Academia vs Industry

How different are they? Can they play nice? Let's find out, shell we?

My response to: Voices of the defenders of grad school. And me crushing them.

If you do anything for the wrong reasons you will most certainly fail. In such cases motivation isn’t there to push your through the hard times.

If you go to grad school without “knowing why”, “to satisfy others” (parents, peers, etc), or simply because “there is nothing else”, then your mistake was starting a long-term commitment without the right motivations. You will simply burn out.

If you instead take that tuition money (as someone pointed out) and start your own business in a field you are “not passionate about”, “don’t understand”, or simply “don’t like”, you too will fail.

There are exceptions to both of these, of course, but this is the norm. If you don’t have any skills or passions and go the non-grad school route, you at least have a better chance of not starving.

The benefits of not going to grad school is at least being employable. Owning a business you learn to wear many hats, and this I believe makes you a great candidate for a related position in a larger company once your business has run its course.

A Master’s teaches you (or at least should) to think about a topic in depth, (PhD also teaches you how to do research), or if it’s not a research degree (course based), it teaches you to think in broad terms and consider many possibilities. This often involves reading more publications rather than writing them. If you fail at your degree, you should at least take away some skills in thinking objectively.

For the commenters who noted that some HR/Managers only hire people with degrees, that is a sad truth. A graduate comes with a guarantee. The guarantee is not that the applicant is good, but that hiring a bad applicant with a degree is less risky than hiring a bad applicant without a degree. For positions that don’t require any research experience but need practical experience, working experience should be enough. Sadly, as someone else pointed out, many HR personnel simply follow guidelines, without putting too much thought into each applicant. In their defence, however, when you have to go through 100 applications in 1 hour, some key characteristics they look for are going to make or break your chances of landing that job.

Of course if you’re a prodigy then grad school is not required to be rich. It is still required to teach at a graduate level…. usually.

Motivation: The Key Difference Between Academia and Industry


What is the key difference between academia and industry?

Being somewhat in both worlds, I see similarities and differences between the two, and unfortunately the differences are often sighted by one to discount the other. It is true that industry is a much more pragmatic and quick-paced environment than academia. It’s proponents will say that those traits makes it more resilient to ideas that don’t work or have run their course. Many in academia view industry as too narrowly focused and too quick to abandon an idea to make a “quick buck”. In contrast, academia is viewed as slow and unproductive. Committing to a long term research project without a clear path, milestones, or even a set goal, and is viewed as a dangerous waste of time and money.

The problem I have with these views is that any positive and negative opinion about one can be said about the other. Different industries, just like different university labs and departments, work within a set of contextual requirements. The pharmaceutical industry, for example, is heavily dependant on long term and costly research, without a guaranteed pay off. Similarly, much of the research conducted by university Public Health departments directly impact specific groups of society, often in the short term.

The key difference that sets these two disciplines apart, and what defines each one a success, is their driving motivation. It determines why someone goes into one field and not the other, and the decisions a company makes throughout it’s various  stages of their business life cycles.

Business success is based on 1 factor:

  1. Profits (i.e. Money)

A business simply won’t exist if it cannot bring in money for it’s products or services. While an industry job can be heavily research based, the main motivation at the end of the day is still direct monetary gains. Discovering something new is a great and rewarding achievement, but unless it makes money, it’s not of much use to a business. And I completely agree with this. Besides, as I’m often reminded by industry folk, the work done is directly funded by the results of said work.

Academic success is based on 2 factors:

  1. Number of publications
  2. Funding (i.e. Money)

Academic research is funded by indirect sources, ones which may not benefit directly by the discoveries, but agree in general with the direction a research lab takes. The benefits may be to society at large. An example may be local governments funding research which benefit their own community and economies. Hence the large emphasis on publications. Sharing your work is paramount: “publish or perish”.

But an academic’s motivation is most often not monetary. It has more to do with the freedom a life of research provides, and is closely rated to the 1st point about publications. Having the ability to spend your days discovering new things and sharing them with like minded colleagues is very rewarding, if you like that sort of thing of course. Getting paid for it is a big, but secondary bonus. For those where money is a driving factor (or a necessity), he or she would have gone into industry and made much more money. Just look a the number of “physicists with PhD’s on Wall Street”. And if one simply can’t get paid for doing research, industry is often there waiting. Getting into research without the right credentials, even after a successful industry career, is near to impossible.

Back in December of 2010, The Economist wrote an article titled “The disposable academic - Why doing a PhD is often a wate of time”, with a poll asking that same question the following month. The poll received 3137 votes with 42%-Yes and 58%-No. The article received 190 comments, most stating the obvious, that this type of question cannot be answered objectively in an industry-oriented magazine like The Economist. It’s equivalent to the editorial of an academic journal asking whether industry was too focused on short term financial gains over long term contributions to society. The priorities of these two groups are simply different.

Publishing and obtaining funding is a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg situation though, which is why these two points are closely dependant on each other. To get tenure, the unofficial requirements rely heavily on a professor ability bring in funding from outside sources and raise the prestige of the school and department. The official requirements are more noble, and still considered more important.

Research folk, at least the majority I’ve met, choose research out of their curiosity for the world around them. Higher learning takes patience, discipline, but most importantly time. In business, time really is money. Spending a year working on a project only to realize your hypothesis was wrong is very expensive. Your boss might not be so happy with you if all you have to show for a year’s salary is a negative result or a prototype that doesn’t work or has no business model. To support such endeavors, corporations spend millions and billions of dollars to find that 1% of projects that will pay for the other 99%. If a company has the budget to do this, then great. But this is far from ideal and only considered the norm in certain industries, such as the pharmaceutical industry.

That is not to say people in industry are not concerned at all with the same things that academics are. I know plenty of people who work at large companies and startups that are very passionate about what they do. They love sharing their ideas with others (unless legally forbidden from doing so) and are involved with many activities that benefit society. The main difference however is again that initial motivation. If a business owner had a choice between focusing on a project that advanced society or even their field forward but lost money, and one that has a higher percentage of market success, they would choose the latter. In fact, a company with share holders is legally obligated to do just that. 

I hope to expand more on the similarities in my posts here, because I think these are more prominent and more important.