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SPIE Professional January 2014

Career myths and realities

Only one big difference between a career in industry and academia

By Nishant Mohan

It is always great to have a choice, and it is always tough to make one. This holds aptly for those with advanced degrees in applied sciences and engineering. During their career journey, they all face the choice of continuing on the road of academic research or turning toward the lanes of the corporate world.

I have had a chance to drive on both these roads and look closely at them. I was most intrigued by the myths that exist regarding the differences between these two avenues. Making a good career choice certainly requires delving deeper than the word on the street and checking out the realities first-hand.

Job in academia or photonics industry?

The biggest myth regarding the difference between academia and industry is that there is a massive abyss between the two. The reality is that academia and industry are getting closer to each other over time, and this is occurring faster than most of us think.

One example of this can be found in the massive government budget cuts around the world, which have led to an increase in academic labs looking for research funding from their industry counterparts. On the other side, there is a growing trend in industry to handle high-risk but scientifically crucial projects in academic settings. In addition, there are now several public funding opportunities that require joint academic and industry proposals.

One such opportunity for photonics professionals in the United States is a National Institutes of Health grant for a cancer imaging system that requires the formation of a translational research team that includes both academic and industry scientists.

The growing interaction between industry and academia is inevitably resulting in a merger of cultures as well. I have realized that most stereotypes about academics and industry professionals, from communication skills to lifestyles, turn out to be bogus on closer inspection.

Lab-dwelling scientists are often thought to have mediocre abilities to present and communicate their work. However, the best communicators I have seen over the years were from academia. And I believe it is not that I just happened to be around well-spoken scientists. Rather, it is the result of a growing realization of the importance of good scientific communication in the academic world.

We see the speakers at scientific conferences preparing for days in advance. Only a small set of industry professionals require such preparation on a regular basis.

Other generalizations regarding differences between academia and industry in work-life balance, financial compensation, etc., should not be accepted without looking at the complete picture.

The stereotypes about differences between people working at universities and in industry are nothing but stereotypes. There are all kinds of personalities and positions in both academia and industry. You have to look at each particular job description to realize what suits your career and personal goals the best.

Looking at the ‘average’ career in academia or industry is of little use when making a career choice.

Destination is the real difference in choosing career

So what really is the difference between these two career roads? The answer is their final destination.

The end goal for people in academia is to create knowledge, and the end goal for people in industry is to make products. Academics serve their peer community with impressive research work, while industry professionals serve their customers with useful products and services.

Both these roads will often intersect and even overlap. However, they will always lead to a different destination.

Making a choice between these two paths means choosing a final destination that motivates and brings the best out of you. The roads by themselves will have too many twists and turns to predict in advance.

Also remember one has to make decisions under the constraints of the available options. In case your dream academic or industry positions are unavailable due to prevailing circumstances, don’t give up hope. Dig deeper and you will find that you can create an ideal career path for yourself among the available options.

I highly recommend the career advice book by Reid Hoffman, co-founder of the professional networking website LinkedIn, and Ben Casnocha. It’s titled The Start-up of You and shows how you can adapt to the future, invest in yourself, and transform your career.

Good luck!

SPIE Member Nishant Mohan–SPIE member Nishant Mohan is director of product management and marketing at Wasatch Photonics, a developer of optical imaging and spectroscopy technologies and optical coherence tomography (OCT) products. Mohan was previously with the R&D division of Bausch + Lomb and a research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital. He has a PhD from Boston University and an undergraduate degree from Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati.

This article was adapted from an advice column in the SPIE Career Center.

SPIE Career Center job fairs in 2014

The SPIE Career Center has numerous resources for recent graduates of optics and photonics programs and those looking for a better job. The Career Center has lists of employment ads for engineers, managers, and other types of optics and photonics professionals.

In addition, it has scheduled free job fairs at three symposia this year.

Over the years, SPIE has helped more than 3000 companies, recruiters, and research institutions find technicians, technical sales people, scientists, and engineers. Each year hundreds of companies, research institutions, and conference attendees participate in SPIE job fairs, onsite and online.


DOI: 10.1117/2.4201401.03

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