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Academia Vs Industry

  1. Mar 4, 2014 #1
    I've heard that academia can be like living in utter hell. Myself personally, I am competitive, but I am not ultra competitive by any means, and while I love Physics, I would like to maybe a family and a life outside of work. I've heard that you are expected to work grueling hours that include evenings and weekends in postdocs for little pay, almost no credit, and basically you can expect to be treated like a slave. And that after everything you go through leaving no time for yourself or family, you have a very tiny chance of getting any relatively stable position. Is this an accurate picture? I've read this a lot from organic chemists, I don't know if it is as bad in Physics. Also, teaching and having exposure to other exploring minds of new students would sound appealing, but it isn't all I want to do in Physics, I want to spend time researching more than anything. I've read that you may spend more time doing paperwork and teaching than actual research. Is this true?

    Now this brings me to industry. Is there more time to do pure research than academia? Do the hours tend to be better(not necessarily 9-5, weekends off, but something near that)? I've heard the pay can be significantly better(although money doesn't concern me as much as doing something I enjoy, but of course I do have bills to pay), is this true on average? Is it also true that you have less personal discretion, research-wise, in industry than in academic research?

    Lastly, how important is your physics specialty to industry? If, for example, if I studied astrophysics, and I'm looking for a job in industry that relates more specifically to particle physics, will that be a major issue in the private/industrial sector? Do employers in industry like post-doctoral academic work as well?

    For the end analysis:

    What would be the single greatest thing about academic research?

    What would be the single greatest thing about industrial research?

    P.S. I just thought of one more thing. I am a pacifist. I would morally object to any research involved in warfare or killing. Would this be a major problem for physics research in industry?

    P.S.S. I know these are lot of questions, but I appreciate the efforts of anyone who takes the time to answer them.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 4, 2014 #2


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    It is not THAT bad, and ultimately it is also to some extent up to you how much you want to work. It also varies quite a lot, while e.g. an experiment is running you might work 60-70 hours a week but then there might be times where there is less work to do and you work 30-40 hours a week. One reason people work so much is that they actually enjoy their job.

    I don't think it is much worse than other "high performing" careers, and it is e.g. much better than say being a trainee solicitor (or, even worse, at an investment bank).

    It varies a LOT, it depends on where you work and succesful you've been in attracting funding for your reseach . In many places you can "buy" yourself time for research by getting enough funding from funding agencies, i.e. if you are able to pay your own salary+overheads the university might let you spend 100% of your time doing research (although the latter inevitably involves a fair bit of project management etc once you reach the point where you have your own projects and PhD students)

    Industry doesn't do pure research . There are a few expections where companies like IBM have research labs that do "blue sky" research, but ultimately even that research is geared towards applications (albeit maybe 15 years from now). There are of course places like National labs, but that is not that different from working at a univeristy (although you might not have to teach).

    Maybe on paper. But you will probably have less control of when YOU want to work.

    The pay is usually better. At least at senior levels.

    I don't think you have much freedom at all in industry. Most of the work will be R&D meaning it should result in a product/service.

    There are very few "pure" physicss positions in industry. Your best bet would probably be something like semiconductor physics. Industry does not do things liks astrophysics or particle physics, meaning people who do their PhDs in those areas tend to end up as programmers or other IT related jobs (data mining etc).

    More freedom to work on things you like (as long as you manage to get funded)

    Better pay.
  4. Mar 4, 2014 #3
    I'll second everything f95toli posted. The flip side from industry is that you have to work on what they want you to work on. Those research projects may coincide with what you're interested in, but at the end of the day, you need to produce something that will make money for the company.

    As for the better pay, do note that that job security may not be as good as it might be in academia.

    We'd like to think that academia is filled with starving physicists and that everyone in industry wallows in beds of hundred dollar bills --but this is not true. You can make a comfortable living in academia and you can easily get fired from your high paying job in industry. So the money choice is a bit squishier than most common wisdom might indicate.
  5. Mar 4, 2014 #4


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    Where did you get this from? And no credit? It is in the interest of your postdoc supervisor that YOU publish papers! Otherwise, the funding agency that provided you with the money to support your postdoc work will question that supervisor on why you haven't shown any kind of productivity!

    There are plenty of misleading and false information here in the rest of your post. Not sure where you are getting these from, but I'd suggest you find another source. Here's a very good one:


    So you do research on particle accelerators. It is used in so many different applications that are invaluable to human civilization. But it can also be used in a directed energy weapons. Does that mean that you will not work and use any kind of particle accelerators?

    Same thing with fusion reactors. The physics that you learn in such a thing, and any advancement made in plasma reactors, can be turned around and used for weapons research. Or the study of photodetectors that we need in many applications, including medical applications. Those can be turned around into improving night-vision goggles that the military uses in combat.

    I can bring out numerous other examples that can link practically every part of physics/engineering/other sciences that have weaponry/military applications. Do you still want to be in this field?

    Last edited: Mar 4, 2014
  6. Mar 4, 2014 #5
    First off thank everyone for taking the time to answer my questions.

    My main concern with academia isn't money to be honest. The two biggest overriding concerns are time consumption and a hostile work environment. Now I know that in our capitalistic society people are expected to be competitive. I have no problem with this. A little competition can be great thing. My main issue is that I much prefer collaboration above anything else. So I'm perturbed at the idea of an ultra-competitive environment. The other issue is that while I would love doing physics for a living, I'm not one of those completely obsessed with my field to the exclusion of all else types. I have other interests besides physics, besides wanting children. For me, its important that if I have children that I get to spend time raising them. The idea of doing an rare 70 hour stretch wouldn't really bother me. I don't think I would be comfortable with doing it all of the time. The magic number to me is 55 hours. That would be a beautiful balance. So I'm mainly interested in whether I may be able to have a collaborative environment and personal time.

    ZapperZ, as to my source, its the collective propaganda and tidbits of the internet. That's why I figured that I would ask you guys, as you could clarify if it is just exaggeration as much of the internet is unfortunately.

    As for the warfare, I'm not referring to indirect involvement as you are speaking of. More along the lines of designing a laser or something along those lines I know is explicitly going to be used to murder others. You might find this absurd, but not having anything to do with war was exactly why I gave up on my passions for many years. Now I've kinda come to terms with the fact that human race's darker side is going to be around for a long time.
  7. Mar 4, 2014 #6


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    War a darker side! War is great (only half joking here.)

    I think what you really have to do is determine what exactly you want out of your profession. I'm not an Academic and will never be one. When I look at jobs, I really only had one goal, which one will make my 401K hit 1,000,000 dollars first. Thus, my first job was working for a mutual fund. Hours were really long and terrible, so I switched to a government job and found happy medium of decent pay and fairly rigid hours. My wife on the other hand kept her corporate job and makes 3 times as much as me, but she enjoys yelling at people, it's her thing.

    So anyway, the main thing to take away from is that you don't have to pick right now and never escape from either choice. If you want to try Academia and you find out that it isn't your cup of tea, then it is possible for you to go and move on(as to what you'll move on to, that's a different story). Although, I think starting out in the Industry and going into Academia is a bit harder. Never really seen it done.
  8. Mar 4, 2014 #7

    Andy Resnick

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    I have experience in both industry and academia- although, full disclosure, my 'industry' experience was as a government contractor, which is slightly different. Above all, remember that there is a full range of work experiences in both industry and academia.

    I would summarize the differences as:

    Industry: you don't have to worry about getting paid, but you have to do as you are told.
    Academia: You can do what you want, but you have to pay yourself.

    In industry, if you want to advance in your career, at some point you have to switch over to 'management', and that can be the source of a lot of friction in the workplace. Specifically, at least in my experience, mid-level managers overseeing technical teams used to be technical folks themselves. Over time, as their technical skills diminish, there's an increasing mismatch between what they perceive as their level of competency and what their actual ability to constructively participate in and/or direct technical decision-making. Unfortunately, some mid-level managers also overcompensate for feeling intimidated by the skills of those who work under them by transmogrifying into petty bureaucrats.

    In academia, if you want to advance your career in the sciences/engineering fields, you have to generate revenue by obtaining extramural grant dollars. This is hyper-competitive. To be sure, there are many different sources of funds- not just independently proposed individual projects, but also large-scale multi-investigator and multi-institution grant mechanisms, but the bottom line is that to have a successful career as a tenured faculty member in academia, you have to think of yourself as a small business owner.

    As for how many hours you have to work, it varies: in either, you are welcome to work the 9-5 M-F schedule, but if you want to advance you need to work more than the minimum. Remember, nobody owes you a living. You have to (regularly, at annual performance reviews) convince your employer to keep giving you money for doing something.
  9. Mar 4, 2014 #8


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    And this doesn't happen in industry? Really?

    If anything, I would say that it is MORE competitive in Industry. In academia, who are you competing against? If you are offered a tenure-track position, it means that the school has already allocated funds to the possibility that you will be tenured. So it is not as if you are denying someone else that position once you are hired. So who are you competing against?

    What I do see is that in such a setting, it is to the advantage of other faculty members, especially those in the same area as you are, for you to succeed! You get funding? Great! Maybe you can get equipment that some other people can use! I've gone to even other departments to collaborate and use their equipment in my research work. They are more than happy to do that because if the work produces results, they will be a part of it in any publication. Who doesn't want that?

    So no, I do not see why Academia is more competitive than Industry. In fact, I see it the other way around. This is why I am again highly puzzled where you get such an impression from.

  10. Mar 4, 2014 #9
    Thanks for all the replies.

    Well, yes I would always chose passion over money. As for 9-5 thing, of course its not a set in stone thing, but I also have the viewpoint that family(if I have one at that point) always trumps career. Apparently, though, it seems according to what you guys are characterizing that academia would actually be flexible. It would appear that academia would probably be what I want.

    Zapperz, I wasn't referring to already having a tenure position and then competing. But rather doing post-doctoral work trying to get on as tenure. The impression I've gotten from some articles is that you often want to publish papers first on a particular topic before anyone else beats you there. So there is an emphasis on living almost entirely for work. Part of what made me curious about this all, was this:


    Not just the letter, but some of the comments which seemed to back it up. As I said I know things are easily exaggerated, so that is why inquired with everybody.
  11. Mar 4, 2014 #10
    Anyways, besides all my misconceptions that I may have had. There is one thing it seems to be almost universally said, unfortunately. That research professorships are rare and difficult to get. Something around 10 % of Physics Phds get tenured positions if I'm not mistaken. So the odds are that I'd probably work in industry whether I like it or not. I'd throw myself off a building before I'd work in finance. With all due respect to you financiers ;)
  12. Mar 4, 2014 #11
    Things get done faster in industrial research - two orders of magnitude faster. So you can concentrate on the things that matter, i.e. the research itself.
  13. Mar 4, 2014 #12


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    Please note that there are significant differences between research done in industry versus academia, especially in physics. If you haven't read the article I cited earlier, you should do so:


    One only has to look at what happened to Bell Labs as soon as it became Lucent Technology and the pressure of now having to be more accountable to the bottom line. And unlike the prevailing tone of this thread, I'm not going to say which one is better than the other, because there is no such thing as a universal measure that can determine as such! Each one of us has different priorities and different criteria to make such a determination. All one can do is present to you what is what for each one of these line of careers.

  14. Mar 4, 2014 #13
    So, while I was in graduate school I was very much expected to work ~60ish hours a week or so (though thats an average and there were large fluctuations). I very much enjoyed the work, but it did very much consume most of my life. I did manage to continue my pre-grad school exercise routine, but I just didn't have time for most of my old hobbies and what not. I also made less money then at any other point in my life (I cleared more per hour in my highschool and college part time jobs, and I made way more during a stint bartending), which made paying down my undergrad loans very difficult, and caused a variety of living compromises (living with roommates, driving an unreliable car, etc). There is also very real pain in going to a 5 or 10 year highschool reunion and seeing most everyone is doing better than you in many ways (more stability, more career advancement,etc).

    My phd was in high energy theory, and there were literally 0 industry physics jobs available after my phd, so I had to retrain myself to land a job doing "big data," first in the insurance industry and now as a consultant. I miss physics, and I miss teaching quite a bit, but my job is a bit like research (just not physics research). I also have both free time and the money to enjoy it, which has been great. I put together a small but well equipped workshop in my garage for projects, I've been able to travel to exotic locations for vacation twice a year, I'm singing with a local acapella group, and I have time to read the occasional fiction book.
  15. Mar 4, 2014 #14
    Great point and anecdote. I can't say I've gone through as much, but I can feel the pain of the 5-10 year high school reunion: I honestly admit to secretly harboring good feelings about making the most money out of my graduating class... in fact two orders of magnitude more than the next guy. Two years ago I was on the other end of the distribution. Now by both reflection and contraposition, I know how difficult it feels to be on the other end.

    Reminds me of a few gay Mormon friends that I had. They were always depressed because they loved their religion and firmly believed in it, but at the same time there's these conflicting thoughts that they have no control over. There's this church of physics that teaches that you should be shackled to a low pay and 60+h/week of work, and any less than that and you're a cop out and lack enough "passion" for this field.

    Most of us love physics as much as a religious follower loves his or her god, but cannot help but have some notion of a regular life. There's really nothing wrong with with treating this as a 9-to-5, 40h/week job as there's no reason why you can't be productive working 40h/week. You might not win a Nobel Prize doing so, but there's a lot of meaningful contribution you can make to physics just working 40h per week.

    I guess my point to the OP is, academic physics is great to pursue, and if you do find yourself on that path, just don't let people dictate how you commit your time.

    I missed this part of your post. The problem is that to be at the cutting edge of physics research, in most cases, you have to be at a university. (This is not the case for, say, computer science.) So whether or not you have more time is a moot point or inactive variable.

    That said, yes, there are a few "industrial" jobs out there where you have both very cutting edge research and plenty of time and money on your side. However, landing such a job is, statistically speaking, harder than landing tenure.
  16. Mar 4, 2014 #15


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    I've also worked both industry and academia (currently in academia). Since you're studying science I will respond in terms of an ANOVA: within-group variance is larger than between group-variance.

    I think discussions about academia vs. industry often go off the rails... for me the biggest issues with these discussions are the work environment, work expectations, and job security. These three things vary SO much between organizations that in my experience I haven't been able to group the results as "academia" vs. "industry". There are plenty of academic jobs with terrible job security (most researchers are paid out of grants as staff... if the grant goes away or the PI can't get a new one, they are laid off). There are companies with good hours and some that are sweatshops. Even withing a university, the work environment and the hours expected vary wildly across departments and PIs.

    Therefore the question (prior even to graduate school): "Will I prefer industry or academia" is unanswerable.

    That said, there are very, very few "pure research" jobs in industry. There are some, but they are extremely rare. Even then, with rare exceptions you aren't working on what you want, but what is useful to the organization. If you can convince them your ideas are useful, great.

    Similarly, very few people work on exactly what they want in academia. You can only work on what you can get a grant for, and the funding agencies are very trendy. Sometimes you can align your personal interests with the organizations, but that is a post hoc thing.

    Most companies aren't really interested in research, and if they do it, it is usually of the little r, big D variety. That said, development jobs can also be a lot of fun and very rewarding.
  17. Mar 4, 2014 #16
    Thanks for the link.

    That sucks about bell labs. That was actually what I had in mind in terms of industry. I didn't even know that they had shifted their focus so much.
    Last edited: Mar 4, 2014
  18. Mar 4, 2014 #17
    Yeah, I'm on the physics is my god wavelength myself ;)
    I'm glad that these comments seem to favorable to time. I'm starting out late, since I dropped out of high school and started school again at 27. So starting a family was a concern of mine. Its weird I never wanted a wife/children before, and in the last 2 years I've suddenly desired it a lot. So my thinking was that I probably have to start while I was in grad school or before(if it ever happens).
    It seems as if its actually the reverse of my initial thoughts. Academia would seem to be the place to hang my hat so to speak. I definitely want to be on the cutting edge of research as opposed to just churning products for some corporate behemoth.
  19. Mar 4, 2014 #18
    Most often you don't get to fully choose if you hang your hat in academia, jobs are scarce and the most important factors that will decide your employment prospects are totally outside your control (funding climate,economic climate etc.). If you start a family in grad school this becomes even more complicated (uprooting yourself to move to Japan or wherever for that amazing second postdoc opportunity is great, but what if your wife can't get a work visa? What if its mid-school year for your kids? What if your wife's career is taking off but the only tenure track offer you have is for Podunk U in Nowheresville. Do you kill your wife's career (and tank the total family income) to chase the dream?) So you need a back up plan.

    You should also be aware that most jobs that get lumped into "industry" are things like software development, IT,finance and statistical work and require (and use) basically no physics knowledge. Its best to focus on developing some broad, non-physics skills while getting your degree. I didn't focus on broad skills while doing my physics phd, and as a result my first job after graduateing was bartending while I was learning useful things so that I could get a more fitting job.
  20. Mar 4, 2014 #19
    Yes I've read that a physics phd has a 10 percent chance roughly of getting a job in academia. To be honest though its more about passion than money for me. If given the choice between finance/IT jobs and even teaching high school physics I would chose to be a high school teacher. If it came down to the nitty-gritty, I guess I would choose IT over finance. To be honest, I think I would rather work at Wal-Mart than finance(I dislike materialism/capitalism immensely). Anyways, I'm still an undergrad, so this is still years off.
  21. Mar 4, 2014 #20


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    I'm pretty passionate about Electrical Engineering... for me it is actually more exciting than physics. Have you investigated different types of engineering?
  22. Mar 4, 2014 #21
    It's interesting that you mention that, because I've given thought to doing a bachelor in engineering, and then moving on to physics in graduate school. Some people have told me that is the more practical way, as even if you don't finish graduate school or can find a pure physics job, you can fall back on engineering. Of course, I have also heard that you can often work as an engineer with physics degree anyways. I don't know if this is more for phds or masters than bachelors. I've still got a year before I really have to set my major, so I've considered this. According to my science adviser, much of the first 2.5 years of classes are the same for engineering, physics, and math. So in theory I can easily choose any of those.

    I would say that given the chance to do what I want ideally, I would prefer physics research. Specifically, I am most attracted to Astrophysics. Unfortunately, I don't see much of a role for astrophysics outside of academia and observatories. I would imagine that even within academia, funding is very much influenced by what possible applications a potential discovery could create. So astrophysics would probably be down the list.
  23. Mar 5, 2014 #22
    I worked in industry for 7 years before going to academia. The Ghostbusters hit the nail on the head with academia vs. industry:

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  24. Mar 5, 2014 #23
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  25. Mar 5, 2014 #24
    thank you for this thread and for your sense of duty to accomplish something meaningful in your life and not just getting money. I understand your concern about the outcomes of our scientific work and its purposes - it being on the side of peace and not war. It is quite refreshing to know that people have such concerns.

    Speaking from my experience - accomplishing these goals is not impossible. But it surely is a very serious challenge. The concerns you have are very real and more often than not long working hours, publishing less meaningful data just for the sake of publishing, not given proper authorship credit, low salaries, and being viewed as something replaceable are found in academia.

    One way of accomplishing something meaningful is to create it on your own. If it has value, you will find an opportunity to publish it at an academic setting. Do you have other ways of supporting yourself.

    Wishing you success.
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