There are many ways to be a scientist...

… and many ways not to be one.

As a PhD transitioning into the industry, I follow lots of accounts, on LinkedIn and Twitter, of PhDs who also made this transition. Among other things, they often discuss why and how they left academia for a better life in the industry.

While they do not appear to regret their decision, a common theme I often notice in their posts is the mourning of their identity as “scientists,” as if they had lost the right to call themselves scientists by having left academia. I think I see the logic behind this thought: Since companies are driven by profitability concerns, many think that whatever research they will do in the industry will never be “real science,” a pure disinterested search for truth.

I have a different perspective.

Academia has incentives too, which are not necessarily aligned with good science

While most academics are not driven by profitability concerns, many other incentives and concerns drive the type of research done in academia. To just cite some of them:

  • Securing funding for themselves or for their lab.

  • Landing a tenure-track position… and then getting tenure.

  • Getting media coverage.

  • Being invited to seminars and conferences.

  • Becoming an editor/board member of prestigious journals.

To reach these goals, academics may be tempted to sacrifice the ideals of “science”, and instead work fast and loose to generate the sexy / cool / counter-intuitive effects that will propel their career. They might hype their findings, and claim that they hold the key to complex, multiply determined social issues. They might hide the flaws and limitations of their work. They might even make up results entirely!

The idea that the science produced by academics is necessarily pure, true, disinterested, or of higher quality is naive. It neglects the fact that both the priorities of academics (such as making a career) and the incentives of academia (such as publishing to get tenure) do not necessarily make for good science.

The incentives in the industry can be surprisingly conducive to doing good science.

There’s no doubt that research in companies is influenced by profitability concerns. When companies hire scientists, they hope that they will deliver on some metrics: Improve the efficiency of their existing processes, create new products, contribute to patents… From this perspective, it is true that scientists in the industry are not doing research “for the beauty of discovery”.

The upside of this, however, is that people will be more likely to care about the truthfulness of the findings. In many corners of academia, it doesn’t matter if the research doesn’t replicate, or was obtained through questionable research practices: A publication is a publication. In some fields, researchers have built entire careers on effects that simply do not exist. In a company, if a finding was spurious or a method doesn’t actually work, people will stop using it and move on. It is more difficult to ignore reality when someone is asking you to justify where the money is going.

You don’t have to be an academic to be a scientist

The overlap between academia and science (and therefore between academics and scientists) isn’t as large as people think. You can be an academic with all the bells and whistles (the publications, the title, the position, the prestige,…), and still lack the mindset (being curious, skeptical, and seeking to falsify everything… including your own work) or the integrity to be a scientist. On the contrary, many scientists working in companies are doing work that, while ultimately contributing to “less noble” goals (making money for a company), is nonetheless interesting, robust, and replicable.

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Zoé Ziani
Zoé Ziani

PhD in Organizational Behavior