The question of industry vs. academia is on the mind of most PhD students and postdocs, especially at the point your current contract is about to end. So I was interested to read the Guardian’s live chat yesterday about the pros and cons of academia over other careers. There are many alternatives to academia for those with a science PhD, some of which are described over at Nature.
In Engineering however, there’s a really strong link between research in academia and in industry. Engineering is about solving real-world problems, and so the research often lends itself easily to commercialisation. This is especially true in my area of speech technology, where much of the research is done by large companies. They have the data and the resources that are needed to make progress. There are also a large number of collaborations with academics spending some time in industry, and industry funding academic research projects.
For my part, I’ve spent most of my career so far split between the two. I have had internships as an undergraduate, been funded by industry as a PhD student and a postdoc, and also spent some time working for a company. My stint in industry was in a research lab, so far removed from commercial pressures, but still gave some insight into a different way of thinking about Engineering problems.
Academia allows you the freedom to follow your own line of research for a significant period of time, as long as you can find funding for it. Industry, on the other hand, has a keener eye on commercial goals and shorter-term research projects, with a focus on patents instead of papers. This can restrict the direction of your work, but can also provide a more structured environment and allow you to gain experience in things like project management that are harder to come by in academia.
I don’t know which direction my career will take me in, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself still sitting on the fence between industry and academia in 20 years time.