This post is partly in response to this post over on YoungFemaleScientist, but is mostly driven by several conversations I have had with several of my friends individually that that posting started. They are all still post-docs, most in the boston area, and are looking at their next steps. Industry or academia? Can I have a family and become a PI? What if I actually want to see my partner? Kids?
The major question is "what is it like to work in industry?"
YoungFemaleScientist does a very good job of showing the stereotypes of what academics who don't know anyone on the industry side think goes on in industry. She makes it pretty obvious that she doesn't actually know. I don't know how she would know, so that isn't really her fault. People in industry can talk about it, as I have done here, and 1-1 can tell people stuff. Occasionally, as happened with at least two folks previously here (Phd Dropout and Dapi) they can ask someone questions and get some answers. They were focussed on the career path I have chosen, so that was relativly easy for me to answer. As I have fled the bench, those questions are harder to answer.
....so I asked the R+D directors.
They are roughly equivelant to PI's in academia, in that they head up groups that range in size from 5 to 40 people and are focussed on larger or smaller areas of our business. In addition, I spend a lot of time looking at what we know and what we don't know, and what is going on in academia to compare against.
Some summary thoughts:
1. In area's we are active in we are years ahead of academia.
2. Scientists work as hard or not as hard (depending on the person) in industry as they do in academia. Depends on the person.
In order, some more thoughts.
I am going to talk about an area that is of general interest to biotech/pharma and compare it to academia. Kinases. Academics are still doing stuff that looks at cellular localization, binding partners, and knockouts. Pharma has already patented the whole lot and are looking at drugs to interfere, but the academics don't even know that the pathways are worked out. Why am I so certain of this? Look at the drugs they produce. Read the patents that are published at the USPTO. If you look at what is in the published patent applications, and compare to the literature, you will find that more is known and locked up in the companies than they let on about. One, from a "information wants to be free" point of view can get mad about this. BUT, lets look at why this is, and at the area where academics are ahead. Industry can, and does, buy databases that are manually curated from the literature of all the pathways know in the free and open science worlds (Ingenuity and GeneGo are big on this, but there are others). So - take it as a given that they have access to a lot of data academics can't easily look at (licenses to those tools aren't cheap). NOW - if they are interested in a pathway becuase it has in some way been implicated in disease, they throw a lot of people and equipment at that. As opposed to a couple of academic groups randomly throwing grad students at this, PI level people, senior postdocs, and an army of technicians who are trained and motivated attack it. You will get the brute force effects of solving the problem but you will also get their brain power. Most in academia seem to assume that everyone who went to industry got a lobotomy and will never have another creative thought in their lives, but that isn't quite true. Industry scientists are just as good as academic scientists in this regard. Industry is looking for the angle...they want to convert to product. The way you do this is learn something that no one else knows before they learn it. THEN figure out what to do with that knowledge such that you can make a product out of it. In some ways this is harder than academia. There, you can just write a paper about what you have learned and move on. For Industry, just knowing a fact doesn't help you that much. You actually have to do something with that fact.
Where academia does well is on the things that no one can see a use for in the next few (10) years. RNAi was a good example. Not many in Pharma are really looking at gene control in nematodes ( I think Novartis looks at fly's, but that is old knowledge so maybe they don't any more). The fact that the work in nematodes eventually leads to a huge industry push is not foreseeable, so mostly they don't fund it. Academia does this work and does a supurb job of it.
Once the initial discovery is made, and published, and realized that it is usefull, then industry runs with it. Academia can't hope to keep up at that point and is soon left behind.
This is, I think, only really true for disruptive findings. When one is talking about general control or the basic biology of enzyme classes, I think that the academics are behind.
I can't really point at the example, but there was a recent nature paper that shows an effect that we have already released product based on and have a patent on. They are 6 years behind us. We don't publish though. The paper got put up on the board at work and the internal scientists are smiling.
As far as working hours go...People work a bit less than in graduate school. That is, I think,healthy. You can not keep up that pace for the rest of your life. You might think you can, but you won't be productive and in the industry setting you will end up unemployed. Derek Lowe said it best (also has a great heading of industry vs academia where he spells things out well for chemists. I would agree with everything that he says for biologists as well though)
Overall - what I would say to Post-Docs who are slogging through the years trying to figure out what to do - ASK people. Read blogs. Send questions to folks. Talk the uncommunicative industry folks at meetings.
DONT base your decisions on old stereotypes. You don't know what we do on this side of the fence, but we all came from your side so we do know what you are going through.