Q: Staying in academia versus taking up an industry post

Detailed Question -

I am a Ph.D. with 5 years’ post-doctoral experience. I have a decent publication record and teaching experience of 2 years. I have been trying to secure a faculty position for the past one year without any success. I am unsure whether my credentials are enough for academia and whether I should look for alternative jobs in industry. Can you offer some advice and help me take a decision?

1 Answer to this question

Securing a tenure-track position is a time-consuming process. Statistics show that in recent times there has been an oversupply of research doctorates in comparison to the number of job openings in academia. Many researchers have the experience that doing everything to make yourself marketable—publishing in high impact-factor journals, presenting papers at conferences and meeting the right people, getting external grants and awards, and having teaching experience at different institutions—may not ease the way to an academic position.  

Under the current competitive environment, what becomes most important is to identify what you are truly passionate about and capable of. Gauge your interests, understand your strengths and weaknesses, and then decide whether a long-term career in academia would be suitable for you.

How do you really feel about teaching, publishing, collaborating, and fund-raising? The "publish or perish" and "procure funding or perish" pressures are higher in academia than in industry. As tenure-track faculty you will be required to publish high-quality research in respectable journals very frequently. However, publishing may not be that essential in industry, though it would certainly improve your credentials.

Identify your strengths and interests. Do you see yourself as a person with people skills and the ability to strategize and execute? Will you be more comfortable in a job that offers quicker gains but low flexibility? If your response to both these questions is affirmative, you should explore options in industry. Science journalism and science policy-making are two such options that will allow you to remain connected with science without the pressures of running a research laboratory.

Where do you see yourself after 10 years? According to an article in PLOS Computaional Biology, a decade in the life of a tenure-track faculty person would possibly include a lot of grant applications, maybe some great students, and really significant advances in science. On the other hand, in an industry it would encompass a few promotions, a climb up the managerial ladder, leading to your own group or department. It is up to you to consider these possibilities and identify what would give you more satisfaction and happiness in the long term.

I hope I was able to provide you a few points that you should consider before taking the final decision of continuing in academia or shifting to available alternative options in the research industry. However, my knowledge is mostly based on the academic structure/system in the West. If things are different in China, I would be interested to know. It would be great if you could share in the comments below.