Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

Academia or industry?

I have done three things after my Ph.D.:

  • I have been a (permanent/regular) researcher in a major government laboratory;
  • I have been an entrepreneur in industry (making deals, paying other people);
  • I have been a professor, in two different schools. I am now tenured and promoted.

My conclusions so far:

  • At least in my case, the difference in income has not been excessively large. While I did take a pay cut to join academia, you tend to make up some of the lost income in later years. Overall, it looks like things average out. However, if money is really important to you, there is no question that you can earn more in industry where your income is basically unlimited.
  • “Everyone” says that you have more freedom in academia. But whenever I hear someone say that, they are invariably an academic. I think that this is a form of rationalization. Overall, freedom is something you earn. You can enjoy a lot of freedom in industry, in government or in academia… but it is something that you have to constantly fight for. It is quite easy in academia to get stuck in a routine: teach, apply for grants, meet with students, teach, apply for grant, sit on meeting, teach… If you want to have a lot of time alone pondering, you are going to have to fight for it. It will probably not come during the first few years… it might take a decade or two (or you could get lucky earlier).

A real test of freedom is to look at what people do when they retire. Do they keep doing whatever they were doing? The first thing that most academics will do when they retire is to drop the grant applications, the graduate students, the teaching… in effect, they’ll drop the bulk of their job. So how free were they? I consider that I have an excellent job as far as freedom goes. Yet much of my freedom comes from my ability to work on Monday night (as I did today) on my favorite research projects. If I chose to work a fixed 35 hours a week… I would be busy with meetings, teaching, grading, reviewing… almost all the time. Freedom is definitively something I earn every day. But another question is: how free do you want to be in your job? It is not uncommon for people wealthy enough to retire in luxury to keep working in high pressure jobs under difficult constraints. The fact is: it is often more satisfying to serve others than to cultivate your own egotistical freedom. It is not that exciting to write obscur research papers that nobody will ever read. Most of us want to feel useful. Being useful is hard. It means accepting people’s requirements.

  • Tenure is overrated. Most folks in industry that have worked just as hard as tenured professors, have savings, reputation and skills that are in demand. But if you are risk averse, then a government job is also quite safe even if you don’t formally have tenure. And academics with tenure lose their jobs all the time. There is always a clause saying that under “financial hardship” management can dismiss professors. And even with tenure, you still have to justify your job, constantly. If you create trouble, people can make your life hell. If you fail, people can humiliate you publicly. If you get into a fight with a tenured colleague, the fight can last decades and be unpleasant.
  • It is a lot easier to move back and forth between these occupations that people make it out to be. So while you can’t go back in time per se, professors move to industry all the time, and vice versa. To a point, you can even do both. It is not difficult to get some kind of honorary position with a research institute when you work in industry.- Academic and government positions require you to work in a bureaucratic setting, maybe for the rest of your life. In industry, you can be a lone wolf if you want. In this sense, there is greater freedom in industry.

Note: this post first appeared on Quora.