There are still moments when I wake up in the middle of the night because I cannot stop thinking about the bureaucracy, the politics, the things people argue about, and, most of all, the time it takes to accomplish things in academia. Don’t get me wrong – I love being part of higher education. I love that I learn something every day. I love that I have a chance to make a difference in the lives of students and the community. And, I love that I can have philosophical conversations with brilliant people every day.
It took me a long time to figure out that academia was right for me. I worked in industry for 15 years before joining academia. As I look back over my career, I see signs of why academia works for me.
And, that’s just it. If you are trying to decide if you should work in academia or industry, you need to consider your interests, personality, and skills. Patience is required. Being able to see that there are a variety of viewpoints regarding the same topic is required.
If you are trying to decide if you should work in academia or industry, you need to consider your interests, personality, and skills. Patience is required. Being able to see that there are a variety of viewpoints regarding the same topic is required.
I have always been interested in learning new information and being able to turn that information into something actionable to help others. It could be as small as the time I was responsible for an overhaul of a recognition program, or as large as overseeing a total revamp of the vending cafeteria. I had to research all the options, talk with current customers, and experience the products and cafeterias myself.
Then I enjoyed bringing back that knowledge to the committee or my boss to explain the options and how I arrived at my decisions. I found myself as leader of the Communications Team at a manufacturing plant, when “teaming” had its heyday in the late 1990s. During this process, I was able to recruit some of the most influential plant and office employees in the organization onto the Team. I taught them why and how to implement a communication audit and plan for the organization. We had lots of fun and were able to accomplish our goals.
I found myself in this familiar role of teacher and mentor repeatedly in a variety of positions throughout my 15-year career in industry. In one role, I mentored and taught a board of directors committee about marketing, special events, and public relations; in another, I found myself training the new public relations specialist. In every instance, I taught, we learned, we created a plan for the organization, and we had fun.
I had been encouraged to attend some professional development seminars and one in particular still stands out. The facilitator had us create our personal SWOT analysis and asked us to survey people who worked with us about our skills and expertise. The results were telling: I should be a consultant. I should teach people in organizations how to plan, communicate, and market their organizations. And, that’s just what I had been doing and enjoying for years. The problem was that I could not do that consistently in my jobs in industry. I was responsible for other projects assigned to me at work. Then I read the last two surveys. They said I should consider teaching at a college.
Just as I was thinking about going back to school, a mentor contacted me about applying to a doctoral program. I applied and got a spot in the program. A few weeks later, my boyfriend asked me to move home and get married.
Spoiler alert: I moved home, got married, and turned down the doctoral program. I also found a new job and a new “job within the job” of teaching and mentoring. This time, it was teaching others how to create a web site and participate in trade shows. Soon after, I realized that this job was not for me and I started working as a consultant, helping leaders communicate with their employees and customers. One day, as I was preparing some prospecting materials, I thought that having a Ph.D. after my name would give my consulting business additional credibility. My search for a doctoral program began.
I remember drawing a circle around my hometown and visiting every university within two hours. Quickly it became apparent that only some of the universities found my work experience desirable. Further, it was not as easy as I thought it would be to find a program with faculty whose research complemented my interests and skills. Eventually, I found that program and that faculty member and traded my briefcase for a backpack.
With a one-year-old and another on the way, I went back to school and kept my consulting business. I drove two hours each way once a week to attend classes. The program was tough, the faculty were challenging, and the work was daunting. Luckily, from the start, I found a great mentor who helped shepherd me through the process and ultimately served as the Chair of my dissertation committee. He was onboard with my desire to complete the Ph.D. and continue consulting.
One day, he asked if I would consider teaching. For the next two years, I taught public relations and public speaking as an adjunct. I loved everything about it (well, except for the athletic director, who tried to convince me to change the “star” football player’s grade.) I enjoyed the conversations I had with other faculty. I enjoyed teaching the students and learning from them, too. I enjoyed the flurry of activity and the diversity of views that were present on the campus.
On a whim, I applied for my current position and never looked back. Of course, there are days where I wake up in the middle of the night ruminating over the sometimes-intense bureaucracy. Certainly, I have had to get used to the time it can take for things to get accomplished. Just think about the time it takes to navigate the “alphabet soup” of committees needed to approve a new course. Then there is the debate over a few words in a sentence. But the hardest part, after all those years in industry, is the politics. And I thought the politics I lived through in industry were brutal. Then again, I have never worked for the government.
Even on those days where I find myself frustrated over office politics or bureaucracy, when I walk, or Zoom, into a classroom, those feelings disappear. I still love that I can teach students something and that they still teach me something. I still love the flurry of activity and the conversations with my colleagues.
For those of you reading this to figure out if you should make the leap into academia, I say try it! You can always go back to work in industry and you might just find something you really love.
Below, I offer top-level issues to think about when deciding between a career in academia and one in industry. As you read them, you may find that what I find to be an advantage is actually a disadvantage for you. It is very important to determine where you stand on these issues.
In academia, you do not really have a boss, as you will in your job in industry. If you are the type of person who is independently motivated, this is a great benefit. Moreover, because you are in charge of your own schedule, you can decide what you research, when you write, where you publish, what you work on, and (sometimes) when you teach.
Some departments provide flexibility with the days and times of your classes. This means that you can plan to attend your kids’ athletic games and instrumental concerts. I have been able to start my classes later in the day so that I can drop off my kids at school in the morning. Although I have been able to attend my fair share of soccer games, I am usually grading papers on the sidelines because I traded that time in the morning to drop my kids at school.
You have the flexibility to choose the projects and topics you want to research in academia. This provides you with an opportunity to match your skills and interests with your research goals. You may be excited to work on a project in industry, but you seldom get to choose because your boss will assign you to a project.
This same advantage can also become a disadvantage because the pressure to write and publish is real at all institutions. If you work at a teaching institution, your publication expectations will be fewer, but you will teach more classes, leaving you with less time to write during the day. You need to manage your time wisely to allow time to write, especially during breaks and the summer. If you work for a research 1 institution, you will teach fewer classes, but your research and publication expectations will increase dramatically.
I find that work-life balance in academia is more difficult than when I worked in industry. As a faculty member, you start with a full teaching load and research agenda. Depending on your institution, your teaching skills may be assessed, and you will probably find yourself learning how to teach. After all, your Ph.D. program was designed to teach you how to research, not how to teach. I have found that most faculty are interested in developing their teaching skills. Like learning anything, this takes time.
In addition to teaching and research, you need to contribute service. There are so many committees and projects going on at the same time in your department, at your institution, in the community, and in your professional association. You will have the opportunity to wear many hats: teacher, mentor, colleague, committee member or chair, admissions representative, alumni relations specialist, and even development officer. It is hard to determine which service projects are most important and beneficial for your career.
Before you realize what’s happening, you can become overwhelmed with service duties. That means most of your writing and grading will happen at home in the evenings and on weekends. In industry, some organizations require service. However, the level of service varies, with some organizations not requiring it at all. Regardless, in both industry and academia, the individual chooses which service opportunities to pursue.
All this flexibility can cause faculty to become stuck in rank for a long time if they do not meet promotion requirements. Often, the cause comes from too much service.
Job Security and Salary
Probably the greatest benefit of an academic job is the security that comes with earning tenure. Keep in mind that more institutions are hiring Ph.D.s to teach in adjunct rather than tenure-track positions. While even tenure-track positions offer lower salaries than industry does, adjunct salaries are pitifully low. It is difficult to make ends meet on these salaries. I know a few Ph.D.s who travel to several institutions teaching as an adjunct because they cannot find a tenure-track position.
There is an excitement you feel when you walk through a college campus. You can feel the energy in the air. That is vastly different from what I experienced working in industry. There were many times I was excited to work on a project in industry, but I never felt the energy that I do on a college campus.
Part of that energy comes from the students. You have an opportunity to inspire, mentor, and help shape the lives of these young adults. Yes, there will always be frustrating students. Maybe it is because they do not care as much as you do about the course content, or maybe it is because you see they have so much unused potential. However, you will learn something new from your students daily. Your students will keep you feeling young, challenged, and having lots of fun. This environment simply cannot be replicated in any other industry.
Some other environmental forces in academia include the longer time it takes to make changes and the sharing of resources. If your department has a secretary, you will have to share that resource with all departmental faculty. This is hardest on the secretary, by far! However, if you had your own secretary when you worked in industry, it may be hard to hear that your project is not the top priority. Waiting for decisions and changes in academia can feel like watching paint dry. It is noted that fast change in academia can take 10 years! For those of us coming from industry, this is probably the hardest adjustment to make.
It is the family, friends, and people I meet who tell me what a cushy job I have that I dislike the most. Those people who ask if I grade papers by throwing them down the stairs and giving A’s to the ones that go the farthest. Those people who ask what it is that I do with all my free time after I teach my classes. Admittedly, I was one of those people when I worked in industry. Although I worked long, hard hours in industry, I had a naïve view of the responsibilities of faculty.
In academia, you will meet some of the most brilliant people on earth. You will have inspiring conversations and form lasting relationships with colleagues, staff, and former students. There is nothing like seeing your former students grow into professionals and realize their dreams.
On the other hand, office politics are more intense than what I found working in industry. In addition, faculty tend to stay in their jobs longer in academia. Therefore, you can count on working with the same people for a long time.
In some organizations, you will have similar experiences. However, it is seemingly easier to walk away from a job in industry than it is in academia because of the hoops you need to jump through to obtain tenure.
I urge you to make a list of these issues and checkmark those you believe you can live with. Next, make a list of your strengths and weaknesses. Go back to the issues list and checkmark them again. I challenge you to ask several people who know you well about the following:
- The top three things you do best.
- Three characteristics that describe you.
- Three of your strengths.
- Three areas for improvement.
- The job most fitting for your personality and strengths.
Next, I challenge you to meet with current faculty and people in jobs in industry that you might consider working in. Ask them what they like and dislike about their jobs. Ask them what type of people do best in their jobs. Meet with people in different sized universities and industries.
Compile your results, make a pros and cons list, and make a leap of faith. Soak it up, learn from the experience, and give it some time to find out if it was the right choice for you. Good luck!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
STACY SMULOWITZ is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Media at The University of Scranton, Executive Director of the Eastern Communication Association, and principal of a freelance strategic communication consulting firm that provides strategic guidance to organizational leaders. Smulowitz teaches courses in advertising, leadership, teams, and organizational communication, and conducts research on theory and strategy for assessing and promoting excellence in organizational leadership. Smulowitz’s most recent book, The Communication Solution: Leading Successful Change in Higher Education, was published in 2021.