This is definitely one of those hotly debated topics amongst people on both sides of the spectrum.
As one approaches the end of their studies (whether it be Bachelors, Masters, or Ph. D), one must face the inevitable existential crisis that arises from trying to figure out what to do with the next few years of their life.
For me, personally, as I finished my Bachelors, I decided to pursue further study and torture myself even further with a Ph. D.
But beyond a Ph. D, unless you decide to move into a different field of study- you’re going to need to think about getting a job somewhere. Hopefully one that’ll make all the ‘studying’ worthwhile.
Given that my Ph. D was in academic research (Academia), the natural progression after the Ph. D was to become a Post-Doctoral Researcher (or a Post-Doc). The title might also be ‘Research Officer’ or ‘Scientist’, depending on the job application being viewed. Usually, depending on the position (or the grant received, or overall lab funding), the position may only be for a year, or, if you’re lucky, 3-4 years in length.
Now, this is speaking from my own experiences as I weighed up the options between staying in academic research or going into industry. Everyone has different experiences, so I won’t say that mine is what’s always going to happen. Industry (and academia) is also a very vast field, so trying to give a simplistic overview is always going to miss some things.
Speaking from my own experience, it was probably around the half way mark of my Ph. D (2 years in) that I started to contemplate my future in a research lab.
As I watched those around me at various different stages of their academic careers, I sort of started writing a basic mental list of pros and cons (because why not?). After a while, I started talking to people working in industry, and I started another list of pros and cons for that as well.
So let’s try to go over some of these broad topics, with the pros and cons from both areas (academia vs industry).
One of the key benefits of academic research is that you can come up with your own research topic and work on it. If you’re a curiosity-driven person who enjoys learning new things about how stuff works, then it’s a perfect match.
Once you find a topic you actually enjoy working on, you can:
- Explore how things work in said topic
- Discover new things and learn new skills
- Gain access to the latest equipment and technology (if you’re lucky)
- Use lots of critical thinking, but also creative thinking
- Because ideas and innovation requires a lot of creative thinking
That being said, all this relies on having a boss who supports your creative endeavours, because they can just as easily say no. If your boss wants you to work on what they want you to work on, then you don’t really have much of a say. If you become a Lab Head, though, the decision is yours to make. Research whatever you want… within reason.
In Industry roles, even if you’re working on research, it’s about what the company wants, not you. It has to be profitable. You can still do ‘research’, but there’s less creative process on your part to come up with ideas. Obviously you can come up with ideas that are within the scope of the company’s, but beyond that, you may be limited in what you can do. The same can be said for academic research (company = Lab Head), but it’s at a much smaller scale, and persuading one person is much easier than changing the business direction of a company.
Some industry roles don’t even have a Research and Development (RND) aspect, so you might just be doing the same thing day in, day out, which can be monotonous. If you want to have a buzzing brain, then you’ll need to carefully consider what types of industry roles you want.
Jumping back to academic research, though, the freedom to come up with your own research topic might also come with some setbacks:
- If you’re unable to come up with your own research ideas, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble
- Topics you enjoy might not necessarily be ‘popular’ in current literature
- This makes it harder to ask for funding, or to publish (especially in high impact journals)
- Discovering new things is hard
- No one else has figured it out- so there’s no previous protocol or methodology
- You have to be innovative, which can be extremely time-consuming
- A lot of discoveries aren’t ground-breaking, and simply lead to more questions than answers
- If you like closure, this is not going to work out well for you
- Access to fancy or useful equipment and reagents can be severely limited and funding dependent
- Stress can significantly dampen creativity, meaning ideas might not be free-flowing
So I guess, industry roles might not be quite as intellectually stimulating or freeing as academic research, but if you prefer to just be told what needs to be done, and not have to worry about it impacting your own creative worth… it might be better. In all honesty the appeal for me is still in research. It’s very cool to be doing academic research, as a concept. In practice it might not work so well because there are always constraints (as discussed here and below).
Anyway, on top of the above, you’ve also got these major pros for academic research:
- Perform world class research (it might not always be world class, but you might get lucky)
- Work alongside esteemed colleagues you look up to
- Including Nobel Laureate/s
- Bounce ideas off colleagues to improve research ideas and methodology
- Feel a bit chummy because you work in a famous research institute
- Attend conferences to learn and meet other researchers
- Domestic/International travel (oh how I miss this) that may or may not be funded by the lab/scholarship
- Hotel/accommodation that may or may not be funded by the lab/scholarship
- Free food and booze (oh how I miss this)
- Trade displays (oh how I miss those)
- LAB TIME (experiments are super fun, when they work)
- Prestige (because ‘Scientist’ is a cool title)
- (Creative) academic writing
- This can be a con if you hate writing, but I loved it, so- yeah
- Industry rarely publishes manuscripts, so you can say goodbye to your publications count (if you had one)
But then you’ve also got these major cons to counter the above:
- Being in Australia, a lot of conferences are in the northern hemisphere, meaning significant travel expenses and time (even if it’s free for you)
- Virtual conferences tend to be at ridiculous times for us (e.g. 10 pm-4 am)
- Also if you have social anxiety like me, a big event with lots of people and socialising can be extremely daunting
- Conferences are long day events that can run for multiple days
- Making face for that long can be extremely exhausting for someone like me
- Presentations are terrifying
- The majority of experiments fail miserably, and you might not have anything to show for it
- No data means no papers, no good grant applications, and certainly a lot of questions from your boss
- STRESS – I still remember how tightly knotted my stomach felt while waiting for assays to finish, so I could see whether it had worked or not (spoiler alert: it didn’t work most of the time)
- What the hell is up with having to pay journals to publish your papers??
- Fees can range from USD$2000 to beyond USD$10,000 (Nature Communications) PER PAPER
- Journals can’t function without publications, and yet the researchers have to pay exorbitant amounts of money to publish in them… What?
- If you don’t have publications in high impact journals (which costs more to publish in), then you can’t apply for funding very easily, but you need funding to generate data to publish, but you need publis- YOU SEE THE PROBLEM??
- Your responsibilities will continue to increase as you go up the career ladder, with board memberships, editorial positions, and teaching positions being very common among senior staff
- All the while you need to manage and run your lab, mentor students and staff members, publish data, and apply for grants
- Essentially, the further you go up the career ladder, the less time you get to spend doing experiments yourself
- You’ll need to learn to let other people run your experimental ideas, which- if you’re a control freak, or just simply love lab time, can be extremely frustrating
This one is a biggy.
The major downside (for me) to academic research is the grant cycle.
And here are just some of the reasons that come up simply because,
Getting a research grant is extremely difficult
Unless you’re already pumping out high impact papers (which boosts your prestige), or are a late career researcher with lots of publications from days when you could get funding more easily, you’re going to struggle with obtaining funding.
Maybe you’re from the days when a ‘big impact paper’ didn’t need so much data. These days you need so much more datasets to make a single point, whereas before, you could get away with significantly less.
Either way, the money pool hasn’t really increased, but the demand certainly has, so there’s just not enough to go around anymore. Grant success rates are between 10-15% in Australia right now. Seriously, if you think about that, it’s just sad. Especially given how much time is spent on writing them up.
Even if you don’t apply for a grant yourself, the lab you work in will have to- so you’re always relying on unstable research grants
A lot of grant success relies on subjectivity (i.e. whether you get a good assessor), because grant assessors are also full time researchers. Many don’t have the luxury to spend time going through each grant application with the care and attention that went into them for submission, and sometimes you can have extremely harsh assessors who subjectively don’t like your work.
The uncertainty means you never know when you might suddenly lose your job
Yes, when you get funding, it’s amazing. It can be a lot of money (if you’re lucky), and it’ll ensure you can get work done (including hiring more staff)… but if you don’t get any grants… worst case scenario you’ll have to find another job, or, if you’re a Lab Head- pack up shop. That, to me, sounds horrible. Especially given how increasingly likely this is to occur.
Even if you have supplemental income as an academic in a university-supported position, it’s not going to cover lab expenses (because science is very expensive). Given how unsupported the tertiary sector is in Australia (esp. post-COVID), it’s just not going to be feasible if you don’t have grants.
Industry, on the other hand, can vary. If the company is a multi-billion dollar industry giant that has no shortage of profits, or is a rapidly expanding company in a field that doesn’t look like it will go away soon… any job there will likely be significantly more stable. You don’t have to rely on grants (which, again, you spend the majority of the year writing, editing, reviewing, and submitting), and your contracts tend to be renewed fairly readily.
But- if you’re in a relatively new, untested environment, then sure- you might lose your job. But I feel like the chances of losing your job are significantly lower in industry overall, compared to academia.
Industry tends to have more funding overall (especially for profit organisations), so you’re more likely to have access to better equipment, reagents, and other resources. This can feel like a massive smack in the face for someone coming from academia, because you’ll be wondering how you’ve lived in such ‘poverty’ for so long.
In terms of overall pay rates, too, academia and industry appear to be relatively comparable. A Grade 1 Medical Scientist gets paid about the same as a research assistant (with Bachelor’s qualifications), while a Grade 2 Medical Scientist gets paid about the same as a Post-Doc (or Masters, sometimes).
Bearing in mind, though, that the hours will be better for industry employees… which leads onto the next topic.
Academic research has a notoriously bad reputation when it comes to work-life balance. I’ve talked about toxic work cultures before, but the general expectation that you work long hours, go above and beyond all the time, and work regular all-nighters (depending on your field) are- to me- ridiculous.
Also- not worth it! The judgement you receive from peers and superiors for not ‘working hard’ is debilitating at times. And for what?! It’s not like you get paid overtime for working after hours, on weekends, or public holidays. It also doesn’t necessarily increase productivity, because- as I’ve said, research is luck-dependent. Most experiments fail. Why work yourself to death for little to no gain?
I just don’t understand the point.
I’m not putting the blame on the worker, by the way. I’m putting it on the PIs and Lab Heads, Section Heads, Departmental Heads… those in senior roles who should be setting the standards.
Then you’ve got emails at all hours of the day. And it’s not even just simple emails- it’s emails that require you to go to your laptop, pull up the data, send some figures over, or any of the things that require you to completely stop what you were doing and start ‘working’. If you don’t respond, you get rebuked the following day for not replying when they needed you to. Now, this isn’t necessarily limited to just academia, but the general vibe has been that industry (broadly speaking) doesn’t require or pressure you to reply 24-7. Generally it’s your choice to do so.
On top of this, if you want to start a family, good luck taking parental leave and wanting to spend time raising your child. You’ll quickly realise that you need to keep working throughout your leave, because it’s impossible to stay on top of current literature and general workload otherwise. I know plenty of newborn mothers who were writing grants immediately post-birth, because they had to.
From everyone I’ve spoken to in industry, while there are some roles that require some after hours work on an ad-hoc basis, the vast majority are strictly 9-5, weekdays only positions. Outside of those hours, you don’t have to do any book work, you don’t need to sit down and read the current literature…
… because you do that during work hours. When you’re getting paid to do that. If you want to work after hours, weekends, or public holidays, you get paid for the trouble. When I first saw this I was utterly mind-blown. 🤯
Anyway, as you see all your colleagues in academic research slowly succumb to the stress, and become more manic, aggressive, manipulative, quiet, depressed, irritable, exhausted, sociopathic, or god-like/perfect… you sort of wonder whether it’s worth it.
This wasn’t that big of a deal for me, but I guess it may matter to some.
Academia has a very clear career progression scale, with each academic position having different levels and pay scales associated. You can apply for promotions and such, but only if you have an academic position. If you’re simply a Post-Doctoral researcher employed by the lab on a limited contract, you might not have this option. Bear in mind, as well, that your role/s will shift as you move up the ladder. You might still be a researcher, but there’s a big leap between Post-Doc and Lab Head, and more responsibilities get piled on if you become A/Prof, Prof, Director, Pro-Vice Chancellor, etc.
Industry can also have a career progression scale, depending on the role. Once you meet certain criteria/goals, you can apply for a promotion to the next pay scale.
But that’s not to say all roles are like that. Some positions are what’s commonly referred to as ‘dead-end jobs’ that don’t lead to further increases in pay.
Whether that bothers you is entirely subjective. If I’m getting paid what I consider to be good money for the work I do, then I’m not particularly fussed whether I move up the career ladder or not- but that’s easier for me to say because I didn’t study or work with a career-driven mindset. I did it because it was fun, or necessary.
I guess academia can be a little bit limited, in a way, in that if you want to work in it, you generally work as a researcher. You might flit between similar, or maybe slightly different fields, but your role will be similar. You may also juggle different roles, but you’ll primarily still be a researcher… unless you go onto work in research admin. Even then, though… it can be fairly limited. You’re generally going to be in OHS, or something legislative or regulatory, or maybe you might work in the grants office.
In industry, though, I think there’s more opportunities to jump across to different divisions, because companies prefer internal applicants that are already employees- even if it’s someone in OHS going into marketing. If they can demonstrate the skillset and knowledge, then they can be hired.
So, I guess with that in mind, you can always land a role, with the intention of moving on to another one within the same company. That’s very common, and is readily accepted.
So I’ve spent the first half talking about the pros and cons- essentially comparing and contrasting between academic research and industry careers.
There are, of course, some similarities in both.
No matter where you go, whether you enjoy a job will depend on your own personality, and the personality of those around you. If your colleagues, boss, or company culture doesn’t work with yours- it doesn’t matter where you’re working. It’s going to be a struggle regardless. You need to know and understand yourself, and what you want in a job, before you can really make a decision.
You’re also always going to need to work hard. No employer, no matter what area of work, will accept a slacker.
Job availabilities are scarce in both academic research and industry. Usually you need an ‘in’- someone who knows you, who can advocate for you from the inside.
Also, some academic roles are in collaboration with industry. So you’re actually in both worlds simultaneously.
In this case, it’s not an us vs them type scenario. Enjoy the benefits of both. I’ve not spoken to enough people who are/were in these types of dual roles, but I imagine there will be some variation on experiences depending on the work arrangement.
Now, by this point, I’m sure you can sense a heavy bias towards industry. It’s true. I personally prefer something that gives me more freedom in terms of work-life balance. A part of it is laziness, but also- I’m happy to give 100% during an 8-9 hour day. Beyond that, I’d like to be paid extra for it if I’m being forced into it.
Whether that’s taken as laziness, or lack of initiative, is entirely up to you. I personally view it as being reasonable. 😅
I guess this comic sort of sums up my feelings in a nutshell:
Or this one:
Because I personally didn’t want to end up like this above comic, where I’d regret the years spent in academic research when I didn’t even want to be in it.
That’s not to say you should leave academic research, or that I don’t admire those in it.
If, with all of these setbacks, a person is still able to get out of bed and head to the lab…
Well- one, I think you’re a bit insane.
But two, good on you. You must have a lot of passion and drive for what you do, and it comes across when I speak to you. I hope you continue to inspire and better our understanding of the world around us.
I just realised that I, personally, couldn’t do it. I thought about what I wanted to do after my Ph. D, and realised that I wasn’t cut out to be a researcher.
Funnily enough, though- I’m still in academic research. 😂
But I’m in the public health sector, which is much more stable than the straight up, university or institute-affiliated ‘academic research’ sector.
I guess the main point of this post is this.
If you’re feeling a bit over it.
If you feel burnt out, and don’t get any level of enjoyment out of your life in academia…
It’s okay to leave.
But if you want to come back (academia -> industry -> academia), it might be a bit difficult, because hirings in academia rely on publications. It’s much more difficult (but not impossible) to go from industry into academia, than the other way around. But if you have absolutely zero intentions of coming back…
(This blog is in no way sponsored by The Upturned Microscope– I just love his comics)
A Ph. D graduate in Microbiology, residing in Victoria, Australia. Currently working in multiple locations but still in the STEM field. 👀 🦠 🧫 🧬