Are there different cultures in ‘industry’ and ‘academia’?

Are universities still an attractive place to work and is it worth moving from the private sector? I have been discussing this topic with Vicky Sherwood, writer of The excellent STEM blog biomedbadass. We started talking last summer, trying to compare our experiences of people transitioning between ‘academia’, and ‘industry’. We are running a live session on this tomorrow. An open discussion about the two different work cultures that people encounter when they’re moving between the two.

The covid-19 crisis has hit higher education, especially universities with a high percentage of international students. Still, university graduates fare better on the job market, tough, compared to those without a degree. Many people in higher education are increasingly worried about their jobs. During the first lock-down, many were nervous about possible redundancies as part of savings measures by their spooked institutions. It has been a turbulent year in higher education. And while many universities came to the rescue of an A Level cohort which had been royally screwed over by muddled government policy, the kerfuffle over tuition fees, and rent for empty student accommodation keeps the sector in the news.

A clash of cultures?

Biomedbadass supports people with STEM backgrounds moving between research and industry roles. I have supported people from business backgrounds into academia. Some private higher education companies even sent me their new hires, so I could give them ‘the talk’. What was that ‘talk’? I was brought in to explain the different cultures that people with industry and business backgrounds would encounter. I spent the last few months having conversations with people who had moved from industry into a university setting. This was by no means proper scientific, or journalistic, work. But I did rediscover an ethnographic interest in unpacking their stories of cultural bemusement, and sometimes outright shock.

Why doesn’t anyone ever answer my emails?

The cris de coeur I have heard so many times, when transitioners were at the end of their tether. They didn’t understand why they were seemingly selectively being ignored by their university colleagues. My soothing reply would often be ‘no one answers anyone’s emails in academia”. Often, they would be even more incensed: ‘they wouldn’t get by without in the real world.” The ‘real world’. That nebulous concept.

Names have been left out to protect the innocent

I’m going to summarise some of the narratives I encountered. I also plan to add more in later instalments. Most transitioners already had some contact with higher education, before taking the plunge. They worked in graduate recruitment, had an academic interest, or wanted to progress their career through further qualification. They felt an affinity to the idea of sharing knowledge and experience. I was often touched during those conversations by their strong motivation to help others thrive. And so, people became mentors, helped with career decisions, sometimes made a complete career change to teaching. 

They then experienced the reality of the sausage machine of the marketised university. Byzantine rules, opaque reporting structures, and a relaxed attitude towards timekeeping. But at the same time people liked that relaxation and enjoyed this freedom to direct their own work. They all felt that universities are workplaces with a lot of freedom, more than private businesses. They often felt, though, that the balance was off, leading to frustrations. Sometimes people felt stifled in their drive to work with maximum efficiency and effectiveness. As if this made it harder to fit in.

Are universities still an attractive place to work?

My career has very much been about connecting universities with the world outside. The ‘real world’ is just a smoke screen. I have seen that in many ways universities and businesses have become more like each other. Often not in a good way, though. On this blog I have more than once discussed this. Not because universities shouldn’t be like businesses – they are already businesses, whether we like it, or not. I think education policy (senseless measures and compliance rules) often drives inefficiencies rather than effectiveness and efficiency.

So, are universities still an attractive place to work and is it worth moving from the private sector? What do you think?

February 18th, 2021 by