Academia, Government, or Industry? Which Is Right for You?
By Clifford S. Mintz, Ph.D.
Although competition for life sciences jobs has become fierce, most Ph.D. life scientists will ultimately find jobs in academia, government, or the pharmaceutical or biotechnologies industries. While these jobs share many things in common, there are differences in compensation and benefits, job security, workplace culture, and career advancement.
Frequently, life scientists choose career paths without knowing much about them. Therefore, it may be informative to better understand the similarities and differences between academic, government, and industry jobs before taking the career plunge.
By default, students who obtain a doctorate in the life sciences are being groomed for jobs in academia. And, not surprisingly, the Holy Grail in academia is tenure.
Tenure offers a plethora of career opportunities including promotion, visibility, and perhaps, most importantly, lifelong job security. Also, in addition to their academic responsibilities, tenured faculty members can work as consultants, serve on scientific advisory or corporate boards and even start their own companies. Although life as a tenured faculty member can be attractive, earning tenure is extremely difficult in today’s environment and it requires a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Put simply, it is not for the feint of heart.
Salaries for tenure track positions have improved over the past decade. Starting salaries for an assistant professor can be $70−$85K; for an associate professor, $85−$100K; and for a full professor, $110K to over $200K. Healthcare and retirement benefits (pension/401k) for tenured faculty members are comprehensive and usually generous.
At present, the number of applicants seeking tenure track appointments far exceeds the number of job openings in the U.S. Consequently, many Ph.D.s have been forced to accept non-tenure-earning positions, adjunct faculty appointments, or part-time, contract research jobs. Unfortunately, salaries for these jobs are much lower, benefits packages are less generous (if offered at all) and job security is fleeting.
The waning availability of tenure track positions has induced many Ph.D. life scientists to consider working for the U.S. government. A number of federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and many others employ life scientists.
In contrast with the long hours and the daily grind of academia, government jobs are less stressful, and employees almost always work a five-day, 40-hour week. That said, ambitious goal-oriented scientists may find government bureaucracy and a slower work pace somewhat stifling from a career perspective.
Annual salaries range from $65K to $70K (entry level) to more than $180K for longer term employees. Typically, government employees enjoy generous healthcare and retirement benefits, and they can be more comprehensive than those offered in academia and smaller biotech and pharmaceutical companies.
Career advancement for government employees is generally quite good although promotion rates tend to slow with years of service because many senior-level jobs do not open up until people leave or retire. Also, because government jobs are much less visible than academic ones, building a scientific reputation while working for a government agency may be challenging.
Generally speaking, government employment is stable (except in recessionary times when furloughs can occur), and long-term job security is almost guaranteed. However, a large number of permanent federal jobs were lost during the great recession, and openings at many agencies are currently staffed by temporary contract employees.
The ongoing decline of tenure track positions in the U.S. has forced many would-be academicians to consider industrial careers at biotech and pharmaceutical companies. Previously, jobs at these companies were almost exclusively in R&D. However, over the last decade, new job opportunities have emerged in regulatory affairs, medical communications, field application sciences, clinical research, and medical affairs. Most of these jobs require specialized training beyond the bench, and job applicants who fail to obtain it will not be hired into these positions.
Work hours at large companies tend to be 5 days a week (9-5) whereas those at smaller companies are likely to be variable and possibly longer. Promotion is usually based on meeting annual goals (set by supervisors) and an employee’s overall contribution the company’s financial bottom line. Unlike academia, publications are not important in industry so establishing visibility or building a reputation in a particular field can be challenging.
Entry level annual salaries ($85K−$100K) are much higher than those in academia or government. Likewise, salaries for more senior personnel are much higher and can range from $150K to $200K (senior director) to more than $300K (vice president). Annual bonuses are common in industry and typically range from 10 percent to more than 30 percent (depending upon position and title). Healthcare and retirement benefits at most companies are generous and comprehensive and may include some perks, such as flexible spending accounts, prescription drug discounts, and mortgage assistance programs that may not be available to academic or government employees.
Job security for biotechnology and pharmaceutical employees is largely a thing of the past. The recent financial crisis coupled with unprecedented consolidation in the life sciences industry has forced many large and small companies to downsize and shed massive numbers of R&D employees. However, as mentioned above, there is growing demand for employees who possess expertise in regulatory affairs, clinical research, and medical affairs.
Making decisions about possible career paths is never easy, and they should not be made hastily or without considerable thought. That said, considering career options early on in your graduate training will help you to acquire the requisite skills, knowledge, and understanding to successfully compete for academic, government, or industry jobs that you may be interested in the future.
Learn more about jobs in academia, industry, contract research organizations, and government in testimonial videos on the AAPS website.
Clifford S. Mintz, Ph.D., owns and blogs at www.BioJobBlog.net, a life sciences career development blog.
For more information on the AAPS Career Center, contact Joy Davis at +1.703.248.4702 or Davisj@aaps.org.
Read more in the Career Success article archive.
To access back issues of Careers magazine, visit the Careers Magazine archive.