Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Academia vs Industry

As an offshoot of yesterday's post, I will outline the different career paths that the typical post-PhD scientific researcher can take.

The Academia Route - The most obvious route for the fresh-out-of-grad-school research scientist to take is to continue in academia to attempt to become a professor, or boss. To become a boss, you must first do a series of post consisting of 1-3 different stops, usually at different institutions, each consisting of 1-3 years. During this time (earlier described as the indentured servitude state), the post doc will be working to get as many publications as possible in an attempt to prove that they are a productive scientist. Ideally, the final post doc position will be working for a boss that will allow the scientist to take the project being worked on with them to their new position as boss somewhere else. Getting a job as boss is typically extremely difficult unless the scientist is near the top of his field in production and has good pedigree (quality of institution degree was received from and post doc positions at highly respectable institutions). Some scientists will send applications to 50-100+ schools hoping for a handful of interviews and maybe a job offer. Once the status of principal investigator is received, they have a couple of years to be recognized and retain funding from an agency outside of the institution (like the National Institute of Health (NIH) or National Science Foundation (NSF)). During this time, the scientist will be working in the lab, usually with a small group of underlings (1-3), to get enough data to justify to the institution and the funding agencies that you are capable of running their own laboratory. If an outside source of funding is acquired, then the boss status is held and the scientist will be up for "tenure" within a few years. Once tenure is achieved, then the scientist can sit back and let the "underlings" do all or most of the work, and the size of the group will usually increase to 3-6 depending on the amount of funding received. The more funding, the larger the group and with that, the more work will have to be done to justify keeping the funding.

If boss status is not achieved, there are other routes within academia that can be taken. There's the research associate route, which is essentially a permanent post doc position. Salary for the research associate is usually considerably higher than a post doc, but less than the bosses receive. The post-post doc status scientist is also qualified to teach at the university level without doing research. Jobs of this nature are typically not long term and compensation for these positions is usually quite low.

The Industry Route - The alternate route to the academic route is the industry (or private sector) route. Typically, to get into an industry job, the fresh-from-grad-school PhD can try to break directly into working for a company, or begin the academic route and do a post doc at a university before converting to the private sector. Some companies offer post doc (or equivalent) positions, while others have "entry level" positions that have PhD requirements.
The private sector scientist will have similar deadlines and production requirements, but publication record does not define the quality of work produced, as in academia... meaning that one paper per year is considered good in industry, where one paper per year in academia implies that nothing is being accomplished. Job security is the main concern in industry positions. In academia, once tenure has been reached, it is nearly impossible to be forced from the institution until retirement (barring scandal or complete lack of funding - both of which do occur). Biotech companies can be purchased and sold in the blink of an eye, and scientists can be forced out with little notice. What is the one thing that can make up for lower job security? That's right... money. Industry jobs can pay up to 2-3 times the academic job, and typically the stress level is much lower. Many industry jobs are similar to a non science job in that the schedules may be more like 9-5, 5 days a week, with potential to take vacations and have a "life", whereas the academic job may take 10+ hours per day, 6-7 days a week with "vacation days" (as described yesterday). Getting in to the industry positions can be tricky as most require "experience" and a PhD. Where do you get experience if you just got your degree? Working suck ass jobs and having no life for an unknown amount of time just might do it. Pay your dues and hope that you can get rewarded down the road. Once the industry job is under wraps, just hold on as long as you can... make your money, then get out.

Which type of job would I prefer to have? Hmmm... That doesn't take much thought, does it?

5 comments:

kilax said...

Um, you forgot to mention the "evil scientist" taking over the universe route. Or is that the offspring of the Academia Route?

Gina said...

After reading that, I'm going to jump on the industry bandwagon. Thanks for explaining all that, it was a very good insight to a whole other sector I know little about.

Andrew Skaff said...

kilax - The "evil scientist" route can be an offshoot of either of the pathways. I'll post a diagram in a later entry.

gina - You're welcome, I'm happy to pass on any insight I might have.

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