During job interviews—at least in the tie-wearing, business-jargon-having corporate world—prospective employers generally ask something like: Where do you see yourself in five years?
I base this observation on rumor, speculation, and reading Dilbert cartoons, well, because I’m a newly minted grad student. I have no experience with the corporate world.
Besides, the career trajectory of a researcher, not unlike Calvinist doctrine, is subject to predestination: I know where I’ll be in five years. Most likely, I’ll have just graduated with my PhD and, having accepted a post-doc position, will probably spend another five years somewhere else doing research. Successful business majors, eat your heart out.
At this point, however, this career trajectory becomes less prescribed. After the post-doc position, the researcher’s career path bifurcates into two separate yet equally important groups: the academics who investigate problems, and the industry members who profit from the discoveries. These are their stories. *clang clang*
(Yes, this is a gross oversimplification of both groups, but I desperately wanted to imitate the Law and Order opening monologue. Which brings me to an important point: This post will oversimplify both groups. It exists to introduce these concepts to incoming students. Please provide necessary context in the Comments section; I would love to read your thoughts. Seriously!)
The question, ultimately, becomes academia or industry. Smarter people than me have written about this issue. (It’s difficult to see, but that last sentence is full of links.) Therefore, I’ll summarize the main points and encourage you to read their opinions.
(I know—lazy, right? He’s just encouraging us to read other people’s articles? Well, yeah. I’m not going to vociferously proclaim that my opinion is right, or even well-formulated. I’m young and impressionable. Maybe later, when I have more experience or confidence, I’ll write something opinionated. Until then, let these paragraphs substitute for a sarcastic, three-second Google search.)
- Academia is generally synonymous with universities, including OHSU. Academic researchers have more flexibility to pursue their own projects. They can teach undergrad courses and mentor graduate students. But they are constantly under pressure to publish (Ever hear of “publish or perish?” They weren’t talking about novelists) and write successful grants. Part of this pressure comes with the struggle to win tenure.
- Industry is generally corporate research, including everything from small start-ups to multinational biotech companies (and possibly non-profit institutions). The company dictates what research is conducted, which means less flexibility in choosing projects but more resources available. There is less emphasis on grant-writing and publishing; many companies prevent the publishing of research because it reveals trade secrets. Industry researchers get paid better than academic researchers, but they usually are under constant deadline and must produce something valuable to the company.
The good news: You don’t have to choose now. That decision is many years away, and everyone you meet will have opinions and advice about making the choice.
More good news: There are other, nontraditional options besides academia or industry. You can apply your grad school skillz toward investment consulting, or popular science writing (!).
The bad news: The number of available careers for researchers has declined, which means that the field is becoming dramatically more competitive.
So my advice is to approach your graduate career like you’re living in a Rocky montage. Punch carcasses, sprint down beaches, scale tall mountains. Because regardless of your decision on academia vs. industry, you want to be prepared for anything, even if that anything includes improbably strong Russians.