In academia, you worked to expand the limits of human wisdom. Now, in your first industry job, your goal appears to be making a company richer. So, how are you supposed to have a positive impact on the world now?
In your life as an academic, you are Jodie Foster looking for radio signals from other worlds. You are Prof. Indiana Jones teaching archeology in between adventures. You are Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler and Ian Malcolm talking about chaos theory while exploring Jurassic Park.
Then you move to industry and start working for The Wolf of Wall Street. Or Patrick Bateman. Or those greedy men who want to make a profit from Jurassic Park and end up getting a lot of people killed.
Yes, these are the stereotypes we are used to, but how do they hold up in reality? In this post, I’ll first delve into where I think they come from, and then compare real examples of how you can have both a positive and negative impact with your work in industry and academia.
The root of the stereotypes
Scientific and technological developments are both inextricably linked with the rise of capitalism. And yet we only imagine a caricature of the homo economicus when speaking about the CEO of a tech company, never a university professor. Even when, in actual fact, they both spend a large fraction of their time seeking money.
When we say that academics work to expand the knowledge of humankind, we are referring to the distant, long-term goal of their jobs. But what most outsiders don’t realise is that the short-term, more tangible goal of an academic’s job is, simply put, to publish papers (and to obtain funding to keep publishing more).
People tend to identify academic jobs with their long-term goal, and industry jobs with their short-term goal.
In comparison, when saying that the goal of an industry job is to make a company richer, we are referring only to the short-term goal. But, just like in academia, there is a far-reaching, long-term goal as well: To improve people’s quality of life.
So there’s a double standard at play here, in that we tend to identify academic jobs with their long-term goal, and industry jobs with their short-term goal. But as I pointed out, both academia and industry share a common objective, which is the prosperity of humankind. And in fact, we need them both working side by side if we want our species to survive the most pressing global issues.
So now that we’ve exposed the root of this stereotype, let’s see if industry jobs are actually any less righteous than academic jobs. To do so, I will compare some real-life examples of positive and negative impacts of both career paths.
Impact of industry work
Let’s say you end up working for a car manufacturer, a video games company, or a furniture retailer. You would be providing freedom, entertainment, or comfort to thousands or even millions of people! Or, if you end up producing solar panels or wind turbines, your company may also be contributing to alleviating existing problems like climate change.
At the very least, regardless of your sector, you are having a positive impact on the economy. By helping your company expand, you are contributing to job growth. And you are also paying larger taxes than in academic jobs, that tend to offer lower salaries.
Now let’s look at some downsides. In many cases, your company may be worsening existing problems. Let’s illustrate this with the car manufacturing example: Car use, production, and disposal have a negative impact on the environment. Also, some of the materials required in production may involve labour exploitation in developing countries. On top of that, car accidents are among the top ten causes of death worldwide.
Also, your company may not be ethical in the way it treats its employees. Maybe it pays men and women differently or has a high burnout rate. By working there, you may be helping a company whose values go against your own to grow bigger.
So, all in all, working in industry can be good or bad, depending ultimately on… the company itself. That doesn’t sound like a very enlightening conclusion. But is it really so different in academia?
Impact of academic work
Much like in industry, your academic research may help to alleviate existing problems, like climate change or contagious diseases. Moreover, by working in cutting-edge research you may even unveil solutions that were not previously available in industry.
If you work in a scientific field with little practical application (like I used to in astrophysics), your main impact on humankind is in expanding our collective knowledge. Understanding nature and the universe is as necessary for humans as music (yes, I happen to love both astrophysics and music!).
But academia also has a dark side (sorry Prof. Jones). While unsuccessful businesses in industry are forced to rapidly adapt to the needs of the market, academics can spend a lifetime researching a niche field with no substantial results. Such efforts (and funding) could have been better spent elsewhere.
Also, academics travel way too much. I myself used to traverse the oceans to attend conferences that could just as easily have taken place online. And as we all know, flights are among the biggest contributors to climate change.
And academia can also be a breeding ground for unfairness, harassment, impostor syndrome… Toxic behaviour is hard to eradicate, since firing people is uncommon (especially when the culprits have a name in their field). And by working in a toxic group, you may be helping such behaviours to spread in your field.
So, it seems that it’s possible to do both good and bad, in academia and in industry. And it mostly boils down to where you work and what you work on. Is this sort of “null result” the conclusion of the post? Not quite!
Changing to a more impactful career
Suppose that you want to change your career to have more of a positive impact in the world. You want to help eradicate diseases or reduce the effects of climate change. Which career path is more suitable then? Academia or industry?
Well, in industry, you can always apply for a more impactful job in a different company. It may not be easy to get that job, especially if it’s the first one you apply for after leaving academia. But if you already have a permanent position, you can continue searching whilst enjoying the safety net of a stable income.
Not only is changing from industry to academia hard – changing jobs inside academia is hard too.
On the other hand, an academic can’t just throw away all that funding to work somewhere else, or on something else. You have committed to researching a specific topic, basically since you started your PhD. If you change, that means being behind on publications in your new field. And this can put your career at risk. Hence, not only is changing from industry to academia hard – changing jobs inside academia is hard too.
So, a more realistic saga of Indiana Jones would consist of four movies about the lost ark and nothing else.
Finally, you can always have a positive impact by donating a percentage of your income to effective charities. This is called earning to give, and is a feasible way to make the world a better place, regardless of your job. Indeed, by taking this path, you may have a bigger impact in industry than in academia, since jobs tend to pay better in the former. And the more wealth you generate, the more you can donate, and the more money is invested in saving lives or critical research (done by others!).
Here are the main takeaways of this (somewhat philosophical) post:
- People often romanticise academic work, and refer to industry as “the dark side”. This stereotype is the result of people identifying academic jobs with their long-term goal (expanding knowledge) and industry jobs with their short-term goal (making a company richer). In doing so, they fail to acknowledge the short-term goal of most academics (seeking funding) and the long-term goal of most companies (making people happier). But the important thing to remember is that both sectors share the common goal of human prosperity, and both are necessary to get us there.
- It’s possible to have a positive impact in both academia and industry. Or, you can do work that harms the planet’s environment and its inhabitants, whether directly or indirectly. Either way, it comes down to the specific institution and the group you belong to.
- Where academia and industry do differ is if you want to change to something more impactful. In industry, you can always quit your job and work elsewhere. In academia, however, changing your field of research is uncommon and risky.
- And finally, regardless of where you work, you can always help to make the world a better place by investing part of your income in good causes. If you take this road, industry tends to offer higher salaries, which then translate into a bigger impact.
So, I hope you found these ponderings insightful, whether you work in academia or “the dark side” (this will be the last time I use this joke, I swear!).