Careers Advice

Industry vs Academia

Not sure what to do with your future? Wondering whether to do a Master's or a PhD, or apply for a graduate scheme? Worried your CV might not be up to scratch? Read advice from those who have been through it all.

Where do I want to work?

The million dollar question. Having some idea, even if not set in stone, of the kind of career you’d like will help you determine the kind of experience you need. If you can’t wait to graduate and get stuck into the commercial, corporate world, then chances are that your future employers will be looking for some practical industry experience in your CV. If a career in academia is more appealing to you, research experience may be a better fit. Take some time to look at adverts for the kind of jobs that you’d like and see what experience the employers are asking for. For example, looking across a range of Project Manager roles, one might find that familiarity with a particular management technique (e.g. PRINCE2) is desirable.  Bear in mind that different areas of the sector and even different locations may require diverse skills. For example, many European organisations will expect applicants to have Master’s degrees, while some UK companies only require Bachelor’s.

What if I don’t know what career I want?

Maybe you’re a student in first year and career planning seems a long way off. Perhaps you’re scarily close to graduating but haven’t given your career options a second thought. Or maybe you’ve found your dream job, but it seems that both industrial and academic experience would be useful. With limited time around your studies to squeeze in self-improvement, it can be hard to know which skills and experience to prioritise. When in doubt, strike a balance. Feel free to browse our collection of Job Profiles to seek inspiration for career paths, or to see what skills might be required for your job of choice.  


Shouldn’t my studies or placement provide all the experience I need?

Not all degrees and placements are created equal. It’s easy to think that university courses in the same subject would be identical, but in reality two students graduating with degrees from different universities will have had two very different experiences. When applying for a course, make sure you look closely at the individual modules to determine which one will be the best fit for you and your career options. It can also be useful to look at the particular facilities universities have, such as rocket test facilities and telescopes. Some will offer extensive laboratory and practical experience, while others will focus on technical and theoretical knowledge. In any case, completing an industrial placement provides substantial value. Even if your role was highly specialised, you may be able to demonstrate how the skills you into practice can be applied to future roles you apply to.


How do I know what experience I’m lacking?

If your heart is set on a particular role, with very specific requirements, this question is easy to answer. However, most employers are looking for a combination of practical experience and theoretical knowledge. Use your CV to look at your experience so far (if you don’t have a CV yet, check our advice pages on how to write one!). Compare the experience you have to what’s required for the roles you’re interested in. The important thing is to identify your skills gaps. Everyone has them. Maybe you’re a technology whizz but you’ve never managed a project. Maybe you’re a charismatic team player but your MATLAB skills need brushing up. Be honest with yourself, and once you’ve figured out some areas for improvement, think about how you’re going to address them.

How do I gain experience?

Summer internships are a great way to gain experience in your chosen field. Some companies advertise established internship programmes, but make sure you leave plenty of time to apply as they’re often very competitive. If you don’t find anything you like, you could always try your luck by contacting an organisation directly, particularly if you’ve managed to break the ice by introducing yourself personally at a networking event. (Check out our guide on how to network!) If you seem knowledgeable, passionate and useful to their work, they may find a spot for you to help out on an understaffed project. The same goes for research and academic experience. Get in touch with lecturers and supervisors in your university department to check if there’s anything you can get involved in. If you’re offered a great opportunity but it’s not over the summer, some universities allow students to temporarily suspend their studies in order to pursue relevant employment experience. However, this can be a risky option so make sure you discuss it in detail with your university and funding body before going down this route. As mentioned earlier, industrial placements (also known as a year in industry or a sandwich placement) are an option definitely worth considering. An entire year at a company allows you to develop skills, significantly strengthen your CV, and can often lead to an offer of a full-time job after graduation!


I can’t complete an internship. What do I do?

If your current degree or industrial placement isn’t helping you develop, seek out other opportunities. Sticking to the examples we mentioned earlier, if you need project experience, why not apply to compete in the UKSEDS rover competition, or join a Formula Student team at your university? You’ll be involved in project management and coordination, learn how to work effectively in a team, and have a great time putting your technical skills to good use. If you don’t have much time to commit but your software skills need work, why not complete an online course? Even YouTube tutorials can point you in the right direction. There are loads of online courses available that will help you hone your skills in programming, coding, CAD, data analysis… the list goes on. They are usually quite affordable (or even free!) and some offer certificates. The skills you learn outside of your studies or employment are always transferable and show that you are committed to your professional development, which always looks great on your CV.


So, is industrial or academic experience better?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to that question as it really depends on the kind of career you’re interested in. But, if you’ve identified some potential job opportunities, figured out both what they require and the experience you’ve gained so far, plus made a start on fixing any areas for improvement you may have, you are well on your way to having a great balance of experience that will keep your CV on any employer’s desk.


Sara Hardy

Sara is a member of the UKSEDS Careers Team, and works in Corporate Strategy for the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

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