Posted by: jonkatz | September 10, 2009

Industry vs. academia

I had been planning a post on industry vs. academia for a while, but kept putting it off. Now that I have been scooped (twice!), I suppose it’s time.

I was on sabbatical last year, working at IBM Watson, and also had the chance to make short visits to MSR New England, Google NY, and AT&T Labs. Having returned to the University of Maryland only recently, the topic is fresh in my mind. I want to stress that the comments below are based only on my experiences and should not be over-generalized; the comments about research labs reflect my limited exposure to the labs I visited (and the specific people I know there), while the comments about academia pertain, to some extent, only to UMD.

Let’s start with some of the advantages of industry. Perhaps the biggest advantage is that, believe it or not, you can actually devote more time to research working at a research lab. As a faculty member there are constant demands on your time, not just teaching (though that dominates) but also faculty meetings, internal committee work, and — let’s not forget — overhead due to applying and working on grants. Although I was just as busy working at IBM as I am at Maryland, I somehow found the atmosphere more relaxing, and less pressured, at IBM.

Another advantage of industry is that you will likely have more people working in your immediate research area. Given that you were hired at a lab, that lab probably has at least one other person in your area, if not an entire group. Most likely, this will not be true at the university where you are hired. In fact, there may not be anyone in the geographic area working on the same topic you are working on.

Ahh — but you can collaborate with people in other areas! Perhaps, but I have found such collaborations happen more frequently in industry than in academia.

Let’s talk about the environment. The physical surroundings of the labs I have visited range from pleasant (AT&T, IBM) to places I wouldn’t mind going on vacation (MSR, Google — and let me single out the cafeteria at Google for being nirvana). While there are some universities with fantastic facilities, Maryland is not one of them.

Salaries are generally higher in industry, though see below for another take on that. In particular, for me the pressure to get grants to pay my summer salary is enormous and all-consuming.

Finally, there is (to me, at least) something attractive about working on a problem and having someone actually care about the solution. The extent to which this is true depends on the lab (e.g., this is much more true for Google than for MSR), and of course some academics are able to tie into industry enough for this to happen for them as well.

So what are the upsides of academia? Tenure, I think, is not one of them. As Michael points out, research labs are remarkably stable in comparison to any job other than academia. Moreover, even when there is turnover in industry people tend to land a good job elsewhere. On the other side of things, tenure is not all it’s cracked up to be. Departments can effectively fire someone by not giving them a raise for 20 years, or by assigning them to teach 5 classes a year. And that’s not to mention the fact that departments, or even schools, can theoretically shut down.

One definite advantage of academia is that you really can work on whatever you want. Although some might claim this is also true in industry, it really isn’t. If I wanted to, I could start working on computer architecture or even English literature. In industry you can generally work on whatever problems you want in a particular area, but it would be hard to completely shift areas. (On the other hand, switching areas in academia might marginalize you in your department; see the previous paragraph.)

Another advantage I don’t usually hear about is that academia gives you an opportunity to do many different things. I am involved now in several consulting jobs that would not really be open to me if I worked at a research lab. I am applying to be a member of an advisory board, something that would again be difficult in industry. Writing a book would have been more difficult. And in industry I would never have had the opportunity to be involved in the CSSG.

Another potential advantage is geographical. If you want to work at a US-based research lab in TCS you are basically limited to the Bay area, NY, or Boston. Nothing wrong with any of those places, but some people prefer to live elsewhere. More to the point, all those places are very expensive. I contend — in fact, I’ve done the math — that one’s effective salary can be significantly higher in academia then in industry simply because of the location. (And one can supplement one’s income by doing consulting, something not really possible in industry.)



  1. For me, the major advantage of being in the academia is that I do not really have a boss. Of course, there is the head of the department, but this is really different than having a group manager, who also has another manager, who might have another manager. Of course, having Tal Rabin as a manager is nice, but I think being your own manager is even nicer (sorry Tal :)).

    Another thing you did not mention is students. Here the situation is basically incomparable. Pluses for industry: when the get summer slots, they manage to get the top students, who can immediately contribute. I.e., no need to invest any energy to bringing the student up to speed. Pluses for academia: working with GOOD students if fun and very rewarding. It is also great to feed off the amazing amount of energy and enthusiasm you do not typically see from more established colleagues in a research lab. Of course, working with bad students (not that I had any :)) is a real pain.

    Overall, industry is advantageous in lack of grants, teaching, salary (a little), has incomparable relationship in students, and has disadvantage with the freedom, job stability and having a boss.

  2. If I wanted to, I could start working on computer architecture or even English literature.
    Is this really true? How often has this been done? Wouldn’t you have to desert your students, and be grantless for a while, if you did something like that?

  3. Yevgeniy: I should have mentioned not having a boss as an advantage of academia. Although that is somewhat mitigated when you have grants that require quarterly reports…

    anon: There would certainly be consequences to switching fields, and maybe it would take time. But it could be done.

  4. I mostly concur with Jon’s original points. My own experience with industry (well, the company I work with) is that I can do all the research I want as long as it is somewhat interesting to the company. On the other hand, I could also almost completely change my topic, if I wanted given that I succeed in selling this to other people – say by finding a customer who’d pay for it.

    One thing that I found disdainful in academy is that the universities have basically one way to measure their own success (and thus also, yours) – their position in the ranking. While competition is good, following just one measurement is very restrictive. In a company, I can work on interesting internal projects (that do not result in grants or publications in Crypto, but are useful in practice) or I can work on more pure-research-side of the things.

  5. I agree with most of what Jon said. However, there are some additional points to keep in mind. I’ll just mention one. Although most academics see teaching as a disadvantage, I really like teaching. It is true that I would like to teach less than I do, but I like teaching. I like the interaction with the (good) students in the class, and I think that it also deepens my understanding of the material. If I really want to learn a subject, I can teach a course in it. I also very much like working with graduate students on an ongoing basis… There are lots of things that I don’t like, but I want to leave this as a positive comment :-).

  6. And in industry I would never have had the opportunity to be involved in the CSSG.

    This is not actually true, or at least researchers from industrial labs have taken part in the DSSG (Defense Science Study Group), which covers many fields in science and engineering. CSSG is a more recent descendant of DSSG. I’d be surprised if they had a policy of taking people only from academia, although I don’t know from personal experience.

  7. This is not actually true, or at least researchers from industrial labs have taken part in the DSSG…

    I am aware of the DSSG, but was not aware that people from industrial labs were chosen for that (do you have examples?). I don’t think this is an option for the CSSG.

  8. do you have examples?

    Rich Draves from MSR lists it on his web page (at I’ve gotten the impression from people involved that he’s not the only example, but he’s the only one I can name.

  9. Teaching is a kind of social work.
    Working in Industry may or may not be a social work. It’s self contained, profit making job.

    Doing an Engineering is a quick gain.
    Doing an M.S is long time gain.
    BUT Teachers/Lecturers/Professors are good citizens.
    WHILE Engineers & industry guys are good businessmen, they only know how to make money.

    Working in academia is a peaceful work
    while that in industries, it is not.

    Academia may have low salary scales but after all money is not everything in life. You get blessings of so many students in academia.

    My father is Professor in University & my uncle is Engineer in industry.
    My father did M.S/Ph.D.
    My uncle did B.Tech/M.Tech.

    I am currently doing B.S in Mathematics. Above comparison is purely based on my experience about my father and uncle.

    I am proud to be son of my father, & not of uncle.
    I am going my father’s way.

  10. I think you are a little naive, both about academia and industry. Most professors view teaching as a “necessary evil”, and try to reduce their teaching load whenever possible. Most professors spend a lot of time chasing after grant money, and possibly spend more time thinking about money than the average person working in industry (who is not a manager).

    On the flip side, their are people in industry doing plenty of “social good” without explicitly focusing on the bottom line. And since they are not chasing after money, they may have more time to spend on their research.

  11. Hi, nice site. Thx

  12. I have met plenty of professors who only care about getting grants and bragging about their own importance, with no thought towards their students. I only know a rare few at research universities that are exceptions.

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