I get asked frequently by students about career advice. Should they stay in academia or should they look for a job in industry. Most professors have only ever been in academia so their view may be a bit biased – that was the best choice for them so it must be for you too. I came to academia through a more indirect route. Throughout my higher ed experience, I went back and forth between the university and industry. As an undergraduate in chemical engineering, I co-oped for DuPont, which meant my undergraduate degree was spread out over 5 years and alternated semesters between campus and different jobs at DuPont. I also got to work for 9 months in Sweden for Trelleborg Gummi Fabrik – a company that makes a whole bunch of things out of rubber.
Each job was different and provided a different exposure to what chemical engineers do for a living. While I went into undergraduate thinking that I didn’t want to get a graduate degree, it was on one of these rotations at DuPont that I felt that research was more my thing and that I liked heterogeneous catalysis. Motivated by production problems in a small pilot plant making tetrahydrofuran (THF) from maleic anhydride, I rediscovered that when you put THF in water, it doesn’t suppress the freezing point of water but increases it. My mentor at DuPont didn’t believe me so I had to show him using a test tube, thermometer, THF-water solution, and ice water bath. These experiences at DuPont influenced my choice of Northwestern University for graduate school. My PhD also involved a 9-month internship at Exxon. Once I finished my PhD, I landed at Entelos, a start-up in the San Francisco Bay Area that made mathematical models of disease for pharmaceutical companies called PhysioLabs.
Before I contrast academia with industry, I think it’s important to acknowledge a shared experience. [Cue Cheers theme song] One of the desires in attending college is to find a community where people understand us and we feel welcomed. Many times, when we take those first courses in our major we feel like we’ve found our community. This internal decision is reinforced by faculty in the department that say we’ve made the right choice and, hopefully, that we belong. Each major or discipline has its own culture with specialized language, enabling base of knowledge, set of questions that collectively the discipline feels is important, and preferred modes of inquiry into those questions. There will be challenging times of personal growth ahead where we internalize these learnings. With grit and perseverance, we will make it through to become a disciple. Graduate school is a further refinement of these learnings. Once through, we each think our experience is unique, different – it is, yet it is also the same. It’s not too hard to think that this process encourages us to think of other majors as inferior. So when students near a transition point along their academic path, there is a natural inclination to stay within this community rather than venture out into the unknown working world.
For me, I decided to venture out instead of staying in this focused community defined by my graduate work because, while I enjoyed the people, I wasn’t excited about the questions. To me, it seems that the tools that I developed during the graduate work – rule-based modeling approaches – could have greater impact applied to questions in biology. Skipping over the details, I ultimately landed at a start-up in Menlo Park, CA called Entelos where I developed mathematical models of disease. I was there for 5 years before returning to academia with a tenure-track ticket to play at West Virginia University in Morgantown. I joined WVU in 2006 and have since received tenure and am currently a Professor in Chemical and Biomedical Engineering in the Statler College of Engineering with an adjunct position in Microbiology, Immunology and Cell Biology in the School of Medicine.
If I had to summarize the difference in academia versus industry in two words, I’d say the word for academia is promotion and industry is product. In academia, the focus is on quantifying individual contribution that can be used to support the promotion of individuals – that may be from student to PhD graduate, tenure-track to tenured professor, of one discipline over another, or credit for some discovery. This focus on the priority of the individual is mirrored in the language used in academia – principle investigators, first author, corresponding author, major versus minor course of study – and prizes that recognize individual contributions – like the MacArthur Fellow Award, Howard Hughes Medical Investigators, NSF’s Waterman or CAREER Awards, or Nobel Prizes. The metrics that are used to evaluate academics largely consist of how many papers published, especially where the individual is first or corresponding author and in places that the discipline thinks are impactful; how much research monies they bring in directly to their lab; and how many disciples do they produce. Similar to the challenges navigating a multi-cultural society, it is much easier to publish papers and get grant funding if you stay within your disciplinary community.
Industry is a bit different. While each company has its own culture, collectively industry focuses on a product. This product may be providing a service to a customer or producing an object for sale. In a market economy, companies that want to remain in existence should be responsive to their customer. Actions of the employees are then aligned with the company’s vision that can change with time as the market changes. Experiences as an employee can vary whether you are at a small versus a large organization. I’ve worked for both.
DuPont was a large organization with locations across the globe and diverse roles that employees played within the organization. Depending on one’s educational experience, the entry into the organization was different. Once on-board, there were internal opportunities to grow professionally by taking different roles within the organization. For instance, a chemical engineer might rotate through positions where they ran an existing chemical plant, provided logistic support for raw material transport, provided technical support to a sales team, or brought on-line a new chemical process. The specific skills required in each position are a bit different. Over time, these diverse experiences enable the employee to be a well-rounded leader within the organization and to weight different aspects of the organization when making business decisions.
Entelos was a small organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Besides leadership, a big chunk of the technical staff was divided into people that developed the PhysioLabs based on the scientific literature (which was me) or that modified the PhysioLab in collaboration with pharma partners to help answer their research questions. These teams were comprised largely of PhD engineers and PhD life scientists. Coming from different disciplines each with their own specialized languages, we had to establish a common ground. One of the first things to go was the residual bias from academia about the priority of one’s own discipline. We had to learn each others language. With a shared goal, we each had to contribute in our own way to realizing that goal. In time, the separation between life scientist and engineer became a bit blurred.
Given that companies need to be responsive to the market, what you work on in industry may change depending on the needs of the organization. In the 5 years at Entelos, I developed PhysioLabs for atopic asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, skin sensitization, type 1 diabetes, and type 2 diabetes. Similarly at DuPont, achieving a certain return on investment (RoI) required continually developing new products and the chemical processes to make them. Chemical processes that didn’t achieve the RoI were sold off. Sometimes staff went with the process. Staffing also depends on revenue. If the company’s revenue is down or RoI is off target, cutting expenses is one way to stabilizing the balance sheet. Employee salaries are some of the biggest expenses. Poor performance or balance sheet issues can lead to lay-offs. In contrast, academia is somewhat buffered from the market. In academia, you can potentially work on problems that are not tightly connected to the current market. In addition, academic staffing is somewhat buffered from the economy but not entirely. This is becoming more of an issue in academia due to national demographic trends.
In contrast to a large organization, the roles that one plays in the small organization may be a bit limited. Smaller companies tend to hire in talent rather than develop them in house. As a result, people tended to jump around to different small companies to round out their expertise and progress up the professional ladder. Being located in the San Francisco Bay Area was an advantage because there are lots of other potential companies that one could work for without relocating. You pay for this opportunity with the high cost of living in the SF Bay Area and commute times. College towns like Morgantown have a much lower cost of living with minimal commute. Salaries also tend to be lower in academia than industry.
In short, trying to decide what to do with your life is a weighty decision for many. Completing a college degree forces a decision. Other life events can also encourage reflecting on your current path. Here I’ve talked about two common alternatives, staying in academia versus transitioning to industry. Sometimes folks stay in academia because that is what they know – it’s their community – and any alternative is a leap into the unknown. Hopefully this and other blog posts can provide a bit of perspective on what these two alternatives entail. Each of these two paths have their strong and weak points, but most importantly make the choice that fits you. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out what we really want as sometimes the voices of others drown out our own voice. Periodically – say every five years – reaffirm that your still on the path you want to be. If it’s not, then it’s ok to change. I think you’ll do great whatever you choose because it’s your choice.