Between Ivory Towers and Glass Walls: An Insider’s Guide to Academic and Industrial Research

Aliens researching!
Image credit: Technology illustrations by Storyset []

Many people have expressed curiosity about my experiences traversing the worlds of both academic and industrial research. This post serves as a reflection on my journey through both landscapes.

During my Ph.D. and postdoctoral studies, I delved into the realm of academic research. Following this, I transitioned to industrial research and development, all within the United Kingdom. The following is an exploration of my insights regarding these two spheres.

Academic Life and Research

In academia, there’s a pervasive expectation to perform additional work on a pro bono basis. Tasks range from reviewing numerous papers, seeking out teaching opportunities, conducting administrative duties at the school, and supervising students. While these tasks didn’t offer direct remuneration, the notion was that they would eventually yield dividends. Indeed, this proved true when I applied for a promotion from Research Associate to Senior Research Associate. My volunteer contributions resulted in an annual salary increase of £1000-£2000, alongside a new “senior” title.

While many champion academia for its freedom, I found the reality to be nuanced. Ultimately, my work was tied to the satisfaction of my Principal Investigator (PI) or, in a broader sense, my funder. This meant that the direction of my research was invariably influenced by government or industry. It’s these entities that hold the purse strings, and without funding, research is an impossible endeavour. Indeed, while teaching could offer some independence, it too is subject to the directives of the university and, by extension, the research priorities of the government. In the UK, funding calls are domain and direction specific. Consequently, researchers are constrained from venturing into unchartered or unrelated territories.

Another significant issue in the academic sphere is the remuneration. Unfortunately, the UK academic system doesn’t offer competitive salaries. Remarkably, regardless of whether one is based in Edinburgh or Bristol, which is 30–50% more expensive to reside in, the salary remains constant. This disparity, in combination with the demanding work expectations, paints a challenging picture of academic life in the UK.

Industry Life and Research

Industrial research operates at a more frantic pace, with heightened expectations. The industry’s quarterly work cycle often drives employees to prioritize short-term outcomes, often at the expense of long-term value — a perennial issue within the industry and businesses [See The Long View: Why We Need to Transform How the World Sees Time by Richard Fisher].

However, I’ve found that industry research fosters a more collaborative environment than academia. Here, the emphasis is placed on the team, who collectively represent the work. This contrasts with academia, where the lead author or collaborator frequently assumes a more significant ownership role.

Much like in academia, industrial research also has a “funder” — the business value of the research. Ultimately, the viability of the research, and by extension the research budget, hinges on the potential product, business, or corporate value. Consequently, in both academia and industry, there’s a figurative boss that evaluates research projects based on their alignment with government or business priorities. Admittedly, though, academia seems to offer a broader latitude for freedom when compared to its industrial counterpart.

The financial remuneration in industry research significantly outstrips that offered in academia. It’s disheartening to consider the countless academics who have dedicated years to study and research, only to be inadequately compensated. However, this improved compensation does come with increased responsibilities and expectations. While academic pursuits such as reviewing, conducting workshops, and writing papers are still encouraged, the focus is often on generating internal impact. A notable departure from academia is the industry’s emphasis on filing patents, perhaps a non-existent expectation in my academic life.

Endnotes: Note that the above reflections are based on my personal experiences and observations. Research teams each have their unique culture and setup, and a single team does not wholly represent an organization. Experiences can vary dramatically, even within the same organization. Additionally, my experiences are UK-centric and may not accurately reflect the realities of academia and industry in other countries.

With these nuances in mind, I hope that my insights can provide a glimpse into the divergent yet interconnected worlds of academic and industrial research.

Mohammad Tahaei
Mohammad Tahaei
Mixed Methods Researcher

Mixed Methods Researcher | Ex-Software Engineer