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Academia or Industry

Academia or Industry? Dilemmas and considerations when choosing your career path!

Will you join the competition towards a professorship, or will you prove your luck in industry? Some people have this dilemma as a master student, others after their PhD or postdoc. What exactly are the pros and cons of both career paths? And what are the reasons that sway the decision towards one direction or the other?

Idealistic motives, such as contributing to societal value or using science to solve societal problems, are often mentioned as a reason for pursuing an academic career. But also the internal motivation to get to the bottom of a certain research question, the interest in the intellectual debate and the freedom in a PhD job are found to be important arguments (Roebroeck & Snijders, 2003). A study conducted by the Rathenau Institute showed that another reason to continue a career at the university is the support and incentives of a mentor or supervisor (van Balen, 2010). The decision for an academic career however is not always a very deeply-considered one. Some students just choose to go for a PhD because they got an offer and it seemed to be the most logical thing to do.

To stay in academia, you should be able to work focused for long periods of time and have the perseverance to start over and over again. These skills do not fit everyone. Some students find academic research too specific, and prefer more variation in their working activities. Other disadvantages often mentioned for academic research are the limited salary and career perspectives (Roebroeck & Snijders, 2013). The risk of running into one postdoc position after another, or never having the luck to attain a professorship, prompt academics to shift to industry. Some academics become disillusioned when their romanticised view of research, and of unravelling scientific problems, is in reality spending more and more time on obtaining funding. Another reason to leave academia is the lack of career management. Young scientists regularly have problems with the lack or limited implementation of career policy at universities. A lack of support during the master thesis or PhD trajectory also regularly causes their enthusiasm to decline (Roebroeck & Snijders, 2013).

Elsa Berends, owner and founder of BasidioFactory, has experience in both the academic field and in industry. She chose to do a PhD to further develop her technical knowledge, but at an early stage already felt the ambition to apply that knowledge in a new business. “What I want is to translate my technology into practice and to generate economic activity by innovation. That is my motivation.” During the second year of her PhD she attended the international BioBusiness Summer School ( to get more knowledge about the broad aspects of working in life sciences industry. “It did not discourage me from starting my own business. I reduced my PhD contract to two days per week and founded BasidioFactory. With BasidioFactory I produce enzymes from mushrooms, via a fermentation process, and develop food applications for these enzymes. It is a nice challenge to learn from industrial partners how a certain enzyme could be beneficial for their products or processes, and to develop such application in collaboration into a working solution."

Elsa never intended to stay in academia, but she kept working for 40% of her time as a Postdoc after her PhD so that she would have a more reliable income besides her start-up company. “I saw a lot of advantages of going into industry and didn’t have any reason to pursue an academic career. In 2013, I therefore switched my job as a Postdoc to a part time senior scientist position with the company C4C Holding. C4C is a big player in mushrooms, producing compost for the cultivation of white button mushrooms and substrates for exotic mushrooms and subsidiary products. What I like about working at a company is that you work together on improving the products. In terms of Quality Assurance, Marketing & Sales, Logistics, and Research everyone contributes their specific knowledge and expertise to the process. That creates a good atmosphere. In academia you work with a specific group on only one specific topic. Academic researchers are not involved in the whole process. I find it important that my work is practical and focused on products. In industry the relevance and financial feasibility of your research is more important, because your company has to generate profit."

Are you in doubt about staying in academia or going to industry? Don’t hesitate to consider both options. Elsa´s advice: "It is good to start early with gaining experience in both academia and industry, not only to make a well-considered decision, but also to get more feeling on how the field works and what you should focus on." To gain a better understanding of what working in industry is like you can follow courses, such as the BioBusiness Summer School or trainings and internships at companies. There are companies that offer 3-month summer internships. Make appointments for orientation conversations at companies, or approach people that already made the shift to industry. At the BCF Career Event you can get in conversation with various professionals employed in a diverse range of positions and organisations within the life sciences. Via these professionals, you can receive information on what it is like to work in a certain position or organization. So make your dilemma easier and start gathering as much information and experiences as you can!

Van Balen, B. (2010). Op het juiste moment op de juiste plaats. Waarom wetenschappelijk talent een wetenschappelijk carrière volgt. Den Haag Rathenau Instituut. Roebroeck, L. & Snijders, H. (2003). Van peuter tot professor. Keuzemomenten op weg naar een loopbaan in de wetenschap. In R. Diephuis, L. Roebroeck & H. Snijders _red., Proefproject Adoptierelaties. Samenvattende rapportage eerste fase (pp.15-30). Stichting Weten. Zutphen: Nauta Zutphen.


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