Thursday, August 23, 2007

Academia vs. The Dark Side

Yesterday a friend of mine posed the question to me: Why are you in academia again? Why not run screaming to the open arms of industry where you will receive: More money, Better benefits, Better hours, Less guilt.

Why don't we many scientists take industry positions? It's a simple question with a somewhat complex answer.

1. Less job security. Of course there is the well known job security of a tenure track position, but even if you do not plan to run your own lab, you can expect pretty reasonable job security as a technician, staff scientist, or perpetual postdoc. In the 8 years I have been at the bench, I have only EVER seen one person actually get fired. And he was only let go because the PI hasn't secured funding in several years, so the professor kindly suggested that it would be wise for this technician to find a new position as soon as he could. So it's pretty nice to know you won't get fired on a whim.

2. Going into industry is seen as selling out. There is a definite culture among academic scientists that you are fighting the good fight. Perhaps because the hours and pay are lousy, and the tangible benefits are sometimes hard to come by, so we all console ourselves by saying that we are in fact "better" than those who go into industry. Our crappy pay and long hours makes us noble. So anyone who leaves acadmia for industry is a traitor, someone for whom science is (*gasp*) a career instead of a passion. And this bias, this passed judgement, makes it very difficult to come BACK to academia once you leave. If you leave academia, you are no longer be seen as dedicated to science and the common good. So when you leave academia, you had better be sure that you're leaving for good, because they're going to change the locks as soon as you are out the door.

3. Less control over your own research. The catch with industry is that for the most part you are not eligible for public funding (not that there's much money around for academic science these days). So in industry you have to make your own money. Either through investors who believe you will soon make money, or through the sale of some product. So in industry, you are constantly looking for the next source of income to fund your future research. Which means you can no longer follow projects wherever they may lead you. You can only follow the questions that might soon make you some money. Mama's gotta pay for her shiny new pipetteman somehow. So someone (usually not the researchers) makes decisions on whether or not a project is viable, and whether or not it gets to keep going. Coming from academia, where you usually determine the direction of your own project, this kind of control can be difficult to give up.

4. The devil you know vs. the devil you don't. It's very hard to make a life-changing decision. Especially when you know that once you leave you can't come back. So in some ways it's just very easy to stick with the comfort of your current displeasure, rather than face the brave new world of industry. What if you hate it? What if everything "they" tell you about industry is true? What will you do then?

So for the time being, I'll be riding out my postdoc untill Husband lands his faculty position. Then, once we're settled, I can make a decision as to what the future holds for me. Will I get a staff scientist position in academia? Will I get a position in industry so we can afford to live in a real house? Will I run away to nursing school and leave research behind forever? Who knows. But for the time being, you'll often find me searching the job postings in the back of Science.

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