Industry vs Academia

I started my life wanting to be a mathematician. At some point I had to quit academia in order to feed my children. And so I went to work in industry for ten years. Now that my children have grown, I am trying to get back to academia. So I am the right person to compare the experience of working in the two sectors. Just remember:

  • This is my personal experience.
  • I am not a professor, so I never experienced the best part of academia.
  • My academic experience was at Princeton and MIT: a very selective set.

Money. The pay is much better in industry. About twice as high as academia.

Time. I almost never had to work overtime while working in industry. That might not be true for programmers and testers. As a designer, I worked at the beginning of the project stage. Programmers and testers are closer to deadlines, so they have more pressure on them. The industrial job was more practical than conceptual, so I didn’t think about it at home. My evenings and weekends were free, so I could relax with my children. In academia I work 24/7. There are 20 mathematical papers that I have started and want to finish. This is a never-ending effort because I need those papers to find my next job. Plus, I want to be a creative teacher, so I spend a lot of time preparing for classes. I do not have time to breath.

Respect. When I was working in industry, some of my co-workers would tell me that I was the smartest person they ever met. In any case, I always felt that my intelligence and my skills were greatly appreciated. In academia, I am surrounded by first-class mathematicians who rarely express respect and mostly to those who supersede them in their own fields.

Social Life. Mathematics is a lonely endeavor. Everyone is engrossed in their own thoughts. There is no urge to chat at the coffee machine. In industry we were working in teams. I knew everyone in my group. I was closer to my co-workers when I worked in industry.

Freedom. In both industry and academia there are bosses who tell you what to do. But while building my university career, a big part of my life is devoted to writing papers. It is not a formal part of my job, but it is a part of the academic life style. And in my papers I have my freedom.

Motivation. In academia, one must be self-motivated.

Rejection. The output of an academic job is published papers. Most journals have high rejection rates. For me, it’s not a big problem because from time to time I get fantastic reviews and I usually have multiple papers awaiting review. I have enough self-confidence that if my paper is rejected, I don’t blink. I revise it and send it to a different journal. But this is a huge problem for my high school students who submit their first paper and get rejected. It is very discouraging.

Perfectionism. In industry I was working on deadlines. The goal was to deliver by the deadline a project that more or less worked. Time was more important than quality. My inner perfectionist suffered. When I write papers, I decide myself when they are ready for publication.

Impact. When I was working at Telcordia I felt that I was doing something useful. For example, we were building a local number portability feature, the mechanism allowing people to take their phone numbers with them when they moved. I wish Verizon had bought our product. Just a couple of months ago I had to change my phone number when I moved five blocks from Belmont to Watertown. Bad Verizon. But I digress. When I was working at Alphatech/BAE Systems, I was designing proofs of concepts for future combat systems. I oppose war and the implementation was sub-standard. I felt I was wasting my time. Now that I am teaching and writing papers, I feel that I am building a better world. My goal is to help people structure their minds and make better decisions.

Fame. All the documents I wrote in industry were secret. The world would never know about them. Plus, industry owns the copyright and takes all the credit. There is no trace of what I have done; there is no way to show off. People in academia are much more visible and famous.

Happiness. I am much happier now. I do what I love.



  1. Philip Petrov:

    I did read your article with much interest because I am close to your situation; however a little worse – I do work at university and industry simultaneously (two jobs at the same time). My experience:

    Money: The industry here is able to give me not twice but quad the money that I get in university

    Time: I am very free in the university. As far as I take all my exercises with the students, I am free to do whatever I want. In the industry I have strict deadlines.

    Respect: I don’t feel disrespect from co-workers on both places. I do care for the respect from the people from the “outside world” (not co-workers). They do respect my university job much higher than my industry job.

    Social Life: I feel nice in both jobs. Can’t say which is better for social life. I am not lonely in the university as you say you are.

    Freedom: There is much more freedom in university.

    Motivation: Yes, in university the self-motivation is obligatory.

    Rejection: I have no opinion on that point. I never got a rejected paper or something which may push me back much… But I am not “publication hungry” person too – I publish my work very rare (once or twice per year).

    Perfectionism: I can’t say that I am a perfectionist.

    Impact: I am a little discouraged here since I don’t feel I am making any serious impact anywhere. That’s why I am more focused to my personal life and family.

    Fame: I have no fame yet 🙂

  2. Tanya Khovanova:

    Thank you Philip,
    It is great to have a perspective from another person.

  3. Michael McBain:

    In industry the goals are usually set for you, and the expectations are often mapped out in economic terms. In general, you only do those tasks which result in benefit to the organisation. In academia, ‘teaching’ is the required activity, but ‘research’ is the only activity that the organisation rewards. It is a contest with movable goalposts.

    In the Olympics, there are two kinds of events, subjective and objective: subjective are those in which judges give you a score [ice-dancing, skiing aerials] and objective are where the result is manifest in the outcome [skeleton, luge, grand slalom]. Industry has objective criteria of success, academia does not [and if it does, they change them].

    Tenure-track staff in academia must generate enough new ideas to achieve enough Minimum Publishable Units, preferably as many papers as possible [since bureaucrats prefer countable objects]. Some people are able to do it, some struggle to shake free of their doctoral dissertation.

  4. Nancy:

    This was very useful to me. Thanks for sharing!

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