Helpful tips for choosing between academia and industry
By Vivienne C Watson, on 6 August 2014
Coming to the end of your PhD or a postdoc position means thinking about the future and potentially making choices about whether to stay in academia or move into industry. This is a decision that’s harder for some than others, but some thorough research will help you to choose the most appropriate fit.
As with any career decision, it’s best to start with yourself: specifically, what you really want from a career, what you need from a career, and the kind of personality you have. It helps to be really specific when you’re thinking about this, so as far as possible approach this task with the same rigour you apply to research questions.
1) What do you want from your career? To put it another way, how exactly do you want to spend your days at work? This might seem like an obvious question, but it’s one that is often overlooked. For example, do you want to spend much of your time teaching? Are you happy to devote a large amount of time to building your network with the knowledge that “publish or perish” will always be at the heart of an academic career? Or are you more interested in a career in industry that will potentially allow you to strategise, plan and manage from an early stage, placing a greater emphasis on your softer ‘people’ skills? The idea here is to get a clear sense of what really drives you.
2) What do you need from a career? This question relates specifically to the kind of compensation you’re looking for, opportunities for promotion and any other specific needs you have. These tend to become more complex if you have a partner and family – geographical limitations, for instance. Higher salaries are still to be found in industry and compensation is considerably more complicated than in academia, so if you’re considering an offer make sure you understand an organisation’s compensation structure: bonuses, for example, can make a big difference to your total package.
3) What’s your personality like – and where might you find your best ‘fit’? Try to think objectively about the kind of person you are in order to determine where you’re most likely to thrive. It is still possible to make some generalisations about the differences between academia and industry. The latter generally works at a faster pace and decisions are made quickly (there’s money riding on it!) so if you’re goal-oriented and impatient, industry could offer the sort of variety and change you’ll enjoy. On the other hand, academia offers a high degree of independence and suits maverick personalities well; industry is well-suited to natural team players and those who are seeking managerial responsibilities early on. Wherever you are it’s important to realise that you can’t escape organisational politics – although these are sometimes thought to be more immediately apparent in industry.
As you gather information about yourself and your options, keep an open mind. The decision between academia and industry is not black and white, and within each is a spectrum of many different possibilities. It’s also possible to find roles which allow you to move between academia and industry. The crucial thing is to identify your own priorities and be honest with yourself in order to find the path that will bring you both satisfaction and success.
– Hilary Moor, Careers Consultant, Careers Group University of London