Research in Industry vs. Academic Research

Credit to: Japan Chemical Daily

It is not that easy to get an internship in a company, especially when there are more restrictions on international students. As I wrote in my very first blog, I went to an interview to get an R&D internship in a renowned enterprise in the fine chemical industry. It was a hard interview but fortunately I nailed it. Without this experience, I would not decide to do a PhD after a master, and it was so different from doing academic research.

In an industrial setting, the most advantageous part is that the imminent need from clients could be seen, so most of the projects aim to have an application in large-scale production in the near future. When you think of that, it is actually fulfilling because you know that what you are doing is closer to real-life applications. On the other hand, we cannot deny that the momentum from academic research strongly pushes the frontier of scientific research, because the most brilliant minds could think out of the box and are not limited by projects or management.

In chemistry, a lot of reactions are done in flasks and vials, but the new trend in industry is to do them ‘in flow’. Some of my colleagues were enthusiastic to run various types of reactions using either dangerous materials or expensive catalysts under continuous mode, so that the reactions can be safer and more efficient. Building up prototypes and testing require expertise in engineering and chemistry. In an enterprise, there would be a better chance to find suitable personnel to achieve the goal. For larger companies, they usually allocate a significant amount of budget into R&D, so lots of advanced equipment could be afforded and more available per capita, whereas individual laboratories in academia can face very tight budgets, and equipment are usually shared between several labs.

During the time I spent there, all the analytical results came from the analytical department instead of me. The experts tune the method, elucidate the structures, or figure out the impurities. It is a more efficient way to build the workflow in an industrial setting since time is usually very limited. However, the drawback is obvious: as a student, you risk not understanding the raw data, and some important information that you should pay great attention to can be neglected or misunderstood. Therefore, I would say before becoming a researcher in a company, enough amount of training on all aspects of the research should be put on our schedule.

Consultation from external experts has greatly helped the research group I was in to tune our experiments. Besides conferences and seminars, companies are willing to spend a fortune to invite some smartest people in the world as their consultants to gain some ideas. In academia, consultation is based more on the network of principle investigators (PI), which often means a group of professors that know the most in your field. The conversations can be more focused on the up-to-date progress on a specific topic, and more information could be gathered in order to go in depth.

What I wrote above is just a personal interpretation of the differences in industrial and academic research, and it is always good to see both sides before making our minds. If possible, an industrial internship in your field is highly recommended, and we can excel no matter we decide to do graduate school or go with a bachelor. Now the On-Campus-Recruiting (OCR) season is coming, it would be a good idea to have a look on CaPS website!

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