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Academia or Industry?

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It's a question that comes up time and again as young investigators reach late-stage training: should I stay or should I go? Times are tough for aspiring tenure-track academics, leading many grad students and postdocs — even those who were once sure they'd become professors — to consider alternatives beyond the ivory tower. Investigators seeking information about making the choice between academia and industry are often limited to the advice of their collaborators and mentors, who, for the most part, have had limited exposure to industry.

"Most professors grow up in academia, mature in academia, and stay in academia, so most postdocs and students are going around saying, 'How do find out about industry? How do I get the information?'" says Harry Klee, professor at the University of Florida.

To that end, Philip Bourne, at the University of California, San Diego, offers an alternative resource. As editor-in-chief of PLoS Computational Biology, he has run more than a dozen professional development articles as part of the journal's Ten Simple Rules collection, which he says "have been very successful."

In a popular Ten Simple Rules paper, David Searls, an adjunct associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, outlines "Ten Simple Rules for Choosing between Industry and Academia." Searls suggests that scientists assess their needs, desires, and qualifications before deciding which career path to embark upon. Bourne says Searls' article addresses "the most fundamental question for graduate students."

The choice

According to Bourne, making the choice between a career in academia and one in industry is especially difficult because there are "no hard and fast rules." He says that while industry tends to offer better financial opportunities, academia has traditionally fostered greater flexibility in terms of exploring one's research interests.

In his piece, Searls writes that "there is the elephant-in-the-room question — Do you want to make money, or to help people? This is, of course, a false dichotomy, but many people consciously or unconsciously frame the decision in just this way, and you had best deal with it."

Those who choose to pursue a tenure--track position, Bourne says, must realize "that it's going to be some time before you earn a living probably comparable to what [you'd] make if you went off on a different pathway and [chose a] different sort of work." While he maintains that "it's going to pay off in the end," choosing academia — especially at a time when the job market is as competitive as it is now — means the payoff may be "quite a long way away."

It is especially tough for young scientists who wish to pursue academic careers right now, adds UF's Klee. "We have really good postdocs in our department and university who, 20 years ago, would have been shoo-ins for any academic job they wanted," he says.

However, he does not concede that scientists' motivations to choose academia are based on a desire to "help people," and industrial researchers choose their careers to "make money." In fact, Klee says that he had a salary increase when he made the transition from industry to academia.

He also says that it's fundamentally incorrect to assume that "the skill base that you need to succeed in academia versus industry is that different. … By and large, the skills that you need to get to the top in industry are the same as you need in academia," Klee says. "You need to write well, you need to be a good scientist — writing reports and defending your research to your superiors is no different than writing grant proposals for federal agencies."

Lunchtime lessons

Recently, while reviewing a graduate program, Bourne sat down to lunch with 20 students, of which "only two were interested in doing postdocs," he says, adding that this is "in part because they see their mentors who, themselves, are really struggling to get funded right now and continue to operate a vibrant lab. … It's just they don't necessarily want to go down that pathway."

Klee says that at any given lunch with graduate students, the conversation quickly shifts toward — and remains about — working in industry. "As soon as we mention industry and they realize that I'd spent a number of years in industry, that's inevitably where the rest of the conversation goes for the entire lunch period, because students don't have a lot of information to deal with," he says. "The industrial part of my career strongly shaped the way that I approach science as an academic. The fact that I could seamlessly go from a major industrial biotech career to an academic career with reasonable success, I think, speaks to the fact that the two are more similar than they are different."

Still, it's imperative to consider that "neither industry nor academia are monolithic," says Iddo Friedberg, an assistant professor at Miami University in Ohio, who co-authored a Ten Simple Rules article with Bourne. While 10 talking points might not ultimately help someone determine his or her future, in the end, "they're good triggers for starting to think about what you want to do."

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