Academia or Industry? Finding your Place in Science

A typical post-PhD scientific researcher can take one of two different career paths: academia or industry.

There are positive and negative aspects to each. In 2001, The Scientist surveyed researchers about the two work environments [1]. They gathered opinions and impressions from 159 life science researchers who had held research positions in both academia and industry. Although the survey was done almost 10 years ago, the findings are likely to still be applicable today.

Academia vs Industry

The results show that life science researchers like working in industry for several reasons: income, career development and career advancement. They like working in academia for creative freedom and a stronger learning environment. Just under 40% of responders preferred academia, while just over 40% preferred industry.

Short-term vs long-term thinking

From the perspective of someone who has lived between the spaces of academia and industry (tenured computer science professor, consultant and designer), John Maeda claims that the difference is in the punctuation marks. The punctuation marks define the desired outcomes, with academics thinking long-term and industrialists thinking short-term. Indeed, the academic system is designed for thinking long-term intentionally, as it allows for the creation of ideas that are reinforced with the passage of time. In contrast, business is all about getting things done. As John says, “Don’t think. Just do. And keep on doing.”

Yet a third path

Mark Chu-Carroll — another computer scientist — suggests there are three career paths: research in academia; research in industry; or development in industry. He provides an updated opinion of the difference between academia vs. industry from the perspective of a computer scientist. In his post, he explores five five fundamental areas where the three career paths differ: freedom, funding, time and scale, results and impact.

I especially appreciate his point regarding academic freedom (or really, the lack thereof). Academics don’t have as much creative freedom as they think or claim they have. More than 50% of an academic’s time is spent obtaining and maintaining funding. And, as Mark explains: “Academics can do what they want provided they can get someone to pay for it; but getting someone to pay for work is very hard; and getting someone to pay for something very different from what you’ve done before can be close to impossible.”

How to choose between academia and industry?

In 2009, David Searls, an Associate Editor of PLoS Computational Biology, wrote about choosing between industry and academia [2]. It provides some excellent perspectives on the differences between the two career destinations. As someone who has made two complete cycles between the two work environments, he presents ten simple rules for choosing between the academa and industry:

  1. Assess Your Qualifications
  2. Assess Your Needs
  3. Assess Your Desires
  4. Assess Your Personality
  5. Consider the Alternatives
  6. Consider the Timing
  7. Plan for the Long Term
  8. Keep Your Options Open
  9. Be Analytic
  10. Be Honest with Yourself

For those early on in their PhD career path, I don’t think you can go wrong with a postdoc following grad school. A postdoc is still an important step in today’s workplace. As David points out, “Companies will strongly consider post-doctoral experience (or lack thereof) when determining starting position and salary.”

Coming from a strictly academic background, I was surprised to read that there are forms of compensaion in industry that are unavailable in academia. For those comparing compensation paackages between academia and industry, David suggests that “Your best strategy is to understand the reward system thoroughly, ask for historical data, and avoid comparing only base salaries unless you are extraordinarily risk-averse.”

David also provides an interesting perspective on publishing: “While it will always be ‘publish or perish’ in academia, it is certainly possible to grow your CV in industry, and it can even enhance your career, depending on the company. However, it might be largely on your own time, and you will likely encounter restrictions in proprietary matters, though in practice you can generally find ways to work within them. Ask about publication at the interview, both policies and attitudes, and watch out for any defensiveness.”

Additional artices on scientific career paths

As someone currently grappling with this decision, the answer to the question ‘Academia or Industry?’ isn’t always an easy one. There’s a lot to consider — much more than I had envisioned.

The choice between industry and academia is a personal one. What’s your take?


  1. Industry vs Academia: Survey Results. The Scientist. 2001, 15(8):28
  2. Searls DB. Ten simple rules for choosing between industry and academia. PLoS Comput Biol. 2009 Jun;5(6):e1000388. Epub 2009 Jun 26.

Walter Jessen is a digital strategist, writer, web developer and data scientist. You can typically find him behind the screen something with an internet connection.