Priorities differ in industry and academia

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Most scientists work either in academia or in business. The cultural differences between the academic and business environments in the photonics community can be boiled down to some basic concepts that the scientist must consider when choosing what course his or her career path will take.

Common to both environments is the need for integrity — for words, actions, and expectations to be internally consistent. Otherwise, how success is measured in one domain may be quite different from how it is measured in the other. Areas that often contrast between the two environments include values, goals, teams, funding, and challenges, and the rewards associated with research in biophotonics, biomedical optics, or life sciences research.

Two questions may illuminate the differences. One: Who’s your customer? Academics rarely ask such a question, while businesses thrive only if they know the answer. Two: What’s your Hirsch index (H-index), or the cumulative impact of your work? Businesses typically don’t care about this metric, and instead favor free cash flow, growth rate, profit margin, or stock price.

In all cases, finding the right people to join a team is an ongoing challenge.
Let’s start with values. A business must value its customers — purchasers of optical components for imaging systems, for example — above all else, because a lack of customers sooner or later leads to the collapse of the business. In academia, a college or university may view its students and their parents, its alumni, or granting agencies that support their biomedical imaging research projects as customers. But what academic institutions most value is erudition, student success, and public service because they are confident that excellence in these areas will attract tuition-paying, grant-funding, donation-bearing stakeholders. In business, however, erudition may be irrelevant, and employee success is measured primarily indirectly at the business’s bottom line.

Values align with goals. The goal of a startup — one that has developed an innovative technique in microscopy or spectroscopy, for example — is to be bought out. A large company’s goal is an ever-rising stock price. Profit and revenue maximization, coupled with minimizing costs and taxes, are means to the end. Academics see funds as a means for enabling life sciences or medical research, for example — not as an end. If their alumni go on to live fulfilling lives in their chosen field, the academy has succeeded in its mission. Thus, scientists in academia work in a gift economy while scientists in business seek to monetize every action and compute costs and benefits even for charitable donations.

Teams are needed to run most businesses. Rarely can a sole proprietor do all the marketing, tax preparation, customer acquisition, and technical work required to successfully get a technique or system into the hands of a clinic or research laboratory. In academia, while team-focused research and team-centric learning are more common than in the past, universities have room for the loner, or even the recluse, working in an isolated laboratory setting. A company may not be able to survive if any of its employees are irreplaceable, while academia often has research groups with unique areas of expertise, whose disappearance when people leave or retire matters little to the overall financial or intellectual future of the institution.

In industry, overhead activity is recognized, calculated, and managed, whereas overhead is often invisible to university faculty in their daily lives. Admissions, records, counseling, snow removal, and so on — these examples of overhead are essential and costly parts of an educational enterprise, but they are not central to academic values. Analogously, a corporation’s sales costs, inventory, and physical plant operations in its commerce are cost centers that need to be managed, and their cost/benefit ratios minimized.

Funding in industry is tied to customer demand or management’s perceptions of future demand. (“Demand” is defined as the customer’s willingness to pay for a product — a component, such as a mirror or an LED array; or a service, such as software system support.) In academic settings, funding typically depends on convincing colleagues and program officers that a problem, such as clarifying a health condition in a human or animal system, is worthy of study and that a likely solution can be delivered in a timely manner by a researcher’s team. Training the team is always a component of academic work, and assuming that professionals will act independently and productively during and after job training is a characteristic of industry. In all cases, finding the right people to join a team is an ongoing challenge.

The differences between which concepts or values are most important in business and academia allow scientists to choose which institutions best fit their skills, interests, and personalities, and which priorities they want to share with their colleagues. In all cases, however, research has to generate a result that is useful beyond the scientist. Research for its own sake is generally no longer practiced, and the customers — or the patients — are now the focus.

Meet the author

Alexander Scheeline, Ph.D., is president and CEO of SpectroClick Inc. and professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He has a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he is the author of the forthcoming book Bandwidth: How Mathematics, Physics, and Chemistry Constrain Society; email: [email protected].

The views expressed in ‘Biopinion’ are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of Photonics Media. To submit a Biopinion, send a few sentences outlining the proposed topic to [email protected]. Accepted submissions will be reviewed and edited for clarity, accuracy, length, and conformity to Photonics Media style.

Published: March 2023

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