This article is about the differences that I perceived and learned to live with when I switched from academia to industry. Among academic people, this change is like a forbidden fruit, and they usually ask you why you went to the dark side.
Let me start with a short anecdote.
When I was in the last year of my Ph.D., I received a call from a recruiter for a wonderful job opportunity [insert sarcasm here]. After the usual chitchat, it was time for me to discuss my working experience. All pumped up (this was one of my first interviews ever after all), I started discussing what I was doing in my group. After some explanation, the recruiter said something like:
Oh, but then you don’t have any working experience, did I understand correctly?
Probably, the recruiter didnt fully check my LinkedIn profile, since all the information was there or didn’t remember that I was “still at university”. We went on discussing and her main point was that when you are doing a Ph.D. you are not working: you are simply a student. Back then I was keen on considering what I was doing a job like many others since it’s not that I had to study or attend courses, things that students do on a regular basis. In fact, I was working as a researcher. In my group specifically, we were working on multiple European funded projects, where you work with a consortium of partners (both from academia and industry) and try to achieve a common outcome, as agreed with the European Commission beforehand. Anyway, I don’t want to enter the never-ending debate about whether one should count the Ph.D. as working experience or not. Going back to the story, the recruiter thought that as a Ph.D. student I had no commitments, no deadlines to honor, that the software that I was writing was just “for fun”, etc. We ended the chat with her saying “I will let you know” (guess how it went).
I never understood why she was so firm in saying I didn’t know how to work and I had no working experience. And this happened also on another occasion later, where a second recruiter didn’t even know what a Ph.D. was.
Remembering this story gave me the idea of writing this article to point out the differences that are present between an academic job and one in industry. In the end, the recruiter was not (totally) wrong, these differences are there. She was only wrong in not considering the Ph.D. as working experience.
As an academic, I tend to write and say always too much (when I have something (hopefully) smart to say), so I’ll try to be short.
In 2012 I was enrolled in the MS.c. in Telecommunications Engineering at the University of Trento, Italy. During the thesis, my professor back then offered me and my colleague two nice “working” opportunities. The first was to join him in his startup as a Software Engineer, the second one was to start an academic career as a Ph.D. candidate. I never thought of doing a Ph.D. and when we were chatting with colleagues at university I was firmly against this path: “Doing a Ph.D. in Italy is worthless…”, “The job market doesn’t even recognize the title…” (see the section above!), “You will never be able to repay the investment if you stay in Italy after it…”. These were my thoughts back then (some of them are true still). But anyway, for various reasons that are not worth mentioning here, I picked up the academic path in the end. After a tough selection process, I officially started a Ph.D. in Computer Science in November 2013. Fast forward to 2017, this is the moment when I had the chat with the recruiter. The same year I graduated. At this point, I was selected to stay in university as a Postdoc (Postdoctoral researcher) with an initial contract of 1 year. After this year, I started thinking that I should make a change in my life, and in March 2019 I literally landed in Amsterdam to start my new professional adventure in a multinational company where I am currently employed today as a Senior Data Scientist.
What it is like to switch from academia to industry
The story above is the one that motivated me to write this article. Now that I am almost two years into the industry and I have a (limited) “working” experience, I can say I learned one or two things and can finally compare the two environments.
What is it like to switch from academia to industry?
The first difference that I can think of is the purpose behind doing things. In academia, you have a direction, either given by your advisor or by the topic of the research group. But it is not clear at all what you need to do and how. Actually, a big part of the Ph.D. is learning to “find your own way”. Most of the time you feel like anything you do is good towards achieving the goal. Of course, all the better if what you do helps you publishing academic papers. Most of the time you enter this loop when the purpose, the reason why you are doing a certain thing, is not clear at all, but you just do it. On the other hand, in industry, this is absolutely not the case. You need a purpose for whatever you do, which must always be aligned with the strategy of the company or team. Before even deciding to do something, for every task during the process and also when you finish you always need to check if the purpose is valid.
The second aspect is about the value you generate, which is intrinsically linked with the purpose of course. In academia, the value of each task is not 100% known beforehand, at least to the Ph.D. candidate / Postdoc. You are working on a project, you do a piece of work which of course supports the outcome of the project, maybe it will end up in a section of a paper, but that’s it. Not knowing the value of a task in advance may compromise the result. In the industry, on the other hand, every task must have an objective value, which everyone must agree on before even deciding to work on the task. This is disorienting at first if you are not used to it. I also see a relation with passion here. If I’m passionate about something, in academia I could just do it. In the industry, I have to motivate it and I may need to find a compromise to do something because there is another one that generates more value.
The third element is about effectiveness. This is a broad term, but here I refer to conciseness. In meetings, for example, my experience says that in the industry you have to be concise, effective, strictly stick to the topic of the meeting, go straight to the point and never ever go over time. In academia it was completely different: this strictness was not there, and even today I have to put a lot of attention on this. If this is good or bad, I don’t know yet, I can only say that it is different. I believe sometimes it is nice to extensively talk (when you know what to say) and when someone harshly interrupts you to put you back on track it feels strange. Still, effectiveness is important.
The fourth element is related to resources, which in the industry are much more abundant than in academia. The severeness of the mismatch varies per country of course, and may not even apply in some, but, in Italy, it is certainly there. And the University of Trento, which is always at the top of national and international rankings, is also considered privileged in this regard, so I could imagine the overall situation is even worse. By resources, I don’t mean only money (but they are a big part of the story), but also support, infrastructures, instruments, etc. You have to struggle for everything and waste most of your time on this. In the industry is different: you have a generous budget, if you need something, there is another person in the company that can support you or that can do it, etc. I have a technical example about this one: cloud computing. I had to save every euro I could, for no apparent reason, even if that was forcing me to spend days to find a workaround. The operational costs were valued much more than personnel cost: no one was considering those X days of mine spent on solving a problem I could have easily been solving by using a managed solution in the cloud, which was costing a bit more. In the industry, you have to choose the most effective solution, considering both operational and personnel costs. For the first time, I realized personnel cost is higher than any other.
The fifth aspect is related to the team. It exists. In academia it is you, and yourself only when you work (luckily for me this was not 100% true). You have to get your title, produce your paper, and no one else can help you. In the industry, you work in a team, and the team has to work in symbiosis to achieve the goal. This was a shock for me, being able to compare with others, work in pairs, split tasks. Amazing.
The sixth is about innovation. This is a broad one, maybe it is worth a separate article, but my two cents are that in academia you are driven by innovation, your success depends on the fact that you are solving a new problem or that you are solving an old problem in a new way, that’s it. In the industry instead, you are driven by customer commitment most of the time. This kills innovation.
The seventh is about the salary, guess which one is higher…
The eighth… I could probably come up with more differences, but I’m learning to be concise (unsuccessfully so far as you could tell), so I stop here.
So yes, “working” in academia is different from working in a company. Each one of them has advantages and disadvantages, and I cannot really tell which one is better. I like a lot of what I do now and I don’t regret the change; in fact, I’m still collaborating with my university as well. I leave to the reader the final decision.
All the above is based on my little experience, only 5 years in academia and only 2 years in the industry. Both in only one single institution and company (+ a couple of short internships) and in one single country each.
This is to say that my analysis is limited, most likely biased, and for sure not statistically relevant. I hope I will be able to extend my thoughts about this in the future.