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Career Paths: Returning to Academia From Industry

Understanding multiple career pathways.

December 1, 2019
 
 

Ingrid J. Paredes is a Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering at New York University. You can find her on Twitter @ingridjoylyn.

One of the most common questions my undergraduate students ask me is whether they should pursue a Ph.D. straight out of undergrad or if they should go to work first. As someone who hasn’t left academia aside from internships, I can offer them only a limited experience. In STEM fields, though, it’s common for people to go back to school later in their careers. I spoke to one of my lab mates, Steve, about his experience doing so. A Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering, Steve completed his B.S./M.S. in chemical engineering at Drexel University, where he completed several co-ops before working in industry. He joined NYU as a chemical engineering Ph.D. student in fall 2018 as a member of Ayash Sahu’s Hybrid Nanomaterials Laboratory, where the focus of his research is nanomaterials for catalysis.

Ingrid: Why did you decide to pursue your Ph.D.? Was it always a plan for you to go back to school, or was it influenced by your time in industry?

Steve: I had always considered it, but I felt I wasn’t mature enough. Even with some co-ops, I felt that I wanted to make sure I wasn’t making a rash decision to commit five years of my life to the pursuit, so I felt a few more years of industry couldn’t hurt. I always had this fear of it being “too late” to leave industry and pursue a Ph.D., but my coworkers were surprisingly encouraging. Many of the senior engineers and scientists who appended “Dr.” to their name had taken the same route, which was reassuring. I still would consider returning to industry given the right opportunity.

The main reason I pursued it is because, deep down, I’ve always been interested in research and academia. I just needed some time to gain a variety of different experiences (and a little money).

Ingrid: I definitely understand the feeling like it might be "too late" -- it’s definitely a feeling that pushed me to go straight to graduate school. I think at the end of the day though, it came down to my career goals -- I’ve always had my eye on academia, so I didn’t think that spending time in industry would’ve shaped my career path too differently from where it is now. How long were you in industry? What was it like transitioning back to school?

Steve: I worked as a process engineer and later a development engineer for an automotive catalyst manufacturer. Prior to that, I had done co-ops as a pilot plant engineer and quality assurance chemist for some specialty chemicals companies. All told, I had about five or six years in industry before making the decision to go for a Ph.D.

It was weird, but honestly, refreshing. It brought back a kind of stress I hadn’t experienced since undergrad, worrying about exams and homework, but at the same time it was nice to get the raw sensation of dedicated learning that you don’t quite get in industry. The most interesting aspect I hadn’t considered was the transition to self-owned projects. I was used to playing just my specialized role in a number of larger-scale projects, but now I had my hands in every single facet of just a few projects under my direction.

The biggest struggle was the loss of the rigidity of my old schedule. No more 50-hour workweeks, no more consistent commute. My days were dictated by classes, homework and equipment times. I’ve done my best since then to establish a regular schedule; my lab mates still find it strange that I try to get in every day at the same time, before 9 a.m.

Ingrid: What about the projects you are working on? As a Ph.D. student, is your thesis work related to any of the work you did prior?

Steve: I’m working in catalysis now, just like in my past jobs, but I wouldn’t say that was by design. The driving motivation is definitely sustainability; catalysts just happen to be very popular for this.

Ingrid: Was that a guiding factor for you when selected schools/your adviser?

Steve: When applying to schools, I mostly focused on my interests -- electrochemistry or inorganic chemistry (I still can’t get over my fear of biology). My adviser choice came not only from our shared interest in developing new materials, but also from the general attitude of the lab members. The end goal of the research is almost secondary, as I’m primarily learning how to be a scientist from not only my PI but my colleagues and undergrads as well.

Ingrid: Do you feel like the experience of doing research/science is similar to how science is tackled in industry? What are the biggest differences, if any?

Steve: I was surprised how applicable some of the things I learned in industrial R&D could be to academia. You learn things that are much more esoteric, like mixing efficiency of different tank geometries, for example, that can find their way in improving your academic research in ways not normally addressed in a Ph.D. The biggest difference is how much ownership I feel over the project. Aside from overhead direction by my PI and some collaborative discussions with my colleagues, at the end of the day, I’m running every aspect of my work, from planning to synthesis to characterization and finally implementation. In industry, characterization was a career, not just another step in the process.

Industrial research feels more like a pull dynamic than the push of academia. You’re invested in small portions of many projects, supporting a larger effort over all. I did like this, as it gave me a variety of different things to explore and people to engage with. In a Ph.D., the work is very much driven by curiosity, addressing a problem from the ground up. While different from industry, I still find value in working from the fundamentals and enjoy being sort of a “front line” to materials research nobody has done before.

Ingrid: What skills did you pick up from industry you think have come in handy?

Steve: Organizing and managing skills have definitely come in handy. Academia especially has the tendency to overwhelm with ideas and data to the point that you can lose sight of the original story your research is telling. Communication skills I picked up have also been a great help; never underestimate the power of a well-worded, professional email when seeking to make contacts important for your work.

Ingrid: You mentioned before that you would consider returning to industry for the right opportunity. Were you leaning one way or the other before your Ph.D.? Has your time back in school influenced your career path afterward at all?

Steve: Initially, I was focused on research and development, whether it was academic or more product focused. Being in a school environment, however, you really get to meet with people from all sorts of career paths. In the chemical industry, at the end of the day, we're a lot more aligned than you might think, even between employees in finance, technology and management. When you're back in school, you intermix not just with engineering students, but political science, humanities and art majors. It's an environment I think I took for granted when I was an undergrad that I appreciate more now.

Ingrid: Are there careers that you’ve learned about or didn’t consider before that you might be open to?

Steve: I don't see myself straying far from research, but I definitely do like the avenues this has opened up. I've become much more involved in sustainability policies and the economics behind them. Even if I don't venture into a career in policy, taking courses in these fields definitely helps broaden my horizons and how I can communicate in a shifting landscape of science and politics.

Ingrid: Lastly, do you have any advice for people deciding on whether to work or go to school first?

Steve: There’s no reason to fear being “too late.” Everyone is different and has their own approach to take, whether that be pursuing directly after graduation or taking some time to gain more professional experience first. The advice I would give is, if you’re considering a Ph.D. but still second-guessing, take a campus tour. It might help to put yourself in that campus atmosphere to see if it really motivates you to start applying or determine if more academics really isn’t what you want. Both are perfectly fine, but it can be tough to get a good perspective without taking a look.

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