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Jun 10 2010

Compare and contrast

I thought I might try describing my job as an academic in a physics department, and comparing that to my current work as an industrial scientist.

Some scene setting: in the UK undergraduates are students who study taught degree courses lasting 3-4 years, typically they start at age 18 or 19. Postgraduates are studying for PhD’s, research courses lasting 3-4 years (after which research councils start getting nasty). After PhD. level there are postdoctoral workers who typically do contract research lasting 2-3 years per contract – they may do multiple contracts at an institution but it’s a rather unstable existence. Permanent academic staff are lecturers, senior lecturers, readers and professors in increasing order of seniority/pay.

As a lecturer-level academic, the shape of the year revolves around teaching, if not the effort involved. Undergraduate students start their year in September, with breaks over Christmas and Easter followed by exams in May/June. The teaching year amounts to about 30 weeks. Should you be lecturing the students, you will spend time preparing and giving lectures; how long this takes depends on your conscientiousness, the number of times you have lectured the course and the number of other things you have to do. In addition you will probably give tutorials, small groups of students working through questions set by other lecturers, practical classes and manage final year undergraduate projects and literature surveys. Compared to a school teacher or further education college lecturer your “contact” time with students will be relatively low – maybe 10 hours a week.

Final year projects are of particular interest to you as a researcher since there’s always vigorous competition amongst academics to attract the best undergraduates to do PhD.’s as postgraduates. A final year project done by a good student can be an excellent way to try an idea out. To be fair to students though, their performance in a final project and talking about that final year project can be the strongest part of a CV – since it demonstrates the ability to work individually in an unknown area.

In between undergraduate teaching there’s grant application writing, doing research of your own, writing papers, and then, come the end of term, the possibility of conferences.

In the end it was the apparently endless futility of writing grant applications which did for me as an academic. My success rate was zero, furthermore I had this terrible feeling that even after successfully winning a grant I would struggle to recruit postdocs or PhD students to do the work and there was little chance that having started a fruitful line of research there would be a good chance of continuing it with further successful grants.

I was recruited to my current company by a recruitment agency, who found my webpage still hanging around at Cambridge University a couple of years after I had left. I didn’t actually end up doing the job they nominally recruited me for but what I do is relevant to my research background and can be rather interesting.

I turned up to my new workplace on the Friday before I started and was shown my desk – in a shared office. I did wonder at that point whether I had done the right thing, back in academia I had an office roughly the size of a squash court and could go days without seeing anyone. As it turns out sharing an office isn’t too bad, you get to find out what’s going on, but it can be a pain when your neighbour decides to have a long, detailed meeting next to you.

Another novel aspect to working in industry is that someone seems interested in my career within the company. In getting on for 15 years as an academic I can remember rarely ever talking about my career with anyone who might have influence on its direction whilst in a company it’s at least an annual occasion. It’s true that the company’s enthusiasm for management-speak can be excessive (and changeable) as new human resources fads come and go.

I get to go to lots of meetings.

Relevant to current discussions on the public sector we have regular restructuring, and in the past year or so: pay freezes, arbitrary cuts in travel budget mid-year, a change to pensions for new recruits, and redundancies – the latest round equivalent to losing about 15% of the people on the site I work at. It’s fair to say that we are not necessarily models of efficiency internally: I heard on the news that it takes 5 signatures for someone in the NHS to buy a new bed costing about £1000 – sounds about par for the course.

One noticeable difference is that largely I feel much more wanted, inasmuch that if I’m put on a project then the project leader will be keen to get some sort of intellectual exertion on my part and will even appear quite pleased when this is achieved. Even better, people for whom I do “a bit on the side” are even more grateful. This is a big difference from being an academic, where the odd student (undergraduate or postgraduate) may appreciate your efforts but largely nobody shows much sign of caring about your research.

Looking back on my time as an academic: I think I would have benefited from some sort of master plan and career direction. I’d quite liked to have carried on as a postdoc, i.e. actually doing research work rather than trying to manage other people doing research. However, this isn’t a career option and is a rather unstable existence.

8 comments

  1. Rebecca Sutherland

    This was really interesting. I've never really thought about it before. It's good to have work reviews. No wonder people fester in education (or maybe some just give up?). The University establishment would do well to learn from Industry.

  2. SomeBeans

    Yes, I think there are things for universities to learn from industry. Better career management, and management of research programme would be good there would be some resistance to this I suspect.

    I suspect I'd be better at being an academic knowing what I've learnt in industry.

    There's quite a lot to go the other way though, in particular a lot of the industrial research I've done is more like teaching than original research.

  3. Nora Lumiere

    Thank you very much for writing this! Very interesting and surprising. I had no idea academic life was so hard and unrewarding. The squash-court sized office sounds good though. I'd always pictured lecturers and profs smugly swanning about the lawns and old stones in tweeds and black robes even though I knew a prof at LSE who wore wild ties and rode a motorcycle.
    Particularly enjoyed the "intellectual effort" paragraph, very funny.
    Appreciation is important and having the means to live a good life with champagne and skiing is too. I don't think anyone should suffer for their art.

  4. SomeBeans

    @Nora_lumiere I think maybe you got your previous image of academic life from Oxford and Cambridge which are probably most often portrayed in the media.

    I don't think I'd argue that academic life was harder than industrial. As an academic I had achieved tenure and so effectively had a job for life. Not getting career support and my obsession with grant applications made it hard.

    Working for a company my salary is comparable (maybe a little bit higher), my job security is less (although if I worked in the US it would be even worse). But I have relatively little "intellectual freedom" to follow things I'm interested in.

  5. Doormat

    It's interesting that despite 15% of your (local) workforce being sacked this year, you also claim that compared to academia, you feel "much more wanted". That corresponds very well to my feelings on academic life (I'm a young lecturer): I often wonder, if I dropped dead, how long it would take for any of my colleagues to notice…

    From inside academia right now, job security doesn't look quite as rosy as you paint it in the comments (although I doubt we'll be loosing 15% of people, I'll be mildly surprised if we don't have redundancies…)

  6. SomeBeans

    @Doormat – I did the "would they notice if I died thought experiment", although to be fair I substituted "didn't come in" for "died". I reckon you could easily manage the 3 months across the summer break.

    I know that in the past whole departments in universities have been shut down – so I appreciate redundancy exists in academia but it is relatively rare.

    We appear to be able to do 15% redundancies on a largely voluntary basis. Typically there's a generous early retirement package, and terms for others aren't bad. Perhaps unlike academia internal redeployment is possible (i.e. your current job may go but another perhaps less desirable but equally paid job is available within the company).

    Feelings of "wantedness" are local, decisions on the broad levels of redundancy are made at a higher level – hence the apparent paradox.

  7. Clare Dudman

    Nicely put! Having experienced all these in one form or another I'd say you'd got everything spot on. Having been a teacher in a school too I would say that university teachers would benefit from having some basic instruction on how to teach too – the equivalent of a PGCE.

  8. SomeBeans

    @ClareDudman – yes, Mrs SomeBeans teaches at an FE college and is far more professionally trained in teaching than I (and most other university lecturers) ever was.

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