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Why It’s Better To Be A Research Scientist In Industry Than In Academia (It’s More Than The Money)

be a research scientist in industry | Cheeky Scientist | career in research
Written by Klodjan Stafa, Ph.D.

For years, I grinded my pipetting thumb to the bone at the bench in academia.

I spent nearly a decade as a graduate student and a postdoc working mostly alone.

I worked on a project in graduate school and a project during my postdoc.

Some days I would do many experiments, filled with a sense of urgency thinking that this year I might graduate, or this year I might finally transition into an industry job.

Other days I would putter along, going at my own pace because I was stressed or depressed by how slowly my career was moving forward.

I was never quite clear on where I was going in academia.

I was never clear on whether or not I was making progress either.

Tangible feedback from the principal investigator and department head was few and far between.

There was no real ladder to climb and no real measurable goals.

Do a postdoc, eventually. Become a professor, eventually. Keep doing experiments.

These were the only guideposts I had in academia.

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.

But now I had a new problem.

What would working in industry be like?

Would I be able to adapt to a completely new environment?

After all, I had been in academia my whole life.

I had an academic mindset and 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 years and years.

I was getting a very late start compared to them.

The questions came into my mind over and over again.

Would things be better in industry?

It wasn’t until I was hired at Estée Lauder as a research scientist that I learned just how different (and better) it was to work at the bench in industry versus working at the bench in academia.

Working At The Bench In Industry Versus Academia

There are too many academic research scientists.

According to a report by Nature, the number of academic research scientists jumped by 150% between 2000 and 2012 in the U.S. alone.

But the number of tenured and other full-time faculty positions has plateaued and, in many places, declined.

Of the more than 40,000 U.S. postdocs in 2013, almost 4,000 had been so for more than 6 years.

Can you imagine doing a postdoc for 6 or more years?

Again, there are too many academic research scientists.

But there’s not enough research scientists in industry.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, industry employment of biotechnology and biopharmaceutical scientists is projected to grow 13% from 2012 to 2022.

The population as a whole is increasingly reliant on technology and pharmaceuticals.

The population is also becoming more affluent, allowing for more spending on medicine.

As a result, industry employers need PhD-level research scientists.

The problem is that few PhDs know how to get hired into industry R&D positions and even fewer know what life will be like once they’re hired.

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.

As a member, I get access to the Association’s materials and private group for life, which is a big advantage.

academic research scientist | Cheeky Scientist | senior research scientist

Why Working As An Industry Research Scientist Is Better

Industry research scientists still actively work at the bench.

They are responsible for many 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.

But if you enjoy benchwork and just want to be paid better, a research scientist position is for you.

As an industry research scientist, you will get to do meaningful benchwork and be paid well.

Yes, you can have both.

Not only can you be paid well and do meaningful work, you can also 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.

The money is nice, but there are many other benefits.

Here are the 3 biggest advantages of working as an industry research scientist versus an academic research scientist…

1. Your progress is measured accurately and consistently based on performance.

Career advancement in academia is 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 accrued in the system and the number of publications you have your name on.

Occasionally you’ll hold journal clubs, lab meetings, and thesis, postdoc, or even tenure meetings, but these all amount to little more than someone telling you to do more experiments faster.

Is there any worse way to measure progress?

If you’re a good little researcher and stay in the system for an extra year, you might make an extra few hundred dollars the following year.

Wow, thanks.

As a result of academia’s foggy measuring tape, many graduate students are forced to spend 10 years or more working towards their degree and many PhD graduates are forced to spend 6 years or more postdoc-ing.

It’s a disaster.

The root cause of this is the complete lack of enforcement Universities and other institutions show to their academic advisors and principal investigators.

Professors and academic administrators in management positions 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 is used to accurately measure your progress.

Your performance is also used for determining promotions, salary increases, and bonuses.

Not only this, but there are specific people designated for measuring your progress and they are actually held accountable to it.

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 overall.

To this end, at the beginning of every fiscal year, you will write a Performance Development Plan (PDP), or similar, 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 effort to write down 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 stay aligned in terms of timelines and expectations overall.

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 you know exactly how you are doing at all times.

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.

2. You are rewarded 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.

The system teaches you to follow what everyone else is doing.

Instead of encouraging you to differentiate yourself, you’re told to tow 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. It’s even enjoyable.

The reason working at a faster pace is enjoyable is because you are working with a team whose goals are aligned with your goals.

It’s also enjoyable because you are rewarded for finding better ways of doing things.

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 initiative, the more you are rewarded.

This is very difficult for most academics to understand.

How can initiative be so valuable? How can confidence be valuable?

The answer, in short, is—time is money.

Not only that—relieving pain is money and boosting team morale is money. 

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. This isn’t always the case in academia.

3. You are part of a supportive and structured work environment.

One of the biggest problems with working in an academic lab is that you feel very alone.

Sometimes, there’s too much independence in academia.

For example, when you’re a fifth 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 three months.

In these situations, it’s easy to feel like you’re completely alone.

It’s easy to forget 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 all this, you never really know where your career is headed in academia.

For PhDs, the academic ladder consists of being a graduate student, postdoc, or professor.

That’s it.

All that distinguishes one graduate student, postdoc, or professor from another is the number of years they’ve been working.

As an industry research scientist, or as a professional in any of these non-academic careers, you are NOT alone and you know EXACTLY where you’re going.

In industry, every scientist has their own project. At the same time, ever scientist helps each other with their projects.

They don’t just help in the academic way by letting you borrow a little bit of a reagent or showing you where the cold room is.

They 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 of getting a job as a research scientist in industry.

Industry teams are not only very supportive, they are highly structured.           

To start, an entry level research scientist works to get promoted first to Senior Scientist and then to Scientific Director.

Scientific Directors are people who have a strong ability to manage different projects and support team members.

These people are rewarded by having other 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.

Executive Directors travel first class or business class and work to establish long-lasting collaborations with other companies, vendors, and suppliers around the world.

These directors often sit on company advisory boards alongside company Vice Presidents and Senior Vice Presidents.

Each company Vice President is effectively a spokesperson for an entire arm of the company.

These people excel at translating science from bench to product and are masters of every aspect of bringing a product to market, supporting customers, gaining favor of key opinion leaders, and more.

Overall, there is a clear and defined corporate ladder in industry. The key to climbing this ladder is to take initiative and show leadership skills whenever possible. 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.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, 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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Klodjan Staffa, Ph.D.

Klodjan Staffa, Ph.D.

Klodjan is a Ph.D. and currently works as a Sr. Scientist in the Research & Development department of Estée Lauder Companies in New York City. During and after completion of his Doctorate, Klodjan published several prominent papers in a variety of scientific journals. He got the Brain Mind Institute (EPFL) best PhD thesis in 2013 as well as a fellowship from the Swiss National Science Foundation. Klodjan believes self-innovation is paramount in today’s competitive job market and encourages other PhDs to take action for themselves instead of allowing others to dictate their choices and careers.
Klodjan Staffa, Ph.D.
  • LenkaPhd

    Academia is like a maze, you will be dragged deeper and deeper into it. And then it will depress you and make you more nervous. So develop transferable skills and transition your career into the industry.

  • Dr. Amar

    There isn’t any meaning of being an academic person after your postdoc. You can not earn good amount of money in academia, even you can not able to pay your bills. It’s up to you when you move yourself to industry from academia.

  • Walsh Carter

    I must say your blog is helpful to me in many ways to transfer myself from academia to industry. I would like to that each and every author of this blog. You guys are doing a great help to many students like me across the world.

  • PhDConnie

    I think you are right about the industry. You can really grow well in the industry if your performance is good. And if we look at academia, there isn’t any chance of your growth no matter how good you’re doing. This is the main difference between academia and industry.

  • DrD.

    Well done Klodjan, nice description! I was starting my 4th postdoctoral year -with absolutely no motivation !-, because each time I applied for a position in academia, the jury used to say: “well, write some additional papers to complete you resume…” or “apply in this university/research organization rather than here, because you do not fit exactly to our open position”, bla, bla… (I am French & the French academic recruitment system is so bad & “corrupted”!). By chance, I heard about a position in a pharmaceutical company. I sent my resume with a cover letter & 10 days later, I got a serie of interviews & presentations (well, it was hard!) but people were open mind, curious (“why did you do like this & this, & not like that?), benevolent, not haughty. In one word: they trusted in my experience & expertise. Now, no way I come back to academia, even if sometime working in industry is not always like paradise!

  • R Evans

    Pretty much every negative you wrote about academia (I skimmed a little) is applicable to contract roles in industry (at least as a CRA). In my experience, at least.

    I’m greatly enjoying working at an academically sponsored national lab now.

  • Alex B

    I actually like your article and its title. Because it’s totally true and reality of the academia and industry. You can have better self respect in the industry than academia. In academia you are being treated like you are nothing.

  • Dr. Tian

    I agree with you here on 3rd point. In academia you fell very alone, and it makes you nervous and depressed when you don’t get desired results. Where as in industry you can work in collaborative manner and supportive environment which will increase your set of skills and productivity.

  • PhDMac

    In academia you don’t have any solid goals to achieve and sometimes it makes you working in a loop. You realised that you reach no where but the same place after working so hard. I’m experiencing this situation in my life right now.

  • EricaPD

    I can understand this article full as I’ve experienced the both eras. My life was a mess when I completed my PhD and working in academia. Then I learn some skills that I can apply in industry and then made a transition into the industry by networking with few people. And now I’m happy with my well-paid industry job. Thanks.

  • James Hubbard

    Another great article from you guys! I come here every week and you guys never disappoint me. I learn something new every week that help me in my career and in my life. You guys are shaping the life of many postdocs and graduate students out there. Thank you for such great help 🙂

  • DocAbby

    In industry, your performance are measured accurately and based that you can get the rewards. In academia your performance is based on number of paper you published and how much you write for your thesis. Thanks Klodjan for pointing out the difference between academia and industry.

  • Das

    Friends, I agree completely with Klodjan. Thanks a lot for sharing your experience. My tenure of postdoc of around two and half years at Lawrence Technological University was one of the most horrible experience ever in my life. I was completely humiliated by the professors Dr. Nabil F. Grace and Dr. Elin Jensen. They made me work just like a slave. The moment I did the job for their funded project they ditched me and gave me just fifteen days notice to leave. Tell me guys is it humanity? Elin being a lady and from the European continent I had never expected she will treat with my life in such a bad manner. My name was not involved any where and not even acknowledged in the report submitted to MDOT. I was with my wife and son living together in Michigan had one of the painful moment those days and we eventually returned to India. Had I shifted to INDUSTRY my journey would not have been so painful!!

    I know the life of most of the postdocs are similar and you do not know when your prof will ask you to go. Be careful my dear friends.

    • Sugandha Narayan

      Respected Sir,
      I have just gone through your post. Felt very sad for what you have gone through. I Hope now you are doing better in your career. Wishing you all the very best for future.
      I wish to be in connect through LinkedIn or Twitter. Please send me the link.
      Thanking you for your time.

  • Gabriela Gorelik

    This is so true. The problem is when you realize about the negative side that Academia has after 20 years of career. At that point, the Industry doesn’t take you because you don’t have industry experience and you are completely lost. This is actually and currently my experience.

  • Philip

    Academia is paid better per unit of work. Academics (those who choose to rather than are too stuck into their work) earn far more than average people industry – they have the time, flexibility, platform and expertise in specific knowledge areas to create university spinoffs, publish books and gain royalties, act as consultants, give speeches, spend time investing and managing one’s assets. Those in industry are often denied this because of inflexibility and overtime etc. People don’t take this into account when considering academic pay. Academics can early little and earn more than industry peers depending on how they choose it.

  • Wayne Thompson

    Great discussion comparing academia vs industry. After 4 years as an Assistant Professor at UCLA, I took a job in the pharmaceutical industry. Both paths have advantages and downsides. An academic job has much better job security after tenure but industry pays much better, is lower stress and has better retirement benefits. If your personality has a strong ego, academics is much better, but if you have diverse interests and want to retire early in anonymity, industry is a better path.

    • Dalbert Onyebuchi

      yeah…the ego part had me laughing… 🙂

  • Fareen Pasaya

    This post has just confused me even more. I have an MS degree from TAMU and a secure job in Process development. However, I really want to get into research and was planning on doing a PhD. Is it absolutely necessary to do a PhD and then be a research scientist or can I do the same by still being in the industry?

  • Nick Thomssen

    There’s something that needs to be said about this. I know industry does have its definite advantages. But, I also believe that it really depends on the scientist whether Industry or Academia is right for them. It is true however that this articles does a good job arguing its case, and might help those who might not know which is right for them. I’ve linked below a few other articles that talk as well about the pros and cons of both industry and academia.

  • Dalbert Onyebuchi

    Thanks for this, i must not make this mistake. NOW I KNOW……

  • Edward Fisher

    This is a good post, but makes some rampant assumptions about the methodologies and policies present in the company. My experience is that industrial reality can depart significantly from the above ideal practices. For example, as a Sr R&D engineer, we are given a task, but this may not in a structured manner based upon ISO9001, indeed some tasks have no paper trail or are “via the grape vine”, never actually officially discussed and without that “company vision”, there may be a lack of strategy or structure and timelines and deliverable may not be discussed. Sometimes, you may not be given any context as to what the company actually wants, or different managers have different goals leading to no coherent set of goals. Some goals may actually be totally against each other, e.g. “we want a gizmo that does x, y, and z, but we want it to be rock bottom price, but offer a functionality that exceeds all the expensive competition and we want it tomorrow.”

    As part of R&D, you are expected to come up with some new idea, to investigate it and make decisions as to if it is worth the money and time needed for an objective that may be better achieved in a different way, but what if your meeting on a weekly basis is literally a bunch of mixed messages, with one clear message, we want this in a product now. All that training as to critical evaluation of the idea is stripped out and your left as a scientist with a path that is forced upon you that you need to follow not because it is a good one but because the management do not see that ideas need testing, evaluating and if the idea not ultimately suitable we would need to go back to the beginning. Lets say then, on top of all that, that you as a scientist are never actually given any definite metrics as to if the new thing is “better”, or perhaps you obtain a method that is “better”, but it comes at either a financial cost or some other cost such as computation time. You normally would do a comparison based on some metric such as the efficiency being better or the noise being reduced, but that implicitly includes a comparison to some ground truth, what if you are never given that so you fundamentally cannot make any metric based decision. You are left only with a subjective “it looks better”.

    There are certain phrases in the above that are just too rose tinted or idealistic. For example: “Industry teams are not only very supportive, they are highly structured”, for my current industry R&D, this is simply not the case, the support is lacking, indeed people either give superficial ill-thought out feedback, no feedback at all or are outright dismissive saying things like, “that’s very academic”. Likewise, rather than a structured team, sometimes teams are rag-tag, chaotic and have zero communication. For example, for the above idea of delivering a new product with x, y, and z functionality, what if you are never actually told this is for a product, not its timescales. Instead you are simply told to “investigate” something.

    My point is this. All the issues highlighted in academia such as poor support, lack of career related projection, project management, goals and overemphasis on some performance metrics are all replicated in industry. What matters in both is “the right manager and the right team”, and not a rose tinted industry vs academia.

  • Rama

    From a research only perspective there is a lot to gain like you said by going to industry vs staying in academia. However, if you are one of those professors who also likes to teach and conduct lectures in addition to doing research this combination is going to be difficult to find in industry. Granted many professors look at teaching and lecturing as a necessary evil but there a few that actually do enjoy the teaching, lecturing, and working with students aspect of academia.

  • Pradipta

    Thanks, Dr. Stafa. I have just finished my PhD and looking for industry opportunity. I have no industry experience, so I can not comment about the advantages of the industry but I can completely related to most of the points you made for a graduate students.