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 super-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!”

Random related thoughts (2017-11-15): So if academia is a “business” (again, a super-simplified approximation), then what's the main “product” it's supposed to produce? The teaching and service missions of academia (which most people have direct exposure to) produce a steady stream of educated students and informed citizens. The research mission of academia (which is what this article is about) produces semi-validated ideas that may or may not lead to concrete advances in the future.

What do I mean by this? I feel that the main purpose of academic research is not to directly solve short-term problems (although some research does indeed address immediate societal needs); rather, it's to look ahead 5, 10, 20, or even 50 years to propose semi-validated ideas of what could possibly be useful in the future (even historically-based research that studies the past does this indirectly, since the future can often learn from the past, whoa!). Now, 99.9% of those ideas won't have any meaningful impact on the world, but the 0.1% (or whatever tiny percentage) that do make an impact will end up changing the world in remarkable ways.

Now, are those 99.9% of ideas “failures”? I don't think so. Not at all! Rather, it's critical for society to provide the freedom from short-term pressures that's necessary to give people the space to work on, publish, and argue for the 99.9% of ideas that end up on eventual intellectual dead-ends just so some subset of 0.1% can possibly change the world! After all, we don't know ahead of time which 0.1% will succeed, so we have to let people try a lot of different things, even knowing full well that most of these trials will end up being forgotten by history. In contrast, if we expect all researchers in academia to work on only short-term problems and be directly beholden the most urgent needs of the present-day 24-hour news cycle, then there's a 0% chance that it will produce meaningful long-term change, because people will be constantly fighting fires to deal with the present rather than speculating on the future.

Pretty much everything we take for granted in our modern world – cell phones, the Internet, modern medicine, air travel, clean water, anything you can name – can derive its origins from curious people living 20, 50, or even 100 years in the past who were given the freedom, funding, and space to tinker with seemingly-useless ideas devoid of any short-term commercial or societal value. Of course, we never see 99.9% of those ideas out in the world, but the 0.1% we do see gives us the amazing wonders of the modern world that we often take for granted.

In sum, although it's far from being perfect, the institution of academia has given us these long-term paradigm-shifting (cheesy phrase!) advances consistently over hundreds of years. I have yet to see another sector of business that can do something similar at this scale.

See this video for more of my thoughts on this topic:

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