The academic journey is one that is unique to each individual. For those passionate about furthering research in their topic of choice, it can provide a haven for their curiosity. Many young students dream of one day becoming a professor, mentoring their own students and gaining recognition for prestigious research.
But for most who embark on the path, this does not become reality.
The academic environment is currently fraught with challenges, not least with ongoing strikes over pay, accusations of discrimination and concerns about job security. Researchers of all career stages are now calling out their institutions, yet many individuals are still uncertain about pursuing an alternative, fearing that they may not be able to remain in a scientific career if they leave the academic bubble.
In this feature, we examine the current state of academia, and compare it to the alternative – industry. We’ve weighed up the pros and cons of working in each sector to allow you to make a more informed choice about which is right for you.
The current state of academia
In the last few years, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals across many sectors have been leaving jobs en masse, citing mistreatment by employers, low pay in comparison to the cost of living and a general lack of respect. This has been dubbed ‘the Great Resignation’ and has hit a number of different industries; some, such as hospitality and education, have suffered more than others.
The pandemic also brought to light several problems faced by those in academia, and the so-called Great Resignation spilled over into the higher education sphere. This was not altogether shocking – university staff have been participating in strikes over pay, pensions and working conditions regularly since 2018.
So, why are people choosing to leave academia?
At the forefront of the debate is pay – academic researchers in the life sciences on average earn 30% less than their industrial counterparts. Job security is another crucial point. Only around 3% of PhD students are able to find permanent academic positions post-graduation, and less than 1% make it to professor level. Moreover, short term contracts and instability can put many off staying in academia, leaving them with the choice of pursuing their career or settling down with their family.
But at the heart of all of this is mental health. The struggles faced by those in the academic sector can easily lead to burnout, and a 2021 survey of researchers revealed that more than two thirds suffer from some form of mental illness. Long working hours, a lack of recognition and a fear of failure can all play huge roles in the decision to jump ship.
Diversity and discrimination
Additionally, many issues have come to light regarding diversity and discrimination in the academic environment. With such a limited number of positions available, bias by those at the top can be devastating. In the UK, only 28% of individuals working in higher education are women, and only 1% are black. For this reason, many choose to leave the shackles of academia in search of meritocracy in other sectors.
A particularly stark example of discrimination in the academic workplace is that of young women taking parental leave. With short term contracts still the norm, many are not afforded the protections and benefits of those with permanent positions. A 2018 Twitter survey revealed that only around a third of post-docs received maternity pay without any issues. Perhaps the most devastating impact of this is young parents being forced back to work early, sacrificing precious time with their infant in order to protect their career. On the other hand, long-term contracts in different sectors afford parents the necessary protections dictated by UK law, an appealing prospect for those wishing to start a family.
A ubiquitous issue
The problems we have discussed are widespread. From young researchers to those who have established themselves in the field over decades long careers, discontent is rife within the academic sphere.
However, the 2021 Nature annual careers survey suggested that the majority of dissatisfaction is felt by mid-career researchers – those who are experienced in the field but haven’t yet reached the top. Around 37% of mid-career researchers expressed unhappiness within their role, compared to 32% of early- and late-career researchers.
But this doesn’t mean that the everything is rosy for those early- and late-career researchers either. A number of PhD students are now choosing to leave academia before they even finish their programmes, and some professors have shocked the community by walking away from their roles.
PhD students, in particular, can struggle with the academic grind. The UKRI minimum PhD stipend is around £18,600 for the 2023/2024 academic year. This number increased in 2022 only after outrage by young researchers in response to the cost-of-living crisis. Taken in consideration with the long hours many students work during their programme, this can sometimes equate to less than minimum wage. Many have to turn to teaching jobs to top up their salary, a feat which puts much more pressure on an already gruelling experience. And post-doc positions, especially in the same city, can be hard to come by, with many wondering if their work was even worth it.
Where are they going?
For those who wish to stay in science, but leave the bubble of academia, it seems the obvious alternative is to move to industry. Increased pay and a permanent contract are some of the more appealing sides of this, but they aren’t the only reasons. One factor cited by some is that the job is less isolating – in academia, your goals tend to be your own, you decide your schedule and problems are often yours to fix. In industry, you can be part of a bigger machine, where colleagues are more likely to help out as part of a team. Likewise, industry has the benefit of more defined working schedules, and employment typically doesn’t hinge on your latest grant application being successful.
Outside of the lab, there are a number of other opportunities for those who wish to pursue them. These include communication and public engagement, sales, policy and much more. Of course, every field has its unique challenges, but for the purposes of this feature, we’ll be focusing primarily on the difference between academia and industry.
We spoke to Steven*, a graduate researcher from the University of Strathclyde, who is nearing the end of his PhD. He loves his work but is unsure of the prospect of an academic career. ‘I enjoy being a researcher and the flexibility of academia, but I’m not sure I see a future there. It seems the most secure academic job I could get is my PhD,’ he shared. ‘I see the work my supervisors do day to day and definitely don’t want to do that.’
Steven’s views aren’t unique. Those at the top of the academic pyramid can be snowed under by paperwork and meetings, preventing them from doing the science they love. Watching their superiors working long hours in the office can be an off-putting view for those who dream of a lifelong career in the lab.
Conversely, Darren*, a former employee at a well-known pharmaceutical company regrets his decision to move after a short stint as a research assistant after his master’s degree. ‘I left my university job because I wanted to try something new. But there was a lot of bureaucracy [in industry] that I wasn’t expecting and, ultimately, I didn’t like the rigidity.’ Darren is now looking to return to higher education, hoping to pursue a PhD in chemical engineering. ‘It’ll give me the opportunity to try academia again but without any pressure to stay there forever,’ he reasoned.
Paul Agapow, former Group Leader in Translational Bioinformatics at Imperial College London, who has now worked at both AstraZeneca and GSK since leaving the academic world, first provided his views on the differences between industry and academia in an insightful 2022 Twitter thread.
Highlights included points about pay (‘It’s at least as good as in academia, but with less stress,’) and a better work-life balance (‘A colleague of mine stayed back onsite one night until security told him to go home,’). He also highlighted the benefit of being a specialist in your role, stating that ‘there are people who do particular stuff,’ but that ‘you might sometimes feel cheated of the opportunity to play with shiny new things.’
We had the opportunity to chat with Paul recently, and he stated that he still stands by his 2022 comments. However, he emphasised that there can be more precarity in industry than one might initially think. He also observed that it used to almost be the default for people to remain in academia, whereas now there is far more opportunity to do interesting work in other sectors, and a desire to pursue in a scientific career no longer hinges on remaining in the University environment.
The bright side of academia
But with over 200,000 people in academic jobs in the United Kingdom, there must be something drawing people in.
Some of the most cited positives of academia are freedom, independence and ownership. Typically, you will have significant control over where your project goes, even in the early stages of your career. Likewise, the resulting work will be credited to you, and opportunities to present your work at conferences and events have less strings attached, owing to a lessened need for legal approval compared to industrial counterparts.
There can also be a sense of altruism within the academic world. Working in a university environment comes with more chances to teach and supervise, providing great opportunities to pass on your knowledge and leave a legacy. And in a similar vein, there can be more opportunities for professional development through courses and workshops aimed at researchers. Many also cite the community feeling of academia as one of the advantages of working in the field. So, despite the negatives that are widely covered in the press, many feel that the pros outweigh the cons.
A personal choice
The choice of which route to take on your career path is an extremely personal one, and the points we have discussed don’t ring true for everyone. The things that many see as negatives are extremely positive for others. For example, some cite the flexibility of academia as a high point; the ability to travel and the adventure of never knowing where you’ll be next is something some young researchers enjoy. However, others see this as a reason not to pursue the academic lifestyle, wishing that they could have a sense of security after many tough years as a student.
Likewise, working hours is a particularly hot topic in this debate. Many in academia will work non-standard hours – often by choice. This is one of Darren’s deciding factors: ‘I’m not a morning person! I liked being able to work 10-6 or 11-7 without anyone telling me no.’ On the other hand, industry jobs are more likely to have a standard 9-5 format and working on the weekends may even be prohibited, forcing people into what some see as a healthier working pattern, but curtailing the freedom that others enjoy.
The fast-paced environment of the industrial lab is also a significant point. Your work is likely to have a more immediate impact than that of an academic lab, although of course this can depend on the field. Similarly, there can be more rapid innovation in industry, as companies strive to keep up with their competitors. This can include investment into better equipment or resources that university labs may not have the means to obtain. However, not everyone is suited to such a rapidly evolving environment, and it can be a cause of stress.
What is best for you?
We can’t tell you what career path you should pick, but what factors should you be considering?
Salary – Industry jobs tend to come with a higher compensation than academic positions, but the salary that you are willing to work for depends entirely on your own dreams and lifestyle. Arguably one of the most important aspects of choosing a job, you need to determine your own worth in relation to your career goals.
Working hours – Do you prefer a standard 9-5 or would you like to set your own hours? Academia can sometimes offer more flexibility, and you can often work out-of-hours. Conversely, whilst industrial companies may dictate your working schedule, you’re less likely to find yourself in the lab on the weekends.
Flexibility and specialisms – Do you want to do the same work day-to-day and become an expert in one practice, or try a variety of different things? If it’s the former, you may find yourself better suited to industry.
Job security – Academia tends to operate on short-term contracts and permanent work in a specific location can be hard to come by. Does the spontaneity of your next role appeal to you, or would you prefer a more secure, long-term industry position?
Innovation – If you want to have first access to the latest tech and research innovations, industry is probably the path for you. On the other hand, if you aren’t a fan of fast-paced environments, you might be happier in academia.
Community – Something specific to each company, community is really what you make of it. That said, with thousands of likeminded individuals frequenting university campuses and more opportunities to directly influence the education and careers of young people, the academic environment is a place where many can thrive.
A worldwide issue?
The academic landscape varies from country to country, and this article has taken a very UK-based view.
In the US, the academic system works a little differently. Whilst short-term contracts are still common, there are more entry level tenure positions (assistant professorships). Academics in the US also typically do less paperwork, a point that many UK academics have cited as a point of stress.
Down under, Australia has faced criticism for the treatment of academic staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. University staff are treated much differently to those in the private sector and were not afforded the job protections offered to the rest of the population during the pandemic. Around 20,000 academic jobs have been cut in response.
In Europe, the situation can vary. The academic job market is very different in each country, even though the EU governs many aspects of employment law. In many nations, the ability to break into the academic world largely depends on your previous position and places are reserved for those already from that country. This means there is less freedom in choosing where you want to work. The use of fixed term or permanent contracts can also vary country to country, and some nations have faced criticism for not providing the same job security that is required for private sector workers under EU law.
In the past, the UK relied heavily on an influx of European brains. And, similarly, many UK academics relished in the freedom to travel and research anywhere they chose. However, in the current political climate, this is much more complex. Now, even when researchers are able to obtain a visa to work in the EU, it can be difficult for their families to join them. This has removed one of the oft-cited perks of an academic job, and has caused many to turn their backs on the sector.
How to prepare for the move?
So, you’ve decided to move into industry. But what do you need to do to prepare?
We asked Paul Agapow for his advice when making the jump. Here’s what he had to say:
‘Ignore the usual markers of academic success, such as papers, and look for ways that you can show you’re a problem solver, someone who can work across areas and teams to deliver value for a business, and not just stay locked into a tight technical focus. Hone your CV to highlight stories – what was the problem? How did you solve it? What was the result? Displaying communication and soft skills is always valuable. And make yourself visible, so potential employers notice you and what you do.’
Alongside Paul’s advice, it’s important to remember that your experience in academia has likely gifted you skills you don’t even know you have. Remember to highlight all of the transferable skills you gained and don’t undersell your abilities!
The choice is yours
Of course, the choice of whether to stay in academia or jump to industry is an extremely personal one, and the pros and cons are unique to each individual researcher. As a mid- or late-career academic, you may feel as if you have given it your all and want a change of pace. If you’re an early-career researcher, you might be questioning if it’s worth even trying to break into academia. Paul Agapow suggests trying a post-doc might be a good idea: ‘A postdoc might be a way to gain some more experience and demonstrate some independence, so when you go to industry, you have more to sell yourself with.’ But he advises to stop there if you hope to pursue an industry position ‘as it will leave too much of the whiff of academia about you.’
But of course, there are options outside of both industry and academia. And some may choose to abandon science altogether. This has sparked debate about the way that careers are sold to students as early as their undergraduate days, with the most promising students often pushed into PhDs on an almost conveyor-like system. It’s clear that this is now changing, and a transformation of the academic environment is well on its way to becoming a reality.
*Names changed for anonymity