Academia or industry? Basic research or applied research? You are thinking of what to do next. What is right for you? Honestly, it is a never ending discussion. So what should you do?
Here are some insider tips from a person who has worked in both biotech industries and universities.
The Freedom to Manage your Own Time
What I enjoy the most in academic or basic research is the freedom to explore and manage my own time. I can plan how I want to spend my day. I can call it a PCR day, run a protein gel day, or just spend the day writing a chapter of my thesis or that ever awaited manuscript. Ultimately, I decide the best way to spend my day doing productive work. Yes, in academia, you get the chance to learn and exercise your time management skills. However, freedom comes with self-management!. You could easily lose your direction if you don’t manage your time properly. In that case, it is useful to give yourself a list of goals and stick with the schedule.
In industry, you follow the schedule religiously. I often have scheduled meetings with the product manager twice a week in a group, and the manager keeps track of the progress of a specific project. I am not saying you have no freedom, but you have to plan your day according to the schedules.
Ultimately, each person needs to find his/her own balance point between freedom and scheduled time. Freedom can keep you motivated or you might find a structured schedule very helpful. It all depends on what works for you.
Basic Research vs Translational Research
In academia, you will focus on novel and significant research and publish papers in the highest tier journals possible. Publications are the number one priority in academia because they are important for your academic career. In academia we are curious to know the details of a process. For example, the underlying mechanisms that keep cells alive and cause them to divide.
In industry, the priorities are more on product development and securing patents for business advantage, as well as efficiently marketing the commercial products. Industries are more application-based, because the R & D projects mainly focus on the effects of a particular product.
Educational Value: Working with Students
If you love working with students, academia is a great place for you. Even as a PhD researcher you have the opportunity to interact with students both in theoretical and practical classes. Believe me, it is a lovely training process and you get to learn a lot by teaching and supervising. You also get the chance to learn from the young bright minds. The bottom line is that academia provides a nurturing environment for students, a place that allows their creative mind to exercise.
In industry, you also get the chance to meet students when they come for internships, but it is not as often as in academia. Once you get into industry, it is goal-oriented and its main purpose is to develop commercial products.
Industry often works with strict deadlines, which you have to adapt to. Keeping the customers happy is a big part of industry. A strict deadline may not leave you with much time to sit back, think and try a novel idea.
In academia, deadlines are mostly flexible. You might have to write yearly reports to your funding agencies, which in general involves a summary of what has been done in that particular project (weekly or monthly reports are rare).
What I also enjoy in academia is that you are open to the world. You have the opportunity to collaborate with many other research groups. Science is universal and academia lets you enjoy the collaboration. You do not particularly carry any ideology of a specific brand.
In industry you have particular liabilities and responsibilities towards the presentation and value of your company. You represent a brand, not just the science and research anymore. You do everything to bring science forward of course, but bringing your company in the market is an important task for you, too. On the other hand, in companies you often get to focus on single problems in small groups and collaborate with other teams working on a different aspect of the problem.
Financing the Science: Funding
Money is an important factor that keeps the hard work going. In academia, professors must apply for grants and meet the funding agencies with progress reports. These grants not only pay for the work, they also allow group members to present their work in conferences and meet new scientists. Therefore, the process of applying for and securing funding brings a lot of stress. Also, the entry level academic positions are generally time limited, and you have to think of future employment after it ends.
A company is no doubt goal orientated, focusing on the profit. But you are not responsible for directly funding yours or anyone else’s research. You will have a guaranteed salary and may also earn bonus pay.
Honestly, I enjoyed my time in industry and I love my present position in academia. What you love depends completely on you. Hopefully my experiences will help you choose a job you love.