Though students in various scientific fields generally explore unique courses of study, they ultimately face a common crossroads: academia or industry. While there’s ample variety within each option, the two broad career paths both have widely acknowledged pluses and perils that merit consideration—or direct experimentation and experience.
Before joining Quartzy as a Life Science Product Specialist, Melissa Remmel spent several years in post-undergraduate scientific research. She studied biological sciences at San Jose State University, where she then began teaching while earning a master’s degree in molecular biology. She eventually began simultaneously working in an industrial lab to supplement her income before transitioning to industry altogether.
“For me, the decision was made when I was tired of teaching, and I was tired of being worried about money for my research,” Melissa says of moving from academia to industry. “You’re constantly worried about money—on a personal level and on a lab level. You’re always worried about when your grant money is going to run out. That is extremely stressful.”
But academia also offers many unique opportunities, which Melissa longed for once she left. “I missed having my hands in so many different things,” Melissa says. “I could teach, I could do research, I could form my own organization on campus. I could do all of these things, and have a direct influence on students and give other people the chance to learn.”
Conversely, industry attracts and challenges scientists in different ways. This can cause cultural surprises for scientists making the switch. “As a student, you address anyone with a PhD as ‘Doctor,’” Melissa says. “In industry, there are no titles at all. It’s much, much more casual. When I first addressed my boss at an industry lab as ‘Doctor,’ he said, ‘No, no. You don’t do that here.’”
Melissa and Quartzy’s other resident scientists further explore the pros, cons, and nuances of working in academia and industry.
- “Tenure. If you can get it, you’re pretty much guaranteed a job.”
- “You’re likely to run your own lab.”
- “You can mentor people along the way, probably more so than you would in industry.”
- “There’s less uncertainty. You know your career path, whereas in industry, you’re one bad test result from being out of business.”
- “To an extent, you get to choose your boss, whereas in industry you don’t. You’re choosing who your PI is going to be for maybe the next seven years, and you’re probably not going to switch. In industry, people get swapped out all the time.”
- “Where you go to school matters so very much. If you graduate from Yale with your PhD, you are much more likely to be chosen to teach at a very good school where you will make more money. You’re also more likely to be taken seriously when you apply for grants. If you’re at a big-name institution, you’re much more likely to publish in a more prestigious journal.”
- “If you’re working with students, you have to stay positive. You have to stay in that mentorship state of mind. A lot of teachers get burnt out, jaded—sick of students not being invested or asking stupid questions or looking for a way to get an easy A in the class.”
- “You’re faced with a 6-8 year PhD track. And if you need to work at the same time, that could easily stretch to 10 years.”
- “In academia, things are much more competitive, even among your lab mates. You want to win the favor of your PI, you want to be first author on publications. And so there’s a lot of competitive nature just within your own lab.”
- “You make more money. You definitely don’t have to worry so much about grants at all. The money usually is just there.”
- “Where you go to school does not matter nearly as much when you are in industry.”
- “You can launch into it younger. It also seems much more fluid. You can work your way up. You can move laterally across teams. Whereas in academia, it would be much more difficult to move laterally into different areas of research. Once you have your grants and you’re published in a certain research area, you’re just expected to stay in that tract, and it’s very hard to switch.”
- “You’re on more of a team and you have a mutual goal and you’re all working toward the exact same thing. Normally, there’s not a publication, and you have the whole company in mind.”
- “In academia, the hierarchy is PI, then postdocs, then PhD students, then you have the master’s degree students, then you would have the undergraduates. In industry, there are many more different levels, and you can be on different teams simultaneously, whereas in academia, you’re generally in one lab and that’s it.”
- “There’s less busy work than in academia. You have a business goal rather than a publication quota.”
- “You have less influence on people, so it’s easier to form mentoring relationships in academic than in industry. Not to say that you cannot, but you just touch so many more lives when you’re in academia.”
- “Lack of security—especially at a startup. You can get laid off whenever, for whatever reason, so the job security is definitely not there.”
- “While you make more money immediately after undergrad than you can in academia, there’s a firm glass ceiling (typically after four years) if you don’t have a PhD—unless you’re one of the lucky few to break into management.”
Of course, all labs, departments, and organizations are comprised of individuals who shape shared experience with their unique styles and perspectives, and the above examples aren’t strictly unique to or mutually exclusive of academia vs. industry. “I think it depends on the culture that the PI nurtures and encourages,” Melissa says.
And while Melissa transitioned from academia to industry, she says doing so isn’t common—let alone the reverse. “I know one person who went from industry to academia, but it was a tech position, not a teaching position,” Melissa says. “It really seems like once you choose that path, you’re likely to stay there. Especially going from industry to teaching is very difficult.”
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