I’m a quantum physicist. I’ve pursued this career in one form or another since I started my PhD at Harvard. The road to today has taken twists and turns including a departure from academia post-PhD as a consultant at a “Big-Three” firm, working at DARPA in the US Department of Defense, returning to postdoctoral research at NIST, building an experimental group as a Professor, and now as Founder and CEO of quantum technology startup Q-CTRL.
The emerging quantum technology industry is full of opportunity for highly paid positions focused on cutting-edge research. But I know many in PhD programs or postdocs struggle with a decision to move outside of academia. I’ve struggled with it myself – twice. In my career I’ve had the chance to experience a range of work environments and I wanted to share some insights about the differences to help those of you considering making the jump.
It’s impossible to present truly generic advice or avoid sharing views informed by my specific (narrow) circumstances. So I won’t try – I’ll just tell you what I’ve experienced and why my path has led me to Q-CTRL.
The fundamental trade in an academic vs industrial career path is Freedom and individual recognition vs Money and team-based success In academia we literally buy the ability to chart our own paths and dictate the direction in which we will shape our activities through massive lost wages. A growing chain of postdoctoral appointments can result in hundreds of thousands of dollars of lost income during core years for wealth creation and savings. In many Universities even senior faculty positions are poorly remunerated relative to the level of experience and expertise required. Industry positions, by and large, simply pay much better and see remuneration grow with company success through incentives and bonuses. Add to that the outsized potential upside of being an employee in a startup that may see valuation growth of 100 or 1000x within a decade and the financial cost of academic freedom is quite high. For some it’s the perfect trade, but I’m not convinced that enough people look at it this way. Rather, so many have been conditioned that only academic careers are “worthy.” On that, we should collectively call BS.
You can do impactful, meaningful, and recognizable work in either academia or industry. The right industry positions (like the ones at Q-CTRL) allow you to work on the most advanced research questions, and openly communicate your results through manuscripts and conference presentations. The primary difference from an academic position is that in academia the generation and dissemination of knowledge is the #1 priority. Manuscripts are largely an end product; once one is completed we move to the next. In industry the priority is on delivering value to the business. Here, manuscripts are one means to this end, contributing value through external recognition for your work (serving marketing and recruitment), or supporting other strategic priorities like product development. The structure of industrial research in a startup (as a senior employee with a PhD) is a bit like working as a postdoc for a PI who has already secured major project-based grants. The overall research direction is broadly set, but novel contributions are expected and rewarded. Moreover, totally new concepts for exploration are welcomed and you have an opportunity to advocate to leadership why resources should be dedicated to the project.
Research funding in quantum tech startups is better and in many cases more certain than in academia. This may be a surprise for those who reasonably expect that academic positions bring security while startups are inherently risky. First, when it comes to startups which have passed major early capital raising milestones such as Series A, the risk profile for the overall company changes dramatically relative to seed or pre-seed ventures. Second, the 2-3 year “runway” associated with a startup is also actually not much different than an academic position or grant cycle. If a grant runs out, a postdoc’s salary disappears with it. And even for tenured Professors, the risk is still there. Ask yourself, if you were a professor who lost all his or her grant funding (but kept your base position), would you still continue as is? Or would you be seeking new opportunities that allowed you to be research active? Once you understand this you see that a career in the right startup is actually not much more risky than an academic career. Of course, we’re all beholden to outside forces including the ever-evolving business strategy – but startups tend to have much more capital available to deploy. In the right setting, a strategically important project bringing in even a small amount of external revenue can leverage internal capital reserves to accelerate and expand the project. This is generally much more difficult in academia where grant expenditure is fixed to grant income and internal University funds are limited and fiercely contested. And as we all know, the scale of funds available for major activities in well resourced companies like Q-CTRL is generally an order of magnitude or more higher than that available in academia.
Startups move fast. When I started Q-CTRL I hired about five people within a week. In general from the time we decide to hire someone we can have an offer in their hands within a couple of hours. I don’t need to tell you how different this is from academia where “policy” creation and compliance have become ends unto themselves. In a certain unnamed institution it now routinely takes ~9 months from time of advertisement to time of appointment – even if a suitable candidate was identified before the process started! Sadly, a focus on compliance instead of outcomes is growing in academia as the political targeting of Universities breeds conservative management. Besides a major cultural difference, because startups operate with capital reserves in the bank, major strategic decisions can be made and executed rapidly, allowing new inputs from staff to quickly ascend in priority. This is hugely exciting if you have a new concept and can see massive resourcing brought to bear within days or weeks, rather than going through a year-long application and grant award process. For those who like to get stuff done, there’s just no comparison between the sectors.
The cultural image of a senior academic has little relationship to modern reality. Universities are changing, their management approaches are shifting, and Professorial responsibilities are massively evolving in all but a handful of the most wealthy private institutions. Don’t fool yourself – as a Professor you will spend most of your time in committee meetings, fighting against poorly conceived policies coming from bureaucrats, and applying for funding. The emerging quantum technology industry actually provides one of the best outlets for scientists and researchers who wish to focus on a career delivering technical value.
The old adage goes, “The grass is always greener on the other side.” For those who’ve only experienced one side of the fence in the academic vs industry debate, I guarantee this is true. But in the quantum technology startup space, experienced senior academics like me are working to create workplaces where the grass really is greener. Q-CTRL has invested to preserve the best parts of a research-focused career while discarding the painful aspects of academia – slow processes, nonfunctional professional services/support, soul-crushing HR, mediocre pay, a grinding grant cycle. We’re growing fast and would love for you to join us.
For information about working at Q-CTRL, including current available positions, please visit the Q-CTRL careers page.