Five Differences Between Doing Research in Academia and Industry

Insights for the alt-ac curious researcher

When I was on the job market my final year of graduate school, I had a hard time conceptualizing what “the real world” might look like as a researcher. I had a vague idea that it would be different than the research I would do had I continued on as an Assistant Professor, but I didn’t really know what “different” meant; I just knew that it would be.

After landing my job as a Research Scientist working at the intersection of higher education, non-profit, and edtech, I learned a lot – and fast. I had to think differently about my role and myself as a professional, learn a new industry language, and work in completely new ways with a wide range of professionals (more on this in a previous newsletter of mine).

I’ve also learned that research is different in the industry space; at least, it’s much different than the niche, theory-heavy research that I was infatuated with as an academic, and what most academics view as the crowing pinnacle of a tenure-track post. Understanding how research is different outside the dated psychology labs of the ivory tower is important not only for those who are curious about alt-ac research roles, but also for those that are just starting in these new types of roles. Clinging to the academic research style of your PhD days isn’t going to make your job or your colleagues’ job easier, and will make your work a constant grind against the industry and tech machines of today.

Here are five key ways in which research is different in academia vs. industry.


Your interest vs. company mission

This may be obvious and, in fact, is the main reason I didn’t want an industry research job when I was a graduate student, but unlike academic research – where I was able to write papers on properties of human semen, menarche timing, and the genetics of spanking – you don’t really get to pick what projects you do. You do have a lot of say on how to design and execute research studies that you’re leading (they did hire you because you’re a researcher after all) but you don’t pick the project outright.

This is also why it’s super important to work for a company that you actually like and work in an industry that you’re into, whether it be a mission-oriented non-profit or a revenue-hungry tech company. The company mission is what is going to drive the projects that are assigned to you; your niche interests are going to take a bit of a backseat. You can of course impart your domain expertise on projects where it’s appropriate (none of mine has been, sigh), but you’re hired predominantly for your skill set rather than the knowledge of your dissertation topic. Find a company you like so that you’ll enjoy the projects that you run.

Basic vs. applied

Another obvious difference is that industry research is primarily focused on applied research. The goal of your work is to produce findings that are helpful and help guide larger projects forward to create products, execute on contracts, or improve the experience of a specific population. This is not to say, of course, that academics don’t do applied research (and you could argue that academia is increasingly incentivizing applications of research), but a big benefit of academia is that professors can research obscure niche topics, much to the complaints of public tax payers. (Though as a scientist and someone who likes obscure research, I fully see the value of even the most seemingly ridiculous basic research).

Even at my company where we do a lot of grant funded research (the main area that I work in) and have a large amount of autonomy with how we execute on research, the work we do still needs to be directly tied to concrete outcomes: continued funding, sales and services, directly solving education problems, etc. There are a lot of random things that I would like to research within the online higher ed space purely out of curiosity, but unless I can procure funding for it an connect it to an outcome, I’m not going to be doing it.

Public dissemination vs. internal communications

The currency of academia is the peer-reviewed publication. There is literally nothing more highly valued within the academic marketplace than publications, with the exception of the cold, hard cash that you win which allows you to – you guessed it – publish more papers. The number of publications and the journals they are published in is a primary determinant of the job you get, awards you win, and tenure you secure. I’ve been in my professional research role for a year now and I have published exactly 0 publications in this job.

Publications are hardly important in industry. But don’t think that you won’t be writing (a lot) and communicating your research (a lot). In industry, however, your research communications take on a different purpose and more varied forms. The primary goal of your research is to inform other teams within your company (or company clients and partners) about your findings, their implications, and actionable recommendations for the next stage of the project. These communications can be slide deck presentations, short or long reports, 1-pagers, or even some public-facing content (for example, I write blogs for my company, produce research resource docs for our College Innovation Network partners, and attend education conferences). Ultimately this means that you’ll be communicating your research more often and in more varied formats – and to more diverse audiences.

Academic audience vs. diverse professional audience

You’ll be working with a host of characters and professionals in an industry environment, often time with them all in the same room. This means that your communications need to be understandable to senior leadership (who need the tl;dr version), business leaders (who want to know how to translate your work into money), other domain experts (who need to know how your work impacts them), and external partners (in my role I deal with a lot of higher education administrators). The most important part of your work is the “so what” part – what are the implications and recommendations.

This is a hard mindset to get into, because in academia – especially amid the reform movement in the social sciences where I come from – all people care about right now are the methods and the complex models you run in R. Although these details are important, they are a means to communicate your main insight from your research. The diverse professionals in the room are not going to be interested in every research and data detail – unless it directly relates to a very specific actionable outcome. This may make you feel that your work is diluted to the key takeaways, but it makes more sense when you see that your work is part of a larger whole (see next point).

The whole vs. a part

Academic research is very egocentric by nature. You are incentivized to develop a novel focus of research to stake your name on. You set up a university lab (often named after yourself) to research your niche topic. You jockey for prestigious authorship positions and high-impact journals. Your research becomes your personal brand. This isn’t a criticism – I too had these dreams – but a description of you as the center of your career; the research is the whole point.

Industry is a bit different, and it can be hard to get used to if you were an accomplished academic. Rather than research being the whole point, it is a part of the larger whole of the company mission (see first point, above). The research you do is largely a means for other things; a means to make a better product; a means to improve the user experience; a means to make sales; a means to benefit the company. I have no value judgement about this. But understanding that research is a means rather than the end is important to operate efficiently across teams.

I’ve written a lot about my alt-ac experience in the hopes of sharing my experience and insights with other PhD candidates and ECR academics to make the world outside the ivory tower seem less scary. Check them out below:

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