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Tenure track professors at USA R1s, ideally in STEM, help me understand: in 2021 what advantages do professors have over equivalent industry and government researchers?

I am tenure track at a top 5 university in my area. I have been building a lab with another pre-tenure professor. She is leaving, I recently learned, for a large company research scientist position. I want her to stay, but now I'm thinking of leaving, too.

I spend more than half my time simply navigating complex bureaucracy. After calling friends, I now think the red tape worse than industry or most government is typical of what other professors experience. I also learned I make less than half of what my industry friends make, and less than my government friends. I didn't see any significant 'freedom' or autonomy advantage for the professors in the group, after talking, including my tenured friends. My industry friends are controlling roughly twice the budgets of those I know in my universities. I do get to teach, which I am reasonably happy doing, and some wish they could do that. For me, I have realized, this alone is not enough.

I am now planning, I think, to look for an industry position with 2x my pay and research budget. I am going to take until after Christmas to let the decision sit, and challenge my present assumptions. I'm going to talk to more people I know on both sides of the career path, and also post this.

EDIT: As argued successfully below, Faculty have significantly more latitude in how they spend funds. I am exploring how others use this advantage in this thread: What are discretionary spending options that improve wellbeing for a PI?

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    Have you also compared things like number of leave days a year and other benifits (funded research visits to whereever)? Academia where I am has secondary benifits that can be hard to find elsewhere, even if salary is not always competitive.
    – user53923
    Nov 13 '21 at 12:29
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    I wonder if researchers in industry spend time "simply navigating complex bureaucracy"
    – GEdgar
    Nov 13 '21 at 12:42
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    @GEdgar Yes, yes we do.
    – jakebeal
    Nov 13 '21 at 12:51
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    Trivial advise: the only thing that is fully under your control to be better in industry is your salary: you can decide to only accept an industry job if the salary is high enough. Academic, government research and industry jobs can all have time wasting meetings, administrative burdens and job insecurity. Looking at the careers of others, I would keep in mind that "the grass might always seem greener on the other side". One could set oneself up for disappointment, if a high salary was the only plus. While there'll be periods of frustration in any job, one shouldn't feel miserable though.
    – Rolf
    Nov 13 '21 at 17:48
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    Salaries are higher in industry, but the expectations are different, both for staying employed and for promotion. Researchers in industry that I know are not typically picking and following interesting research areas as they see fit, but rather working at the intersection of their own talents and the company’s strategic investments. Another difference is that it’s much rarer for an entire group in academia to be shut down. Nov 13 '21 at 18:55
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You get to be your own boss and you get to choose what you work on. Not a bad racket… not bad at all.

To expand a bit, I am tenured. I could do nothing or not much but I would find this depressing.

I mostly select the topics I want to work on (there are exceptions). Perhaps more importantly I am now in a position to select the people I work with. I now work with friends, and I can select the students who work with me (undergraduate interns or graduate students): these are very enriching collaborations. As a result I am largely in control of my work environment, which I find almost universally constructive: I only rarely have to put up with the idiot a few doors down…

I actually broadly enjoy the teaching side of things. One can do a bad job of it, but I have found over the years that preparing lectures and assignments have helped me master (or at least improve my mind on) topics that were less clear in my mind. Of course, I don’t foam at the mouth when it comes to teaching 1st year physics, but even that has its fun challenges, like finding novel every day examples.

In fact, I have more fun interacting with students than with most other faculty members (there are exceptions of course). I can’t imagine myself in an environment where I would mostly see the same people for 15 or more years: I find the energy and enthusiasm of bright young students communicative.

I don’t think you can so easily find all these upsides (for me at least) in industry. On the downside yes the money is not what it is in industry, I occasionally have to put up with people with completely different goals than mine, and academics can be pompous and fight about petty things. Truly obnoxious people can survive in academia, but rarely in industry. There are terrible meetings, but that’s not unique to academia. I do not mind some of the bureaucracy because I have autonomy, and nobody needs to approve the draft of my papers or my conference presentations.

On balance, I maintain that it’s a very good job. It’s not for everyone and you need to develop a thick skin pretty fast, but industry is not all devoid of professional rivalries either.

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    Possibly this is a difference of area, or talent, but in actuality I work on what I can get funded to do. Very often this is what my program officer is interested in, not what I am interested in. I have never gotten to choose what I work on.
    – user104495
    Nov 13 '21 at 2:13
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    Um, committees? Faculty meetings? It is not all gravy! ;-)
    – Ed V
    Nov 13 '21 at 2:14
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    @user104495 Your program manager stops you from writing up your own grant proposals and sending them in to funding organisations? That's not really an option in industry, from what I understand.
    – nick012000
    Nov 13 '21 at 2:32
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    @EdV I hope you don’t believe that unpleasant meetings are unique to academia… Nov 13 '21 at 2:43
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    @user104495 any organization has pointless meetings. The difference between industry and academic are the topic of the useless meetings. Nov 13 '21 at 2:54
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The number one advantage for tenure track only is tenure, assuming you get it. There's no such thing in industry as a job from which you can't be fired for any reason or even for no reason.

Number two for people like you and me who enjoy it is teaching. I find that very satisfying and purposeful.

Number three is you get a lot more autonomy to decide what your job is and how to do it than in industry.

But if money's important, you can probably get a lot more than twice the money in industry. Three or four times as much is totally possible in STEM. But fwiw, in my experience, money is overrated. It definitely does not equal happiness. I think you should do what you love, regardless of the money.

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    I was a Technical Fellow at a large aerospace company. One of the rules of the “Fellow” position was that you could not be fired. The company wanted to have a group of smart people who had nothing to fear. Don’t know if this is a common situation, but it refutes your claim that it’s non-existent.
    – bubba
    Nov 13 '21 at 12:38
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    @bubba One can still be re-organized out of existence, particularly during mergers and divestments, but it sure does add a lot of stability.
    – jakebeal
    Nov 13 '21 at 12:56
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    @bubba Did you have a contract that stated you could not be fired or was this merely the current company policy? Nov 13 '21 at 15:25
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    I almost have tenure but I'm thinking of doing something else. - man, y'all rich people are crazy. +1
    – Mazura
    Nov 14 '21 at 1:31
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    @Mazura Not me. I was a lecturer. I've never in my life enjoyed the luxury of a job I couldn't be fired or laid off from. Nov 14 '21 at 2:01
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They have the advantage of being able to do research (or analogous creative activity) that has no purpose beyond exploring the possibilities of human imagination, as long as that research does not require significant amounts of funding.

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    That last piece is possibly worth adding to my post: in my field even a minor study runs around $40-80k. There is no good 'theoretical' alternative. This does not minimize the truth of your post. That said, I do have a grad school classmate who works on pure math for IBM. They pay him to sit and work and publish, but they patent before/as he does. While society surely loses free knowledge, he does get full freedom. Or so he claims. I still like you answer.
    – user104495
    Nov 13 '21 at 2:44
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    @user104495 those industry positions are very rare…. IBM is not a typical company in this way. Nov 13 '21 at 2:55
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    @ZeroTheHero, I think they are more typical than you think. Most top companies seem to have similar positions. I realize many more don't, but I do think that such a position is in reach for most people capable of landing an R1 tenure track position.
    – user104495
    Nov 13 '21 at 2:59
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    @ZeroTheHero and at IBM itself, there were days (decades ago) when many famous STEM researchers worked there. Such "intellectual freedom" positions, if any, will be extremely rare nowadays, even at IBM.
    – Rolf
    Nov 13 '21 at 3:01
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    @user104495 hmmm… For better or worse, a lot of postdocs dream of R1 positions. Maybe they all drank the cool-aid and my experience is not representative, but it remains that industry jobs are certainly perceived as having more constraints. YMMV of course. Nov 13 '21 at 3:04
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Some of the things I missed most about academia:

  • Flexible working hours. In academia, unless you have teaching duties or similar, you are free to come at whatever time suits you. If you prefer to work from 12pm-8pm, you can do that (in my case this was very helpful when I wanted to accommodate someone else's timezone).
  • Similar to the above, if you receive a visitor, you can actually take them around as an academic because you have flexible working hours. In industry, you'll have to take leave.
  • University environment provides you with the likes of library access, cheap food, and professional-level talks by visiting academics. Being able to go to conferences (read: fully-funded vacations in beautiful foreign cities) is another nice perk.
  • It's prestigious, especially if you are at an R1 university.
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    I am downvoting this answer because all of these exist for many industry positions as well.
    – jakebeal
    Nov 13 '21 at 12:53
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    +1 for pointing out the prestige. Exactly. Telling someone you're a senior whatever at Microsoft or Google is not the same as telling them you're a professor at any university, never mind an R1. Nov 13 '21 at 18:28
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    @NicoleHamilton Why would prestige matter to anyone when PHD candidates working at Facebook have a baseline salary of 260K USD p/y. Seems worth the sacrifice in prestige to me.
    – Neil Meyer
    Nov 14 '21 at 10:58
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    @fqq Google is one of the most highly-reputed tech companies however. I think a fair comparison would be "I am a professor at MIT", for which it is not obvious to me that more people are impressed by the former.
    – Allure
    Nov 15 '21 at 2:00
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    To be fair what other people think is impressive should never be a consideration when choosing employment. You should be doing what YOU think is impressive.
    – Neil Meyer
    Nov 15 '21 at 19:19
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Let's talk about money, and how money relates to choice in research.

In order to execute a research project, you need to pay for:

  • Your time
  • Your staff's time
  • Materials / subjects / equipment

If you are a professor at a US R1 university, you typically get a 9-month salary paid by the university due to your teaching. The summer salary should be bundled into your grants but isn't really strictly necessary: it's nice to have the money, though, and funders typically want you to pay yourself. If an average professor makes about $100K, and you assume an overhead multiplier of 1.6, then that means you need between $0 and $40K per year to support yourself.

"Staff" typically means graduate student or postdoc, which, depending on your institution and circumstances will typically run you something between $30K and $100K for a graduate student or postdoc for a year. If you can use undergrads, then it's down at the lower end of that range or even lower. Of course, some graduate students can be supported by TAships, some undergrads will work for credits instead of money, and both grad students and postdocs sometimes come with their own fellowships, meaning that your staff may be free. So total of $0K to $100K per staff member.

In one of your comments, you state that a typically small study in your field will cost you $40-$80k to run: let's take the top of that range and consider $80K of materials / subjects / equipment cost for the year, and assume it requires one full-time person. Total project cost, then, is between $80K - $220K per year.

If you're doing the same project in industry, let's assume your salary will be doubled. But you no longer have the 75% teaching support and you don't have the option to not pay yourself. The overhead will typically be significantly higher as well: let's assume 2.5x, though the actual numbers in industry tend to vary quite a lot. Put those together and you need $200K * 2.5 = $500K/year just to support yourself, though we'll assume you need only half your time at $250K. Likewise, your staff will be much more expensive too, since they're getting a similar salary to you. They'll also likely be much more efficient than a graduate student, though, so you can get the same efficacy with a smaller fraction of their time. Thus, if they're somewhat junior to you, the staff cost might only be about $200K/year. The materials / subjects / equipment cost stays the same, which leaves you with a project that costs $530K/year.

Look at those ratios: The same project costs 2.5x to 6.5x as much in industry! Government labs are similar, though they tend to pay their people a bit less and are correspondingly a bit cheaper.

These numbers are highly imperfect rough estimates, but they illustrate the major difference in cost scales between academia and industry. As a professor, every research action you take is heavily subsidized by the educational environment in which you are operating. This subsidy makes it far easier to explore novel high-risk ideas, just because it's way, way cheaper. On the flip side, you also pick up a lot of project risk because postdocs and graduate students are less well-known quantities than long-term research staff.

This tradeoff of risk vs. cost is a major component of the "research freedom" available at universities. Even if we hold all else equal, it's a lot easier to get hold of $100K for trying out an idea than it is to get hold of $500K.

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    This is a very relevant aspect that doesn't mentioned enough. Nov 13 '21 at 12:07
  • Being in a somewhat "academia-like" industry position myself, these sorts of numbers and tradeoffs are central to my professional life. I find the tradeoff worth it, but overall I see the landscape as a Pareto front of risk/reward/freedom tradeoffs for the different types of research positions.
    – jakebeal
    Nov 13 '21 at 12:35
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    Also industry is governed by the profit motive. You are not going to get any funding in the industry if there is not a clear indication of how the research is going to be monetized.
    – Neil Meyer
    Nov 13 '21 at 17:47
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    I think an issue with this is that many academic projects end up massively underfunded. From experience in life sciences, mouse studies are expensive and spread thin across all the PhD students in a group. Each project only gets, say, 10 mice to work with which results in the conclusions not being statistically reliable. This is part of the reason why translation of these "amazing results" into clinical relevance is so rare.
    – awjlogan
    Nov 15 '21 at 18:13
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    I'm also not sure where your 2.5X overhead figure comes from? :)
    – awjlogan
    Nov 15 '21 at 18:30
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If government researcher means researcher at a national lab in the US, the advantage of the university professor will be tenure (once / if obtained). Researchers at national labs typically have so-called "soft-money" positions and need to regularly (with few-year cycles) bring in research money to secure their own salaries (and that of their research teams) besides any expenses for equipment, etc.

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  • That's an interesting one. I think the positions I think of in government are likely this, or military research labs, or similar things. It never occurred to me that many might need to be self-funded!
    – user104495
    Nov 13 '21 at 2:21
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    @user104495 Funding in these positions is... complicated. Even if a position is internally funded, in practice that typically still means research proposals, review committees, and competition for funding, since there are many different potential choices and priorities for how to utilize those research funds. External funding can often preferable to internal funding for that reason, because the funding is more dependable once captured.
    – jakebeal
    Nov 13 '21 at 12:46
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Industry researcher here.

My industry friends are controlling roughly twice the budgets of those I know in my universities.

This sounds intriguing. What is this "budget" thing I hear about?

I have precisely zero budget, if this is "money I can broadly spend as I - as an expert in the field - think most useful".

  • I try to attend one conference per year. Every single time, this involves walking around with a hat in my hand and trying to scrounge up the money. Yes, it has worked out fine so far, but I find the experience humiliating, and I am using that word for a reason.

  • A few years ago, I tried to find out whether my employer, who is always very keen on showing off what a great expert they have working for them, would pay for a membership in an academic organization. It was on the order of 300 USD for a three year membership, peanuts. My manager approved, but couldn't release budget for this. His manager approved, but couldn't release budget. His manager... you get the idea. Budget was finally released by someone no less than four or five hierarchy levels above me, with 15,000 people under him. All this for 300 USD.

Yes, I understand that academic researchers have to apply for funding, and that not everything they would like to do will be funded. However, my understanding is that once they have their grant, they are reasonably free to spend it as they see fit (and, of course, as they applied for). You could argue that writing one giant proposal to get a multi-year grant is little different from applying for budget for every single trip, textbook, or webinar. Per above, I find the second approach infuriating - it really communicates that we, grown ups all, cannot be trusted to handle more than pocket money. YMMV.

Perhaps I am not doing a great job in haggling with my employer. Perhaps I should have changed employers more often, which gives you leverage. True.

Why am I still here? The take-home pay is much better than my full professor wife's. Same for the work-life balance - my manager has not once called me on the weekend, and I work much less than people elsewhere, in academia or outside.

Yes, there are places where things are different. I see Amazon sponsoring conferences and sending multiple people there (but also being a meatgrinder kind of place to work). Essentially, it boils down to knowing what is most important to you, and finding out whether you are likely to get it at the place you are looking at - whether it's budget, work-life balance, stability, or stock options. I suspect that places where you have both a lot of budget and a lot of take-home pay are the ones that also work you the hardest, but then again, that may reflect a tradeoff you are comfortable with.

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    Yes, I agree all of this question boils down to a trade-off. It is not which one is better than the other it is which one best reflects what you want in a job.
    – Neil Meyer
    Nov 14 '21 at 10:54
  • Taken where you work and looking at your experience I think that you ended up in a place which is not very well managed - from the perspective of money (not budget, money). The things you mention (conferences, membership, ...) should be a given. You are right that the science part of the industry has low budgets, but this is in comparison to, say, IT or Marketing. It is still plenty enough to spend money on travel, conferences, etc.
    – WoJ
    Nov 14 '21 at 17:53
  • @WoJ: the problem is that my employer has very little tradition of research (I arrived there through an acquisition of a smaller startup). My peers and immediate superiors trust me, so I usually do get what I need - the problem is that there is no institutionalized process for managing positions like mine, so I have to regularly do one-off efforts for stuff that should be formalized. Nov 15 '21 at 8:03
  • @StephanKolassa: I completely understand and know these situations very well. IWhat I am just trying to say (but that you know already) I that in organizations such as yours, there is a difference between "available money" and "budget". You may have zero budget, but still easily spend money through other organizations (training, IT, ...). The whole internal bookkeeping (blue dollars) is usually a complete mess.
    – WoJ
    Nov 15 '21 at 9:40
  • Not in the US, but I'm dealing with haggling for peanuts all the time in academia but not in the industry. I would reckon at least the industry situation might differ dramatically from employer to employer.
    – Lodinn
    Nov 16 '21 at 13:20
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The main difference between tech position in academia and the real world is that in academia you don't have to bring anything to market. You don't have to think about how economically viable anything you work on is. The academy also does not really think about any of the real world applications of anything really.

There is no high-pie-in-the-sky work outside the academy. Your STEM work can be revolutionary but if it has no application that solves some problem or meets some need then it is worthless. Your work must conform to this paradigm if you want it to succeed.

Can you think like a business person that is the question? Do you think you have it in you to use your tech skills to design and produce something you can sell for a profit? Do you think you can make meaningful contributions to established tech companies? Do you think you can establish the next big tech company?

Ultimately these are questions only you can answer but if you cannot work with an entrepreneurial spirit then it is probably better to accept your salary and keep your current job.

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    One more thing to add: Are you willing to accept that success will depend more on the marketing of your product than the quality (above a certain baseline threshold) of your product, because your customers will not be able to judge the quality (and might not care even if they can)? I left tech for grad school (long time ago) mostly because I realized the market demanded that 'good' be sacrificed in favor of 'fast' and 'cheap'. Nov 13 '21 at 19:43
  • The pie-in-the-sky people are behind virtually every technology. Without them, the "entrepreneurs" would be still liquidating stocks of sea shells. I'm rather putting this comment here, instead of placing a well deserved -1.
    – Magicsowon
    Nov 14 '21 at 15:45
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    "if it has no application that solves some problem or meets some need then it is worthless" - this part is negotiable at least. Environments this sheltered are rare in the industry but... Not THAT common in academia, either. After all, "great but why" moments happen all the time in STEM research, and doing something highly impractical invites a great deal of negotiation as well.
    – Lodinn
    Nov 16 '21 at 13:25
0

Another answer, with a topic that is IMO different enough from my previous answer:

Intellectual Property (IP) issues

I was recently approached by researchers from academic institution A for input on their research topic. The major problem was that they were collaborating with industry startup S. There was not one, but two problems my employer E saw:

  • IP could flow from E to S
  • IP could flow from S to E.

My employer E was fine enough with my being competent to decide what was our IP I could not divulge. The larger problem was with the second bullet point: suppose we (E) decided in a year to build something that is related or similar to what S is doing? S would face a strong temptation to sue us, especially since E is a large corporation with (allegedly) deep pockets. (Nobody will sue a small startup.) This could become even more problematical if S is later acquired by a competitor of ours, who could see such a hook to sue E over as an asset in the acquisition. Yes, there would be ways to make the collaboration work, but they would entail a lot of very enthusiastic lawyers and contracts.

(The discussion about whether I can even read a publication authored by S is ongoing. Similarly whether I can continue to review for journals, where in a double-blind review I would not even know whether the submission was from a business or an academic.)

I don't think this kind of dynamics plays out quite like this if you are an academic. Of course, if you (the academic) decide to monetize knowledge acquired from an outside party during a collaboration, whether by founding your own startup or by getting hired by someone else, IP conflicts can crop up. But as long as you are "only" doing academic research with input from an outside business, you will likely need to jump much smaller hurdles.

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