PhDs in industry: filling the peer-shaped void
Sacrifices and rewards of being a PhD student in industry
Being a student based in industry has pros and cons, and these often come hand in hand. Many of the ‘cons’ perceived by students prior to, or early in, their research projects may prove to be beneficial and be taken as major ‘pros’ of the experience retrospectively, and vice versa.
Stepping out of the student environment and into the professional one is, if nothing else, a bit of a culture shock. Not that the academic lifestyle is a relaxed one, quite the contrary, but I have come across very few students who have been able to effectively maintain a strict work/life balance. Student workloads, combined with the freedom to dictate working hours, often lead to extremes of practice, with some students rolling in mid-morning and leaving shortly after lunch, and others working through the night. My experience of working in industry is that you are surrounded by scientists who do the 9-5, who work it efficiently and know how best to manage a surplus of time or an overfilled schedule. Of all the traits of experienced researchers to be envied, this is one strongly coveted by myself.
There are some advantages of being industry-based that would be hard to criticise. I feel privileged to have had exposure to a large range of networking events, as well as insight into research that actively informs changes of healthcare practice. I have witnessed rapid response research, and been able to speak to people involved in international public health. Moreover, the staff I am surrounded by have a wide range of disciplinary and professional backgrounds: academic, scientific communication, private sector, public sector, commercial testing, regional service laboratories... In this environment, feedback during internal seminars and conferences is always diverse, and attendees can provide varied opinions about the implications of your work. It is also a great place to inspire ideas about directions for a career in science; contrary to a great number of PhD students who have decided to leave science altogether having fallen out of love with their research projects, I have had the chance to see another pathway.
However, as alluded to, being away from fellow PhD students is not an entirely positive experience. As inspiring as being surrounded by brilliant and experienced researchers can be, it can become intimidating when things aren’t going smoothly with your own work. Online post-graduate and microbiology communities, discussion forums, social media and personal blogs, or networking at “early career scientist” events are a great way to fill the peer-shaped void. These allow a peek into the lives of other thesis-anxious individuals, and can lead to helpful discussions and advice. However, the support that comes from regular live interaction with peers is difficult to emulate.
To draw to a conclusion, as with anything, there are pros and cons to stepping away from university and into industry as a student, but ultimately my personal experience is that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, and I would certainly choose to do the same again. The industrial workplace forces a fast change in attitude, priority and routine, providing a positive foundation for whatever the next workplace might demand, regardless of the environment (university or otherwise).