Students asking me about industry

Within the department I’m the one to whom the students go to for an insight into industry. I obviously spent a lot of time there and have seen it from a bunch of different angles (at least within the biomedical field). Every conversation has roughly the same questions with a few more specific ones. I really don’t mind giving my honest opinions, but I have gotten to the point where I’ve considered pre-recording my answers like some sort of God-awful flipped classroom. So I thought a post would be a nice way to sum things up.

Outside of the tower, I have worked at a National Lab (after my MS), another government agency (after my BS), and industry (after the PhD) for an absolutely ginormous company. Ranked by the level of fun and scientific challenge I would rank them agency, Lab, industry. Based on the satisfaction with my bank account it would obviously be industry, agency, Lab. In industry I typically worked 60 hours in the lab and another 10 at home/out-and-about. The agency and Lab were roughly 50 hour jobs. My first few years here in academics surpassed 70 hours weekly, but closer to tenure it was roughly 50 hours.

To students who are curious, my starting salary was higher than my advisor’s (a full professor at a mid-level R1), but not by a bunch. Five years in I was double his salary. This is more than the average. Friends from my old lab who were out for roughly the same amount of time as me weren’t climbing the corporate ladder as steadily as I was. I took a more than 50% pay cut when moving from industry to academia. This didn’t really have an impact on my lifestyle, but definitely my future-planning has taken a turn. So if money is important then this needs to be considered.

I hate being told what to do from a research or time perspective. This was one of my biggest factors in making the leap. I started out in a regular research position (more on that later), and eventually came to run the group. Even when I was running the group, I had little say in what we could focus on. I was able to branch out here and there, but I wasn’t working on my projects. I was working on the company’s. If you’re okay with going with the flow and you’re not attached to answering specific scientific questions then this won’t matter to you.

It was nice to rarely worry about money. This is one of the things I miss the most. I had a seemingly infinitely deep purse, like Hermione’s in Harry Potter. If dealing with keeping research funded is your biggest gripe about academics then industry would be a good fit.

Most folks come in at a early-mid career level. Where I was, the PhD means you come in with a little more credibility than five years of just work experience. If you want to be a soulless goon in management then the PhD is useful, but the work experience and connections are better.

The politics are crazy in academics, but I found the politics in industry far worse. When money is involved and you have personalities not so interested in science there are cruel moves and backstabbings. In general, I have found the academic community rather receptive. There have been moments of frustration and disrespect, but nothing has been outright cruel. In industry, science is regularly thrown aside to make room for personal interest and profit-margins. You just have to be okay with playing that game and using logic and science to guide your decisions but using politics and profit to champion your ideas.

So for me, I’m relatively sensitive, morally focused on what’s right, have strong personal scientific interests, and I don’t mind fighting for funding. It was right for me at that moment. I do miss the money and having a more direct impact on patients, but the negatives were just too much. It’s just about what’s right for you.


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