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Differences Between Industry and Academia, Pt. 1

A reader’s e-mail got me thinking about this topic. It’s worth a number of posts, as you’d guess, since there are many substantial differences. Some are merely of degree (funding!), while others are of kind.
But the funding makes for larger changes than you’d think, so I’ll get that one out of the way first. When I was in graduate school, my advisor’s research group was actually pretty well-heeled. We had substantial grant money, and none of us had to be teaching assistants past our first year. But even so, we had to watch the expenditures. For example, we didn’t order dry solvents, in their individual syringable bottles, from the chemical companies because those were too expensive. Instead, we had our solvent stills, which (to be fair) produced extremely good quality reagents at the price of the occasional fire.
Grad student labor is so cheap it’s nearly free, so making expensive reagents was more cost-effective than buying them. (At least, it was if you weren’t the person making them.) I had a starting material that’s produced from pyrolysis of corn starch (levoglucosan, it’s called, and I’d be happy to hear from anyone who’s worked with the stuff.) At the time, it sold for $27 per 100 milligrams, and since I used it in fifty-gram batches, that was out of our price range for sure.
So I pyrolyzed away, producing tarry sludge that had to be laboriously cleaned up over about a week to give something that would crystallize. (I saved the first small batch that did that for me back in the summer of 1984, and it’s sitting in the same vial right next to me as I write. The label looks rather distressingly yellowed around the edges, I have to say.) A kilo of corn starch would net you about fifty grams of starting material, if everything worked perfectly. And if it didn’t, well, I just started burning up another batch, because it’s not like I had anything to do that Sunday night, anyway.
When I got my first industrial job, it took me a while to get all this out of my system. I needed an expensive iron complex at one point, about six months into my work, and sat down to order the things I needed to make it. My boss came by and asked what I was up to, and when I told him, asked me how much the reagent itself would cost. “About 900 dollars”, I told him, whereupon he told me to forget it and just order the darn stuff. He pointed out that the company would spend a good part of that price just on my salary in the time it would take me to make it, and he was right, even at 1989 rates.
So we throw the money around, by most academic standards. But there can be too much of a good thing. There’s a famous research institute in Europe, which I’m not quite going to name, that was famously well-funded for many years. They had a very large, very steady stream of income, and it bought the finest facilities anyone could want. Year after year, only the best. And what was discovered there, in the palatial labs? Well, now and then something would emerge. But nothing particularly startling, frankly – and from some of the labs, nothing much at all. You’d have to have a generous and forgiving spirit to think that the results justified the expenditure. There are other examples, over which for now I will draw the veil of discretion.