Industry for researchers, academia for industrials… Have you also heard a lot about “the other side”, and maybe not so positive thoughts? Have you ever come across a general feeling of disdain, or even distrust, between those two worlds? By going through my (novice) experiences of research in academia and industry, I will try to explain you why I actually enjoyed going from one to another, and how I finally decided to go for a PhD which was quite an unusual path coming from an engineering background.
The engineer mindset
I really enjoyed the “engineer-style” mentality inculcated during my five years of study, in an engineering school specialized in Biotechnologies. From the very start, we were made to apply our scientific knowledge to develop concrete projects: looking for unmet needs and thinking about innovative products that would fill these gaps. This angle of research, pushed towards development, was particularly inspiring for me.
What is it like to work in a company?
This taste for applied research led me to do most of my internships in biotech industry. For the most part, I ended up in start-up companies. There again, I really found this innovation-focus mindset and could experience it in the “real world”. Here are the aspects I enjoyed the most when doing research in small companies:
Something was missing
Those experiences were intense and taught me so much, especially at this early stage of my research career. And yet, something was still missing. This little part of me, who loved science, found itself frustrated from time to time facing industrial constraints. In companies, and probably even more in start-up companies, time and money pressures are omnipresent. The final objective, which is to drive products to the consumer, has to be considered in every action taken. On the research side, this means there is no room for side experiments if they won’t help the product to reach the market.
Curious by nature, I have always been trying to understand why things are as they are. Obviously, this was not the priority in industrial environments. What are the priorities for a pharmaceutical company? Certifying that a drug cures a condition and can be safely used by anyone. But why is this specific drug efficient? How exactly is it acting? This kind of questions caught my attention even more and I found myself frustrated not to be able to answer them. That’s how I got interested in academic research.
A whole new world
Besides my industrial experiences, I had the opportunity to keep a foot in academic research laboratories. In fact, during my last internship, I had to work at the interface between a start-up company and a research team. Not an easy task! Despite working together, I realised how much those worlds were different.
In the laboratory, the atmosphere seemed more relaxed. Group meetings had nothing to do with the ones we held in the company. Rather than very structured, straight-forward presentations of the work done and the next objectives, the meetings used to turn into endless scientific discussions about why this molecule is interacting with this protein under those conditions... Their motivation appeared clear to me: a real passion for science! If I were to caricature both sides, I would probably use something like that:
I could not say I preferred one or the other; I really enjoyed taking part a little bit in each. While the industrial frame pushed me towards a concrete realization, academia fulfilled my scientific curiosity. But what I was sure of at that time, was my willingness to explore this latest aspect more in depth before putting it into application.
Why a PhD?
When I first announced my wish to do a PhD, the reactions were mixed. While all people from academia showed a great support, not everyone in industry and among my engineer classmates was convinced by this option.
“A PhD? Aren’t you fed up with studies now? Why would you want to do three more years while you could start working straight ahead and earn way more money?”
Concerns rose up as I mentioned that I would probably want to work in industry afterwards. In France especially, the status of “engineer” is largely valorised compared to the doctorate.
“Why would you specialize in a narrow subject for all this time instead of staying flexible? Companies are looking for young engineers, freshly coming from school.”
Those remarks stuck in my mind for a while, as they reminded me how much both sides of research are seen a separate, and even often, incompatible. But my decision was made. I wanted to listen to this little voice inside me and was convinced I had to give it a try to avoid having any regrets later.
Even if I had some insights into what working in academia was like, I have to admit I was a bit worried whether I would fit in and thrive in this new environment for 3 years. But one year after starting my PhD, I must say I have never regretted attempting the adventure. When I look back on what I learned and accomplished throughout those first months, I realise a PhD is way more than doing experiments in a lab and focusing on a tiny subject. Importantly, I realised how industry and academia are more similar than they look. Here is an overview of all industry features I retrieved during my academic experience:
A PhD is what you want it to be
Of course, all those aspects depend on many factors. Your place, institution, team, research subject, funding, are some of the parameters that make each PhD unique, and part of it is unpredictable. However, I believe that everyone has a role in shaping their PhD to match their expectations for the future. Personally, I wanted to gain expertise while keeping this bigger picture you need when transferring lab work to industry. This was my experience, but for each PhD student you talk to, you will hear a different feedback.
By telling you about my journey, I hope I convinced you that we are now far from this vision of the crazy scientist, staying all day long in his lab and doing science nobody understands. The organisational skills and innovation-focused spirit I acquired in industry helped me a lot during my first year in academia, and conversely, I am confident that the autonomy and scientific rigour I am acquiring now will be useful if I go back to industry later on. From what I experienced until today, I feel like although different, those two worlds are far from being incompatible. And that’s pretty good news, as their collaboration lays the foundation for scientific progress!
I will always remember what my previous internship supervisor, who went through a PhD, told me as I expressed my uncertainty on whether I should follow the same path: “You are young. Don’t go to industry straight away!” And she is now the creator of a successful company. The important thing is to love what you do. If you love science, don’t be afraid of doing a PhD. All you will get from it will depend on how you decide to embark on the experience!
About the blog
Being a PhD student in a European training network is a life-changing adventure. Moving to a new country, carrying out a research project, facing scientific (and cultural) challenges, travelling around Europe and beyond… Those 3 years certainly do bring their part of new - sometimes frightening - but always enriching experiences.