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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Career Paths Part 2 - Answers to Questions from Soon-To-Be Graduates

In my previous post, I began to address questions regarding career paths.  In this post, the remaining career path questions are answered.

What are the differences between academic and industrial careers?

The differences between academic and industrial careers are significant. Beginning with academic careers, professors are expected to:
  • teach classes
  • raise funding
  • train graduate students
Each of these areas require exceptional scientific knowledge/expertise, excellent people skills and outstanding communication skills.  For example, to successfully teach classes, professors must be able to engage the students and coherently communicate concepts.  Furthermore, to raise funds, professors must be able to influence decision makers.  They must be able to articulate the rationale and intent of the program for which funding is desired, and to do so in a dynamic and convincing manner.  These programs must maintain a high level of competitiveness in order to compete with the large number of programs that are vying for the limited amount of funds available.  Finally, training graduate students requires clear communication, strong people skills and an outstanding ability to attract potential students through a solid scientific reputation.

With all of the above in mind, there are several different academic career tracks including:
  • non-tenure track
  • tenure track
  • administrative track
Non-tenure track positions generally involve class instruction only. Such programs can, in some cases, include research activities.  

On the other hand, tenure track positions require both class instruction and research activities, and are much more involved. Success in tenure track positions depends upon an ability to obtain funding for programs and on a consistent stream of peer-reviewed publications - professors must be prepared to write interesting and innovative publications on a regular basis.   

Administrative opportunities can come from both non-tenure track and tenure track roles.  However, higher profile opportunities are generally filled by tenured professors.  It is important to note that to participate in any of these roles, a PhD is required.

Finally, anyone considering a career in academia must recognize that the goals of academia are education and basic research.   In contrast, the goals of industry are to bring products to market and generate returns for investors.  Bearing this in mind, it is easy to understand why salaries in academia, particularly during the first few years, are considerably lower than those available from industry.

Industrial careers offer opportunities to contribute to the development of products for introduction to commercial and consumer markets.  Such products have direct applications to healthcare (pharmaceuticals and medical devices),  food (packaging materials, food preservation, artificial flavors/sweeteners, etc), electronics (semiconductors, memory media, etc.) and energy (synthetic fuels, catalysts, recycling, etc.).

The industrial career track generally begins at the scientist level (PhD) or the associate level (BS/MS).  Projects are assigned based on corporate priorities.  Unlike academic careers where projects are selected based on scientific interest, projects in industry are selected based upon marketing potential.  Thus, while those participating in industrial programs may not be able to select their programs, they can use their individual creativity to devise novel strategies to solve their assigned problems.  Furthermore, corporate fundraising activities are generally under the realm of corporate executives - leaving the scientists to concentrate solely on the science.

In industry, there are generally two career paths:
  • scientific
  • managerial
Both of these tracks start at the scientific level.  However, when a scientist reaches a certain level, that individual may choose to pursue roles such as group leader/director or research fellow.  While these titles may differ from one company to the next, group leaders generally have more managerial opportunities while research fellows generally are active scientists on the bench.  Both of these paths offer unique opportunities for professional development.

In summary, both academic and industrial careers provide exciting opportunities for those interested in contributing to the sciences.  There are differences in each path that may appeal to certain individuals and I encourage all students to better understand themselves and their goals as they evaluate the numerous variables when choosing where to apply their talents.

Is there more competition for academic positions in this economy?

There is considerably more competition for academic postions than for industrial positions because:
  • Professorships are high profile
  • There are more available industrial positions than professorships.


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