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Mutation or Extinction?

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Mutation or Extinction?

Postby Dave Jensen » Thu May 11, 2006 10:31 am

Hi,

My article in Science Careers next week is entitled, "Mutation or Extinction? Can the Scientist Survive in Today's Career Culture?" Basically, I've interviewed a number of senior industry staff about the changes in companies over the last few years and the difficulties that many scientists have in adapting to work in industry. It is just that it is SO far removed from the world of academia, and while industry keeps changing, academia does not. Therefore, it is my impression that given this set of changes, the transition to industry from academia will only get more difficult for PhDs as time goes on.

I would very much appreciate a series of comments from others here in this thread that may help me identify the real issues behind the academia-to-industry difficulties . . . What have your experiences been and why is it that so many people do stumble on this path?

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Mutation or Extinction?

Postby Kelly » Thu May 11, 2006 10:46 am

Hi Dave,

As an academic, I would not know how to even begin to prepare someone for a career in industry. I suspect that most academic-types would tell you the same. As academics, we know what skills are important and what experience our trainees need to be successful in the academic setting. Industry however, is sort of a big black box to us.
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Mutation or Extinction?

Postby Elizabeth » Thu May 11, 2006 11:50 am

As someone who spent a little over one year in the industry setting, I must say the cultural difference is huge. (I'm back in academia now.) Just the very idea of management, reporting structure, accountability, project deadline, budget forecast, all those things that I suspect everybody else working in the "real world", science or non-science, take for granted were totally new to me. Now I understand why Microsoft Office products have all those "collaboration" features that I never found useful in the academic world. (At least I can start to imagine where the ideas for those features came from.)
My general impression is academic labs are into producing soloists. Industry wants orchestra players.
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Mutation or Extinction?

Postby Rich Lemert » Thu May 11, 2006 12:00 pm

I don't think the problem affects science in general but is specific primarily to the life-sciences, and I think part of the reason for this is historical. Chemists have long been in demand in industry - even though that demand depends on one's area of interest, and even geologists have found employment in the petroleum and mining sectors for years. The life sciences have until fairly recently, though, been more aligned with medicine than with industry - and I don't really consider the medical profession to have too much in common with "industry".

The result of this, which one poster has already mentioned, is that the faculty in this field really don't know about "the other side." They haven't seen the undergraduates who've peeled off into the industrial track at the bachelor's level; they haven't had many colleagues from grad school who've gone the industrial route; and they don't have any faculty with experience in this area.

Improving the situation will not be easy and it will take some time. A couple of things that would help: 1) encourage faculty to take industrial sabatticals, and 2) encourage departments to bring in people from industry to fill senior positions. Both practices are common in engineering.
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Mutation or Extinction?

Postby Rich Lemert » Thu May 11, 2006 12:01 pm

"My general impression is academic labs are into producing soloists. Industry wants orchestra players."

I don't think you're going to be able to find any better summary of the situation than this! Beautiful!
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Mutation or Extinction?

Postby Andrew1 » Thu May 11, 2006 12:18 pm

"My general impression is academic labs are into producing soloists. Industry wants orchestra players."

However, that's definitely changing in academia too though. Modern efforts such as "systems biology" (sorry for the buzzwords) increasingly rely on large collaborations.

It would be useful if industrial people could give some specific examples of where things go wrong, and what skills they would like to see. A lot of comments I see are just generalized griping, which is not going to change things.
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Mutation or Extinction?

Postby Chris2 » Thu May 11, 2006 12:33 pm

I have the impression academia is slowly changing too - at least on the funding level. More and more collaborations are encouraged and project managers are put into place to manage the huge amount of funding some of the bigger funding agencies give out - at least that's what I heard for Canada. It seems to irritate the more academic oriented people a bit. Probably because they are not used in thinking in these terms?
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Mutation or Extinction?

Postby Emil Chuck » Thu May 11, 2006 12:40 pm

I also think there is an element where industry demands so much more flexibility that scientists must be able to adjust. When a project is suddenly cut by the powers above in industry, the scientists have to follow management's lead. The reason for the change is because the company has to be flexible to market changes or government decisions and regulations. Academia has more lag time before someone gets fired for not getting tenure or losing grant funding; in industry, it seems that the sword falls quickly.

We've discussed the difficulties of getting into industry: I love the "five pound butterfly" quote from a previous SC article. I also really like the soloist/virtuoso vs. orchestra "team" concept... partly because I used to work in an orchestra (non-player) and know how "corporate" an orchestra structure is outside just the performers. Granted, there is a hint of academia in an orchestra too, but I digress.

But that said, academia gripes all the time about mentoring/management. In industry, bad mentoring or management results in failure for the company. Why that's not valued more among academic institutions is beyond me.
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Mutation or Extinction?

Postby Rich Lemert » Thu May 11, 2006 1:33 pm

"It would be useful if industrial people could give some specific examples of where things go wrong, and what skills they would like to see. A lot of comments I see are just generalized griping, which is not going to change things."

To give just one example (I really do need to do something related to my job today), a common complaint of industry is that new hires can't write. I would contend, however, that the problem is not that they can't write but that they can't write in an appropriate industrial style.

You're all familiar with the structure of the typical academic research paper: intro, procedure, results and discussion, conclusion. Industrial researchers are obviously also familiar with this format, and they use it _when it is appropriate_. For most industrial communications this format is NOT appropriate. Management wants to get directly to the bottom line - what do I need to do, how much is it going to cost me, and what is it going to do for me. That information needs to be summarized very briefly in the first paragraph of your report. The next 1-1.5 pages can expand upon these areas, but you still need to be very concise. All the supporting material can come later - and many advocate that it should go directly into an appendix.

There is a place for the traditional lab report in the curriculum, but the students need exposure to a wider variety of writing styles too. At the undergraduate level the first laboratory course should emphasize the traditional lab report format. It helps the students learn how to structure their thoughts and support their arguments. Later lab courses should consider using alternative report formats, however, including verbal formats.

When I taught chemical engineering we tried this approach in our lab courses one year. The students had four major projects in their second lab course, and we required them to use a different format for each report. One report was to be written as if the students were submitting a paper to a technical journal - this most closely resembled the traditional report format. Another report was to be prepared as a poster - as if the students were presenting their work at a poster session in a technical conference. I even made the students schedule a time where they came to me and "presented" their poster - as if I was someone walking around the conference who had spotted an interesting presentation. (This may have been the hardest report for the students to prepare because they had to distill their results to one 36"x48" poster, but it was also the most fun - one student said she hadn't done anything like this since junior high.) The third report was written as if you were sending a report to your immediate supervisor, and the fourth report "went" to the company's VP of research.
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Mutation or Extinction?

Postby Baoloa » Thu May 11, 2006 5:32 pm

"My general impression is academic labs are into producing soloists. Industry wants orchestra players."

In response to this, I would propose that the behaviour of academics as "soloists" is entirely rational; advancement for academics relies on being seen as the "one" who was intellectually responsible for the work (hence the debate about authorship on another thread).

In other fields where the tasks may be more widely distributed it is much harder to claim that a particular person is personally responsible for the success or failure of some project (unless they are at a quite senior level; in which case managerial, rather than scientific, abilility is the question).

So I think it slightly naive of industry folk to complain about the "prima donna" attitude of academics; academics need this attitude in order to survive. Academia is an extremely competitive and cut-throat business (even if it doesn't pay well).

If you are an academic "wallflower", not caring too much about specific credit, giving it away left right and center, you will not advance; indeed you may find yourself not getting tenure and becoming unemployed. Then "industry" will tell you that you're too "academic"; and not enough of a team player...
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