The challenges of moving between academia and industry
As an industrial chemist, one activity I look forward to every year is my visit to a local college where I give a talk to the chemistry department on what it’s like to work in industry. It’s fun talking to undergraduates about potential careers and listening to professors tell me about their research.
If you’re like me and you work in a crowded open area in an industrial lab, being in a college professor’s office with a view of the woods is a refreshing change of scenery. As I sat across from my host professor and watched the trees sway in the wind, I wondered ever so briefly what it would be like to switch places at the table and become a professor at a small college.
I don’t want to project my desires on my industrial colleagues, but many of us are indeed tempted by the thought that, someday, we might consider applying for a faculty position.
In conversations with professors, they tell me that they like to see candidates who have put a lot of thought into what they would bring to the department. They look for a stellar CV and a cover letter highlighting courses the candidate could teach and technical skills that would complement the department and foster collaboration. It’s probably wise for an industrial chemist to search for a chemistry department that has a need for his or her particular skill set.
If you do get hired, the learning curve can be steep. It’s one thing to propose an examination of a fascinating, puzzling investigative result; it is a much more difficult endeavor to create a research program that will attract grant funding, allow students to learn important techniques, train them to be good scientists, and generate new science that is publishable in a reasonable amount of time.
One of my hosts, a recently hired assistant professor, mentioned the challenge of teaching a course from scratch. It was clear that my brief experience being a teaching assistant gave me just the slightest hint of what classroom lecturing is currently like. It requires a huge commitment of planning and time to think about how to best present material, wrangle it into a PowerPoint presentation, and write quizzes, class notes, and examinations.
Another aspect of teaching that my academic colleagues bemoan is the amount of grading they have to do. I know I would be daunted by the prospect of working off-hours. I value being able to be home by 6 PM, when many professors are still waiting for their undergraduates to finish up laboratory experiments or holding a group meeting with their graduate students.
What about professors who want to become industrial chemists? It’s relatively rare, but it does happen. I’m not talking about professors who become CEOs of their start-ups. I’m talking about professors who decide (or have it decided for them) to stop teaching chemistry and start doing chemistry at the bench. What will those professors face in making this transition?
Rather than the challenge of writing proposals for funding, they’d first face the same challenge that those who work in industry do: summarizing the science they’ve done in academia into a cover letter, résumé, and research summary that will convince a hiring manager that they will be a good research scientist or group leader. It’s a safe bet that most professors have a sufficiently impressive publication record, but they may have some challenges in translating their cutting-edge work for industrial chemists who may have fallen behind a bit in their reading.
I imagine that professors who transition into industry are more suited for managerial roles, and I think there is at least a small expectation that they will be much more involved in day-to-day laboratory work than a typical university professor is. It might be tough for a former professor to head back into the lab and deal with the joys and frustrations of bench-level research, although most of my interactions with my academic colleagues indicate that this transition would be a welcome break from attending committee meetings and writing grant applications.
Other aspects of industry that might take an academic some getting used to are the different nature of the hierarchy and being managed by someone else. It would probably be a paradigm shift for people who are used to independent decision-making to have to justify experiments to their boss or have their purchase orders signed by the man or woman in the corner office.
As my visit to the small college wrapped up, I reveled in the great conversations I had with the professors. They seemed happy and grateful to be teaching and unlikely to want to jump to an industrial position. I like my job too much to contemplate moving to academia. Moving from industry to a college setting or vice versa would require a change in perspective, and it would be fascinating to know if those who have succeeded in making the transition are happier in their new jobs. I think I’m pretty happy being an industrial chemist, but I sure wouldn’t mind that professor’s office view.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.