Thursday, November 5, 2009

Pick your poison / antidote

I have heard many academics lament / complain about the hours they work, the lack of compensation given the hours, the loneliness of a job spent mostly writing grants, the pressure to wow your academic peers with your ingenuity (ie, very few professors have name brand recognition in their relative fields, and these few have a lucky cascade effect where their success means easier funding and prime pick of postdocs / students, which leads to more success and funding, etc...). Sure there are perks like flexibility (you get to decide which specific 60-100 hours of the week you want to work) and relative freedom to choose projects that interest you (assuming you can get funding for them). And for some there's also a joy in teaching / motivating students.

But are the tradeoffs worth it? Most graduate students leaving a PhD program clearly don't get that impression, hence, the massive influx of people into industrial jobs. Jobs which also have their pluses (high pay, no fund-raising responsibility) and minuses (some inevitable drudgery and boredom, longer total time at a lab bench before you have management authority relative to academia, more bosses to answer to, and less control over what questions to pursue). Notice I did not list hours. In general, the idea that industry is a 40 hour per week job for PhDs is a complete fallacy in my experience and in the experience of those I know. But in general it probably is still fewer hours than academia. I've also been asked by a friend to include opportunities for mentorship as a plus. For those PhD students who enjoy teaching and think they can only get that type of mentoring interaction in academia, there is actually plenty of opportunity as you advance to teach and motivate a team of people (not to mention some smart summer interns that flood large companies each year).

Notice I also left out "politicking" from both sets of lists. Though many students run from academia for precisely this reason, I think any job that involves human beings involves politicking. (I hold to this belief even more firmly after speaking with people in other fields such as ministry and non-profit orgs who have had similar experiences.) I will say that the brand of politics changes in industry. Many academics get away with more blunt statements than would generally be considered acceptable in a professional environment.

So what is the point of this post? Mainly it's just a haphazardly organized, mini-summary of some recent conversations I've had with students and faculty. I'd also be curious if anyone has any additional major points to add to the above mentioned pluses / minuses of industry versus academia.


  1. The things that people lament about academia--hours, "politics", assholes, drudgery, ill-defined standards for success, etc--exist in *all* professional contexts that involve the organization of creative effort by highly trained workers. For an example of this at work, one can refer to the blog Minor Revisions.

    The blogger was a grad student and then post-doc in academia, and hated it because of the long hours, "politics", and ill-defined standards for advancement. The blogger took an industry job at a big corporation, and now appears to be working absurd hours--e.g., taking conference calls at ridiculous hours ranging from 6AM and 10PM--that are harming her health and experiencing the same crap as in academia. But she does probably make a fuckton more money.

  2. It is funny that academics complain about about "politics", drudgery and long work hours when those who are in industry seem to think we don't have the first two at least. By some chance I happen to be the one of two people going down an academic path compared to a lot my friends (from outside the lab) and they always say "at least you don't have to deal with the politics and do a lot of mind numbing work". I always think I only wish there were no politics! How simpler life would have been. Mind you I'm only a grad student and don't get involved in it but seem to be caught in the middle sometimes. As for the mind numbingness - well repeating experiments countless times to get failures a bit like drudgery compared to my friends who are making/designing products to be sold and building bridges literally, but then I too achieve things and the rush of getting something out of my own ideas is great after all the work.
    As for the hours - well academia might seem to have longer hours but there is far more flexibility too. People in the industry work insane hours too - but as PysioProf says they probable do make much more money. Talking to a lot of my colleagues - the money issue is also very important I think, there is some dejection when you have spend years of poverty compared to you non-academic friends and the gap keeps widening at least in your 20's etc when the differences in spending can be very outward. Im not sure what happens when academics move into more stable careers.

  3. In academia, you are pretty much your own boss in day-to-day operation even from day 1 (of course with responsibility and pressure to bring in your own funding etc.). In industry, you are likely to work for someone for some years before you may be promoted to research leader/management positions.