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Career tip: the academic mindset May 8, 2009

Posted by fetzthechemist in Uncategorized.

When picking a venue to work in, people should understand the basic attitudes within the three main venues (industry, academia, and government service) to increase the chances of success and to prevent a career change later due to incompatibility. Last month, I touched on industry. Academia is quite different.

Research in academia has you being self-directed. Unlike industry, your areas of work and priorities are defined by your own choices. You must work in an area that can garner research funding, but you choose that area. The project scope is broader and longer term than almost all industrial ones. Thus you can build true expertise in an area and publish and speak widely about your work. In fact, academics are generally evaluated for tenure on publication records and funding received. In industry, by contrast, secrecy can prevent you from ever publishing outside of internal company reports.

This independence is a major drawing card towards academia, but this autonomy requires much more personal involvement and responsibility. Young professors spent their lives predominantly doing their jobs. Regular work hours, weekends, and holidays are usually very rare and an option that come with the price of less accomplishment. An analogous young industrial scientist can choose to work the extra time, but it is not requisite and sometimes is discouraged due to safety rules or operational limitations.

Academicians must teach, both in formal classes and their own graduate students. Part of the latter involves built in supervising. Being a good people manager helps in academia, while in industry poor people skills are not a severe detriment. Additionally, academia requires accounting and budgetary work since research funding is controlled by the professor. Full responsibility for misspent funds lies with the person holding the research grants. There is much less of this in industry at the bench level or the lower levels of supervision.

The first few years in academia involve winning tenure. This is just as much winning a popularity contest with the tenured professors voting as it is in gaining a good record in teaching and research. The examples of young professors possessing very good records on the latter, but losing through poor interactions with the senior professors are enumerable. Not making enemies and understanding the dynamics within a department are key. Factionalism along disciplinary lines is common, as are internal divisions based on personalities, competition, jealousy, and so on.



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