Saturday, March 18, 2017

Corporate versus academic life

I am writing this blog in the capacity of having spent a significant portion of my life experiencing corporate life and subsequently spent considerable time in understanding and experiencing the academic life. I refer to product based technical corporate, life at other corporates could be better or worse.

Being in a company, the environment always insists on confidentiality. Everything should be confidential - the work you do cannot be discussed outside, the salary and promotions you get cannot be discussed within the company, you cannot be over happy in front of your colleagues if you got a bonus, because someone may get a hint of it and complain to manager if he didn't get the bonus, etc. In some sense, this enforced confidentiality leads you to behave artificially which tends to become your habit at work and home as well. Having lived this culture for years, I had assumed this to be the norm until I experienced a life at academics (as a Ph.D. student). Confidentiality exists to its bare minimum. The stipend that people receive is known to all and no one hesitates to share the same. While the performance evaluation in a corporate always used to be a deep secret, it is fairly open and people are judged based on their accomplishments. You can proudly announce your academic achievements to anyone and this helps you gain the right visibility. In a company. while you may have an interest in some other field of work and you are occasionally allowed to explore the same, it is primarily from your own personal time. You still need to meet the deliverables of your group and collaboration is permitted only if it makes business sense. Collaboration for individual's benefits is rarely seen. However, this is another aspect which I went through just a few months after I joined the Ph.D. program. Everyone encourages discussion and collaboration - even most of the supervisors are fine if you are working on a project with a different person and if it is helping you learn or you enjoy it. Such a thing is absolutely unimaginable in a corporate life where people are just chasing deadlines. Individual learning and development are the key focus of an institution while for a company, the bottom line is profits and revenue. Hence you are always referred as resources in a company. With seniority and aging, you tend to become an overhead for a company while you actually become an asset for an institution with your teaching and research experience. You are expected to exponentially increase your output with salary hikes in a corporate which never happens practically and you end up being in a vicious circle of chasing deadlines and then deadlines chasing you. In an academic institution, if you are planning to join some other institution, there is no need to keep it secret and you can take the advice of others. In a corporate, unless you have secured your next job, it is safe to not reveal your intentions of change.

Does it mean that everything is bad in a corporate life - absolutely NO. Corporates are the key driver for the development that we see around us. They are the reason we have been able to meet employment needs of a nation and the world. Not everyone is suited for an academic life. People have different priorities and accordingly, they decide what suits them best. If something doesn't work in a company, there are enough reason to blame and you are not directly impacted by a failure (in fact a failure generates work for some people and help in employment). Your failure in academics (a rejected paper or rejected grant) is your own failure and no one else can be held responsible for it. Getting a product to be working in real life and used by masses is something more commonly seen with corporate projects than academic institutions and this gives the pinnacle of satisfaction. In a corporate, there are dedicated teams to get the projects for the employees, while in an academic setup, the onus to arrange funds/projects lies with the researcher/faculty.

Coming to learning, what exactly you learn in a company which helps your development? Because necessity is the mother of inventions, you learn to be efficient since deadlines are tight and you need to meet them. You learn how to handle exigencies. You learn about practical methods of doing something, and the intricacies involved in the same. Solving the last mile problem in getting a successful project teaches you much more than the whole project.

So, why people choose one versus the other? One obvious reason for corporate is that salaries tend to be higher than academic salaries. Moreover, the threshold to enter good quality academic institutions is to have a Ph.D. which is much higher than graduates who are hired by the corporate. A hefty pay during graduation distracts many genuine candidates from pursuing their academic dreams. But now-a-days the salaries in academic institutions are growing and along with other benefits that are provided, they are comparable to corporate. The independence in academic life is what most of the academicians enjoy. In premier government institutions in India, you also enjoy a lovely campus housing with other amenities for your yourself and family. Whichever path you choose, in my opinion getting a flavor of the other one is very necessary to keep yourself motivated during hard times and get a holistic experience of career.

Disclaimer: My views above are based on living academic life as a Ph.D. student and some of the aspects may be different in the context of faculty members. However, I have tried to capture as generic points as possible.