Science, discussed.

Academia no more: 1.5 years on

In April 2015, I wrote Academia no more about the reasons that brought me to leave Academia for a job in Industry.

PHD Comics: Academic Deadlines
by Jorge Cham / PhD Comics

The post was read, tweeted and discussed widely (relative to the standards of this blog, that is), which made me feel I had touched on a topic of widespread interest. I received words of encouragement, congratulations and comments from people in very similar circumstances. And messages from those that admired the choice, but weren’t quite ready to do the same.

I recently read that post again: if I was to go back, I’ll write it pretty much the same way. At the same time, I fell I have more to add now.
Please indulge me.

Did Industry give me what I was looking (hoping) for?

This is the $1M (~£760k) question. Short answer: yes. I left academia because I was getting frustrated by its methods and practices (see more below), but I was still very keen on retaining the attitude and excitement towards science and scientific discovery that Academia provides. I now find myself in a network of excellent scientists, sharing and collaborating with everyone in the organisation, asking questions and trying to find the answers. The process of discovery did not change. The methods and the aims did: my company needs to sell a product and (most of) what I do is aimed at this. Work/life balance is also worth mentioning. I’ll get back to this point at the end of the post, but for now let’s just say that work in Industry is immensely  efficient, as well as contained. Time is valuable (for the Company) and valued (by employees), resulting in a highly productive working environment. I do (sometimes) work extra hours, and am glad to be in a job that makes me feel like that’s a worthy investment, but the distinction between work and personal life is clear to everyone.

I don’t have the intellectual freedom to pick my own research.

This sentence is both trivial and misleading. Of course, when I signed up for a job at a Company, I knew this was going to be the case. Academia, on the other side, is very good at portraying itself as the Eden of Freedom, while in reality is much more similar to a Kingdom of Grant Proposals. True, there is a lot of inspirational research out there, and thinking outside the box, pushing barriers and “academic research” should all be encouraged. Getting the money required to actually perform these studies is, however, a totally different issue: funding bodies and their “strategic priorities” kick in, and science is very much about trends as any other aspect of life. Re-branding of research ideas is common practice, as it is to use money from existing grants to fund research for the next ones. Academia is much more product-oriented than it claims to be.

There is good science, and there is “chicken-chicken” 2

This is the core reason why I’m very happy with my current post. I’ve already mentioned in the original Academia no more post how technical competence is higher in the private sector: the level of scientific discussion I routinely have with experienced researchers and managers would be inaccessible for the vast majority of academics. Why? My suspicion is that academics are more managers than Industry managers. Something has to give, and by devoting technical expertise (and technical expertise only!) to their PostDocs, group leaders tend to drift away from the technical aspects of research at an earlier point in their career. I can think of many examples where this is not the case, but these are still minority exceptions that support the general rule.

Industry 2, Academia 0. Or not?

I started this post with the idea of providing an unbiased perspective on my personal experience. An intellectual exercise that brought me to its inevitable conclusions: I am biased about my own experiences. So let me try to put this straight: Academia can be great and rewarding, and I encourage anyone to give it a shot. But if you are thinking about joining Academia, and even more if you are (stuck?) in Academia and feel like the only option is to keep going, please take note: don’t fear the red pill, reality out there is much brighter than the Matrix paints it.

So, what’s wrong with Academia?

I stand by what I listed in the original Academia no more post: Academia is flawed: it doesn’t truly prepare students for the real world, nor it does promote quality above everything else, and it scarcely rewards efforts, particularly at the lower tiers of the pyramid.
These are the criticisms I originally had, and in fairness there is no point in going through a longer list of Academia’s shortfallings- mostly because such lists are compiled by people within Academia. Transitioning to Industry opened my eyes on another, to me much more critical, issue: Academia indulges in the idea of being a life choice. For employees, this translates in the odd idea that everyone is always on call and that there are no off-working hours. From a project perspective, it often results in a decision-making process that is unbelievably slow. The one difference between my previous and current research experiences that strikes me the most is how unforgivingly lethargic change is in Academia. There are may examples of people working on a single idea/molecule/protein for all of their career because they can’t stop a beloved project; PhD students find themselves in troubles because it took 2 years for their supervisor to realise that an initial idea was nonsense; deadlines are chronically postponed, and being late for meetings is the norm. There is no need for any of this, and the only point academics implicitly/unconsciously want make with this collection of unproductive and unmannerly conventions is that Academia is not Industry.

What a terrible loss of time.


1 If you’ve read the whole post, you’ll know that this reveals there’s still a bit of an academic in me. Damn.
2 Turn the speakers on, and watch this clip until the end. There is a reason why this is a criticism of Academia. (note: it’s very likely you’ll find yourself laughing out loud, so mind your surroundings!)




About Pietro Gatti

Interested in discussing (good) Science Lover of coffee & good films. Ideas all & only my own.

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This entry was posted on 21/09/2016 by in personal and tagged , , , , , .


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