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Tangent Worlds: Academic Science vs Commercial Science

Brian R. Shmaefsky


Industry is now the largest job source for science graduates. Science education therefore needs to be better at:

  • preparing students adequately for the business environment
  • covering employability skills in its curriculum
  • instilling the proficiencies required by industry

August 2002

Contemporary science is split between two worlds.
The goal of commercial science is profitable product.

Graduate programs must be sensitive to the growth of science-based industries. Photo: Microsoft Office.

Every science student learns that a practice called the scientific method ensures that science is conducted with complete objectivity and a universally consistent way of interpreting data. With this inherent impartiality and collective ideology it is assumed that the method is being practiced and applied no matter where science is conducted. Conversely, contemporary science is split between two coexisting yet disparate worlds: the world of academic science and the world of commercial science.

Both follow the scientific method. However, academic science is conducted for the sake of knowledge while commercial science is done for marketable products. Although they both work within the same principles, they follow different sets of rules.

Science education for different worlds

As an undergraduate biology major, a student will quickly surmise that science involves memorizing and reiterating a host of facts and theories. Occasionally, there would be an excellent professor who taught how to enjoy the pure pursuit of knowledge about nature’s intricacies and mysteries. The more facts that are learned, the easier it is to comprehend increasingly esoteric phenomena.

Academic science is about experimentation using the scientific method.
  • Science is not just learning about what is known.
  • Its intention evolved from absorbing information about nature to constructing information through experimentation.
  • Patience and persistence in applying the scientific method create a new level of excitement. This new pursuit alone appeared to be the major thrust of science as evident by the unshakable diligence of other professors and the early scientists who explored nature’s concealed truths.
Academic careers were limited in the ’80s, so graduates turned to industry.

Graduate school is an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Most graduate programs in science are viewed as the “end all” for the making of a scientist. They impart the essential proficiency needed to undertake either postdoctoral studies or a junior academic position. Originally, it seemed the destiny of being a scientist was to carry out research within the precincts of a personal laboratory. But that did not happen.

The supply and demand circumstances of academic positions in the middle 1980’s made it difficult to secure scholastic employment. So, many science graduates then and now ended up taking on positions as industrial scientists. This turned into a bigger exercise in cognitive discord than the transition from undergraduate to graduate studies.

Science graduates were ill prepared for the business world.

Though industry does not hold the same value systems as academia, science is still enjoyable in both settings. But its pursuit in industry is restricted to short-term advances that could be turned into profitable commercial goods. A new set of skills had to be learned. At the same time, much of the ideology of graduate school had to be abandoned.

At first, the confusion and frustration of learning to cope with the first few months of industry makes new graduates curse their academic rearing. It is common to feel that 10 or more years of college did little to prepare them for the breadth of science careers. The knowledge of science gained in college may be excellent, but the acquaintance with “real world” job skills can be appallingly sparse. The last comment is not meant to disparage college science faculty as being inadequate or negligent mentors. They were raised in a different world and they instruct well for that environment.

Actually, many of the values learned in grade school help immensely with the transition to corporate life: be on time, listen, do as you are told, follow instructions, work efficiently with accuracy and alacrity, show your work, learn quickly from your mistakes, get along with others and be a team player.

Comparing skills needed for different circumstances

So, what are the specific differences between the academic science and commercial science proficiencies?

Industrial scientists do not have the luxury of time to produce results.

1. Project duration
At most universities, graduate research entails an involved project that can take several years to investigate. Completion of the entire project is the measure of success. Errors and unfruitful paths are part of the indoctrination process and are a vital learning experience. Wasted time at worst means delayed graduation.

Industrial science is another matter. Speed and first-time precision are critical elements of achievement. Projects that take several years to complete are the exception. Research and development (R&D) responsibilities dictate that several new or improved products and procedures are created within a year. Errors and fruitless pursuits are experiences to avoid. Wasted time means diminished profit and less chance of advancement.

Industrial lab research must follow protocols whereas academic labs are hypothesis driven.

2. Laboratory environments
Both academic and industrial science can be demanding and tense. But they fundamentally differ in the types of rules followed in the lab. Academic laboratories are hypothesis driven. There is a strong focus on project details. However, the major concern is ensuring that the steps and data are recorded correctly to ensure an accurate road to answering the hypothesis. Any modifications or new procedures developed during the project are carried out with no worries as long the experiment is designed to answer the hypothesis.

The industrial lab also involves tasks that follow prescribed laboratory protocols. However, proprietary laws and governmental regulations weigh its worth. Duties have to be performed with the added restrictions of current Good Laboratory Practices (cGLPs), and current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMPs). The lab procedure book from the academic labs is now called a SOP (standard operating procedure). It cannot be modified even slightly without creating problems for the company.

Safety is highly regulated in industry.

3. Safety
Governmental and corporate rules must be followed without exception, unless alternatives are given for exceptional situations. The rules restrict flexibility in the industrial lab by limiting the types of procedures that can be conducted. Also, certain assays and procedures in industry have to be avoided because of the difficulties in storing or disposing of the volumes of material needed for the scope of the work. Some research faculty and academic colleagues feel that safety guidelines are a nuisance and, as a result, may take more personal risks in their less monitored environment.

Experimental data must follow prescribed guidelines in industry.

4. Documentation
“Showing work” takes on a whole new meaning in the commercial science milieu. Laboratory notebooks in graduate school are simple and data driven. It serves as a personal guide to replicate the study if needed. Plus, it provides the template for writing the Methods and Materials section of a dissertation and any subsequent publications. In industry, the laboratory notebook becomes a legal document that exactingly follows prescribed documentation principles. Every minute detail must be recorded including the amount of time spent on certain steps, the serial numbers of laboratory equipment used, the amounts of any reagent that were taken but not used, and the lot numbers and expiration dates of every reagent that went into the procedure. Many times scientists must track the fate of even the most miniscule waste generated by protocols.

The company owns all work done by its scientists whereas academic scientists own theirs.

5. Intellectual property
In graduate school a student’s piece of research is gathered in a sheltered laboratory space, which is solely the domain of the student. The outcomes belong to the student. Any new ideas are the property of the student. Ideas are freely shared with colleagues because they offer valuable insights and the same joy of discovery. There is little fear of competition because students are working in their own self-centered worlds. The graduate student and academic investigator are also at liberty to borrow protocols developed by the labors of others as long as the correct acknowledgements are provided.

Again, industry is different. The labors of work belong to the company. Any ideas developed during employment are their property. The sharing of ideas is restricted to certain people within the company. Strict policies that prevent competitors from getting novel information must be exercised. There is also the concern of using a competitor’s proprietary information. Caution is needed before developing a strategy. So, serious efforts are needed to investigate who owned what ideas.

Industrial scientists’ activities must meet company goals and needs.

6. Performance
Personality and perseverance play a much bigger role in industry than in academic settings. Tardiness in graduate research is a personal problem. The effort put into research reflects only on the student and results in personal consequences that can be accepted if desired. This is not so in industry. In industry, the company will suffer from inadequate effort, so any job performance has to meet the stipulated expectations based on corporate goals and needs.

Changing perspectives in academic science

Many universities are moving to the industrial model to conduct science.

Academic science evolved in an environment fostering boundless creativity and unimpeded exploration. Commercial science grew up in a world of entrepreneurship. The principles for each work very well within their respective environments. However, many universities are desperately grasping the industrial model of conducting science:

  • Biochemistry, genetics, synthetic chemistry and thermodynamics are now driving big profits in industry.
  • Biotechnology in particular has proven itself a lucrative commercial endeavor. New discoveries can lead to highly marketable commodities. Some examples include polymerase chain reaction (PCR), herbicide-resistant genetically modified crops, and bioremediation.
  • A number of academic researchers are learning the values of industry to protect and secure full ownership of their ideas for pending pecuniary gain. Tight research funding and the burgeoning cost of doing science may drive more researchers to seek financial benefits from their work. The chance for high profits from scientific endeavors has also caused an unprecedented growth in industrial science jobs.
Graduate programs in particular must include skills for industry.

Preparing students for science careers

Anyone involved in laboratory science education, from middle school up to comprehensive universities, must recognize the current magnitude of commercial science. Graduate programs in particular must be sensitive to the growth of science-based industries. Graduate students must be given the added value of skills that prepare them for commercial science ventures. An international study conducted in the United Kingdom stresses the importance of preparing graduate students for corporate careers in many fields.1

Unfortunately, only 62% of job applicants in the United States are taught the necessary skills for performing successfully in corporate jobs. These were the findings of the American Management Association and heralded as a call for better student preparation by the National Alliance of Business (NAB).2 I know from recent personal experience with managers in science industries that they would probably concur that the numbers cited by the NAB are lower for employees fresh out of graduate programs or postdoctoral studies in the sciences.

Science students must be taught basic job skills along with the traditional science methodology.

Conclusion: Science curriculum should cover both traditional and industrial science proficiencies.
  • These employability skills should not be set apart, relegated as an ancillary to science education. Rather, the skills should be woven seamlessly into the day-to-day curriculum.

  • Lectures can emphasize the variety of science careers and the requisite skills needed for success in those fields.

  • The news is replete with examples of corporate failures due to key people failing to carry out the corporate ethos. Each laboratory session can be used as a vehicle for instilling accuracy, honesty and care in carrying out the work.

  • The Internet has some wonderful resources for seeking information on commercial science skills. These skills are not only useful in the workplace, but also translate into creating a complete person who will contribute to our democratic society.

  • The Occupational Outlook Handbook produced by the United States Department of Labor is a good starting point for getting general career information.3

  • The United States Department of Labor Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) released a 2000 report detailing workforce literacy skills that should be incorporated into the classroom.4

Brian R. Shmaefsky, Ph.D., is a professor of biology and environmental sciences at Kingwood College near Houston, Texas. His research emphasis is environmental physiology and his publications focus on science education and workforce training. He did his undergraduate studies in biology at Brooklyn College in New York and completed masters and doctoral studies at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. Dr. Shmaefsky spent four years as a production and quality control chemist at Sigma Chemical Company in St. Louis, Missouri. He became Chair of Biology at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, Director of the region’s Resource Awareness Program, and a consultant in natural resource conservation.

Tangent Worlds: Academic Science vs Commercial Science

Nanotechnology education

For educators: this article presents considerations for a science curriculum that prepares students for careers in nanotechnology.

Science and Engineering Indicators 2006

This report by the National Science Foundation examines education and the workplace for science and engineering careers in the U.S. Chapter 2 provides interesting demographics.


Workplace of the future

“Futurework: Trends and challenges for work in the 21st century,” executive summary. U.S. Department of Labor (Washington, DC. 1999). Download the pdf file at:

College biology data

  • » UniXL directory: “Provides a directory for university students and academics with relevant information on many subjects available at most universities worldwide,” e.g., life sciences, molecular sciences.
  • » A simple, fast-loading directory of nearly 4000 college and university websites in the US and Canada.

Read a book online

BIO2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists “provides a blueprint for bringing undergraduate biology education up to the speed of today’s research fast track.” It includes recommendations for teaching the next generation of life science investigators through such methods as interdisciplinary study, classroom laboratory experiments, and independent research (National Research Council, 2003).

Writing Guidelines for Engineering and Science Students

Provides how-to information for writing laboratory and progress reports, scientific papers, proposals, and other documents, as well as correspondence such as memos and letters. Includes student writing exercises and teacher resources.

Investigating biology careers and jobs

  1. Harvey, Lee, Sue Moon, and Vicki Geall. 1997. “Graduates’ Work: Organisational Change and Students’ Attributes.” Centre for Research into Quality. (accessed 8/01/02) February 27, 2010 No longer available.
  2. American Management Association. “2001 AMA Survey on Workplace Testing: Basic Skills, Job Skills, Psychological Measurement.” Download the pdf file at: (accessed 8/01/02)
  3. United States Department of Labor. The Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2002-3 Edition. (accessed 8/01/02)
  4. The Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skillls (SCANS) report can be found at the United States Department of Labor website at (accessed 8/01/02)

General References

  • » California State University. “Employers’ demand for skills.” A review of 1980s-mid 1990s research, including SCANS report. (accessed 8/01/02)
  • » Gates, B. (1999). “Bill Gates’ new rules.” Time: 153 (11), 72-82.
  • » Hosfastader, R. (1994). “Voluntary industry standards for chemical process industries technical workers.” A report to the American Chemical Society.
  • » National Coalition for Advanced Manufacturing. (1996). “What manufacturing workers need to know and be able to do.” Available online at: EducTrain/SkillStand.dir/nacfam/ams.htm (accessed 8/01/02)
  • » Shmaefsky, B.R. (1996). “Instilling job literacy for current and upcoming biotechnology occupations.” Invited paper presented at The Genetics Revolution: A Catalyst for Education and Public Policy Conference. March 21-23. Dallas, TX.
  • » Shmaefsky, B.R. (1995). “Preparing high school and college students for science careers in the year 2000.” Paper presented at the National Science Teachers Association Area Convention. Dec. 14-16. San Antonio, TX.
  • » Shmaefsky, B.R. (1995). “Literacy needs for entry-level high-tech occupations: The chemical and biotechnology industries as a model.” Invited paper presented at Focus on the Future: The Literacy Challenge Continues Conference. The Literacy Task Force. September 21-23. Houston, TX.
  • » Shmaefsky, B.R. (1995). “Benchmarks in college science teaching: Producing the marketable student.” Paper presented at the Society for College Science Teaching Annual Conference. March 22-25. Phila., PA.
  • » Thurow, L. (2000). “The key to prospering in the new global economy.” Converge Magazine, 13(11), 42.
  • » Thurow, L. (1999). “Building wealth: The new rules for individuals, companies, and nations.” The Atlantic Monthly, 283(6): 57-69.
  • » U.S. Department of Labor. (2000). 21st Century Workforce Commission. “A nation of opportunity: Strategies for building tomorrow’s 21st century workforce.” Washington, DC.
  • » U.S. Department of Labor. (1999). “Futurework: Trends and challenges for work in the 21st century,” executive summary. Washington, DC. Download the pdf file at: (accessed 8/01/02)


Understanding Science