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Rebecca Woodrow
Careers and professional development, Trainees and training, Work and occupational

Academia or Industry: A tired dichotomy?

Rebecca Woodrow investigates why there is a mismatch between the comparatively small amount of positions available and the number of ECRs seeking them.

03 January 2023

We spend years in academic research training – learning new skills, breaking new ground, and delving deeper into our respective fields. As we ECRs transition from education to employment however, we are faced with a looming question: academia or industry?

For some, this appears initially simple: 67 per cent of PhD students want a career in academic research, according to a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute. Yet there is a mismatch between the comparatively small amount of positions available and the number of ECRs seeking them. Additionally, previous UK data showed that 70 per cent of PhD graduates had left academia three years on, only half of which were working in a research-related position (Higher Education Statistics Agency, 2018) – even for those who pursue an academic career, the question of ‘academia or industry?’ may continue to loom.

Intrinsic to this question is a clear dichotomy. These two paths are perceived to sit on either ends of an employment spectrum, often presented as mutually exclusive options with no clear middle-ground. Why does this perceived dichotomy exist, and should it persist for today’s ECRs? To answer these questions, I interviewed four people who had faced this question of academia or industry at some point in their careers, and had each taken a different path. We discussed some of the factors influencing their decisions, and how the academic landscape needs to change.

My first interview partners were my current and previous academic supervisors, who chose academic and industry paths respectively. I was curious to hear about their deciding factors and the challenges of the current academic landscape. Dr Emmanuel Stamatakis, a Principal Investigator at the University of Cambridge leading the Cognition and Consciousness Imaging Group, highlighted that decision factors often revolve around “work stability, career progression, and salary”. These aspects, alongside greater freedom to pursue scientific ideas, factored into the decision to stay in academia 25 years ago.

However, Dr Stamatakis agreed that such considerations are different for ECRs today, who face additional pressures; funding applications are becoming increasingly competitive while resources are becoming scarcer. More ECRs compete for fewer tenured positions. A potential solution? “There is scope for closer collaboration with industry. Assuming that’s achieved there will be less pressure to leave academia”.

These views were echoed by my previous academic supervisor Dr Ben Webb, a neuroscientist and founder of his own business in 2020. Dr Webb particularly cited the well-known difficulties of job security in academia, and the increasing management of work processes with academic career progression; ironically, both of these can pose a hindrance to creative and stimulating research, often a key factor in pursuing academic careers in the first place (Cornell, 2020). What did Dr Webb make of changes to the academic landscape since starting his academic career? Fewer opportunities and clear career paths, as evidenced by the increasing number of ECRs versus academic roles.

The current academic landscape is struggling to support ECRs in their career goals.

From both perspectives, the current academic landscape is struggling to support ECRs in their career goals.

To better understand the changes academia could make in this direction, I spoke with Dr Sheikh F Khalid, Chief Scientist at Sensat, a geospatial tech startup in London. He had previously worked as an academic researcher/lecturer for 16 years. When asked about his decision to pursue industry, he particularly emphasised factors of pace and impact: “After the switch to industry, in comparison, the fast-paced and high-risk tech startup world provided me with the platform to carry out my research with customer/client/industry impact in mind… and allowed my research to achieve impact faster than academia ever could.” Dr Khalid particularly highlighted this new challenge for academia to keep up with the pace of innovation from industry: “Single academic projects tend to be 3-5 years long, while a rapidly growing environment like start-ups can become multimillion dollar companies during that time.”

This suggests academia has much to learn from industry, particularly with regards to accelerating research into actionable change. This isn’t to say, however, that industry wouldn’t benefit from greater academic involvement. ‘Blue skies’ research in academia – research without an immediate application – can introduce new questions and findings not envisaged at the outset. Furthermore, the heavy importance of producing outputs or profits in industry can sometimes yield shallow contributions to the wider research community. This suggests greater collaborative efforts can benefit both sectors. Crucially, Dr Khalid highlights that poaching innovative minds from academic institutions may not be the way forward: “industry should stop this brain drain and allow the academics to work closely with the commercial organisations while being in academia. Provide them the appropriate funding so academia can also be a financially lucrative place to work.” Many organisations are already starting to successfully bridge the academia-industry gap, but the UK still has some way to go in this area.

In part, this is due to the differing goals of the two sectors. Dr Tracy Bussoli, a Careers Consultant and Organisational Development Coach, has been helping ECRs in their career paths for the last 13 years and describes the dichotomy as metric-driven. Whilst academia pursues publications and funding, industry seeks products and profits. Both sectors use goals and metrics to measure success, but the fundamental difference between them creates different working environments. Particularly in academia, Dr Bussoli says there are greater pressures on these measures of ‘success’ for ECRs today than in previous years, further increasing competition for funding and publication and creating a challenging working culture in some institutions.

Greater integrative efforts are needed to address a dichotomy that does not need to be one.

Although the goals of academia and industry appear different, they do not have to be completely at odds. Dr Bussoli cited the recent metaphor of a ‘membrane’ between academic and non-academic roles (Gould, 2022. Nature Careers podcast ‘Beyond Academia’), which allows individuals to travel in both directions and not just out of academia. This membrane is not entirely porous currently due to the number of challenges and differences between the two sectors, however greater collaborative efforts will enable greater flow of information and people. This is integral to help solve some of the world’s greatest challenges such as climate change and pandemics. For ECRs, this means new roles may be shaped in the ‘middle-ground’ between these previously opposing paths.

All individuals I interviewed agreed that there is a perceived dichotomy between academic and industry paths. Current ECRs are facing new pressures in this decision and greater integrative efforts are needed to address a dichotomy that does not need to be one.

These perspectives from interviewees span a range of career paths following academia, yet all paint the picture of a challenging and out-dated academic landscape which requires moulding to keep up with global developments. Currently, academia and industry sit on either ends of a research spectrum with different goals. Reducing this polarity may help us address ongoing challenges faced by ECRs. It starts with learning from one another.

About the author

Rebecca Woodrow, PhD Student Clinical Neurosciences, University of Cambridge. Using data science and neuroimaging to improve patient care through research, currently focussing on Traumatic Brain Injury. This investigates future biomarkers of long-term outcome using big healthcare data across Europe and multiple neuroimaging methods. Rebecca previously studied Psychology, Cognitive Neuroscience, and Brain Imaging.

The interviewees

Dr Emmanuel Stamatakis: Principal Investigator, Cognition and Consciousness Imaging Group, University of Cambridge. Studied computer science, now applying this to understand the neural mechanisms underlying disordered and altered states of consciousness.

Dr Ben Webb: Neuroscientist and Co-Founder of Ology, providing brain advice for a happy and healthy life. Previously researched areas of Neuroscience and Psychology, working as an Associate Professor, before starting his own business in 2020.

Dr Sheikh F Khalid: Chief Scientist, Sensat. Spatial scientist with a strong interest in computational intelligence, applied Artificial Intelligence within spatial analytics, satellite image processing, contextual reasoning and pattern recognition domain. Likes to work on high risk, big problems with a high societal impact.

Dr Tracy Bussoli: Careers Consultant and Organisational Development Coach. Worked with Early Career Researchers for 13 years, many of whom have transitioned from academia to industry.

Key sources

Cornell, B. (2020). PhD students and their careers. Higher Education Policy Institute.

https://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/HEPI-Policy-Note-25_PhD-students-careers_FINAL.pdf

Gould, J. (2015). How to build a better PhD. Nature, 528, 22-25.

Gould, J. (Host). (2019, November 15). Working Scientist podcast: Too many PhDs, too few research positions [Audio podcast episode]. In Nature Careers Podcast. Nature.

Gould, J. (Host). (2022, January 26). Beyond Academia: Breaking down the barriers that curtail industry collaborations and career moves. In Nature Careers Podcast. Nature.

Hancock, S. (2020, February 17) The employment of PhD graduates in the UK: what do we know? Higher Education Policy Institute. https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2020/02/17/the-employment-of-phd-graduates-in-the-uk-what-do-we-know/

Higher Education Statistics Agency (2018, June 28). Destination of Leavers from Higher Education. https://www.hesa.ac.uk/news/28-06-2018/sfr250-higher-education-leaver-statistics-subjects