Early Career Researcher Series: Academic v. Corporate Research

Research skills are valuable both in academic and corporate positions. The two worlds, however, are very different. The type of research you’ll do, the subjects you’ll cover, and the skill sets you’ll need to excel are different – and so are the pros and cons of each type of job. Understanding the differences can help you decide where you want to go in your career – whether you’re just starting out or have been working for a while – and how to approach your search.

One of the biggest differences between academia and corporate research is that you’ll have more freedom in academia. In corporate research, you will have projects, set hours, and superiors to report to. Academics, for the most part, can work on projects they choose and on their own schedule. That’s not to say your work in academia will be more meaningful, but you will be freer to choose it.

The flip side is that, in the corporate world, you will be able to focus more of your energy on research. In academia, research is supplemented with teaching, student meetings and applying for funding. Getting funding can be difficult, so even if you have a great idea, you may not be able to pursue it.

Keep in mind that academia is becoming increasingly competitive, too. Before you get a junior faculty position, you’ll probably have to complete a couple post docs and an assistant professorship. If you get tenure, your job will be more stable than most corporate jobs, but the number of tenured positions is decreasing and there is no guarantee you will end up with one.

In the corporate world, you can enter the market at various education levels and usually get settled faster than you will in academia. For the same academic degree, it will almost always be easier to get a job in industry, especially if you have an internship under your belt. Salaries are also generally higher in industry positions.

Understanding skill sets

The skills you’ll need also differ somewhat between the two spheres. In the corporate world, you’ll need to know how to apply your research skills to a variety of environments that may not be in your area of expertise. One example would be social scientists who may end up doing something like literature reviewing. Corporate researchers may also rely far more on qualitative studies than quantitative ones.

Meanwhile, academic researchers need to stay up to date on developments in their field, and must be much more focused on one area of expertise. The freedom to set your own schedule means you’ll need the discipline to set that schedule and write grants; you’ll also need the fortitude to deal with rejection. In the academic word, you’ll also have to learn how to build a research team – something you won’t have to do in the corporate world unless you’re starting your own company.

Regardless of which you choose, you can find a rewarding career, and it’s worth noting that people regularly transition between the two worlds.

Did you miss the other posts in our Early Career Researcher Series? Catch up now:
Early Career Researcher Series: Tips for writing an effective research paper

An Interview with an Early Career Researcher Using EndNote
A Look at an Early Career Researcher Using Web of Science
Early Career Researcher Series: Bibliographies