Academia or Industry? The “Dichotomy”

So, academia or industry? In a previous post, I explained what that meant and unwrapped all of the hidden options [1]. I feel as though that post was incomplete, though. It was impersonal: just a summary of the choices and how those choices differed along a few dimensions: amenability to Research, pay, intellectual freedom, work/life balance, etc.

In these next few posts, however, I want to offer a more personal perspective. Specifically, I want to talk why the choice between “academia or industry” matters, on a personal, professional and societal level. Originally, I had this all as one post. But it became really massive. So, I’ve decided to separate out these posts into three different posts. First up: why this choice matters on a personal level.

But before I start, I want to just remind everyone that I speak from the perspective of a computer science Ph.D. student at a highly competitive Computer Science school who has done 5 industry research internships — 2 at Microsoft Research, 2 at Facebook and 1 at Google. But, I have never worked as a full time industry researcher nor as a full time professor. So, your mileage may vary.

The Academia Argument

The whispers you hear in the halls of the academy is that academia is where you should be if you are good.

To understand why, it helps to see academia through the eyes of its adherents. In its idealized form, academia is a fellowship of objective purity: untainted by vice and driven by intellectual curiosity and a desire to solve humanity’s greatest challenges. In theory, the academic life is one of intellectual indulging — a life where the immediate utility, profitability or propriety of one’s ideas holds no great weight. Academics value this vision so much that there is a system in place to all-but-ensure it: it’s called tenure.

So, the rationale goes, if you are a demonstrably great thinker, it would be a shame for you to leave academia and subject yourself to the impurity of the “real world”, with all of its shortsightedness, impulsivity and greed. In short, the argument is that academia is where all important intellectual work is done, and it is where you have the freedom to pursue the crazy, controversial ideas that will change the world.

Okay, yes, I know. I can sense all of the rolling eyes already: especially from my academic friends and colleagues. I can hear all of the sighs. That was an antiquated account of the argument to stay in academia. But, eye-rolling aside, this rationale still underlies most arguments for picking an academic job over an industry job: especially in a computer science or engineering discipline where industry jobs are plenty and pay better. But, let me also share my personal take on a more modernized version of the argument to stay in academia.

You are your own boss.

While you are technically employed, as an academic you are your own day-to-day boss. You do not need to check in with anyone. No one will tell you what to do unless you ask [2]. You are occasionally evaluated by other academics when you go up for promotions and tenure, but these evaluation are typically not the sort of selfish evaluations you see in industry: i.e., you are judged on the merit of your intellectual work rather than your effect on the bottom line [3].

Here are some nice benefits of being your own boss. First, no other person or entity can claim your intellectual property for their own [4]. So, the artifacts you produce are your own to monetize, publicize or distribute. Also, you have a lot of day-to-day schedule flexibility. As no one is there to “check in” on you, no one is going to tell when your day should start or end, barring the classes you teach. Also, and perhaps most appealingly for me: You can do whatever you want, provided you can raise money to do so from grants and other financial gifts.

You have extended periods of “free” time.

Continuing along the thread of intellectual freedom, you actually can also have a lot of regularly scheduled unstructured free time. For example, your summers are not structured (though you will have to support yourself financially, as well). I just recently spoke with a newly hired professor who mentioned he spent his summer with eBay, much the same way a graduate student might spend his summer in industry on an internship.

Also, you get occasional “sabbaticals” where you are free to pursue whatever you want for a semester or a year. Lots of professors take these extended periods of absence to start companies, write books, temporarily explore industry jobs, or otherwise just do ambitious things they typically do not have time to do.

Once you get tenure, you have a lot of job security.

So, you can take big risks, fail, and still be okay. Of course, most people who become professors are type A busybodies who cannot stand the thought of wasting time for failure. So, many professors are actually risk averse. The beauty of tenure, though, is that you at least have the option to pursue the seemingly unreasonable and fail. Or strike gold.

Your job is to think original thoughts.

Okay, your day-to-day job is actually very multi-faceted. But, your actual job — the reason you do any of the other stuff at all — is to think original thoughts. Thoughts that can solve problems no one has ever solved before.

Maybe you won’t always be very good at it, but you’ll get a lot of practice. And there will be no shortage of angry feedback from others, so you’ll always have something new to learn. And once you can get yourself out the publish-or-perish rat race (aka, “pre-tenure”), you may even be able to think big, original thoughts. What could be cooler?

You get to meet, mentor and guide the next generation of great thinkers.

If you ask a non-academic what is the job of a professor, their answer will probably be “to teach.” And while some academics may grind their teeth at that response and say “No! Teaching is only part of it!”, there is actually a lot of truth to that observation. As an academic, your job is to do original research and distribute the new knowledge you create. That distribution can come in many forms: in writing a paper, in presenting your work at a conference, in lecturing, in giving a seminar, or in meeting with your mentees. In all cases, you are teaching. And, that, to me, is a great advantage of an academic job: you get to cultivate the minds of future generations.

A friend once told me this baton-passing is the reason that professors often want their best students to stay in academia. If your manner of thinking, approach to solving problems and research area are good and important, then you can do nothing more impactful than ensuring that those things carry on with future generations. It will be your legacy. A lasting imprint in an otherwise noisy world.

To some, this unique set of attributes makes an academic job the best possible job in the world. Others, however, can see through this list of pros and know, all-too-well, the many cons: a life of constant stress, unceasing work that bleeds into one’s personal life, an endless need to raise money, little time to do any actual intellectual work oneself because of all of the administrative, service and fundraising duties that goes hand-in-hand with a professorship.

So, of course, people who choose the industry route generally have a rather different viewpoint [5].

The Industry Argument

If I had to summarize the argument for an industry job, at least in a computer science or engineering discipline, it’d be this: You get paid more money, have less average stress, have access to better resources, can have more direct and immediate impact on the world, and have more flexibility with where you live. Let me cover those perks in detail.

You will (probably) be paid more.

Industry jobs in computer science and engineering disciplines pay a lot of money. Nowadays, computer science undergrads straight out of college get 6-figure salaries at companies like Facebook and Google. With a Ph.D. in hand, it’s likely you’ll be hired one or two promotion levels above an undergraduate and your compensation should reflect that.

Also, your earning potential is generally a lot higher for at least two reasons: First, in today’s world, people often leverage existing jobs and job offers to bounce higher up the pay scale. Many engineers bounce between tech companies in the beginning of their careers: a couple of years at Facebook, a couple of years at Google, etc. Each time, they probably negotiate a significant salary raise. Second, when you count bonuses and stock options and the massive profit margins tech companies seem to have, it’s likely that as you climb up the ladder, your compensation will increase significantly.

Your life will, on average, be less stressful.

In my experience, it is much easier to “leave work behind” when you are in industry [6]. Unless you are on-call, which is often only for a few weeks a year, few people expect your time or attention on nights, weekends, and vacations.

Also, the objective function of industry jobs are often far more clear. In fact, you are usually hired to fulfill a very specific role: as a researcher or an engineer or a product manager. So, it’s usually pretty clear what you are supposed to do on a day-to-day basis, and you can focus on doing that thing well.

You will have more opportunity to directly impact the world.

In industry, you’re often working, directly or indirectly, on products that are already being used or will be used shortly. So, whether you write code, design experiences, manage products, or research users, you will see the fruits of your labor touch the world soon. This may seem small, but the tangibility of an industry job can be very appealing. You have a very direct sense that what you do matters. For example, I take some pride in the knowledge that I wrote, as a Facebook intern, some code that has directly impacted billions of people around the world.

You will have access to many powerful resources.

When I worked as a data science intern at Facebook, I had access to a virtual computing cluster with 64 gigs of RAM all to myself. Later on, when I was processing hundreds of millions of rows of data, I was given provisional access to a computing cluster with a terabyte of RAM. As it so happened, I also had access to the largest repository of human behavior in history. With these resources, I could answer questions about how people interact that had never before been conceived. All of these resources and opportunities were afforded to me just because I was an employee at Facebook. I did not have to self-fund the creation of these clusters, assemble a team of engineers to manage and maintain the clusters, nor run a longitudinal study of human behavior spanning years. It was, in every way, a remarkable experience and opportunity.

My experience is not unique. It is just one example of a broader point — in industry, you can have access to some truly amazing resources: large amounts of cash, bleeding edge hardware, massive datasets, and computational resources at the limit of what humans can create.

You will have more flexibility in where you can live.

Also, industry jobs typically come with much more flexibility in where you can live. There are relatively few good universities that are also in desirable cities. There are yet fewer good universities that are also in desirable cities that are also hiring in your field the year you enter the academic job market.

Industry jobs, on the other hand, are typically plenty in most big cities. If you join a sufficiently large corporation, there are also probably international branches where you may work or get to visit. Moreover, you can probably switch offices every few years so that you can sample different cities all over the world.

This may seem like a small perk but it can be quite compelling, especially if you also have a working partner. If you are a professor in a small college town, it’s likely that your partner will have few job options.

Parting Words

So, what’s the right choice? Behind door 1, you can find intellectual freedom, schedule flexibility, periods of extended free time, the potential for unparalleled job security and an opportunity to cultivate future minds. Behind door 2, you can find more money, less stress, location flexibility, access to powerful financial and technological resources, and an opportunity to have direct and immediate impact.

There is no right choice for everyone. Even if you hear the whispers that because you are good, you should stay in academia, I would pay it little mind. This is a deeply personal choice. But in the next two posts, I hope to show you that it’s actually more than just that.

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[1] As best as I could, anyway. I don’t doubt that I overlooked many viable options.

[2] Of course, I do not mean literally ask. Asking can come in many forms: peer review of papers, committee review of tenure, etc.

[3] Some more hedging here. Your ability to bring in grant money is actually important, so you can draw parallels between bringing in grant money and making money in industry. In practice, though, as long as you can bring in enough grant money so that you are not a financial burden to your department, then you should be fine.

[4] I can’t claim to be have the entire insider take on the industry argument, but I have done 5 research internships in industry so I think I can represent it about as well as any graduating Ph.D. student can.

[5] This may not always be completely true depending on where you are employed and your funding situation.

[6] A notable exception is if you start your own company or are otherwise basically playing a multi-faceted founder-like role in an early-stage start up.

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3 thoughts on “Academia or Industry? The “Dichotomy”

  1. “Others, however, can see through this list of pros and know, all-too-well, the many cons: a life of constant stress, unceasing work that bleeds into one’s personal life, an endless need to raise money, little time to do any actual intellectual work oneself because of all of the administrative, service and fundraising duties that goes hand-in-hand with a professorship.”
    So I encountered an assistant professor opportunity at a comprehensive university with a 3-2 course load and a rather minimal scholarship tenure-expectation (read: *not* publications). The funding pressure can vary soooooooooooooo wildly within academia.

    Sorry to go spammy contrarian on your posts 😉

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