Looking over the fence

Looking over the fence

My husband, Mr.ME and I often compare notes on what it’s like being in industry versus graduate school as part of our “how was your day” discussions.He graduated the year before I did, so it’s interesting to see what it would be like if we’d taken the other route after graduation.  Of course, not all graduate schools are the same, nor are all jobs the same, but we decided to offer some tag team insight into what our experiences have been like.

Describe your job

Miss MSE: I’m a graduate student in materials science at a major research university. My research is to study the structure of amorphous solids by molecular dynamics simulations. This is a major departure from what I did as an undergraduate, which was classical metallurgy.

Mr. ME:  I’m a mechanical engineer responsible for the design of a key subsystem for a consumer product produced by a major OEM.  I work hand in hand with my suppliers to improve my company’s product and solve customer problems.

What’s your favorite part about your job?

Miss MSE: My research is super interesting, and I really love explaining what I do. Actually, I’d say that teaching in general is my favorite part of being a graduate student. This year, I’ve been working with an undergraduate student, and he helps me stay excited about what I do.

Mr. ME:  I love reading reviews of my company’s products and getting to say “I did that”.  The idea that my decisions become reality still really geeks me out.  I get hands on with the things we make months before they’re released to the public.

What’s your least favorite part about your job?

Miss MSE: The lack of regular feedback. I will go for weeks without seeing my advisor, and rather longer without meaningful feedback. This is a problem specifically with my advisor, though. I don’t think every advisor is as bad as mine about these sorts of things.

Mr. ME:  Complete and utter lack of control over my schedule.  I’m required to be at work at 7am daily.  Occasionally, I have a 7am meeting, meaning I have to be in at 6am.  I have an hour commute.  If a meeting gets called at 5pm after having to be in at 6am, I have to be there.  All of the sudden, my day went from a standard 8 hour day to a 12 hour day.  After that commute, you’re talking 14 hours of work.  Now, it’s not the long day that I mind.  Graduate students do long days every day.  But, the key difference is that they generally know ahead of time when it’s going to be a really long day.

What seems like the most appealing aspect of the other’s job?

Miss MSE: A clearer sense of priorities and responsibilities. I can’t really tell my advisor “that’s not my job” because generally speaking, my job isn’t terribly well defined. He submitted a speculative abstract and needs data that’s only tangentially related to my project? I still end up doing extra work.

Mr. ME: The ability to walk away.  As a graduate student, your work will always be there for you in the morning.  I can’t do that.  If there’s an issue and the plant that produces my product calls me at 2am, I have to take the call.  Graduate students also have a significantly more flexible schedule.  My schedule is determined by when meetings are scheduled for me.  If I could show up at 8am, 9am, or even later, I’d be a happy camper.

What seems like the least appealing aspect?

Miss MSE: He seems much more micromanaged/over managed. It’s nice to only have have one boss, most of the time. Also, 7 am meetings….

Mr. ME:  Feedback can be sparse.  In my work, I never have to wait for my P.I. to read my paper or give me input.  There is always something else that can be worked on, usually because I’m working on 15 different projects at once.

Would you chose the same path again?

Miss MSE: I think I’d still do graduate school, but I don’t think I would have picked the same school or advisor. There are days, though, when I do really wish I had a job in industry.

Mr. ME:  Absolutely not.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love what I do.  Having a measurable impact on consumer goods is a fantastic job perk.  However, 95% of what I do is not engineering.  What I do is program management.  I schedule suppliers, review their test results, and jump through the hundreds of hoops associated with a corporate beaurcacy.  The greatest mental challenge that I have in any given day is figuring out how fastest to implement a change to a component while still being fully PPAP approved upon implementation.  I would take the banging your head against a wall in frustration and lack of feedback from P.I.’s of academia over industry any day of the week.

Image courtesy of slack12 under CC BY-NC-ND-2.0 license



I’ll be there eventually. Miss MSE and I have made a strategic decision that one of us should have “standard” gainful employment at all times. Once she finishes her PhD and either has a professorship or is in industry, I’ll go back for my PhD. Once we decide to have kids, raising them will be much easier if one of us has the type of income that grad school can’t offer.

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