Academia or industry?

I have done three things after my Ph.D.:

  • I have been a (permanent/regular) researcher in a major government laboratory;
  • I have been an entrepreneur in industry (making deals, paying other people);
  • I have been a professor, in two different schools. I am now tenured and promoted.

My conclusions so far:

  • At least in my case, the difference in income has not been excessively large. While I did take a pay cut to join academia, you tend to make up some of the lost income in later years. Overall, it looks like things average out. However, if money is really important to you, there is no question that you can earn more in industry where your income is basically unlimited.
  • “Everyone” says that you have more freedom in academia. But whenever I hear someone say that, they are invariably an academic. I think that this is a form of rationalization. Overall, freedom is something you earn. You can enjoy a lot of freedom in industry, in government or in academia… but it is something that you have to constantly fight for. It is quite easy in academia to get stuck in a routine: teach, apply for grants, meet with students, teach, apply for grant, sit on meeting, teach… If you want to have a lot of time alone pondering, you are going to have to fight for it. It will probably not come during the first few years… it might take a decade or two (or you could get lucky earlier).

    A real test of freedom is to look at what people do when they retire. Do they keep doing whatever they were doing? The first thing that most academics will do when they retire is to drop the grant applications, the graduate students, the teaching… in effect, they’ll drop the bulk of their job. So how free were they?

    I consider that I have an excellent job as far as freedom goes. Yet much of my freedom comes from my ability to work on Monday night (as I did today) on my favorite research projects. If I chose to work a fixed 35 hours a week… I would be busy with meetings, teaching, grading, reviewing… almost all the time. Freedom is definitively something I earn every day.

    But another question is: how free do you want to be in your job? It is not uncommon for people wealthy enough to retire in luxury to keep working in high pressure jobs under difficult constraints. The fact is: it is often more satisfying to serve others than to cultivate your own egotistical freedom.

    It is not that exciting to write obscur research papers that nobody will ever read. Most of us want to feel useful. Being useful is hard. It means accepting people’s requirements.

  • Tenure is overrated. Most folks in industry that have worked just as hard as tenured professors, have savings, reputation and skills that are in demand. But if you are risk averse, then a government job is also quite safe even if you don’t formally have tenure. And academics with tenure lose their jobs all the time. There is always a clause saying that under “financial hardship” management can dismiss professors. And even with tenure, you still have to justify your job, constantly. If you create trouble, people can make your life hell. If you fail, people can humiliate you publicly. If you get into a fight with a tenured colleague, the fight can last decades and be unpleasant.
  • It is a lot easier to move back and forth between these occupations that people make it out to be. So while you can’t go back in time per se, professors move to industry all the time, and vice versa. To a point, you can even do both. It is not difficult to get some kind of honorary position with a research institute when you work in industry.
  • Academic and government positions require you to work in a bureaucratic setting, maybe for the rest of your life. In industry, you can be a lone wolf if you want. In this sense, there is greater freedom in industry.

Note: this post first appeared on Quora.

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13 thoughts on “Academia or industry?”

  1. Well I have just 1 comment. If a professor does not want to have meetings with students, then they should not enter academia. Teaching Assistantship jobs at research institutes gives an individual enough exposure to decide whether they like teaching or not. And if someone does not like teaching and meeting with students, then they should leave this noble profession. As such academicians have no right to ruin students lives.

  2. My experience as one who abandoned academia a few years after getting my PhD in math is in agreement with what you have said. One point worth mentioning, however, is the need to focus on applied research in industry. Sadly, I could not find any industrial applications of coalgebra-representable functors. On the other hand, applied research was rewarding and much more fun than I expected. Even if the university is where you want to be, non-academic experience can provide insight and perspective that will make you a better professor and administrator.

  3. There is another type of research organization – the private institute. Perhaps the most famous is the Institute for Advanced Study, which includes tenured professors with no students. I believe that falls solidly in the academia camp.

    The ‘Criticism’ section of its Wikipedia page, with comments by Hamming (industrial research) and Feynman (university research), is relevant. Feynman suggests, or perhaps rationalizes, that some of the university-based academic activities, like meeting with students, is an important ingredient for research.

    Andrew Wiles is a notable example of someone who spent “lot of time alone pondering.” He says, in a Nova interview, “I would wake up with it first thing in the morning, I would be thinking about it all day, and I would be thinking about it when I went to sleep. Without distraction, I would have the same thing going round and round in my mind. The only way I could relax was when I was with my children. Young children simply aren’t interested in Fermat. They just want to hear a story and they’re not going to let you do anything else.”

    The question is, how much did he fight for it? Quoting now from Wikipedia, “He dedicated all of his research time to this problem for over 6 years in near-total secrecy, covering up his efforts by releasing prior work in small segments as separate papers and confiding only in his wife.” That sounds like working to avoid a fight, which is a bit broader than just fighting.

    Some things have a conclusion. If one’s dream is to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem, has done so after a decade of work, and secondarily earned enough to retire, then the test of freedom doesn’t apply because there is no reason to keep on doing what one was doing. (I speak abstractly; I don’t know if this applies to Wiles.)

    Both the IAS and Wiles are exceptional cases, and I think do little more than explore some definition boundaries; eg, professors with no students, or fighting by avoiding fights. They are definitely not examples of paths which are easy to follow.

  4. @Andrew

    You raise many good points.

    I do think that Wiles earned his freedom… he had to hide, and produce somewhat bogus work.

    You may call it fighting to avoid a fight… but that distinction is irrelevant…

    Ultimately, we are all free to do whatever we want. It is just that we are also held accountable.

  5. I don’t understand what “somewhat bogus work” means. I doubt you mean the math itself was suspect. Reviewers must have agreed that it could be published. What measures do you use to judge the bogus level of someone’s work?

    I wish to clarify. I don’t think that everything in life is a fight, which is why I first wrote “working to avoid a fight” instead of “fighting to avoid a fight.” I wrote the latter because I realize that some have a more inclusive definition of fighting – “the only winning move is not to play” – and you might be one of those. I am not calling it that myself.

    I prefer to limit “fight” to more physical or directly confrontational situations (as in “fight with a tenured colleague”) and avoid a combat metaphor for more abstract struggles. I think “If you want to have a lot of time alone pondering, you are going to have to fight for it” suggests a different and likely more confrontational set of possible actions than, say, “… have to struggle for it” does. I also believe that the difference has relevance, but I can see how those with a broader definition of “fight” might not.

  6. @Andrew

    I don’t understand what “somewhat bogus work” means. I doubt you mean the math itself was suspect. Reviewers must have agreed that it could be published. What measures do you use to judge the bogus level of someone’s work?

    Peer review is an honor-based system (see http://lemire.me/blog/archives/2008/08/21/peer-review-is-an-honor-based-system/).

    In this instance, Wiles republished prior work in segmented papers. If one were to do this openly, it would be frowned upon.

    As for how you decide how good the work is… the answer to this question is certainly not “peer review means good”.

  7. Ahh, I though that “releasing prior work in small segments as separate” meant that it was prior unpublished research work done before he started to work full-time on Fermat’s Last Theorem. I have a few projects which are publishable in that way. (They are out in the world as software, but not published in an academic paper.)

    I didn’t realize he actually submitted previously *published* work. That would be an entirely different matter.

    In looking around, I found more details at http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Fermat%27s_Last_Theorem/Andrew_Wiles . It appears to confirm my original thought:

    “Wiles prepared himself carefully, he abandoned all his non-obligatory duties, took an impressive research that he was about to publish, divided it into a good number of articles in such a way as to be able to furnish a constant flux of works while he was working on the conjecture and sought to assimilate as much as possible on modular forms and elliptic curves.”

    My reading is that Wiles did actually publish new and otherwise unpublished research, and did not recycle old results.

    Could you elaborate on the old/recycled material he re-published? I haven’t found mention of it yet.

    BTW, my reference to peer reviewers was from my working hypothesis that you might have believed the Wiles’ LPU partitioning was too small or that the prior work shouldn’t be broken down at all. It’s much easier for a peer reviewer to determine if the paper is sufficiently substantial than to determine if it recycles old material. I apologize for any intimation that peer review might mean good, and my hypothesis was wrong.

  8. @Andrew

    I have a few projects which are publishable in that way. (They are out in the world as software, but not published in an academic paper.)

    I think that there is a difference between having publishable work that you just haven’t gotten around to publish… and what Wiles did, no matter how you interpret what he did.

    He intentionally mislead his peers about the research he was doing.

    Could you elaborate on the old/recycled material he re-published? I haven’t found mention of it yet.

    You are certainly right and I was certainly wrong… in how the work was somewhat bogus… but what he did is still hacking the system.

    Whatever Wiles actually did, he was working the system.

    This shows that he had to work to gain the freedom he needed. And that is my point.

  9. Yes, I agree with you. As a lone wolf in industry I feel like I have more time for research than my counterparts in academia. My observations were meant as real-world examples, and which mostly help clarify various definitions.

    You wrote last month that getting funding for already completed work seems part of the “secret strategy” against the insanity of research funding. That sounds to me like intentionally misleading the peer reviewers of the grant proposal. The distinction of course is that it’s no secret .. to those who are already part of the system. Since this includes the peer reviewers themselves, they aren’t actually mislead.

    As a lone wolf, I have a hard time slighting Wiles for not doing the same “wink-wink nudge-nudge” that most insiders to do hacked the system. He gamed it in a different way, but I don’t see it as notably worse.

    That reflect my own position. I don’t want to encourage a system biased against outsiders like me just because we don’t know how to hack the system the expected way.

  10. @Andrew

    That sounds to me like intentionally misleading the peer reviewers of the grant proposal.

    It most certainly is. It is effectively a lie.

    I have a hard time slighting Wiles (…)

    I do not think anyone blames him.

    I don’t want to encourage a system biased against outsiders like me just because we don’t know how to hack the system the expected way.

    Here is an interesting idea I sometimes put forth. Governments give research grants… but typically only to professors.

    Why is that?

    If the purpose of the research grant is to advance science, what does it matter that the recipient is a professor?

    But this brings us too far away from the current topic.

  11. Being an entrepeneur is NOTHING like working in industry. The big difference is called a boss and he can make your life completely miserable. In my career in industry I had four bosses for a longer period of time. Two were great, but two were soulless bastards who saw you as a mere tool to prove their superiority. You have never worked in industry, if you haven’t gotten up and first thing checked Dilbert. Then you wish you were part of that dreamland drawn in the strip, since reality is much harsher.

  12. Hhhmmm, interesting thought. While I know these kind of people, they also have an extremely high level of tolerance toward stupid bosses (let’s call them Wallys). I just also know the enthusiastic (and clever) — at the professorial level — ones that are just numbed mindless by stupidity.

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