The [Lack of] Duality Between Academia and Industry

Opening Thoughts: The Lost Traveler

Upon the end of the road to graduation from a PhD, a lost traveler comes to a fork in the road like many others. To the north lie careers as engineers, lab scientists, and government researchers. To the south, on the other hand, lie careers in teaching and research (collectively referred to as academia). Some know exactly which direction to turn as soon as they reach this intersection, and some sit and wait. Unfortunately, those who wait may witness one or both paths crumbling into the earth as the job landscape constantly changes. I still have a number of years before I get to this fork in the road, but I’m trying to draw the map as I walk through a rainy forest of mathematics. And quite frankly, I might not draw a fork at the end. It might just be a single path out of the forest.

But how can this be? Many people think of career paths into industry and academia after grad school as two disparate entities, with one completely different than the other. However, I don’t quite think that’s the case, and while my understanding might be a bit more blurry now than in a few years, I want to explain some benefits I’d expect from choosing one path over the other, and maybe even a way to never have to truly pick one direction over the other.

So now the question is: what do I envision each path looking like?

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

The Industry Path

Math PhD graduates are in high demand in many different companies, and I am still relatively early in my graduate studies, so in theory I could end up in a lot of different places. The teaching responsibilities may be absent, but the chain of command in any research lab must be taken into account. I expect in the long term there would be opportunities to supervise or mentor other researchers, perhaps including a new generation of students who would take internships or research assistantships at the lab. As to not get overly ahead of myself, it is for precisely this reason I would like to obtain such a research assistantship before I finish graduate school. The University of Tennessee’s close proximity and many connections to Oak Ridge National Laboratory may make this easier, but I don’t want to discount other options that exist. I have heard numerous industry experts from Oak Ridge, Sandia National Labs, and so on give exciting talks at conferences I’ve attended, which leaves me no doubt that the fervor of intellectual discovery never dies in a research lab.

Photo by Roman Mager on Unsplash

The Academia Path

One thing that is not as obviously present working in a lab is the sharing of knowledge to students as part of a daily routine. Both as an undergraduate and a graduate student, I have acquired some teaching experience. While I enjoy it, it can eat up a lot of time, especially in preparing course activities in grading (maybe these activities feel like they take longer because I enjoy them less than actually giving lectures). I currently have coursework and research responsibilities as well, and balancing all three can occasionally be frustrating and stressful, but I’ve accepted that as part of life. On the other hand, I don’t get the impression that coursework and research get in the way of my teaching responsibilities.

If I pursue academic positions after graduate school, obviously the coursework will go away, but there will also be committee activities and grants. According to one of my professors from a course I took last semester, the teaching responsibilities are prominent regardless of whether I wind up at a state university or a liberal arts college. And of course, lots of research, collaboration, and traveling to conferences. I expect this is more important at a state university, but every job posting lists its own expectations separately, so I’m hesitant to say there’s a dichotomy on which all academic jobs fall.

The Parallels

Even as a graduate student with many years ahead before obtaining a doctorate degree, I’ve noticed one thing will certainly remain true no matter what career path lies before me:

There is always more that can be done.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean more always should be done, but the opportunities to advance one’s career appear to be limitless. Hence it drives me crazy when somebody says they are bored. In this day and age there are limitless opportunities to learn or explore something new, many right at one’s fingertips. Furthermore…research, either in academia or in industry, is a never-ending mission comprised of a myriad of papers, talks, and collaborations. Ideas, some promising and some lousy, flow through my mind far more quickly than I can evaluate even a small portion of them reasonably. Furthermore, I foresee the intellectual joy of scientific discovery and development of my own leadership qualities as open possibilities no matter what career path I pursue, and these are both things I want to nurture moving forward. All things considered, it’s important to conserve my bandwidth, choose my battles carefully. And quite frankly I want people to read my CV and think, “wow, he’s done a lot with his life. I wonder what he will accomplish next?”

Can I draw just one path out of the forest?

There are numerous advantages and disadvantages to careers in both academia and industry, at least as far as my personal goals are concerned. Catalyzed by COVID-19, online, remote, and contractor positions have become increasingly prevalent in many places, and I anticipate this may provide me added flexibility moving forward. In other words, do I really have to choose between academia and industry? Why not do both?

I know that many industry jobs will expect a minimum commitment of 40 hours a week, often in a traditional 9–5 format. But there are a lot more hours in a day and that may lead to me working multiple jobs at once, even if it’s not strictly necessary to stay afloat financially. I would also entertain the idea of taking a job at a research/government facility with the intent of moving into an academic role about 10 years thereafter. This would not only give me an advantage in building industry connections, but the time spent outside of academia would be valuable in building a long-term research program for myself. Above all I need to remember that a career is a story: different jobs taken along the way should, in my opinion, have a common theme or otherwise resonate with changes and developments in my career goals.

Time Will Tell…

As is evident from the reflection I’ve laid in front of myself, one of the main things I still need to evaluate for myself is whether I want my long-term career plans to involve teaching or not. While mentorship can blossom inside or outside a classroom, there’s nothing quite like standing up in front of a room filled with [sometimes unmotivated] students and teaching them something new. There’s an immense satisfaction that comes with sharing knowledge, and additional challenges await when you have to not only teach the material but sell it to students as important. In both my teaching experience to date and in my work experience designing content for Expii and OpenCurriculum, much of my job has revolved around convincing students with no interest in math that it is important for their everyday lives.

As a result of this, I chose to teach MATH 113: Mathematical Reasoning at the University of Tennessee for the upcoming 2020–2021 academic year. This course is aimed at art, psychology, music, and architecture majors. At first glance this is about as “far” from mathematics one can get, so I expect teaching this class will push my limits as an instructor. Will I be able to excite them about math, when many of them will likely have the preconceived notion that it is irrelevant? I’m not sure, but through this teaching experience I hope it will be revealed to me whether I have the true passion needed to be a teacher. Once this realization comes I expect making other career-related decisions will become far easier.

Thought Questions for the Reader

I realize that the exact situation I’m going through with regards to career decisions might not completely match up with the decisions my readers are making. Thus I encourage you to consider the following questions on your own. You might not have the answers right now. That’s OK. As can be seen from my situation, these answers may take a long time to develop, and that’s why it’s important to start thinking about them now.

  1. What are the things you like the most and the least about your current job (if you’re already employed)?
  2. Is an advanced degree helpful or necessary for your ideal job?
  3. Are there financial constraints you need to consider, such as debt or a family to support?
  4. What insights do your colleagues and mentors have on the career paths you’re considering? My thoughts and insights are continually shaped by wisdom shared with me by professors, friends, family, and other mentors I’ve had guide me through different parts of my life.