Part One of my (very) occasional series on life in academia versus industry.
This is the second part of a comparison (MY comparison) between life in universities vs the private sector. I thought I'd tackle what makes you "good" at either job, as the metrics are surprisingly different.
In academia, what constitutes a major accomplishments differ based on your career stage. There are three stages in an academic's career: Trainee (grad student/postdoc), tenure-track (assistant prof, etc.), and tenured. At the earlier stages, I'd argue publications and presentations are probably the most important accomplishments. Later, raising money (via grants) becomes increasingly important. Maybe so important it's the only thing. I've seen several examples where a prof got away with some real shit (for example, having sex with one of their graduate students, while married) because they had a half-million dollar grant that would walk away with them.
In industry, however, external funding is much, much less important (at least at companies with actual products on the market). As an in-house scientist at a giant company, all the money I require for experiments, travel, salary, etc. comes from the company. This is nice in some ways (I haven't so much as thought about writing a grant application in more than a decade) and not so good (when my sugar daddy stops paying the rent, that's it; the lights go out immediately). Publications are also far less emphasized. In some ways, publishing is frowned upon in industry - releasing any data from a company is a big deal and requires a series of tedious administrative steps to get approval to disclose company data. Pubs can also be viewed as a sign that you're not working on important projects, those ventures that warrant the utmost secrecy because they may one day be worth a billion dollars. This creates a situation where industry scientists publish their "junk", findings that have no value to their company other than building the CV of attendant researchers. It's not necessarily bad science, just not monetize-able.
That said, despite the lack of corporate focus on publishing, I try to keep publishing as much as possible. I've banged out ten or twelve papers in the last five or six years, but it's not something I've ever emphasized. I view them more as a safety net - you never know when you'll be looking for another job.
Comparing Research Quality
Despite what I said about industry researchers publishing their junk, I think there's a strong argument to be made that the best, most carefully executed science comes from industry. In academia, when a project is incomplete or a problem still has fuzzy edges you can publish it and walk away. In industry, this isn't an option, as the consequences of saying 'good enough' can be far more pronounced.
Think of a pharmaceutical pipeline as a conveyor belt. At the beginnings are the basic "discovery" process, where an idea turns into a testable hypothesis. After that comes the formulation of tool compounds (a rough form of the drug developed to test whether the concept will work) and other preclinical testing. Later, the drug is tested on patients in clinical trials. I'm painting in broad strokes here, but it really is like an assembly line where each team adds one or two new things to advance the process and refine the product towards something that can be prescribed.
As a scientist then, the drug development process puts a tremendous premium on producing consistent and reproducible results. If I provide the next team with a fundamentally flawed product, we're screwed, because the therapeutic/drug/whatever is unlikely to ever work as intended. Unlike a publication, where a failure to replicate is no big deal, a pharma company will have poured millions of dollars into developing a flawed compound by the time clinical trials fail. You can be sure they'll look backwards to determine where things go off the rails, and you do not want to be the guy tabbed as being responsible for the failure of a drug. Trust me on that one. In some of the more egregious cases, you'd be expected to resign (or be fired) if you were truly negligent in pushing up a project that was severely deficient. Thus, while industry scientists may not be the best "talkers", there's an excellent likelihood they'll have excellent hands at the bench.
Maybe what I'm saying is that, for an academic, external reputation (i.e., how you are perceived by those outside your uni) is more important, whereas in industry your reputation within the company is more important.
Continuing this thread, it's worth asking what makes an industry scientist "good"? A solid pharma scientist proves their worth within a company by being involved in a large number of successful compound and/or project phase-ups. Moving a product along a conveyor belt is very valuable. Do it enough times and people notice.
This manifests itself into career advancement, which is a physical manifestation of one's reputation. Companies often have six or seven levels of scientist, so as to get really granular on how their employees are coming along. In many of those situations, the raises associated with the promotions can be quite modest; the promotion itself is a vote of confidence in the employee, a way of moving him/her in the right direction with some regularity. My company is actually relatively traditional, in that there are fairly few levels for the worker bees. We go like this: associate scientist (bachelor/masters level)--> scientist (new PhD) --> senior scientist (PhD w/postdoc; this is usually the ceiling for experienced masters folks) --> principal scientist --> manager --> senior manager --> associate director --> director --> VP of [whatever].
On the whole, the industry system is not a whole lot different from the tenure system in academia, although the delineations aren't quite as sharp. At the higher levels, the game becomes much more political, but at the bottom it's far more of a meritocracy. Academia, of course, is HIGHLY political.
External Promotion (AKA Switching Jobs)
Unlike gossipy academics, most large companies are tight-lipped. A contact in HR will generally tell prospective employers precious little about you as a matter of policy. At most, they'll confirm the dates you worked there and your job title(s) (this is mainly to avoid being sued by former employees). So how do you distinguish a person who's on the rise from someone who's incompetent? Simple - skills, personality and promotion history. Job hunting deserves its own post, but if I ever wanted to move outside of my company, one can show value by the simple fact that you're advancing through the many rungs of the company. My resume reads something like this:
2009-2011: Senior Scientist
2011-2015: Principal Scientist
2015-Present: Executive Scientist*
Every few years, there's a promotion, the company's saying see this guy, he's on track. On the other hand, no promotion means you should probably think about leaving. I once had a colleague who did not do so well in our group. This person was stuck exactly where they started for over five years. Eventually they got the message that this was a dead-end job and moved on. Interestingly (and somewhat paradoxically), everyone knows the thing about promotions, so it can be tough to get a job when you're in a dead-end type of situation. That same colleague I mentioned was looking for jobs for quite a while before they finally left.
Everyone knows that applying for a tenure-track job is not unlike having your colon scoped - a bunch of strangers will scrutinize your shit to no end. While the faculty process is no doubt rigorous (I've never been through it, so I can't say that much), personal chemistry in much more important in hiring for industry. Especially for starting-out jobs for new PhDs. I'm always amazed how little effort academics put into new hires below the faculty level. Professors (and I'm certainly generalizing) will look at potential postdoc's CV, determine that a postdoc has an OK publication record and immediately make an offer, sometimes sight unseen. Even in the event that a prospective postdoc is brought in to give a talk, it's the prof who has the final call. For undergrads/new grad students without a pub record, just asking is usually enough to get you a spot in the lab (funds permitting). I've seen so many profs basically shrug and say 'fuck it,' before making an offer to a marginal candidate.
In contrast, pharma cares intensely about the person joining the team. Some of this is due to the fact that more experienced people work at the bench in industry (in universities, >95% of the work is done by the students/postdocs, amirite?), some of it is due to policies. Unlike academia labs, which are limited only by funding, industry teams usually have a very strict headcount cap for FTE (full-time employees). Unlike academia, where bad people can be graduated or shuffled off on imaginary funding concerns, it can be very hard to fire an underperforming industry person (big companies equal big documentation, performance improvement plans, etc.). For that reason, it's very, very hard to get through the door.
I suppose that leads me to the final "what makes someone good" point - not being a jerk. Truism: If you're an asshole, you better be incredible at your job.
*The sharp-eyed will note that this title isn't on the ladder for my company. In fact, it's a made-up job that I stumbled into when it became promotion time and I flat-out refused to manage anyone. Yet another story for another day.
Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.