Careers in Academic Research and Industrial R&D

Some important comparisons.

I recently attended the 2017 meeting of the Biomedical Engineering Society in Phoenix, Arizona, during which I spoke to many junior and senior biomedical engineering students about graduate school. When asked about their career goals, many said they were interested in research, either in academia or in industry.

Research is defined as “investigation or experimentation aimed at the discovery and interpretation of facts, revision of accepted theories or laws in the light of new facts, or practical application of such new or revised theories or laws” [1]. Development is defined as “the process of coming into existence or of creating something new or more advanced” [2]. Research and development (R&D) is defined as “studies and tests that are done to design new or improved products” [1].

Opportunities for careers in research are available in both academia and industry. A Ph.D. degree is usually required for a faculty position that involves research in an academic setting (and may also be required for higher-level research positions in medical device companies). Research in industry is often part of R&D efforts, which typically support the new product development critical to the survival and growth of medical device companies. Biomedical engineers with B.S., M.S., or Ph.D. degrees can hold R&D positions in industry.

To make an informed choice regarding career paths involving research (including R&D), students need to understand the differences between research careers in both settings. Because many of our senior design students are considering the various career paths open to them after graduation, discussing these as part of the senior capstone design course can be helpful as students weigh their options for graduate school and employment. Each year, along with other career management topics, I discuss the differences between careers in academic and industrial research. More information can be found in “The Capstone Design Conference 2018.” My presentation here is based on personal experiences in industry and academia, as well as those of colleagues in both settings.

The Capstone Design Conference 2018

The Capstone Design Conference 2018 is scheduled for 4–6 June in Rochester, New York. Topics of interest to capstone design course stakeholders include the following:

  • Expectations: project scoping, expected results (sponsor, faculty, and students), learning objectives, industry liaison efforts, differences across disciplines in multidisciplinary teams, required course deliverables
  • Industry relationships: value achieved versus educational value to students, expectations versus cost of project, meeting industry requirements for new hires, engaging corporate sponsors
  • Intellectual property: industry expectations, student roles, institutional policies, confidential information
  • Contemporary themes: inclusion and impact of societal, environmental, and global issues
  • Student issues: teamwork, expectations, professional communication skills, prerequisites to work on industry-sponsored projects, matching skills to project
  • Assessment: formative and summative guidelines, team versus individual, project results versus student learning outcomes, grading across disciplines, industry versus faculty perceptions, meeting individual program standards with a multidiscipline experience
  • Multidisciplinary collaboration: intra- and interprogram collaboration regarding the formation and implementation of multidisciplinary teams.

This conference provides a forum for faculty and staff to share ideas about improving and/or starting engineering capstone design courses. To foster meaningful discussion and outcomes, the conference features interactive panel sessions, poster presentations, workshops, and industry demonstrations. Faculty, administrators, industry representatives, and students are welcome to participate in this engaging conference. More Information is available at capstoneconf.org.

Basic Versus Applied Research

Academic careers in biomedical engineering typically include research and teaching. They tend to focus more on basic research, with an emphasis on the discovery of new knowledge, but may involve applied research. Sometimes these discoveries are used to solve problems and present opportunities to create innovative new medical devices through faculty start-up companies or licensing of intellectual property to established medical device companies.

Careers for biomedical engineers in the medical device industry typically involve more applied than basic research. The purpose of research in industry is to discover new knowledge that can solve a problem or result in a commercial product. This research is usually followed by development activities with the goal of creating value for customers in the form of a new medical device. For medical device companies, R&D activities support new product development.

Research Areas

In the academic setting, researchers are guided by intellectual curiosity and the availability of funding. Faculty can conduct research in almost any area of personal interest if they can secure funding to support their research activities.

In industry, the types of new product development/R&D projects to which engineers are assigned are dictated most often by market need. Engineers may not always get to choose the projects they work on, but their skills will be used to solve problems and create value for the company and customer. Companies invest in and provide resources for projects that offer an acceptable return on investment.

Managers try to match an engineer’s interests and strengths to a project, but, in many resource-constrained environments, they may be assigned to a project simply because it needs support. For this reason, engineers may sometimes find themselves working on projects that may not be their top choices. However, this may be different at highly innovative companies, such as 3M, where engineers and scientists are allowed to spend 15% of their time “pursuing projects of their own choice, free to look for unexpected, unscripted opportunities, for breakthrough innovations that have the potential to expand the pie” [3]. During their careers, engineers can expect to work on a mix of line extensions, product enhancements, cost-reduction projects, and some new-to-the-world products, depending on their experience and skills and where engineering resources are needed.

Criteria for Promotion

Each college or university has its own unique promotion and tenure policies, but most institutions place a heavy emphasis on research publications and presentations at scientific meetings. Some schools value patents, professional development activities, and other items when considering faculty for promotion and tenure.

In industry, publications are nice to have, but promotions are based more on problems solved or new products introduced, depending on an employee’s performance objectives. For this reason, project management skills and the ability to “get products out the door” can play a significant role in advancing an engineer’s career.

Funding

Most faculty are dependent on external funding to support their research programs. This requires writing and submitting grant proposals to various government agencies (such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the U.S. National Science Foundation), corporate sponsors, or private organizations and foundations. Without this funding, it is very difficult for faculty to advance their research agendas.

Projects in industry need to be approved for funding by upper management. Companies (especially publicly held companies) are constantly looking for opportunities to grow and increase profitability. New product development portfolios, if managed well, can provide these opportunities. For this reason, the strategic plans of many successful medical device companies include a significant percentage of growth from new product development. In general, if it can be demonstrated that a new product will provide a significant return on investment, the project will be funded.

This often requires R&D and marketing personnel (with good ideas for new products and technologies) to justify funding of these projects, based on the potential return on investment, technical feasibility, fit with the company’s strategic goals, and other criteria. In some companies, the marketing and financial analysis and justification may be the responsibility of the marketing product managers. In others, this may be the responsibility of a team of people from R&D, marketing, finance, regulatory affairs, production, and other areas.

Degree of Involvement in the Product Development Process

Unless faculty conducting applied research are attempting to commercialize their technologies through a start-up company, their involvement in the new product development process typically is limited to the earlier phases. Some may participate in clinical studies and verification testing but with a major focus on research, lesser focus on development, and almost no involvement in design transfer, design verification and validation, or commercialization activities.

R&D engineers working for medical device companies often are involved in all phases of new product development from needs finding to commercialization. They gain experience in each phase and see the bigger picture regarding what is required to design, develop, and introduce new medical devices and technologies.

Sense of Urgency

Based on personal experience in both academia and industry, it is my opinion that the general sense of urgency regarding on-time completion of research project tasks is not as great in academia as it is in business. This is not to say that academia is stress-free or that there are no paper submissions, grant submissions, or other deadlines to meet. However, I remember many industry project update meetings during which my fellow engineers and I were asked about every major and minor task on the project schedule and required to explain what we were doing to meet project deadlines or keep late tasks from becoming delayed further.

As R&D engineers and project managers, we were required to anticipate potential threats to our schedules and develop mitigation plans, in the form of preventive actions and contingency strategies, to reduce these from occurring. The mantra “time is money” is often heard in many companies. For every week a project is delayed, a week’s worth of expected revenue from the new product goes unrealized. In general, companies are willing to spend money to keep projects on schedule, preventing delays in new product introductions and the associated loss of sales revenue. They would prefer to go over budget than be late in introducing a new product.

During my 18 years in academia (not including five years as a Ph.D. degree student at another institution), I have seen neither this level of attention to schedules nor a similar sense of urgency to complete project work or research tasks on time. In my view, this reduced sense of urgency is one of the benefits of working in an academic environment and is more conducive to the successful completion of research activities.

Flexibility

Careers in academia provide more flexibility to faculty regarding work hours, work location, autonomy, frequency of travel, consulting opportunities, and other activities. They can make it easier to achieve a work–life balance and can be more family friendly. They allow faculty to pursue projects they are passionate about, without regard to profitability. For entrepreneurial faculty, the opportunity to create a start-up venture while continuing to work as a faculty member provides a unique opportunity not found in industry. Most academic institutions will share royalties from faculty inventions. Sharing of royalties and outside consulting opportunities allow faculty to supplement their income.

Careers in industry tend to provide less flexibility regarding work hours, travel, and other activities. Consulting is rarely allowed unless the work will not benefit a competitor. Even in these situations, many companies feel that they own their employees’ time and do not want them spending it on projects that will not benefit the company. Companies will not allow employees to run potentially competitive start-up ventures, nor will they share royalties for inventions created by their engineers.

These tradeoffs between careers in academia and industry are compensated for by higher industry salaries, which can be up to 50% greater than academic salaries, depending on the job requirements, education, experience, years in the medical device industry, company size, and the number of employees supervised. The Medical Device and Diagnostic Industry Medtech Salary Survey 2017 reports current salaries and compensation for engineers in the medical industry [4].

In summary, there are differences among careers involving research in academia and in industry. It is important for our students to understand the differences in the day-to-day activities, job responsibilities, and quality-of-life issues associated with each of these career paths.

References

  1. Merriam-Webster. (2017, Oct. 17). Research. Merriam-Webster. [Online].
  2. Cambridge Dictionary. (2017, Oct. 17). Development. Cambridge Dictionary. [Online].
  3. V. Govindarajan and S. Srinivas. (2013, Aug. 6). The innovation mindset in action: 3M corporation. Harv. Bus. Rev. [Online].
  4. M. Thibault. (2017, Oct. 18). MD+DI Medtech Salary Survey 2017. Medical Device Business. [Online].