Academia v industry (again)

I got an anxious email from a soon-to-be-PhD about the industry versus academia decision, so I’ve done posts like this before, but given that I’m a few years in, this might be a good time to weigh the differences from a different perspective.  A lot of these will be things that plenty of people have talked about before, but with some more exact details.

The biggest thing I have noticed has been my time.  From the standpoint of how I spend it, and how much free time I have.  During the workday, I bounce between a lot of tasks.  I have one class this semester and I end up taking about 1-2 hours/day on teaching-related things.  Maybe an extra hour here or there depending on what’s happening with the class (exams to grade, lecture I’m unprepared for, etc.).  I typically put in 6-8 hours a day on pure research: meeting with students, writing grants, editing papers, meeting with collaborators, coming up with ideas, reading papers, etc.  Service bites into this, but usually only a couple hours a week.  This is all work, but something about it is just way more satisfying.  When I was in industry, it was 4-6 hours of meetings and 4-6 hours of real work.  This was a little crushing because, while these were mostly my ideas, they were ultimately going to benefit the corporate overlords and not me as much.  I really don’t mind putting in a lot of time when it’s my lab to run.  On the free time side of things, I don’t really have that much right now compared to before.  When I was in industry after work, I would get calls, emails, texts, etc, but these were quick answers not requiring much work thought.  I write, edit, respond to students and come into the lab on weekends and nights more frequently than I probably should.  So overall, I work more now, but I enjoy it more.  So if you’re considering industry versus academia, think about how much you value free time versus the type of work.

I traveled a ton for work, and very comfortably I might add.  I would usually spend an extra day or two in Turkey, France, China, Israel, Italy, England, and many more!  Being able to feed my travel bug on the company’s dime was pretty nice.  And then racking up miles that I could use in personal travel was a huge benefit.  I hardly travel now for work other than a few times a year for conferences or to visit a collaborator.  Not traveling as much is nice since I really like my bed, however, I do sometimes miss the jet-setting life and seeing amazing things throughout the world.  This might just be my industry/academia experience, but if you want to travel more then maybe industry is your thing.

In industry I never once wrote a grant.  I would just show off a prototype or idea in a meeting and we’d get some cash in the budget.  There was a ridiculous amount of money to go around.  And it was kind of cool to just have perceivably unlimited money to do all kinds of cool stuff from unlimited animal work, 3D printers, cameras, spectrographs, etc.  I could do anything, but again didn’t always want to since they weren’t my projects, per se.  Right now, the vast majority of my time is working on grants.  I’ve been reasonably successful in getting money from the government and industry, but this has come at an obscene time-cost.  And even with the onslaught of grants, I’m still nowhere near my industry budget.  If you don’t want to fight constantly for budget then industry is for you!

My personal income was the only thing I dreaded in the transition.  This was massive.  The majority of ex-pats I know cut their salaries in HALF when coming to academia.  If you’re curious about numbers, most public universities have professors’ salaries online.  Double that.  I felt this pretty hard, but I’ve slowly settled into my current lifestyle and suddenly I don’t notice it as much.  Having a second income is nice, but not necessary and my quality of life being so great definitely makes up for the salary hit.  If money matters most, then stick to industry!

Mentorship was the one area I didn’t really think much about before.  I did think about it a little, but the mentorship right now is incredibly rewarding compared to before.  I mentored/managed engineers and scientists before, and when they grew I felt nice, but I knew they were all just vying for my job; trying to climb the corporate ladder and step on people if needed.  Right now, I see mentorship from a few different areas.  Seeing them learn and grow as scientists is incredibly fulfilling, and then helping place them in jobs (usually through my industry contacts) makes me feel almost the reward of being a parent (given recent developments I hope this is a feeling I will feel).  If you want to make a real difference in younger people that aren’t just out to get you: stick to academics.


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