Should I consider leaving academia for the commercial world?

Many of our customers, past, present and future, are highly successful academics. Therefore, the question about consideration of a career in the commercial world is a contentious one at best. I’m guessing that the majority of people in our sphere that see the abovementioned question will have a pretty clear answer in mind. But there will be some academics that do feel they can make a go of life in the private sector.

I can even use myself as an example. I left academia following a two-year post-doctorate position working in UHV physics. The short version is that my position was funded in a way that meant I spent about 25% of my time working in industry, and I really enjoyed that element. So my transition to the private sector was smooth and generally positive. But that’s clearly not going to be the case for every academic.

The physics department at Loughborough University, UK – I did my post-doctorate here

In this blog I’ll do my best to describe some of the benefits and pitfalls of transitioning from academia to the bright lights of the business world. And to be clear, when I say “business world”, I’m referring to the vendors of analytical instruments – firstly because that’s my experience, and secondly because in our business sector it’s a relatively well-trodden path to transition from an academic role to one with an instrument vendor. Let’s look into this by asking (and to the best of my ability, answering) some of the commonly held beliefs:

The analytical instrument companies don’t want academics

This is definitely not true! I am heavily involved with recruitment at Isotopx and PhD-educated Earth and nuclear scientists are often at the top of our list, particularly for applications-specific roles and even for sales and marketing positions. In fact, our Managing Director Zenon has an academic background in isotope geochemistry as do a number of my colleagues that I work closely with.

Cardiff University, I attended a meeting here last year, it made me want to return to academia

If I leave academia I’ll never be able to get back in

I’m not sure this is true either. I do know of several academics who joined analytical instrument companies, didn’t get on with it, and returned to academia with no difficulties. I think this in part due to the fact that companies like Isotopx are so close to the relevant academic communities that we almost feel part of it. I know for sure that Zenon still thinks of himself as an academic, even after 30 years in the mass spectrometry business!

I believe another factor here is that a period of time working outside of academia can develop other skills, ones that can complement those you develop as an academic. I would like to believe than when you’re applying for a postdoc position, a couple of years working in a commercial environment would count in your favour rather than against you.

It’s not true to say that you’ll be locked out of academia if you do a stint in the commercial world

The commercial world is more cut-throat, with greater demands on your time

There may be some truth in this statement. I have been away from academia too long to be able to draw a direct comparison, but certainly for me, when I moved to the commercial world I was struck by the short timescale demands on my performance and output. That said, I think a better way of describing the differences is that in the academic sector the demands are equally high, they just occur over a longer timescale.

I found in academia I needed to manage my own time over a months / years timescale, whereas in the world of analytical instrument vendors, your performance and successes are measured (judged!) over much shorter timescales. I’m trying to say that you don’t have to work harder, you just have to juggle timescales differently.

In the commercial world you have to step on your colleagues to get promoted

This is an interesting one. I know a few academics who have had multiple post-doc positions and are holding out for the dream permanent lectureship / professorship. This can be a slow process. In the commercial world, once you’re in, then you are free to try and push yourself up the corporate ladder as quickly as you like. In a large corporation it’s possible to be fast-tracked to a leadership position (with commensurate high salary but huge responsibility) in just a few years – this is less likely in academia.

But you don’t need to step on your colleagues to achieve this. Over my years of work, I’ve seen many really good people diligently work their way through applications, sales and perhaps marketing, ultimately into management positions. You do need to work hard to succeed, surely that’s true in most avenues in life?!

In the commercial world it’s not a continuous race for promotion

The commercial world offers better pay

To a degree this is true. When I first moved into the commercial world I joined VG as an engineer, and the pay on offer was more or less equal to what a postdoctoral researcher was earning, possibly even a little less. But within five years I’d moved through applications science into product management, which was more akin to a lecturer’s salary. A career in sales has far greater financial potential but that does require a tenacious pursuit of closing the deal and is not for everyone.

Moving into management has the best potential for rewards. A senior VP at a very large corporation (think Agilent or Thermo Fisher) can earn a salary that will make your eyes water, but at that elevated level the job security is considerably less – a poor quarter could result in the blame being firmly laid at your feet. Not to mention the hours you will be working. In summary then, whilst it’s not always true that commercial world salaries are higher, there is more breadth in the salary range

Academia offers better perks and a better pension

It’s been several decades since I had an academic pension. Here in the UK, public sector “final salary” pensions used to be a key reason to work in that sector (and sometimes made up for a salary shortfall), but the situation has worsened in recent years and the pension schemes are no longer the gold plated assets they used to be. I’m lucky enough to have a pension scheme with my employer that’s generous and flexible. I believe the gap between public sector and private sector pensions has closed significantly in the last two decades, but I’m not an expert so I’ll leave it there.

In the commercial world your boss will be more demanding

I can’t answer this because Zenon will read it! Joking aside, I had great managers in both academia and the commercial world. I get the feeling that how demanding your manager is has more bearing on them as an individual than the work environment. Referring to one of my earlier answers, I find timescales in the commercial world are shorter than in academia, but really that has been my only difference from a management point of view. If you work in sales and marketing then you’d better get used to metrics, these have become an increasingly common part of the commercial world, so if you don’t know how to calculate your margins, growth, and potential upside, then you’ll need to learn.

Not all bosses in the commercial world are this demanding

Academia / the commercial world (delete as appropriate) offers better job security

This is another interesting one. In many parts of the world, until you have a permanent academic position you are on temporary contracts. These typically last two to three years, and whilst you are in those positions your job is very safe. But as these temporary positions come to an end you’ll be engaged in a frantic, potentially stressful round of applications for the next position. It’s quite common for this to go on for many years before that magical permanent role.

Obviously the commercial world is different, many if not most roles are permanent and you’re encouraged to better yourself and seek promotion within your chosen organization. But in this world, job security most hinges on the success of your employer – if the company is doing well then job security is pretty good. Another benefit is that movement between the analytical instrument companies is both common and surprisingly easy to do. Suffice to say that if you have a few years of experience at one mass spectrometry vendor, you’ll be of interest to the others.

So overall, which is best? I’m not daft enough to answer that! There are many benefits to each career path. My goal with this particular blog was to highlight why I think it is easier to move into the commercial world from academia than you might expect, and that there is more demand for academic experience in the commercial world than you might expect. Feel free to find me at a major Earth science conference, I’ll be the one at the Isotopx booth waiting to tell you about our latest job openings…

If you have a comment about this post, or wish to point out an error or addendum, please let me know (

Steve Guilfoyle

Written by

Steve Guilfoyle

Steve is Sales and Marketing Manager at Isotopx. Most of his career he has worked in isotope ratio mass spectrometry, in engineering and application science as well as sales and marketing