Industry experience as a platform for academic careers

Science Magazine

By Alaina G. Levine

The contemplative question of whether to pursue a vocation in academia or industry has changed as career paths become more fluid and lines between sectors begin to blur. Scientists and engineers who have spent time in private and public companies are finding professional opportunities open to them in academia. Their value in higher education is varied and appreciated, as they can provide unique perspective and skills, access to new networks, and knowledge concerning how to craft win-win partnerships between universities and companies. For researchers ready to leave the halls of industry, the Ivory Tower can be an accessible and welcoming career avenue.

Industry or academia—which to choose for a career? Although the answer to this query might have only been one or the other in the past, today there are many academics who join a university after finding triumph in industry. One such professional avenue is the classic tenure-track position, which Kentaro Toyama pursued. A Ph.D. computer scientist, Toyama spent 12 years at Microsoft Research where he conducted tasks very similar to those found at a university, such as publishing and teaching. "More than anything, I was doing research in the same way someone in academia would have been," he says. His scholarly contributions were known throughout the field and led directly to his appointment in 2015 as the W. K. Kellogg Associate Professor of Community Information at the University of Michigan School of Information.

Other scientists have found their way in (or back) to academia via administrative positions. Gordon Smith, professor and head of the Department of Grain Science and Industry and director of the International Grains Program Institute at Kansas State University (K-State), believed he "could add value in academia after a successful industry career," he says. While studying synthetic organic chemistry for his Master's, he met a food scientist who told him about how cherished chemists are in the food industry, where "you can work on products that people can feel, see, and touch," he recounts. Smith switched his Ph.D. to food science and launched his career with Sara Lee, where he remained for 14 years, rising to the rank of senior director of R&D. He then joined ConAgra Foods as a vice president of R&D. Among his responsibilities were industry-university relations, for which he liaised with academia for student recruitment, continuing education for employees, and research partnerships. When his department was shuttered by the company, he found out about the job at K-State through networking. "It's not like it was a move I hadn't considered," he says. "I was always interested in academia, and I had met all my industry goals."

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