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Academia or Industry: A Scientist’s Dilemma

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In a study by Larson et al. it was reported that only 12.8% of PhD graduates can garner an academic position in the U.S. Meanwhile in the past ten years the number of PhDs in biomedical sciences has increased by 83%. While the science remains the same whether you are working in academia or industry, the career paths can be very different.

Focus

The academic career path is viewed as thriving on theoretical and fundamental research, while the industry focus is on practical problem solving. Industry careers are seen as requiring structured rigor while academic exploration can be more freeing and flexible. If you prefer this freedom, independence and ownership, academia is the better choice. If you like to have the latest resources and can cope and excel in the faster pace and immediate applicability of research in a more collaborative and deadline-driven environment, industry is for you.

Academic Career Path

The New York Times reported that “the average age at which a scientist obtains a grant in academia is 42.” Many academic research scientists spend years in a holding pattern as postdocs – temporary positions working for a professor and being paid from that professor’s research grant. The other bad news? In 2000, 32% of grant applications to the National Institutes of Health resulted in an award. Today it is just 18%.

If you excel at securing research funding, the good news is that you will typically have significant control over your work and you will receive direct credit for that work. You will benefit from the intellectual exchange within academia through your interdisciplinary collaboration, conferences and scholarly publications. You will work in the inviting, flexible environment and schedule of college campuses. Research scientists who conduct successful research and publish are considered the elite of both academia or industry.

Industry Career Path

Industry can offer faster career advancement, a higher salary and a dynamic and resource-rich work environment. Business acumen, strong project management and communication skills are required for success and advancement in industry. Answering to project deadlines and internal clients are critical skills. Work environments are more structured as are work schedules and the assessment of success is very bottom-line oriented.

Sometimes industry positions are underestimated in their level of intellectual rigor and one individual almost never receives credit for the results of the research. Resources are greater but often so are expectations.

Fluidity Between Academia or Industry

Cross-functional collaborations between academia and industry are blurring the lines between a forced choice of one or the other career. The increased fluidity between the two sectors suggests a mutual valuation of the skills required in either academia or industry and opens up the option of changing careers. A decision made immediately after receiving your PhD does not have to be the final career choice.

Interested in talking about your career in the pharmaceutical industry? Contact Smith Hanley Associates’ Biostatistics and Clinical Research Recruiter, Nihar Parikh at nparikh@smithhanley.com.

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