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I m rounding the corner of my PhD and wanted to have the semblance of a plan for next steps as I close out my degree.

I came from industry so I have a grasp of the pros and cons on that front. I also have exposure to the darkside of academia as I had a front row seat to lab startup trials and tribulations. My issue lies with the fact that my curiosity itch has the best chance to be satisfied on the academic side. In a post Covid world university budgets will be extraordinarly tight making an already dire market for tenure track positions worse. Also I can imagine non R1 institutions having less opportunities as well.

I was wondering if anyone ever witnessed someone cobble together a patchwork of job roles to make a career out of research blending industry and academia together. Like a part time soft money independent researcher in combination with something else to have a long term career. I know there are industrial post docs but I am looking for a career bit a temp position.

Looking forward to hearing responses.

UPDATE

I am relaxing the condition of working for both industry and academia at the same time as it seems to be a key roadblock in achieving the ultimate goal.

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  • 1
    Are you specifically thinking of doing research in both contexts simultaneously? This may be quite difficult due to intellectual property issues. Teaching as an adjunct while having a separate job is another matter.
    – Bryan Krause
    Nov 9 '20 at 20:58
  • I like the idea doing research and having some autonomy. Who own the research is not as important as having the intellectual freedom to try stuff. The traditional academic path seems less viable, I was wondering if there is a way to have more rights and security than an eternal postdoc or research track professor by blending in some industry invovlement or something. Nov 9 '20 at 22:11
  • There are other hybrid options, but you've cast the question so narrowly that, while what you seek is possible, the chances of achieving it are extremely small.
    – Buffy
    Nov 9 '20 at 22:40
  • @TheCodeNovice Who owns the research may not be important to you; it is certainly important to a company that employs you, and one of the roles that academic institutions fill in research is being the entity that protects a granting organization's ownership in research (for government funded research, this ownership is often some sort of public ownership/public benefit) by policing conflicts of interest.
    – Bryan Krause
    Nov 9 '20 at 22:57
  • When I say that I don't care it means I would bend to whatever rules are required so I can have this life. Nov 9 '20 at 23:39
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In my observation, there are some advantages and disadvantages in academia for faculty who come from an industrial background and have research interests relating to industry. The main benefit I have seen is that this often gives useful applied research ideas, and it also often gives scope for some research projects that are of benefit to industry, and therefore gives the opportunity to secure industry funding for research. Attracting "external funding" is one of the most sought after abilities for academics, and if you are able to develop a research project that attracts industry funding then your university will love you and you have a high chance of academic promotion. Moreover, if you can secure industry funding for a project, this may make it easier to secure supplementary funding from traditional grant-funding bodies, since they don't have to fund the whole project.

The difficulty you will encounter, highlighted in the comments to your answer, is that there will be a need to negotiate ownership and IP issues in a way that satisfies all funding bodies and the university. Companies and industry bodies will sometimes fund "general" research that they perceive to be of benefit to them, but they may want the research to lead to some new development or product where they can claim IP ownership. Contrarily, public universities and public grant-funding bodies will want research projects that give some "public benefit" and not just a private benefit to a company or industry body claiming IP rights. Consequently, if you want to create a successful research project that spans both these institutions, you will need to negotiate an appropriate compromise that satisfies all parties. Usually this will entail a guarantee by the industry funders that you can publish some or all of your research in academic journals, but possibly with some extra private knowledge that they may lay claim to (e.g., ownership of a particular dataset, etc.). I have not had experience with this, but I have seen some successful academics who manage to produce research projects that span industry. Regardless of whether you can achieve this, I would say that it is often very valuable to have some industry experience coming in to academia. At worst, it will give you some useful research ideas that have arisen from your industrial practice, and networking connections with industry figures to come up with new research ideas and methods.

In terms of pursuing a "hybrid" career, this may also be possible. Universities usually allow (or even encourage) their academics to pursue some "service to the profession" that may consist of outside consulting work, or engagement with commercial/industrial projects. As a rule of thumb, most universities allow an academic to spend up to 20% of their time on this, subject to faculty approval. (But it varies, so check the rules at the particular university you are thinking of applying to.) It might also be possible to supplement this with your recreational leave if you don't mind using this for outside work. To have a successful "hybrid" career, you will have to adapt to the imperatives of university environment, in particular the necessity to "publish or perish". Nevertheless, having an industrial background can sometimes help with this, insofar as it assists in creating useful research ideas.

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I've been (am?) doing something that may be along the lines you are thinking about.

As a PhD student, I decided from the experience of many short fixed term contracts (I started with 3 consecutive contracts covering my first 6 months...) that an economic plan B is needed that can be put into action at short notice whenever needed. That plan was a small side-line freelancing in my profession, which also had an episode of part-time employment in industry.

I do like doing academic research, but I did not like the transition into academic management that I always saw with colleagues starting their own groups/becoming professors. Which for me pointed strongly to staying on postdoc positions and not wanting to advance to group leader/PI level.
Also, in my country academic freedom is a right only for professors, for everyone below it is up to the professor's discretion (which for me worked out better in some groups and worse in others).

At some point, I decided it is time for a change and I started a business in earnest when my contract ran out. The research institute offered me a half-time position to have an easier transition (for both sides), which I took. Since then, I've had a number of shorter and longish part-time postdoc positions at different research institutes. I treat them mostly like any other customer. The scientific/technical staff I work with typically would hire me as company/consultant, but the grant structure over here often means that it is much easier for them to employ me for a project than to get external consulting.

The standard employment contracts of course don't work (see @BryanKrause's comments), and that certainly tends to create extra hassle. But I know perfectly well which modifications I need and can explain why this is not a whim but a requirement (otherwise no end of hassle about ownership of IP rights may ensue). You need to be willing to end negotiations immediately they indicate that such accomodation is not possible. OTOH, I've also had very positive interactions, where the contract was handled at the top of the legal department with "of course we need some extra clauses, here's a draft, please see whether they suit your needs."

Now a crucial difference here between your proposed solution and what I'm doing is that having two employers means that there's always a third party with legitimate interest in the contract. And that's going to create hassle. (I'd go so far and say this is a flaw in the legal system we have because it envisions only standard work in the form of 100 % positions, and thus has defaults that create serious trouble in many places when someone deviates from that "official vision" of employment)
In practice, I've known people on a lower carreer level (PhD students) to have two part time contracts in parallel (university + industry) without anyone caring about the legal nightmare this situation actually creates: as long as the work is sufficiently insignificant, noone cares because there will be no litigation.


I even like to teach (I do courses), but I'd say you should be carefully checking and negotiating conditions when you consider becoming a freelance academic lecturer. I've managed to get paid decently for a university training/workshop/block course event, but the usual rates the universities list are ridiculous - they clearly indicate that this is for people who want to lecture at university for reasons of vanity (or maybe altruism?), but certainly not for a living.


Covid has not only effects on acadmic job availability, it has similar effects on many industries, btw.
However, you may be able to turn some aspects into your advantage with your potential part-time employers:

  • With such a hybrid approach, you may be able to take positions that would not be acceptable for a more "normal" carreer.
    I.e., moving is sensible only if the contract has a certain volume, and at some point in life even researchers with a rather strong nomadic trait are likely to want settling down more permanently. E.g. I enjoy that I have a "permanent base camp" called home now - my nomadic trait gets sufficient attention by traveling to my customers [except right now...]
  • It is probably much easier right now to convince such potential employers (research institutes/universities) that you'll do a majority of the work from your own [home] office. Thus, you can accept positions that are further away than would be practical for a normal rate of showing up in person.
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  • This is inspiring thank you! I like the idea of part time jobs between labs. As long as I can draw the line properly so people respect boundaries ( not a strength for any PI), this may be worth pursuing. Though I worry about the pay being enough why get me when they can abuse a grad student... Kidding.... Sort of.... Nov 11 '20 at 13:46
  • @TheCodeNovice: If you'd like to chat, feel free to email me (see profile). (I'll delete this comment after a while) Nov 12 '20 at 18:38

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