Industry vs. Academia: Which is Right for You?

September 28, 2010

DNA ladderMany of you may have asked yourselves this question at some point in your academic careers. Which job would give you the most freedom research-wise? More time with your family or for outside interests? Higher salaries? Job security?

Science Careers held a webinar on this topic just last week. The panel discussion included speakers from academia and industry who took questions from an online audience of postdocs and graduate students. I encourage you to watch the entire webinar as your schedule allows. For today’s post, I have tried to paraphrase what I found to be the most salient points made by the panelists last week.

1. What questions should you ask yourself to determine whether academia or industry is the right fit for you?

  • Do you want to stay in research or move away from the bench?
  • What are your strengths?
  • What do you enjoy doing?
  • What are you most passionate about?

2. What are some essential differences between academia and industry?

  • In academic work, you will be expected to be a self-starter, comfortable with self-promotion, and will largely work independently, developing research questions on your own.
  • In industry, you will also be expected to drive yourself, but with a view toward a common goal, and an understanding of what is expected of you as a member of a research team, based on objectives set at the beginning of your employment.

3. How can I learn more about these two worlds?

  • Conduct research on the web.
  • Talk with people you know in both spheres.
  • Attend university or institute career symposia, career fairs, panels, etc.
  • Talk with people at scientific meetings.
  • Attend any lunches, networking events, etc. after research talks on your campus.
  • Ask scientists you meet about their own career paths.

4. When should I start preparing for either job?

  • It’s never too early! Even by the 2nd year of your postdoc, you should be updating your CV, participating in skills courses, taking on a summer student – basically doing things that will set you apart from the crowd on the job market.

5. Are there jobs available in industry or academia in this bleak economic climate?

  • Yes! There’s never a total hiring freeze in industry, so there are always opportunities for people who are smart, well-trained, and have good ideas.
  • In academia, positions may be slightly easier to come by in private institutions, if endowments have rebounded.
  • Universities need to maintain research vitality, so hiring will always be a priority.
  • One way of uncovering opportunities is to find out which universities are building new science facilities. These institutions will typically need new science faculty to fill new lab space!

6. Which path allows for greater work/life balance?

  • This depends on the particular company/institution, particular department, particular job.
  • While some may think that schedules are tougher on the academic side, some industry jobs also require a great number of hours during the work week.
  • Some may feel a greater sense of freedom and therefore balance on the academic side because the hours are flexible, while others may feel more balance in industry because the hours are more structured.
  • This depends largely on the person and the work situation.

7. Does compensation vary greatly from one to the other?

  • No, compensation levels are surprisingly similar based on level of experience, promotion, etc.

8. What skills are most important for me to develop before going on the job market?

  • Networking is #1, followed by teamwork, and being a thoughtful leader.

9. What are the pros and cons in academia vs. industry?

  • Benefits in academia: a sense of autonomy, an excitement around novel discoveries, intrinsic motivators, travel, getting to know people all over the world, collegial environment. Downsides: grant renewal, feeling pressure to publish or perish.
  • Benefits in industry: potential benefit to patients of what you’re working on, fairly immediate application of science, access to resources, connections to other scientists around you. Downsides: cannot always investigate areas of personal interest.

10. Any final thoughts, words of wisdom?

  • Stay true to yourself, know yourself well before going out on the market.
  • Practice what you’re going to say so you do the best job of selling yourself.
  • Start early and practice often.

Continue this conversation with professionals you meet in both academia and industry. These interactions will help you to determine what is best for YOU!


The Postdoc Journey: A Developmental Approach to Independence

September 23, 2010

In continued recognition of Postdoc Appreciation Week, I share a developmental model I crafted for a presentation to the National Academies some years ago. My argument is that postdocs move through four developmental stages as they progress toward independence, both scientifically and professionally.

These stages are fluid, and postdocs may move back and forth among stages throughout their tenure as trainees. Below is my model, subsequently published in Bridges to Independence: Fostering the Independence of New Investigators in Biomedical Research, with programs offered at the NIH inserted as examples of developmental opportunities.

Developmental Model


A postdoctoral scholar typically moves through the following four stages: (1) adjustment (year 1); (2) skill enhancement (years 2 and 3); (3) search for positions (years 4 and 5); (4) and transition to independence (by year 5). Again, these stages are fluid, and the amount of time actually spent in each stage depends on the individual’s specific skills, discipline, work environment, and mentor.

Stage 1:

During the first stage, postdocs need to develop healthy patterns of behavior that will continue to serve them throughout their tenure. In order to adjust to the training period, postdocs should attend orientation sessions offered through OITE and any offered through their IC. Below are other programs offered to assist postdocs with adjusting effectively:

Stage 2:

During the second stage, postdocs might attend workshops and seminars such as those below to build skills as independent researchers, teachers, and mentors. They might also consider seeking individual grant reviews through PIs or senior staff at OITE.

Stage 3:

Stage 3 focuses on the development of job search related skills, such as writing effective resumes and CVs, interviewing, negotiating, and so on. OITE offers many programs and services in a variety of formats designed to meet the needs of trainees regardless of the type of career they are pursuing:

Stage 4:

Finally, postdocs in the 4th or transition stage should be preparing to move into their chosen career. OITE offers informative programs for all postdocs in leading teams effectively, resolving conflict, and more:

When applied during my tenure at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, this model proved successful in that UNC saw job success in its postdoctoral population and positive outcomes in terms of skill development through its program evaluations.

Take advantage of the myriad opportunities available to you through OITE and the NIH. Enjoy the journey!

Postdocs: You Are Appreciated ALL the Time

September 21, 2010

BalloonsWelcome to Postdoc Appreciation Week! I hope that you were all out on the lawn in front of Building 1 yesterday, enjoying your Georgetown Cupcakes. I am sorry I missed that event, I can tell you!

Some of you may think that one week is insufficient to recognize contributions made by postdocs. To quell this cynicism, I offer a poem, celebrating all that you contribute as a postdoctoral scholar:

P ostdocs are some of the smartest around – and most of the time, their judgment is sound.

O n top of innovations, breakthroughs, new techniques, they absorb lots of data to find what they seek.

S cholars research and write, year in and year out,

T il journals accept, increasing their clout.

D riving teams forward, they lead projects ahead,

O pen to ideas, they consume what is said.

C onclusions are reached, the answer is clear:

S cience advances through you – not one week, but all year!

Enjoy the rest of this week – and take advantage of all the fun events around you! Check out the OITE website for a full listing by location. And thank you once again for all that you do.

Online Chat: “A Day in the Life of…” Career Options for Scientists

September 16, 2010

The transcript of today’s chat, the first in an interactive, online chat series on career options for scientists this fall, can be found below.

EVENT: A Day in the Life of…A Public Health Analyst

GUEST: David Kosub, Ph.D., Public Health Analyst, NIAID, NIH

DATE: Thursday, September 16, 2010



Flat Tires: Overcoming Adversity at Work

September 14, 2010

flat tireSo first, the good news…I finished my first triathlon this weekend! It was a slog, to be sure, but I finished, and that is what I was hoping to do.

The tri was not without incident, though…about halfway through the 12 mile bike loop, I got a flat on my bike. Argh! First time out – what luck. The best part of it was that I had a spare tube – and no pump. Great! I rode on it until I found a race official, who didn’t happen to have a pump either. I kicked the dirt, paced for about 15-20 minutes, and then saw the bike support car coming down the road. The driver was the owner of a bike shop in town, and he changed the flat in about 5 minutes. I hopped back on, was third from dead last of 460 to finish the bike, and went on to finish the run and the race.

After the event, several friends and acquaintances seemed surprised that I went on to finish after the flat. I really didn’t see any other way around it – my goal was to finish, and that’s what I was determined to do. Ok, truth be told, my first goal was actually to stay alive in the water (I didn’t know how to swim before training began), and then to finish.

Like my flat, you may encounter unexpected obstacles at work from time to time. How do you deal with them? Do you give up easily, thinking that you must be destined not to complete a particular task, experiment, project, paper? Or do you put your head down and barrel through? Here are a few tips taken from an article online that might help you find your way through a difficult period:

1. Acceptance is critical.

Mentally accepting the situation and acknowledging the setback will allow you to move beyond it. Rather than get caught up in the why-me’s and the self-pity that may occur when faced with a hardship, accept the situation and move on.

2. Recognize how adversity can be viewed as a positive.

Depending on the situation at hand, you may build new skills or gain strength through adversity – and you may find this personal growth enormously satisfying.

3. Get some fresh air.

Get out for a while! Leave the lab, go for a walk, go out for a drink with friends, go for a hike, take your dog to the park – take advantage of this glorious weather! Go to the movies, the mall, bowling, museums, restaurants, a play, a coffee shop, a pal’s apartment – anywhere you’ll have a good time.

4. Talk things through.

Use your support network, whether it be family, friends, colleagues, mentors, professional support staff, including those at OITE. Talking through your challenges will help you to release your emotions around them and assist you in planning steps to overcome them.

5. Find your inspiration.

Who inspires you? Is it a world-renowned scientist? An acquaintance who has been through a similar experience? A friend battling a disease? A family member who consistently sees opportunity in adversity? Focus on whomever it is that inspires you to move forward. Having an inspiration in mind can help drive you toward success.

Good luck – and for all you triathletes out there, don’t forget to pack a pump! 🙂

Improve Your Writing Skills by Writing “Less Badly”

September 9, 2010

Minolta DSCA few days ago, I was talking with a member of my swim class about our backgrounds. It turns out he assists his partner with writing best-selling horror novels.

When I mentioned this blog, he perked up and asked whether I intended to turn it into a book. I laughed, of course, as I don’t imagine myself as a writer–or at least, I recognize the need to improve my writing in order to write something people might actually purchase.

With writing on my mind, I came across an exceptional article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, with an even better title:

10 Tips on Writing Less Badly

Written by Michael C. Munger, a faculty member and university administrator in political science, I wasn’t sure that the tips offered would resonate with scientists. Now having read it, I see it as a trove for any writer, regardless of discipline. Following are Munger’s 10 tips:

1. Writing is an exercise.

I have heard a similar recommendation in past writing workshops and articles: write often. Don’t wait for a big submission to start working on your writing. Try writing several times per week, regardless of where you are with your current project.

2. Set goals based on output, not input.

I appreciate Munger’s example here: set a page goal for yourself, rather than an hourly goal. That is, assign yourself 3 typed pages and stop when you have reached that point, rather than assigning yourself 3 hours of writing without a concrete goal in mind.

3. Find a voice; don’t just ‘get published.’

While publishing is the most widely accepted measure of success in science, it is important that you allow yourself some time to write on topics of interest, whether these topics will lead to publication or not.

4. Give yourself time.

Here, Munger focuses on the process of writing. It takes time to generate ideas, think through them, bounce them off of other people, and to struggle through getting them down on paper. As Munger says, “Don’t worry that what you write is not very good and isn’t immediately usable. You get ideas when you write; you don’t just write down ideas.”

5. Everyone’s unwritten work is brilliant.

And the more unwritten it is, the more brilliant it is. This particular tip made me laugh out loud, as I often fantasize about signing my best-sellers in bookstores across the country. HA! Rather than fantasizing about work that could be great, Munger encourages writers to keep writing and not be discouraged by feelings of inadequacy.

6. Pick a puzzle.

Consider approaching your work as a puzzle that needs to be solved – and that your written solution to that puzzle is one that would incite readers to learn more.

7. Write, then squeeze the other things in.

This tip spoke to me as well, as I struggle with procrastination and tend to put off work that is difficult for me. Munger urges writers to put writing ahead of other work – and to enjoy other activities once your writing for the day is done.

8. Not all of your thoughts are profound.

What? Of course they are! Ok, so they are not, though I can obsess over uncovering the next big topic in scientific career development. Munger suggests that writers start small and write regularly. Through this process, writers may find it easier to refine questions and to bring arguments together.

9. Your most profound thoughts are often wrong.

Again, Munger is clearly not talking about me or you here. However, I think his advice is sage: “Nearly all of the best scholars are profoundly changed by their experiences in doing research and writing about it. They learn by doing, and sometimes what they learn is that they were wrong.”

10. Edit your work, over and over.

Early in my career, I struggled with sharing my writing with others, but have come to rely on the input of others, as I feel it nearly always strengthens my work. I frequently ask for feedback from colleagues, and have recently joined an online writing critique group. Consider doing the same to improve your work, as it will get stronger with every edit.

I hope that these tips have inspired you to start writing more. I know that they have proven helpful to me, even in writing this post. Cheers, Dr. Munger!

“A Day in the Life of…” Upcoming Series on Career Options for Scientists

September 7, 2010

CapitolSo, just what does a science policy analyst do every day? A science museum exhibits coordinator? A VP of drug development? OITE aims to answer these questions via an interactive, online chat series this fall.

The series will be held from 12:00 – 1:00 pm every third Thursday from September through December, which includes: Sept. 16, Oct. 21, Nov. 18, and Dec. 16.

Topics covered will include careers in science policy, science writing, drug development in industry, and science education.

Trainees at every stage are welcome to participate and are encouraged to bring questions to our “speakers” during the live chats. After each discussion, the transcript of the entire chat will be posted on this site.

To kick off the series, we will explore the work of a science policy analyst.

EVENT: “A Day in the Life of…A Public Health Analyst”

GUEST: David Kosub, Ph.D., Public Health Analyst, NIAID, NIH

DATE: Thursday, September 16, 2010

TIME: 12 pm – 1:00 pm EST

Bring your questions and comments, as this live event is your chance to learn more about different careers!  To set up an email reminder for the event, or to participate in the discussion the day of the event, click here.

Chat with you next Thursday!