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Why Switch from Industry to Academia

Most PhDs working in industry sectors believe that it's either difficult or impossible to return to academia. And while industry careers aren't particularly conducive to the types of research and publishing necessary for academic positions, universities and research institutes are increasingly interested in the real-world experience and expertise that industry candidates can offer. So why should you consider switching from industry to academia? Here are five good reasons.

May 22, 2016
  • Student Tips
Why Switch from Industry to Academia

In the past, the idea of returning to academia after a career in industry was little more than a pipe dream. PhDs, who had spent their post-doctoral years working outside of the enclaves of universities and research facilities, had little to offer to departments driven by grant acquisition and research publications. But in recent years, academic institutions have become more open to industry professionals making the return journey to education, and PhDs with years of real-world experience can bring practical innovation into university labs and courses. So, if you've been working in an industry sector but feel that it's time to make a change, or you're an early-career researcher unsure which direction to choose, consider these five points. Academia isn't for everyone, but for some the change can make all the difference.

1. The rhythm is different
The first thing you'll notice when switching from industry to academia is that time is different in the 'real-world.' And we're not just talking about the myriad of holidays, opportunities for sabbaticals, or the ability to schedule only evening classes. In a corporate office or industry lab, your workday and production are directed by deadlines and office protocol. Industry PhDs often report that regardless of how much they accomplish in a day, they're expected to be on-site for the traditional 9-5 grind. Of course, academia still has deadlines, meetings, and set hours for teaching, advising, and other duties, but a career in academia allows researchers much more flexibility in scheduling. But industry returnees are also struck by the slower, less-decisive pace of university operations. Many returning PhDs cite initial frustration with inconclusive departmental meetings, slow response times from colleagues focused on individual research, and a general lack of urgency. For most, the frustration passes and the independent atmosphere becomes a cherished part of the academic lifestyle.

2. Industry experience is relevant
Many industry PhDs fears that their careers, which rarely involve applying for grants, publishing independent (or lead-author) papers, or theoretical research will leave them ineligible for an academic position. And while the best way to return to academia may be as a student in a related field, academic departments are increasingly interested in drawing in professionals from industry sectors. This is particularly relevant to those in science and technology, where industry expertise and experience can directly translate to research and development in universities. But it's not just STEM industry professionals who bring real-world applications to the university lab, and architects, managers, legal professionals, and social scientists can all transition back into academia. Apart from their individual specialties, corporate and industry experience with leadership, management, organizational structure, and corporate demands can help restructure faltering departments or provide excellent guidance for students in emerging research fields.


3. Projects can be long-term
One of the biggest frustrations that industry researchers express is that the fast-paced, production-driven environment of the corporate world leaves little time for in-depth research projects, scientific exploration, and, most certainly, the eureka moments that come from repeated failure. In industry, an approach that doesn't work or that produces sub-par results is quickly discarded, but in academia, a failed experiment or a faulty hypothesis doesn't always mean the end of a project. It's a long-standing joke in academia that multiple failed experiments still equal statistically significant results, but the reality is that in academia you have the time, freedom, and support to ask the hard questions, make mistakes, and come to inconclusive results.

a sample of plant in the science lab

4. Earn credit for your work
Another perk for academic researchers is that regardless of the impact of your work, you will receive the credit for the results. In a corporate or industrial environment, accomplishments are rarely celebrated as an individual effort, and your major breakthrough in the lab might not even phase upper management beyond a notation that production is ahead of schedule. In academia, individual research and accomplishments are not only lauded but championed. That's not to say that PhDs in university settings are lone-wolves without a sense of teamwork. In fact, with growing pressure in universities towards inter-departmental and interdisciplinary collaboration, you'll likely find yourself working in groups or co-authoring papers with colleagues, but you'll still be expected to work independently and will be given credit for your own achievements.

Photo of business partners hands applauding at meeting

5. Part-time works too
And if you're still not convinced that a move from industry from academia is the right choice, never fear! You can do both. If the idea of jumping from a structured, but high-paying job in the corporate world to an independent, but financially unstable position in academia is keeping you in a cubical, consider part-time academic work. Local colleges and universities will often hire industry professionals to teach as adjunct faculty, especially in fields relative to local or crucial industries. Teaching a class or two per semester can give you a chance to feel out academia without the pressures of publication and grant-writing. You'll learn whether teaching and student advising are a good fit for your personality and it will give you a sense of how you could translate your real-world experience into an academic role.

Teacher explaining something to students

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