relieving workplace pain and boosting team morale save time.
The more time you give back to your boss – like by making a particular workflow more efficient – the more you are rewarded.
Likewise, the easier you make your boss’s life, and the happier you make your team, the more you are rewarded.
True leaders are promoted quickly in industry, and this is definitely not always the case in academia.
Overall, industry thrives on money, which means that it has to be efficient and functional. The natural result of this is a selective process that sees successful businesses rising above the unsuccessful. What makes a business successful? It has to be human-centered and inspire its workers. This means that in industry, progress is measured accurately – and consistently – based on your performance. There is also a clear, well-defined corporate ladder. The key to climbing this ladder is to take the initiative and show leadership skills whenever possible. In industry, you are part of a supportive, structured work environment. And if you are a leader and show initiative, you’re going to be rewarded. This means going out of your way, without being asked, to improve company systems and to relieve your boss, and the company in general, of tedious work. By achieving your goals and staying aligned with the company goals, you can move your career forward past the research scientist position and on to bigger and better roles. What does academia offer compared to that? Not much.
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