Dear Kate – November 2015

Dear Kate,

I am a PhD student and will graduate in 1-2 years. When I am planning for my future career, I hesitate a lot between industry and academia. From the bottom of my heart I am inclined to academia, but I doubt whether I am good enough for academia because of the extreme competitions.

If I go for a postdoc, I am not sure how much achievement I can get out of it to make me strong enough for academia positions. When I talk to industry people, they say I am really good, and some even say I should not join their company, but should go for academia, at least prestigious research labs in industry. (Though I’m not sure this is their etiquette or they really mean it.) How do I choose the career path?”

– Hesitancy


Dear Hesitancy,

If your heart is set on academia, then go for it!  You’ll never know whether you can get a position unless you try.  The main achievement you should strive for from a post-doc is to demonstrate that you can raise research funds of your own.  You will have a much better chance of landing an academic job if you can bring funding with you.

That being said, you should try to figure out what it is about an academic career that attracts you.  Do you enjoy teaching classes?  Mentoring students?  Writing research proposals?  Managing projects?  Presenting your results at conferences and writing journal articles?  Do you like thinking about big picture problems or concentrating on the details of making something work?  Do you prefer to be in the lab yourself or to supervise others who do the hands-on work?  Think about which aspects of being a scientist or engineer are the most exciting to you, and then you can explore which work environment provides the opportunity to do those things.

As a graduate student, you have a pretty good view of what your life would be like as a professor.  Do you have an equally good idea about life in industry?  Have you explored other alternatives such as national laboratories, Federally Funded Research & Development Centers, research institutes, or private companies with government funding such as Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grants?  Each of these offers a different combination of the various roles that you would play as a professor.  For example, although I work in industry, I supervise and mentor undergraduate co-op students.  In a previous position at a small company, I wrote SBIR proposals to government agencies just as a faculty member would write funding proposals.

During your last year or two of graduate school, make use of the alumni network, people you meet at conferences, LinkedIn, and any other contacts you have to learn as much as you can about all the different settings where PhDs work.  If possible, arrange for informational interviews and visit small companies, large companies, startups, research centers, etc.  Similarly, talk to faculty members at various types of institutions (large, small, undergraduate, research-oriented) and at different stages of their careers and see what their jobs are like.  You may learn that your impressions of life as a professor are somewhat different from reality.

Although it may seem like this is a once-in-a-lifetime decision, it’s really not.  Many people switch from industry to academia and vice versa.  A few years in a national lab or at a company writing SBIR proposals can enable you to establish a funded research program and put you in a stronger position to apply for an academic job down the road.  If you want to follow this path, however, you will have to choose your projects carefully (i.e., nothing classified or proprietary) so that you will be able to publish your research and maintain visibility in your field.

It is also important to keep in mind is that jobs in industry are not just for those who are not “good enough” (your term) for academia.  I can’t imagine reviewing an applicant’s resume and thinking he or she is too good for my company to hire, but we are less inclined to consider someone who is too “research-y”, who has not demonstrated an understanding of the practical applications of his or her work.  It takes a different set of skills to bring a reliable, well-characterized product to market than it does to create the concept on which the product is based.  Similarly, the satisfaction of seeing something you developed go into mass production is very different from the thrill of synthesizing a new compound or demonstrating a new theory.   Considerations such as work-life balance, long term flexibility vs. stability, and financial rewards also vary in these different settings.  You need to identify the mix that works best for you.

Whatever you decide, best of luck in your career!

– Kate S

(who works in industry)

Dear Hesitancy,

First, I think there is no reason to believe that you are “not good enough to succeed in academia” at this point in your career. Clearly, there are a good number of people who think that you are quite good including the people who decided you belonged at MIT for graduate school and the people that you have been talking to in industry who suggest that you should stay in academia! Please don’t sell yourself short.

Second, there is a very wide range of jobs that are “staying in academia”. There are research professorships at R1 universities. There are more balanced research/teaching professorships at a SLACs. There are heavily teaching professorships available at a variety of colleges and technical institutes. There are positions as researchers. There are positions as instructors. These jobs share some characteristics, but there are many differences between them as well. Even the ones that share a nominal title. One thing to consider about academic jobs is what type of work/life balance you want to have. I am in academia at a teaching-focused, undergraduate-only school. My research load is quite light, and my teaching load is officially moderate–we teach three courses a term. But there are schools I interviewed at that required as many as 5 courses a term! And even most research schools require somewhere between 1-2 courses taught a term. These tend to impose non-negotiable time constraints in an officially flexible schedule. That said, outside of term my time is much more my own to arrange as I see fit between research, teaching prep, and living my non-work life.

My partner has the same academic degrees I have through Ph.D, but he works in industry. He doesn’t feel that his work uses any of his degrees, but he does have the ability to take time off for vacations, illness, or to go volunteer in our kids’ classrooms. As with academic research goals, there is always more that you feel you should be doing but the pace of recurring demands depends a lot on the industry you choose to work in. From my perspective at the moment, his work demands are high and constant. There is also more pressure/ability to change jobs frequently on the industrial side. Nearly all of my friends who work in industry seem to change jobs every 2-3 years. They also all make significantly more money than I do.

If you are partnered, I know very few successful dual-academic couples. Among my graduate school classmates, there are no partnerships that I know of where a couple both stayed together and stayed in academia. There are examples that split up and examples where one partner left academia, but the difficulties of finding adequate career paths for two academics in close enough geographical proximity to sustain a relationship are almost insurmountable.

If you think you might want to go into industry, please try to get some industrial experience during graduate school! There are summer internship or cooperative learning experiences, for instance. When I looked at industry positions directly out of graduate school, none of them believed I was a serious candidate because my background was all in theoretical fields. Showing concrete evidence of your ability to succeed in an industrial capacity is important as you will not be a cheap person to hire.

To summarize:

– Academia has very uneven periods of stressful endeavor, tending to cyclical periods matching teaching requirements, grant deadlines, and tenure/promotion reviews. To paraphrase a mentor of mine, “if teaching and/or research are not your drug of choice, don’t take the academic route.”

– Industry has more variability in both potential jobs and career tracks, but generally a more stable stress level (though possibly very high!) and better compensation.

– Kate Z

(who works in academia)

On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month’s Dear Kate contributor, Kate S., and Kate Z.

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