Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Industry versus academia: A junior employee's perspective

I compare working in industry and academia as a junior employee, based on my experiences as a software engineer and an assistant professor, respectively. This article is most relevant to people who are finishing a Ph.D. in a STEM field and contemplating career choices.

If you're graduating with a Ph.D. in a STEM field, you will likely enter one of these career paths:

  • Industry: Scientist or engineer at a company, nonprofit, or government institution
  • Academia: Tenure-track assistant professor at a university

Depending on your field, you might work as a postdoc for a few years before starting your career in either industry or academia. You could also choose contract-type jobs, such as being a freelancer in industry or a researcher funded by grant money in academia. But for this article, I will focus on non-provisional (“tenure-track”) jobs that provide more stability. Also, since there is tremendous variation in both industry and academic jobs, my baseline will be a mid- to large-sized organization in industry and a Ph.D.-degree-granting university in academia.

Many people have written comparisons of industry and academia, but they are often in senior-level positions with already-successful careers. Whether it's a multi-millionaire engineer at a top company or a world-famous tenured professor at a top university, it's no surprise that these people write glowingly about the benefits of their chosen career path, since they've already made it. Sure, they present the best-case scenario, but new Ph.D. grads might find it hard to relate to their encouraging words.

In contrast, the purpose of this article is to compare industry and academia from a junior employee's perspective. Specifically, I will compare my first six months of working in both sectors as a recent Ph.D. graduate:

  • Industry: Software engineer at Google (July 2012 – Dec 2012)
  • Academia: Assistant professor at the University of Rochester (July 2014 – Dec 2014)

I started a job at Google right after finishing my Ph.D. and worked there for a bit over six months before leaving to interview for faculty jobs. I'm writing this article in Dec 2014, right after I finished my first six months as an assistant professor.

Short of running an identical twin study (or a parallel universe study!), this is probably the closest anyone can get to an apples-to-apples comparison. I held these two jobs within two years of one another, so I haven't changed a lot in that time. Of course, I'm still biased since I left industry to pursue an academic job, but I'll try to remain impartial.

OK here we go! (MARIO!)

1. Location flexibility

Industry wins for location flexibility since there are far more industry jobs than tenure-track academic jobs.

For instance, if you want to move to the San Francisco Bay Area as a computer science Ph.D., there are well over 1,000 relevant job openings. Google alone hires at least several hundred engineers per year. But if you want to move to the Bay Area as a professor, then there are at most 5 openings in your field per year.

Of course, other regions don't have nearly as many jobs, but no matter where you want to move, there will always be 10 to 100 times more industry jobs than academic jobs.

2. Time flexibility

In industry, you're expected to park your butt in your seat for 8 hours per day, Monday through Friday. It doesn't matter how much or how little work you need to do; your butt must be in your seat, since all of your coworkers' butts are in theirs. Yes, some progressive work environments are more flexible, but most employees (especially junior ones) are expected to conform to a fixed butt-in-seat schedule. Also, your employer explicitly tracks vacation time, which further reinforces the feeling that your workdays belong to your employer, not to yourself.

In academia, you have much more control over how you spend your time. With the exception of a few hours of teaching and department meetings each week, you can schedule your time however you like. You have even more flexibility during summer and winter breaks (1/3 of the year!) when you're not teaching. But regardless of season, you can take a vacation or disappear to run errands whenever you want without asking anyone for permission. It feels like your time belongs to yourself, not to your employer. That's why academia wins for time flexibility.

3. Private Office

As a junior employee in industry, you probably won't have your own office. You'll work in an open space, cubicle, or, if you're lucky, a shared office. Since companies are continually expanding or reorganizing, you often need to pack up your belongings on short notice and move to another area down the hall or even in another building. As a result, it's hard to feel like you have a stable intellectual home when you're in the office, since you're sharing a temporary space that can change without much warning.

In contrast, all tenure-track professors get a private office. After working for years in loud-as-hell open spaces and cubicles across half a dozen companies, I can't emphasize enough how much I love, love, love having my own office. I can decorate and furnish my office however I want. I know that I won't be forced to move to another office without warning. And if I feel like taking a nap or picking my nose for an hour, I can just shut my door.

I strongly prefer a private office, but it's less social than working out in the open surrounded by a bunch of other people. So I understand how some would prefer communal office space.

4. Money

Your starting salary in industry will be 1.2x to 2x higher than in academia, and you will likely get larger annual raises.

The salary differential is even greater in terms of hourly wages. At Google, my colleagues and I would do around 25 to 35 hours of actual work per week (5 to 7 hours per day). As an assistant professor, I usually work around 45 to 60 hours per week. Per hour worked, junior Ph.D. employees in industry probably make 2x to 3.5x more than their peers in academia.

It's a no-brainer that if you want to optimize for money, industry is far better. Anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional.

5. Coworker camaraderie

In industry, you work with peers on a team to accomplish a shared goal. As a junior employee, your senior teammates can serve as mentors to help you rapidly improve your skills. There is also a strong sense of camaraderie when a team works well together to overcome challenges.

As a professor, you rarely work with peers, so it's harder to feel that same degree of camaraderie in your daily work. You are either working alone or with students who are, by definition, far less experienced than you are. Even as a first-year assistant professor, you are the most senior person on the team. You need to lead from day one; nobody will closely mentor you. Yes, professors do collaborate on projects with one another, but they often carve out distinct pieces and then work with their own students on each piece. Moreover, the incentives in academia drive everyone to build up their own personal portfolios, so long-term collaborations between peers are rare.

Industry is better if you want to learn from your coworkers and feel a strong sense of camaraderie with peers at work.

6. External Credit

As a junior employee in industry, you rarely get external credit for your work. For instance, when a company advertises their products to the press, they usually credit the senior executive who sponsored the product's development. The names of all of the workers such as yourself who brought that product to life aren't ever shown. Also, your project might never get released publicly, so you won't even get to discuss it on your own resume if it involves confidential company information. Everything you do belongs to your employer, not to yourself.

In academia, you get external credit for everything that you do as part of your job: discoveries you make, inventions you create, papers and books you write, interviews and popular press articles about your research, materials from courses that you teach. Everything you do at work belongs to you; your university claims some ownership in theory, but that doesn't matter unless you want to start a company from your research. It's glaringly apparent from my website articles that I deeply value this sort of ownership over my intellectual outputs.

For instance, when I contributed to launching a product at Google, it was a Google product. But whenever I publish a paper or release open-source software, it's known as my creation.

Academia wins by a landslide if you care about external credit.

7. Directness of effort

As a junior employee in industry, you spend the majority of your work time doing tasks that directly advance your career. For instance, when I was a software engineer at Google, I spent most of my days writing code and attending meetings to talk about what code to write. My peers and I would get promoted based on the impact of the code that we wrote. Of course, organizational politics will always exist, but that's more of a game for mid-level and senior employees to play. As a junior employee, if you do your assigned job well, then you'll get promoted at least a few levels until reaching the point where politics begin to dominate.

In academia, most of what you do at work, paradoxically, does not directly advance your career. A tenure-track professor must perform at least seven major kinds of tasks: teaching, student advising, research, fundraising (grants), department service, university service, and academic community service. Of those, the only ones that really matter for promotions are research and fundraising. However, a professor must still juggle all of the other kinds of tasks to remain in good standing as an academic citizen.

If you want your efforts at work to directly lead to career advancement, then industry is a better choice.

8. Directness of impact

In industry, your work has direct financial or political impact. You're paid to advance your employer's interests, either by releasing a product that someone pays for or by making your organization function better internally. Even in the worst case when the sole purpose of your work is to boost your boss's political standing, at least someone is benefiting from your work.

In contrast, the main outputs of academic research are validated ideas in the form of publications. The majority of publications result in little direct impact on the world beyond inspiring other researchers to push the field forward bit by bit. As an academic, I obviously believe in the benefits of academic research, but I do acknowledge that impact is often subtle, indirect, and intangible.

If you value directness in the impact of your work, then industry is better. But if you value the ability to do more speculative work with potential long-term benefits, then academia is better.

9. Sense of control

As a junior employee in industry, much of what happens to your career feels like it's beyond your control. For instance, you could work really hard on your project only to have upper management cancel it for political reasons that have nothing to do with the technical merits of your work. Or you could receive an email one day decreeing that your team has been disbanded so you've been reassigned to another manager. Or worse, you can get a sudden layoff notice without warning. Since you are a tiny part of a much larger entity, your fate is often shaped by forces from above.

In academia, much of what happens to you are responses to your own initiatives, so it feels more like you're in control. For example, as a professor, you decide which research projects to launch, who to work with, who not to work with, which grants to submit, how you write grants, how you run your experiments, which papers to submit, and how you write your papers. Your career still depends heavily on the opinions of other people – namely peer reviewers and funders – but at least you are taking the initiative to submit your own work for review.

There's a ton of uncertainty in both industry and academic jobs, but the key difference is whether uncertainty is more due to upper-level executives who know nothing about you (industry) or to direct responses to your own initiatives (academia). I prefer the latter, since even when I fail, I know that I personally made the decisions that led me down that particular path, so at least I tried my best. It gives me some sense of being in control, even though I know there's still a ton of luck involved in everything. But at least it's easier to delude myself into thinking that I'm in control :)

10. Independence

One of the most-touted perks of academia is independence. After working at half a dozen technology companies in industry, I totally understand and cherish this independence.

In my current position as an assistant professor (remember, I don't even have tenure!), I can do anything I want with my time as long as I fulfill my few hours of teaching per week and attend my assigned departmental and university committee meetings. The rest of the time is mine to use however I like. And during summers, I have no teaching or mandatory meetings. I can go wherever I want, even visiting other universities or companies for short-term gigs. (I can't imagine any company letting me take a few months to work at another company and then returning!)

I really can't think of any other job where an employer pays me full salary and benefits to have this much independence. If I wanted, I could spend 35 hours per week sitting in my office with the door closed picking my nose, and nobody would even notice! And I could take the whole summer off to bum around on the beach. (I don't actually like beaches, though.) Of course, if I actually slacked off that much, then I would never get tenure and be permanently fired. But nobody watches over me day to day.

In contrast, if I sat at my desk at Google picking my nose all day, or just stopped showing up to work for a week, then I'd get reprimanded and put on probationary notice. My productive and non-nosepicking coworkers would also (justifiably) ostracize me.

There's a flip side to such extreme independence, though: I need to be 100% self-motivated since nobody else is going to push me to do anything to advance my career. I don't have a boss in the traditional sense of the word, so I need to constantly be lighting a fire under my own butt to push myself forward.

If you prefer independence, then academia is far better. But if you prefer being on other people's critical path so that they can motivate and mentor you, then industry is better.


To recap, here's my opinion of which sector wins in each category:

  1. Location flexibility – industry
  2. Time flexibility – academia
  3. Private office – academia
  4. Money – industry
  5. Coworker camaraderie – industry
  6. External credit – academia
  7. Directness of effort – industry
  8. Directness of impact – industry
  9. Sense of control – academia
  10. Independence – academia

Postscript: Tenure

I purposely never discuss tenure since this article is only about junior employees. Everything I've written about academia in this article would still hold true even if tenure didn't exist.

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Created: 2014-12-14
Last modified: 2015-04-23
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