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Making the leap from academic research to industry R&D: What scientists need to know to make the transition

Why a researcher might decide to make the transition from academia to industry, and the differences between the two environments when it comes to scientific research.

By Philip Seifi in Guides

As research scientists explore the opportunities in their career, they often come to a crossroads where they must choose between staying in academia or moving into industry.

This piece delves into why a researcher might decide to make the transition from academia to industry, as well as the differences between the two environments when it comes to scientific research.

For those who have spent much of their career in academia, the prospect of transitioning to industry can be daunting. But the rewards—from greater financial security to the freedom to pursue more creative endeavours—can make it a worthwhile move.

Furthermore, the approach to research in industry is distinct from academia, as industry research often involves projects of shorter duration and higher stakes, requiring a greater degree of collaboration and communication.

Why would you want to transition from academia to industry?

Radically higher pay

The BioSpace 2020 U.S. Life Sciences Salary Report has revealed a stark disparity in the salaries earned by life science professionals in academia and industry.

The report found that the average salary for men in academia was $82,516, while women in the same sector earned $58,966. In contrast, life science professionals in industry earned far more, averaging $144,181 for men and $129,480 for women.

This difference in wages highlights the lucrative opportunities available in the industrial sector for scientists.

Increased focus and impact

In academia, securing your own funding is a necessity, and much of your energy is devoted to crafting grant applications and lobbying for resources. By contrast, industrial settings tend to have someone else taking care of the funding side of things.

Many scientists transitioning from academia to industry also find their work has a more tangible and immediate impact. Academic research is largely focused on advancing the field of knowledge, but the practical implications of this research can be limited. In contrast, research conducted in industry is geared towards developing a product or service that will benefit the company financially. There is usually a well-defined vision and product roadmap in place, and researchers in industry must consider the potential applications of their research and how it will be used in a real-world setting.

A meritocratic environment

In academia, success is usually determined by the number of publications and citations one can amass. In industry, however, success is determined by the impact of one's research on the bottom line, for instance, by meeting product release deadlines and achieving sales targets.

This has created a meritocratic environment where success is based on the quality of one's work rather than personal connections or other external factors, and provided an opportunity for those with the skills and expertise to rise to the top and reach their full potential.

In addition, the availability of high-paying jobs in the tech industry has allowed many talented individuals to choose a career path that best suits their skills and desires.

Rapid pace of research

The world of industry research has been transformed in recent years, with the rise of startups leading to an emphasis on tighter timelines, feedback loops, and continuous improvement. This has led to faster commercialization of new research, providing researchers with a unique opportunity to bring their ideas to market more quickly.

With the potential for faster, greater success and recognition, commercial R&D has become an increasingly enticing option for researchers looking to make the most of their ideas.

How do research scientist skills differ between academia and industry?

In academia, research scientists may be focused on hypothesizing, researching, publishing papers, and teaching. In industry, research scientists may focus on developing new products and technologies, applying science to solve problems in the marketplace, and working with a team to create innovative solutions.

As a result, industry and academia often require different skillsets, and this can be challenging for scientists transitioning between the two.

More flexible outlook and mindset

In academia, scientists are trained to take a rigorous and methodical approach to research. While this can be advantageous, it can sometimes be an impediment in business, where startups often thrive in an environment of creative thinking and flexibility. The ability to adjust and pivot to changing conditions is often crucial to success in the business world.

The differences in pace and autonomy between industry and academia also mean that scientists entering industry must be able to quickly adapt and learn new skills. While the learning process can be daunting, the rewards of leveraging modern tools and technology can greatly improve research efficiency, productivity, and collaboration.

Direct communication

Entering the business world can be a daunting task, as the language of science is often replaced by a more direct and succinct style of communication. In industry, it is not just the science itself that matters, but also the politics, money, and relationships that come with the job.

Learning to effectively communicate verbally and in writing is essential, and while experience is an important factor, taking specialized courses can also help hone these skills. For example, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the Canadian Center for Science Communication both offer courses to help in this regard. Being able to communicate effectively and concisely is a vital skill for success in industry.

Increased transparency and collaboration

In academia, research is often conducted in silos with little collaboration. This is not the case in industry, where it is necessary to form relationships with researchers and other stakeholders with different backgrounds, goals and deadlines.

To bridge this gap, consider taking a course such as the Nature Masterclass, Effective Collaboration in Research. This program draws from the expertise of both academics and professionals, providing an effective way to enhance collaboration efforts.

Digital transformation

In industry, the need for efficiency and speed leads to the adoption of tools, such as electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) and laboratory management software, to streamline research.

These tools come with a steep learning curve, and scientists may need to acquire new skills in order to effectively collaborate with colleagues, communicate efficiently, and manage their time and resources.

Accounting and resource allocation

In an industry context, having some grasp of managerial accounting is essential, even if a deep understanding of the subject is not necessary. With limited time and resources, it is essential for scientists to be able to identify how to deploy them most efficiently.

Many courses of varying technicality are available on this topic, but one particularly useful resource is the book Cost Analysis for Engineers and Scientists.

Which path will you choose?

In conclusion, the differences between scientific research in academia and industry are numerous, with each providing its own unique advantages and disadvantages. Academia provides an environment with the freedom to explore and innovate, while industry brings the resources and financial stability needed to sustain long-term research projects. Ultimately, the decision of which path to pursue is highly dependent on the individual researcher and their research goals.


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