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

Academia and industry aren't that different

To a first approximation, academia and industry aren't that different. Both are businesses with labor and management classes.

Over the past decade, I've seen the best and worst of both academia and industry. I've grinded in awesomely inspiring university research labs, and in some crummy ones too. I've been an engineer at great companies, and at some terrible ones too. Even within the same company, I've been in groups of widely varying quality.

Based on these experiences, I offer the following simplified viewpoint: Both industry and academia consist of businesses with labor and management classes.

  • In industry, individual contributors such as engineers, designers, and salespeople are the labor class, and managers are, well, the management class.

  • In academia, Ph.D. students, postdocs, and non-PI research staff are the labor class, and PIs (professors and PI-level researchers) are the management class.

When viewed in this light, a lot of similarities emerge:

  • Ph.D. students are simply doing a job, just like junior-level employees in industry. Ph.D. students exchange a lower salary for certain kinds of freedom in their job.

  • Some Ph.D. students drop out prematurely to pursue other jobs. Individual contributors in industry also leave their companies after a few months or years to pursue other jobs that fit better. Nothing weird or shameful about doing so.

  • The happiest Ph.D. students I know are those seeking to get the most out of the unique grad school setting, not merely viewing it as a stepping stone to a professor job. The happiest people I know in an industry job are there to get the most out of that job, not using it as a stepping stone to a future job.

  • The most effective Ph.D. students take the initiative to seek mentorship from people other than their advisor. The most effective individual contributors in industry take the initiative to seek mentorship from people other than their boss.

  • After graduating, most Ph.D. students in my field (myself included) make a lateral move into industry as individual contributors, thus remaining in the labor class. A few get promoted to management and become professors. In industry, some individual contributors get promoted to management, while others remain as individual contributors throughout their careers. In any sector, there are far fewer management positions than labor positions.

  • Pre-tenure (assistant) professors struggle with work-life balance and ever-growing demands on their time to get promoted to tenured status. So do industry managers looking to get promoted within their organization. Although there isn't official tenure in industry, the higher up you go in the ladder, the more impact, mobility, and job security you usually have. Everyone in management is constantly overbooked and must fight to keep control of their schedules.

  • Tenured professors face even heavier demands on their time and more administrative duties as their seniority increases. So do mid- to high-level industry managers in leadership positions. With greater prestige and power come greater responsibilities.

  • Professors need to jockey for resources in the form of grants, students, and lab resources. Industry managers need to jockey for resources in the form of division budgets and headcount to hire employees to work for them. Massive amounts of organizational politics abound in both settings.

  • The most successful people in both academia and industry have an intimate understanding of the political aspects of their jobs and find ways to push through their creative initiatives. Or they discover that a lateral move into management within another organization better suits their goals. There are high-profile cases of notable senior people moving from academia to industry, and from industry to academia. Lateral moves between industry management positions or between academic institutions are also common. The people at the top have the most mobility.

When people stop viewing academia as some kind of privileged ivory tower and simply as another kind of business, then everything about academia starts to make more sense.

Postscript (March 2014): Also, people tend to compare the best of one world with the worst of another, which makes for great blog rants but not for reasoned arguments. For instance, pointing out some horrible misconduct at a particular company and saying, “Ha, these industry folks have it so bad ... academia is so much better since my faculty job is awesome!” Or pointing to one instance of a terribly-run academic department and saying, “Ha, academia is so inefficient and corrupt ... industry is an ideal capitalist meritocracy because my company rules!”

Created: 2014-02-16
Last modified: 2014-02-16
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