3 steps to take before pursuing a career in academia

While industry generally pays more, academia can be rewarding in the long run.

By U2B Staff 

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Choosing the right path, whether it is industry or academia upon completing your post-education is a decision that requires careful evaluation and planning. In the UK, a career in academia can be quite lucrative.

According to statistics released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) more than a third, 36% of full-time academics earned between £44,240 and £59,400 in 2016 and 2017. A further fifth 20.3% earned more than £59,400 in that year. However, many would argue that industry is more financially rewarding but ultimately the decision to pick the desired path relies on long-term career planning.

A career in academia generally combines teaching and research at higher education institutions. However, some roles in academia will focus solely on research or teaching exclusively, although these roles are less common.


1. Identify the required qualifications for both industry and academia

Most people entering academia in the UK at the level of lecturer or above are now expected to have a doctoral-level qualification. Doctoral level qualifications include a Ph.D., EngD, DPhil, DBA, or qualifications of equal value.

These qualifications represent the candidate’s ability to carry out research professionally and communicate research findings in an academic setting.

In some universities, particularly those focused on providing vocational courses for students, it used to be possible to become a lecturer in some applied subjects without a doctoral level qualification. However, with the increased focus on research at all UK universities, is now becoming less common.

Candidates who are considering applying for a doctoral research programme would be required to have a good first degree, which is usually a first-class honours undergraduate degree, and a master’s level qualification.


2. Identify your financial needs and match that to your aims or goals in life

While industry generally pays more, academia too can be rewarding in the long run. Based on findings published on Glassdoor, the national average salary for a professor is £77,334 in the UK. However, a career as a professor will require the candidate to have a graduate education and expertise in a subject area. Professors will also be required to conduct original research and have quality research publications under their belt, all of which would require years of extensive research.

Generally, universities hire professors with university-level teaching experience, which means it will take years and experience to achieve professorship. Graduate students can acquire teaching experience by working as graduate teaching assistants while enrolled in doctoral degree programmes. Graduate teaching assistants can expect to earn up to £19,697 a year, across industries which is generally not much compared to their peers who opt to work in industry. Recent doctoral degree programme graduates often begin their careers as adjunct professors and move up the ranks to assistant, associate, and ultimately full professor positions.

In a nutshell, while it is rewarding in some ways, a career in academia may not be as financially rewarding as a full-time career in industry. With that said, the choice really lies with the decision-maker, so it is important to truly understand your own goals and aims in life.

If you are interested in becoming a business leader, then the decision is clearly finding your way through a career in the industry. But if your interests lie in teaching, conducting, and publishing research findings, then perhaps a career in academia will be a lot more rewarding.
There are also academicians who choose to make a move into industry at some point in their careers. These individuals can make the switch by upskilling themselves in the areas of teamwork and leadership to carry out leadership roles in industry.

However, academicians who have successfully made the switch to industry recommend that researchers identify their goals and interests before they launch a job search and to do it sooner rather than later in their careers.


3. Support your decision with a thorough analysis

David B. Searls, author of Ten Simple Rules for Choosing between Industry and Academia highlights ten important key points that will help you choose the right path in your career. In his publication, he uses his personal experience to support his recommendations in decision making.

Searls has made two complete cycles between these career destinations, with 16 years in academia as a graduate student majoring in biology and in computer science, completed his postdoctoral education, and is an experienced faculty member.  He also has gathered a total of 19 years working in industry in both computing and pharmaceutical industries.

In this publication, Searls recommends that individuals approach the decision of industry versus academia through analytical skills. He recommends that candidates gather data from all available sources, including industry newsletters and blogs, and organise it systematically to understand the mood around the research and development units of these industries.

However, he adds that it is more important to look at the facts as objectively as possible, and as much as possible, ignore the emotional responses to industry and academia.

Searls adds that while it is an important decision to be made, it is not the be-all, end-all of decisions. In fact, currently, job-hopping is a lot more common compared to the past. “In industry, there is little stigma attached to changing employers, and if you can tolerate the relocation and/or want to see the world, it is a more or less standard way to advance your career by larger-than-usual increments”, he says.

However, he cautions that job-hopping is less common in academia and harder to execute. Despite that, Searls adds that while it is not impossible to return to academia from industry, particularly if the individual has already established prominence prior to leaving.

However, he cautions, “If you start your career in industry you may be at a disadvantage unless you go to great lengths to maintain an academic-style publication record and curriculum vitae.”

Searls suggests an example, “a decade in academia would include a tenure decision, a lot of grant applications that may or may not be approved, and maybe some great students and significant scientific contributions.”

Ultimately and most importantly, Searls suggests that it is best to approach the decision-making process by evaluating the long-term implications of the decision. Understanding what is required by both job choices and charting a ten-year plan will allow a more thorough realisation of what it takes to spend ten years with the choice.