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The Black Hole

Academia vs. industry: A former postdoc’s perspective


I have had the unique opportunity to make this decision, recently.  After nearly seven years of postdoctoral experience, I was ready for my first ‘real job’.  By ready, I mean I had already been seeking that job for nearly 3 years. I can tell you from personal experience that the job market in Canada has not been easy in the past couple of years.  I had been actively seeking an academic opportunity, and also actively looked for exciting opportunities in industry. In itself, that may make me seem indecisive, but in reality, it is how I’ve crafted my postdoctoral experience, and at long last it paid off.

I was a solid graduate student in immunology: I didn’t win any of the big scholarships, but I did good research and learned a lot. After I was granted my PhD, I didn’t have a clear goal to be a ‘professor’. I loved doing cool research and went on to do my first postdoc in a lab where I was excited about the research in the lab, in a very different field.  I didn’t listen to the ‘conventional wisdom’ of NEEDING to do a postdoc outside of Canada if you want to be successful.  I didn’t want to leave, and the researcher I wanted to work with was world-class. I spent 4 years there and struck on an amazing project the area of translational cancer research – research right on the cusp of industry. I was involved in the patent process stemming from my project, and published well. Going into my second postdoc I was academically poised to apply for research positions at universities, and I had been exposed to industrial research.  My second postdoc was in another world-class lab (again, in Canada) working part time on research (including a project that I was lucky enough to bring with me from my old lab and savvy enough to negotiate as my own) as well as work closely with a biotech company affiliated with the lab.  I learned both sides of the coin, and frankly, I liked aspects of both.  Yet, I started academic interviews, fully convinced that was my life path.  After a couple of disappointing interviews, and many more unsuccessful applications, I explored options in industry.  I have been lucky enough to have several amazing mentors who convinced me that I was good enough to take either path, even when I was very unsure of my abilities.  After the long road, I received two (nearly simultaneous) offers: one in academia and one in industry.

I think again the ‘conventional wisdom’ is that any postdoc given an academic offer has reached the ‘holy grail’. An academic position is success – but it’s not that simple. Academia does indeed provide the freedom to pursue your own research, but also gives the enormous stress of starting your own lab, crafting your first grants, and balancing teaching responsibilities with managing lab personnel, finances and the academic environment of your department, which can be very positive and encouraging… or not.  Industry is typically thought of as narrower in focus and scope and not allowing for creative research, however, you often find yourself working with a solid team with a clear goal and a history of success. Stability is a factor in both positions, be it in chasing tenure or in chasing funding and regulatory approval, compensation tends to favor industry, ability to mentor tends to favors academia. But it’s not a black and white decision – not by a long shot.

At the end of the day, I stressed about this decision for about a week or so. In my case, both groups I interviewed with were fantastic, and I had never considered that during my interview process I’d actually have to turn something down – I was so busy selling the “me” brand.  Finally after many sleepless nights, and stress-induced hives, I chose the position in industry. It would mean that I would have to abandon a research story that I had built over time, and was pretty invested in, but it also meant that I was buying into a company that was doing research that I really believe in, and that my previous experiences would be an asset too.  Both were attractive offers that I feel stemmed from my unique postdoctoral experience.  In my gut, the decision felt right – for me, and my personal and professional goals. Now, three months in – I do not regret my decision in the least.  Sometimes ‘conventional wisdom’ is just wrong. My advice to anyone – give yourself as many opportunities as you can, believe in your unique abilities and don’t be afraid to take the unexpected path.  The road may not be easy, but at least it’s yours.

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  1. Sonja / January 6, 2011 at 20:37

    Lovely post- thanks for sharing your thoughts on what must have been a very difficult decision to make. My gut feeling is that very few people have turned down academic job offers in favour of an industry position (many of my colleagues see working in industry as “the next best thing”), so it’s cool to hear the story of someone actively choosing the latter when both options were open.

  2. JMac Chambers Lab / January 7, 2011 at 02:51

    Hi Marianne!
    Glad things are working out for you so far – great post.
    I hope our paths cross again soon! Drop me a line, tell me who you’re working for! I’m working at setting up internships at the grad and post-doc level between academia and industry. I’d love to hear your perspective!

  3. Eugenie Roudaia / February 11, 2011 at 17:20

    Great post! I am a member of the Women in Science and Engineering initiative at McMaster University and I’m organizing a panel discussion about careers “Outside the Ivory Tower”. Your post highlights all the difficult decisions that we all might face when trying to carve out our career paths after the PhD is over. If you’re ok with it, I would love to print out your post and include it in the handout for the panel discussion.
    Our email is [email protected].
    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and experience.
    PhD candidate. McMaster U.

  4. Mallika / May 12, 2011 at 15:44

    I am writing my PHD thesis and stumbled upon your article. I am still in a state where i dont know what i want. I recently had a baby and choose to go back to work 2 months after she was born. I thought i will take a break after my dissertation but i have gotten contradictory advice. I feel hopelessly lost. My aspirations have always been to go into an industry position but now with the economy in the state it is i feel pressured to take a post doc position and wait it out till i get my dream job.
    Reading your story makes me feel a little better that perseverance does pay back.
    thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Ali / July 20, 2011 at 23:48

    Great story! It’s very similar to mine! I received one academic and one industry position a years ago, almost simultaneously. First, I was more interested of the academic position however, after a few days thinking, I turned it down as I couldn’t see myself to work in that city. Well, so far, I am very happy form my decision. AT least, I don’t need to be worry for any grants!