Why do we feel the need to pick sides? Breaking down invisible barriers between academia and industry

By Dr Elaine Gourlay*, Research Culture Specialist for Communities & Collegiality

Red Lightsabre, on top of a metal structure, drifting in space.

PhD fatigue is very real. So why does it still seem to come as such as surprise when doctoral candidates near the end of their PhD journey think “this academia thing ain’t for me”? This was most definitely my experience and I decided categorically that I did not want to live the life of an ‘eternal postdoc.’ To me, that seemed like I would be signing myself up for what was essentially a micro-PhD-like Groundhog Day experience with added responsibilities. But, to each their own, as they say – just because it’s not for me, doesn’t mean it’s not someone else’s idea of heaven.

Coming from a background in biosciences, this was, at the time, treated like somewhat of a dastardly career choice. In fact, when announcing my decision to leave academia for industry, I was told I would be crossing over to ‘the dark side’. Comments like this didn’t help. Despite being sure that I did not want to stick around in a university lab, I honestly did have trepidation about entering the biotech industry. From the outside it felt like it might be a betrayal of my scientific morals, especially since it’s a trope that is played out time and again in Sci Fi movies, that scientific companies are all headed by some nefarious overlord who has beef with the natural course of evolution or whatnot.

When I got there though, I’m glad to say my concerns were unfounded. Working in industry wasn’t quite as much of a shock to my system as I had expected. It turns out, CEOs aren’t really supervillains with a maniacal plan to take over the world (although individuals like this probably do exist, I am not sure setting up a small company in Glasgow is really the first step in their twelve-point plan for global domination).

I think I have probably been pretty lucky with my experiences in industry overall. It didn’t in fact turn out to be as prescriptive a job environment as I had once thought. Having chosen to work for small start-up companies, I did have a surprising amount of room for creativity and the chance to take ownership of my activities because many of them had never been done by anyone else in the company ever before. Some of these opportunities arose from me being in the right place at the right time, and some of them were things that simply needed doing. Many things I have achieved throughout my career have come from seizing an opportunity and then working incredibly hard to make it successful.

All of this has clearly added many more strings to my bow when it comes to my professional and personal development. I wonder though, if these achievements and this can-do attitude are as recognised as I think they should be in academia? I’ve never published a first author paper. I’ve never spoken at a conference. Do these things matter as much as they did when I last worked in academia? Of course, they are achievements well worth celebrating, but it seems to me that academia is on the verge of an attitude shift away from noticing (the lack of) these traditional accolades and instead putting more focus on the actual person behind the publication track record. In many ways, industry has been way ahead of the academic curve in this respect.

But are we there yet? I think this movement and a major shift in thinking still has some way to go before we are able to recognise a fuller range of contributions and markers of career esteem. Perhaps it’s shifts like these though, that will put cracks in the foundations of the invisible barriers between academia and industry and encourage us all to see a career as a career.

I am proud to see that diversifying career options, and taking pride in having choice and flexibility in our careers has come on leaps and bounds in academia since I crossed over to work on the ‘dark side’, both on a broad UK-sector wide level, via The new UK Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers, and at an institutional level: Career Development, centred in the UofG Research Strategy, now forms one of the five Research Culture priorities at the University of Glasgow. Within its Research Culture Statement, UofG aspires “to support colleagues to succeed in their chosen career path – not only academic paths.” But what does that look like in reality?

At UofG, the Research Culture and Researcher Development team are taking action and working to address this Research Culture priority through the launch of Pathfinder. This is a framework for a growing suite of initiatives, activities and events, led by the Research Culture and Researcher Development team, that all aim to support researchers with career awareness, options, planning and transition.

The information about Pathfinder linked above not only states what it sets out to achieve, but also what it strives to avoid – the false divide of academic and non-academic careers; refreshingly refuting the barriers between these career directions and instead turning the spotlight on to the individuality of a career path. With the tagline ‘your career, your way’, the framework recognises that careers are unique journeys, that not only change due to increased knowledge and new opportunities but as something that naturally evolves over time – like the human beings who drive them.

Unfortunately, those perceived barriers between academia and industry, in my experience, still stand. Despite almost a decade having lapsed since I crossed to the ‘dark side’ by taking my first job in commercial science, I very recently had a weird déjà vu moment when I told my last employer I was coming to work here at UofG and was once again told I was going to the ‘dark side’.

Reflecting on my time in industry overall, I felt like I had a really tight support network; it felt like teamwork; but, perhaps at times, it was more like a close co-dependence on one another, where the culture was much more focused on having to work quickly so everything was done on at pace. Settling back into the pace of work in an academic setting, I see the trust that my colleagues place in me, the strive for quality over quantity and the recognition that we here are not just worker bees feeding into the hive mind. I see a celebration of creativity, uniqueness and diversity that was not so apparent in industry.

I can’t miss commenting on the whole reason I am here in the newly created position of Research Culture Specialist – that there is a real commitment to creating a positive workplace culture within the university. My experiences of workplace culture, both positive and negative have massively shaped my career choices and my work ethos. As much as I have learned what to do to promote a positive culture, the challenging times have helped me see the ‘what not to dos’ as well. I have found through my time in small companies and building teams, projects, and entire job roles from the ground up, that I have developed a real awareness of how the culture of your workplace impacts on productivity. Happy workers are busy workers, not the other way round.

One final swing of my sledgehammer (or should that be lightsabre?), to hopefully break down what remains of that industry/academia barrier: of course, the inference from each thinking the other is the ‘dark side,’ is that they each believe that they themselves are on the ‘light side.’ Having traversed this invisible line twice in my career already, I suppose I am perhaps one of the more equipped to say that there is a bit of light and dark in all of us.

*who isn’t actually a Star Wars fan, by the way

One response to “Why do we feel the need to pick sides? Breaking down invisible barriers between academia and industry”

  1. […] terms such as ‘non-academic,’ ‘plan B,’ (or even ‘the dark side’) to refer to career options beyond academia, unintentionally inferring that these options are […]


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