Industry or academia for an aspiring scientist?
December 8, 2012 9:05 PM   Subscribe

Very-early-career scientist at a fork in the road: choice between working in industry and in academia. Hive mind, please help me make an informed decision.

After a few months of searching, I've managed to generate a couple of job offers in the sciences. One is in a biotechnology company. I'd be part of a group producing biotech products for customers. The company places high priority on crosstraining and flexibility, so I could learn a wide spectrum of their catalog products. There's long-term potential for growth, too.

The other offer comes from a non-profit research organization doing vaccine research. It's a small group that's pretty active publication-wise, and there are a number of different projects in the lab. The one catch is that research assistants are greatly outnumbered by PhDs, so it's difficult to make it onto publications.

About me: I've got a B.S. in biochemistry, and I'm a couple years out from graduation. I'm interested in immunology (infectious disease) and analytical chemistry. I'm trying to work out what I'd like to do in the future, and I'm working from the hypothesis that passion will follow when I've built up enough skill and experience (thanks, Cal Newport!). With that in mind, I'd like to find a place to build up that experience and skill.

I'm not sure about grad school yet, and my secret plan B is to go after aeronautical engineering if I can't find a niche that I enjoy in the life sciences. Who knows, maybe i'll end up in med school as a researching immunologist.

Basically, which is the better choice for me right now? Is there even a clear front-runner? Company beats non-profit in terms of salary, but there are lots of other criteria to consider. (Although, it would be great to take a chunk out of the student loans without working multiple jobs...)
posted by escapist53211 to Work & Money (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I've got a friend with a BS in biology who spent years as a lab tech, basically acquiring all but the paperwork of a grad degree. He ended up getting an MBA, and spent more years working in the office side of biotech.

Short story sounds like both jobs offer a pretty interesting set of experiences.

The corporate one sounds like it might give you exposure not just to other stuff in your discipline, but to other parts of the organization. If your "not sure about grad school yet" is another way of saying that you're not sure you're a lifer for the lab, then you'd have a chance to see what else is out there.

Also, see if you can get a feel for the teams you'd be working with. The aforementioned friend got basically driven into a nervous breakdown by the boss from hell, which (in retrospect) he could have avoided with a lateral move into a less toxic department. The job description alone isn't going to tell you everything.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 10:17 PM on December 8, 2012

I'd go with the lab tech vaccine research position- spending a year or so within academia will help you figure out if that's really what you want to do long term.

I'm an academic scientist. I have worked in biotech and found it quite enjoyable, but I was lucky enough to end up as a lab tech in a basic research/exploratory science group. Personally I would find the basic research/early stage product development side much more interesting than customer relations/tech support- it's not clear from your description exactly where along this spectrum the job offer falls.

However, if you're looking for any sort of long-term job security and have an interest in medicine and medical research, med school is probably the best bet.
posted by emd3737 at 3:53 AM on December 9, 2012

There would seem to be advantages to both positions. Mainly, the pay would be higher in the tech job vs. the research assistant job, but you would probably find the research assistant job to be a bit more creative and unpredictable. If you think that you might want to do research, you would probably learn things about the research experience in the vaccine research job that you would not in the biotech job -- but if you think that you want to be a career technician, then you might as well get your career started now because it'll pay off in the long term. The publication thing is a bit of a red herring since it doesn't look like you'd have much chance to get publication credit in either of the positions you are considering.

Neither position seems to be objectively better, it depends sort of on how you are leaning in terms of your long-term plans. If you think there's a good chance that you will want to be a career tech (a career path that certainly has its attractions in terms of stability, educational requirements, and often income) then the biotech job would probably be better for you. If you think that you will probably want to go to grad school in a few years and take a shot at a PhD or MSc (or go to med school for your MD) then the vaccine research job is probably a bit more relevant and might serve you better in the long run.

However, you aren't locking yourself into a particular path by taking one job or the other. Lots of people make the jump from technician back to academia after a few years, and lots of people work in research for a while and then decide that it isn't for them and that they'd rather do something more predictable and less consuming like being a tech. Neither position has overwhelming advantages over the other.

I think that you can safely go with your gut on this one. Just take whatever job seems better for you right now. If it turns out not to be quite the right fit then it's not going to be the end of the world and you'll have learned something important in the process.
posted by Scientist at 8:39 AM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I should have added that I spent some time as a research assistant in an academic lab right after graduation. But I'm not sure that was the best representative experience of what research life is like in an academic setting—it was a small, brand-new lab, and so the experience had its own unique advantages and disadvantages.

It sounds like there's not a clear winner between the two choices, which is both good and bad; neither option is bad, but that makes the decision that much harder to make.
posted by escapist53211 at 8:43 PM on December 9, 2012

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