Academe vs. Industry survey

ravena ravena at
Wed May 16 10:50:52 EST 2001

SLF wrote:
> A recent survey posted by THE SCIENTIST compared experiences in academe
> vs. industry.
> The summary is at
> The survey data (and very interesting comments!) can be found at
> I suggest people take a look at the survey and comment here as to
> whether it gels with their experience.  We have a lot of younger readers
> who may be weighing options in academe vs industry, and this is likely
> to be one of their tools of comparison.

    I've been in industry for 2.5 years, after a long time spent in academia
as a PhD student and postdoc.  Now I work at a small biotech company, and I
personally have not really run into the big industry bugaboo that did fill a
number of the survey comments:  frustration with lack of creativity and
freedom "to work on what you want" in industry.
    My experience instead was that in academia, all too often, one had too
much freedom too soon.  The result was being given enough rope to hang
oneself, and once that had happened, it was hard to go from there.  In
industry I haven't seen that.  I have seen a few manifestations of the
opposite danger:  people toiling away in lousy dead-end projects that
someone else told them to do (rather than in lousy dead-end projects that
they chose themselves).  Either way, the danger of getting stuck in a lousy
dead-end project seems to be about equivalent.
    I agree with the comments that in industry things change more quickly
than in academia.  This, like everything else, is a two-edged sword.  The
upside is that if you're stuck in one of the aforementioned LDEPs, you
aren't likely to stay there very long.  Either your company starts working
on something else, since it's not going to be profitable for them to have a
lot of people on LDEPs, or you can find another job, which is easier in
industry.  The downside is that you risk losing the opportunity to work on
something that you realize you love, because while it may be scientifically
fascinating, it isn't going to result in a blockbuster drug.  Although it
hasn't happened to me yet, I have real empathy for those I've seen it happen
to.  Most good scientists get emotionally invested in their work, and when a
project they've devoted a lot of themselves to is taken away, there is going
to be a certain amount of grieving.
    Grieving does not exactly fit in to the relentlessly smiley industrial
emotional climate that I've observed, either.  In industry, there seems to
be the added pressure to always put the most positive spin on everything;
probably it comes from the CEO's feeling the shareholders breathing down his
neck and spreads out from there.  I'm sure that people in industry start out
caring just as much about their projects and feeling just as passionate
about science as academics do; but I do wonder what happens over time,
whether you end up getting number to the whole thing, just because you know
that no project is forever and you need to guard against the inevitable
disappointment.  Business types end up reading "Who Moved My Cheese?" for a

    As far as publishing goes, I think the comments in the survey are
accurate.  In industry, people don't write things up for all the various
good reasons:  too busy with managerial duties, too busy with experiments
that will help the bottom line but may not actually be all that
scientifically interesting; or not-so-good reasons:  don't like writing,
nobody is holding your hand now, etc.
    But I've also noticed another factor against publishing: the bar has
been raised to what I would consider unreasonably high levels.  Only things
that are "worth publishing" are worth publishing, and "worth publishing"
means it has to go to some incredibly high-profile journal.  It's a policy
more of neglect than outright hostility, and it seems to be related to the
perception of a need for a relentlessly upbeat tone and positive spin.  I
guess it's easier to spin a Nature article than one in Biochem Biophys Res
Comm.  Although personally, I think the latter have value too.
    When I was in academia, I published in what I would consider perfectly
respectable solid journals in the field, journals that I read regularly.
Yet my entire PhD and postdoc work may not have fallen under the "worth
publishing" category in my current position.  This realization is rather
discouraging.  Still, I haven't run into people actively telling me "no, you
can't publish this" about not-so-flashy data.  So I may have to get my
scientific reward from people outside the company; at meetings and with
former colleagues in academia.



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